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Double Fantasy
MOJO Magazine, 02.02
By Andrew Perry

With just a drum kit and a cheap guitar, blues-preaching brother-sister duo The White Stripes are being hailed as the greatest live band on the planet. Andrew Perry reports.

A young man in a black three-piece pinstripe suit strides through the foyer of the BBC Television Centre. With a cheeky grin he tips his black bowler hat at the gawping crowds and disappears to his dressing room. It's a good minute or so before the rest of his entourage make it through the revolving doors. Everyone is struggling to keep up with Mr. Jack White.

In the 12 months since he and the young lady he refers to as his "big sister", Meg, recorded White Blood Cells, their third album together as The White Stripes, Jack White has established himself as the most explosive white rock performer in the world today. A singer/guitarist of staggering energy, as well as a great and prolific songwriter, he has already succeeded in dragging the blues, that's the blues, back to pop music's cutting edge.

When the Detroit-based duo first played here in July - two months after their first ever UK interview, in MOJO 91 - an unusually breathless John Peel heralded them as "the most exciting band since punk or Jimi Hendrix". Commenting on the feverish UK reception in a recent interview in Vanity Fair, Jack observed that "it was like they'd never heard music before". Actually, precious few people had heard The White Stripes - that brief tour mostly took in tiny 200-capacity clubs, while their records were, until November, only available on import from California garage label Sympathy For The Record Industry, run entirely by one man known as Long Gone John - and it's this fact which generated the air of myth and mystery around the duo. Without anything concrete to grab onto, the media rumour-mill went into overdrive, suggesting that White and his drumming sister were not siblings at all, but ex-husband and wife. Jack was also "spotted" in London snogging Winona Ryder.

Now, barely four months later, Jack's back for another crack at Blighty, including today's Top of the Pops performance of their breakthrough single, "Hotel Yorba". And as he chuckles to himself mischievously about our quaint fascination with his private business, Jack best recalls Dylan circa Don't Look Back. In quintessential Bob fashion, he and Meg are clearly having fun with both their own mystique and those who are out to deflate it. They are, however, almost impossibly polite. Jack does all the talking, patiently explaining his mission.

"I'm not black, I'm not form the South, and it's not 1930," he states earnestly. "I'm not interested in copying - at all. I'm interested in re-telling the story. I just believe in singing [Delta bluesman Son House's] "John the Revelator" one more time. It seems like every other kind of music is fooling itself about being original or being the future. Well, it's not. These electronic instruments, these toys… Music has been storytelling and melody for thousands of years, and it's not going to change."

Iggy Pop, godfather of all things rocking from Detroit, recently observed that today's big-time commercial music all sounds roughly the same, because, from Britney Spears and N*SYNC through Limp Bizkit and Eminem, the same hi-tech production values prevail. It's possibly the Stripes' rejection of those values which makes them sound and feel like a turning point on a par with, say, Nirvana circa Nevermind.

"This'll probably be the very first appearance of an Airline guitar on Top of the Pops," Jack quips, as he stalks nervously, hoping to shake hands with Paul McCartney, who is giving a brief interview in the Star Bar. "He said hi to all the girls," he frowns after his first failed attempt, "but not me."

He may have a point about the Airline. Sold by the Montgomery Ward department store in the '60s, it was one of the cheapest electric guitars on the market, the sort of thing a kid could buy on HP and knock about with in their bedroom. You're meant to have graduated onto something better by the time you start a proper band. Jack's armoury also includes a Fender Rhodes piano and a 1960s Kay acoustic guitar with tattered brown paper glued on the front.

"I got that for free," he says, "when I helped somebody move their refrigerator. If I had a brand new Les Paul that stayed perfectly in tune, and some solid state amp and all this digital equipment - that's just too much opportunity. I wanna go in with one beat-up amplifier, one drum set, a guitar that doesn't stay in tune and just work with that. I love putting myself in a box, putting restrictions down, and taking it from there."

Jack's default logic lies at the heart of everything the Stripes do. Another 'box' was the stipulation that the pair would only wear red and white clothes - "they're the colours of anger and innocence."

The toughest box of all was the task of making blues hip again, which began to happen in 2000 among American alt rock circles with the arrival of the second White Stripes album, De Stijl. Named after a Dutch periodical co-founded in 1971 by Piet Mondrian to evangelise a new functionalism where all surface decoration was to be eliminated, the record was similarly all about returning rock 'n' roll to simple aesthetics.

Recorded at Jack's house in south-west Detroit in a week, its center-piece was a thunderous cover of a song which originated from the same part of the 20th century as De Stijl, Son House's "Death Letter". The stark subject matter (a man is notified of his lover's demise and attends her burial), Meg's Zeppelinesque thump-beat and White's furious delivery constituted a meatier, more authentic take on Delta stylings than arch US artists like Beck and Jon Spencer's Blues Explosion - or indeed, most of the world's by-the-booook revivalists. Asked whether he feels comfortable taking on the blues so directly, Jack refers to the band's cover of Blind Willie McTell's "Lord, Send Me an Angel", released on 45 around the same time as De Stijl.

"Yeah, it's hard for me to sing like that, about how great I am," he concedes. "One line goes, 'All these Georgia women won't let Willie McTell rest', and I change it to, 'All these Detroit women won't let Mr. Jack White rest.' To me, it's a joke, 'cos everybody who knows me knows that women don't like me that much!" He laughs. "But I was toying with the idea that girls are attracted to cockiness, and bad, bad qualities in men. So I feel comfortable with that song, because it's true. Lying is the artistic way of telling the truth. I'm lying, saying, Look ate me, look at this (puts his arm around imaginary babe)… I'm just telling you the truth - in reverse.

