Too Much for the White Stripes
Jack and Meg want the spotlight turned off, please
Jack and Meg White, collectively known as the White Stripes, peer tentatively
out of the doorway of their dressing room at the MTV Movie Awards at the
Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. In the hallway stands Sharon Osbourne,
and she is perturbed. It seems that Eminem's bodyguards deigned to ask
her to remove her brood from the hallway so that the scrawny white rapper
could pass by. "Crack a smile, little boy," she cackles as Eminem
and his muscular entourage walk past. "Keep your head down. Don't
look at me."
Jack and Meg shake their heads in disbelief. "We've slipped into
some other dimension," mutters Meg.
"I can't even fathom why they asked us to perform here," says
Today, the White Stripes have reached a pinnacle of popularity far beyond
their biggest dreams -- or nightmares. For the past five years, Jack (on
guitar) and Meg (on drums) have been bashing out raw, bluesy garage rock
in their home studio in Detroit, recording three albums for independent
labels and demonstrating how big a sound just two people can make. As
the rock pendulum swings away from new metal, it seems to be heading straight
for the White Stripes and a handful of other retro-minded rock bands that
they've been lumped in with, including the Strokes, the Hives and the
"I just laughed," Jack says about first hearing his song "Fell
in Love With a Girl" on the radio. "I mean, it would be Staind,
P.O.D., then us and then Incubus. Half of your brain is going, 'What is
going on? Why are we even involved with this? This is pointless.' The
other half is full of people going, 'No, this is new, a quote revolution
in music unquote, and something is going to change now, because of you
guys and the Strokes and the Hives, and music is going to come back to
more realism.' "
Of all these bands, the White Stripes are the most original, which makes
their success even more surprising. Their music is raw and meaty, ranging
from bottleneck-blues dirges to childlike ballads to squealing Zeppelin-esque
guitar stomps. It is shot through with a sense of history: of records
that Jack White pledges his allegiance to, most of them by Delta bluesmen.
And it is highly improvisatory: No two White Stripes shows are the same.
There is no set list. Jack White simply plays what he feels. If he isn't
feeling "Fell in Love With a Girl" within the first two bars,
he'll switch right away into a new song, and who gives a shit about the
At the MTV Movie Awards, for the first time in their history, the White
Stripes are being treated like rock stars. And they hate it: They are
at heart indie rockers and Detroit scenesters, more focused on credibility
than fame. After the Eminem incident, Jack and Meg briefly run into the
party-hard singer Andrew W.K., who steps up to the couple and admits that
he actually isn't from Detroit proper.
As the Stripes are dragged outside the Shrine for what will be their
first-ever red-carpet experience, Jack tries to back out twice. They watch
as a man announces the name of each arriving celebrity in a booming baritone
over a loudspeaker, as if at a sporting event, and ask him not to announce
the White Stripes at all, especially in such a cheesy fashion. When it
is their turn to walk the carpet, their preference is not heeded: "Ladies
and gentlemen, the Whiiiiiiite Striiiiipes!" They dash down the carpet,
heads down and avoiding all interview requests. At the other end, Meg
says, grimacing, "It's awful." And Jack asks, "Hey, did
Jack Osbourne just flash me the peace sign?"
On their latest record, White Blood Cells, there's a song that imagines
a moment much like this: "Little Room." You start out playing
your music in a little room, but if the music's good, you graduate to
a bigger room, and then you miss what you've left behind. When he wrote
"Little Room," Jack was feeling guilty about being an indie-rock
star and getting more attention than other Detroit bands. You can only
imagine how much more intense those feelings are now that indie-rock stardom
has given way to rubbing shoulders with Eminem stardom. "We've never
aspired to this level of attention," Jack says before going out onstage.
"Look at all the money they spent. This is ridiculous. I don't know
why we're doing this."
The history of the White Stripes is somewhat murky, because of the simple
fact that Jack is loath to talk about it. Onstage, he introduces Meg as
his sister, which is about as plausible as his claim that she is an android
and he is human. The Stripes are, by all accounts, former husband and
wife Jack Gillis, 26, and Megan White, 27. Jack grew up in a low-income
neighborhood in southwest Detroit, where, he says, he was the youngest
of ten children. He went to a mostly black school, out of place as the
lone classic-rock lover in a rap world. He began playing drums at age
eleven, and later taught himself to play guitar and piano in order to
accompany his drumming on a homemade recording. As a fan, he worked his
way backward from Bob Dylan to discover the blues artists who inspired
Dylan -- Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell -- all of whom
served to convince him that the Twenties and the Thirties were the golden
age of music. In 1997, Jack encouraged his then-wife Meg, who had briefly
played violin around age seven, to take up the drums, and the two named
their band after something that captured the simplicity they were going
for: striped peppermint candy. He never planned or desired to add anyone
or anything else to the band. "Anyone else would be excess,"
he says. "It would defeat the purpose of centralizing on these three
components of storytelling, melody and rhythm."
In Pomona, California, after the MTV Awards, the White Stripes play a
club show. In five years together, the duo claims to have never canceled
a show. In order to ensure they make this one, MTV provided the Stripes
with a helicopter. After the gig, the artist Paul Frank drops by with
a red-and-white-striped drum stool and guitar strap he has made for the
band. Backstage, Meg tries to do push-ups. She gets through two.
"I can do more, honest," she says when teased for being the
weakest drummer in rock.
The show itself a strong one. You can tell Jack thinks so, because he
plays "Boll Weevil" as an encore, a traditional folk-blues song,
which he generally plays to cap a successful performance. But afterward,
Jack admits only to feeling discomfort. "I have a problem with enjoying
things at the moment," he says. "I'm too lost in some other
thought. I'm scared of actually enjoying things. We could do a great version
of 'Death Letter' by Son House on a certain night, and if I was smiling
and enjoying every moment of it, I don't think anyone would understand
how much that song means to me."
Most of the songs and stories aren't about Meg or himself, Jack says,
and if they were, "I'd be afraid to tell people that it was myself."
Why is that? "I think that if I said such and such song is about
myself, people would get the wrong idea and not take the idea that they
are allowed to relate to that."
Two days later, Jack and Meg squirm in their seats poolside at the Roosevelt
Hotel in Hollywood. The more the interview touches on personal subjects,
the more uncomfortable Jack grows. He says that a sense of history and
honesty are the most important attributes of playing music, yet onstage
everyday he lies about his and Meg's history. It seems there is a fear
of putting himself on the line and exposing himself to misinterpretation
or, even worse, ridicule.
"As soon as you say something, people make up their own minds as
to what it means," Jack says. "I'm sorry, but I have to pick
and choose how those things are presented because I don't want people
to think the wrong thing. I think the only focal point should be the songwriting
and the music and the live show. The whole point of the band isn't, Are
we really brother and sister, are we husband and wife; whether we're really
from the city or just pretending, or whether we liked sandboxes as kids
or the monkey bars." (For the record, Meg liked the monkey bars.)
But what if, hypothetically, everything about Jack and Meg's personal
life was common knowledge? What if everyone knew where they came from,
all about their relationship, their favorite color, everything? What would
happen? Jack does not hesitate to answer this. He looks straight across
the table, and says, as serious as his music, "Then we are completely