Giant lightbulb-era Dylan, anyone? Although plundering the past forms an irresistible part of their appeal - they have a handwritten list of some 45 songs they've paid their respects to at some time - there is far more to The White Stripes than that. 2001's White Blood Cells came about, predictably, through their restless creation of another box for themselves. Jack: "We said, NO blues, no slide, no guitar solos, no covers… We figured out all the no's, and everything else was fine."

Here, and on parts of De Stijl, Jack was a side to his songwriting that cut right against the grain of all the bottleneck bombast, a pop side that signaled a huge commercial potential. Hence the scramble to sign them from Sympathy - V2 got the gig for America, XL for Europe - their arrival at Number 26 in the charts with "Hotel Yorba", and tonight's appearance on the Pops.

Waiting to perform, they look edgy and out of place. Where everyone else on the show - Jamiroquai, J-Lo, Ryan Adams - goes through countless takes, the Stripes rip through "Hotel Yorba" in one glorious spurt of energy. Its tale of starry-eyed, low-rent romance connects even with the teenies at the front of the stage. "I hadn't heard of them before," says one afterwards, "but ooh, I want to put him in my pocket and take him home."

Eight days later, The White Stripes are far from London, in a bizarre maritime-themed club called Marins D'Eau Douce near Toulouse, but our inclement winter weather appears to be with them still. Cold cures are the order of the day.

There again, as little as 18 months ago, Meg (who is now 26) was working in bars and kitchens, while her younger brother (25) was struggling to get his upholstery business off the ground. The last two of 10 children, they were brought up, he says, in a predominantly Mexican area of Detroit by Catholic parents who weren't into music.

Attending a high school that was "90 per cent black kids", White had few friends and missed the grounding in '80s US punk that most kids his age enjoyed. When he went into apprenticeship with local upholsterer Brian Muldoon he began hearing garage rock like The Cramps and the MC5. Brian, a drummer, taught Jack to clatter along to rockabilly records and the duo cut a 45 of rockabilly covers as The Upholsterers. When they fell out Jack started his own upholstering workshop, Third Man. Instead of hustling work, he spent most of his time playing that acoustic guitar his friend with fridge had given him. By now, he was au fait with Nirvana and Fugazi (his first major gig). Then another friend played him Son House.

"He played me 'Death Letter', and then this a cappella song, 'Grinnin' In Your Face'. I heard the song I'd been waiting to hear my whole life. It said, 'Don't care what people think. Your mother will talk about you, your sister and your brothers too. No matter how you try to live, they're gonna talk about you still.' We had a big family, I didn't have that many friends, and I was paranoid. I thought everybody was talking about me all the time. It released my life."

Jack had his drum kit set up on the top floor of the White residence, and one day in about 1996, Meg, who'd never really played an instrument before, picked up the sticks and started thumping along to Jack's guitar.

"She was playing so childishly," he remembers. "Everyone I'd ever played with was, like, male drummers. I'd been writing all these childish songs, like 'Jimmy the Exploder' from our first album - this story I made up about this monkey who exploded things that weren't the colour red. So when Meg started playing that way, I was like, Man, don't even practise! This is perfect."

Their early gigs through '97 were rough affairs. Jason Sollsteimer, frontman from The Von Bondies, the Detroit quartet who support the Stripes on a regular basis, remembers Jack's performances as "way wilder then. He'd be screaming at the audience between songs, kind of preaching at them."

Jack and Meg made two singles for local label Italy, "Let's Shake Hands" and "Lafayette Blues". Steve Shaw from local garage act The Detroit Cobras recommended these to his boss, Sympathy's Long Gone John.

Jack:: "Steve told him, 'There's this two-piece band in Detroit, it's a boy and a girl, and they're brother and sister.' And John said, 'Who sings, and who plays drums…?' Steve told him, and John goes, 'Aw, it would've been better if it was the other way round!' When he heard my voice, he said, 'Fine!'"

The one-man garage guru, who from his HQ in Long Beach has released a record a week for 13 years by some 550 different bands, invited them to do an album without even seeing them live, and the Stripes effectively recorded their live set at Ghetto Recordings, the studio owned by Jim Diamond from Detroit's The Dirtbombs. "It was pretty rough," says Diamond. "We were certainly going for a stinky kind of sound."

Long Gone John: "The whole thing cost less than two grand to make. It's a fantastic record, and it's still probably my favourite, but it wasn't until I finally saw them around the time of De Stijl that I thought, Jesus Christ, what have I got here…"

Onstage at Marins D'Eau Douce, The White Stripes play with hair-raising intensity. Jack plucks out their cover of Dylan's "Isis". He bashes out a fiendish powerchord momentum between verses, and delivers the bit about "the world's biggest necklace" a cappella, just as he learned from Son House's "Grinnin' In Your Face', weaving Dylan's idiosyncratic vernacular and structure into the fabric of his own. For the encore, he brutally segues five or six of the harshest Stripes tunes, and finishes up atop Meg's bass drum. The two pound out a single beat/chord in unison. You're left exhilarated, but utterly exhausted. They seem unstoppable.

Before the show Jack had this to say: "It's not like we're gonna be doing this for 20 years. It's better to be inside of that box for just a couple more albums maybe, and then be done with it. There's only two people in the band, there's only so much we can do. It'll come [to] a point in the next couple of years where that'll be it."

Maybe it was the lurgy talking. Maybe not. Either way, it really can't be stressed enough: catch them while you can.


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