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Rock Climbers

Inclined to like your garage down and dirty? the white stripes are the top of the heap.

by Tom Sinclair
Entertainment Weekly
05/17/02

''Where are you, Don Ho?''

Jack White is scanning song titles on the jukebox at the Norwalk Bar in Hamtramck, Mich., a workingman's watering hole in the grimy, downtrodden Detroit enclave. It's hot -- April's first 80-plus-degree day -- and Jack's in black: suit, shirt, bowler hat. It's a getup that prompts the crusty barkeep to ask, ''Did you just come from a wedding?'' Although he looks out of place amid the Norwalk's Sans-abelt-pants-and-polyester-shirt crowd, Jack was a regular here in the days -- only four years ago -- when he ran a nearby upholstery business.

Right now, he's miffed. ''They used to have it on here,'' he snorts in disgust, turning from the juke-box.

''Sorry, Meg,'' he says to his diminutive musical partner, ''no 'Tiny Bubbles.'''

She shrugs. ''It's a new era.''

A new era. The phrase hangs in the air like a poignant snatch of feedback, echoing many people's hope: that the White Stripes are heralds of a dawning musical era in which passion, not fashion, reigns supreme. Let's face it: Rock & roll -- the real stuff, the kind that shakes your nerves and rattles your brain -- is in short supply these days. Watching MTV or listening to the radio is an exercise in self-abuse: teen pop to the left, mook metal to the right, and an appalling mass of overproduced mediocrity in the middle. Here, at last, is a duo that's doing it right: stripping things down to the primal spuzz, kicking up a racket that's an inspired mix of electrified Delta blues, Zeppelin riffage, Velvet Underground thud, and MC5 firepower. With hooks, yet.

And, against all odds, it's catching on.

''Well you're in your little room/And you're working on something good/But if it's really good/You're gonna need a bigger room.'' -- ''Little Room,'' the White Stripes

Let us pause to consider two rooms. Concert halls, actually. At New York's Bowery Ballroom, April 8, the Stripes -- just Jack on guitar, Meg on drums -- are winding up their sold-out four-night stand with a white-hot 90-minute set. The place is packed with hipsters. You can't turn around without bumping into one of the Strokes or, incongruously, Bette ''Wind Beneath My Wings'' Midler. Everyone is doing the boho bop -- that is, standing stock-still.

Flash forward six nights to Michigan State University's Union Ballroom, in East Lansing. A convulsive throng of Midwestern college kids are moshing, sloshing, crowd surfing -- even occasionally cracking heads. Juiced by the volatility, Jack caps off the encore by whipping his guitar around his neck, stopping short of a full-fledged Townshend destructo-bash- arama, before setting the instrument on stage, where it emits ear-piercing feedback shrieks.

Pounding back a couple of beers in the Norwalk the day after the Union Ballroom ruckus, Jack is in an expansive mood, holding forth on everything from the power and primacy of the blues to Captain Beefheart. Meg, onetime bartender and cook, and now the Stripes' deadpan, low-energy (like, really low-energy) tub-thumper, seems to adhere to the dictum ''Never speak unless spoken to.'' Demurely smoking Camel Lights and downing bourbons and water, she listens attentively, content to let Jack do the jawing.

He professes--somewhat disingenuously--to be nonplussed by his band's eruptive success. "It's funny," he muses about White Blood Cells' unexpected growth spurt and MTV's Buzzworthy rotation of the band's LEGO-maniacal "Fell in Love With a Girl" video. "Either we're doing something right at the right time, or everybody's been tricked."

For all the visceral authenticity of their music, the White Stripes know a thing or two about trickery. From the start, part of Jack and Meg's self-created mythology has been that they are brother and sister. Tell it to the judge. John "Jack" Anthony Gillis and Megan Martha White were married on Sept. 21, 1996, and Jack assumed his spouse's last name. They divorced in 2000. But just try getting them to admit it.

"We had the same parents," smiles Meg coyly, when asked how her folks earned a living. And despite rather persuasive evidence to the contrary and heightening media scrutiny (the hoax was exposed in Time magazine last June, then recently turned to fodder on Page Six of the New York Post, and even in the ultra-ungrungy New Yorker), they're sticking to the sibling story. "We will be brother and sister till the day we die," Jack says, bristling.

Their stubborn refusal to fess up is starting to seem as risibly misguided as a Puff Daddy remake of "Sunshine of Your Love." The stonewalling is all the more puzzling because they saw the media attention coming. The front cover of White Blood Cells shows a nervous-looking Jack and Meg surrounded by menacing, shadowy figures; the flip side reveals those sinister shapes to be jockeying paparazzi. It's all about "what kind of attention is good and what kind of attention is bad," says Jack.

But even if Jack's face winds up as red as the pants he wears on stage (Meg is the candy striper in white), he's less concerned about the threat of career derailment than the backlash from hardcore fans crying sellout. "We've gotten a bit of that from people who've been fans since the beginning," Jack admits. "We were their secret band and they're upset because they're losing us.... People look at things in a weird way. They'll look back on the Rolling Stones and the Who and say, 'Those bands were cool, they were rock & roll, they weren't pop.' But those bands sold millions of records. I mean, it's like if you're on television now, people go, 'Oh, they're selling out.' But the Rolling Stones and the Beatles were on TV all the time, on The Ed Sullivan Show, no less, and it was cool."

Those who fret that the Stripes are changing their colors will be heartened to hear that they're recording their fourth album, Elephant, right now, in typically down-and-dirty fashion. On the recommendation of their new buddy, the prolific British garage-rock cult hero Billy Childish, they've booked time at Toe Rag Studios, an old-fashioned analog facility in London, England.

"I don't like to go [into the studio] and have everything completely figured out," says Jack, who reckons recording probably won't take more than a week. "I like to have it really rushed and figure out everything on the spot. [Toe Rag] has got excellent equipment and a good engineer. It's not computerized or modern in any sense. Just an 8-track studio with all of the things that are good about recording and none of the things that are bad."

The Stripes hope to have Elephant in stores by fall, and also plan to release a second CD that'll compile their backlog of non-album 45s. After playing some European dates, they'll be back Stateside in late May for a West Coast tour. Somewhere in there, Jack plans to produce albums by fellow Detroit garage-rockers Whirlwind Heat, and the Greenhornes, a devastatingly convincing white soul act from Cincinnati, for possible release on his own label, Third Man Records.

Dazzling audiences, winning new fans, and reveling in total artistic freedom, the White Stripes are in a position most musicians would cut off a finger to be in. Still, Jack confesses there's a corner of his soul that just can't be satisfied. "My real dream is unattainable," he sighs. "I wish I could be a blues musician back in the '20s and '30s, just playing in juke joints in the South by myself. But I'm white and I was born in Detroit in the '70s, so I guess I'll have to settle for this." Doesn't sound like a bad trade-off to us, er, "brother."

*OH, HOW COULD WE NOT?

FROM THE DESK OF DON HO

[BOX]

FROM THE DESK OF DON HO

TO: Listen2This FROM: Mr. Ho RE: The White Stripes

"Blues-punk rock! My son is 15 and he really loves them. All these punk rock groups--the Foo Fighters, Green Day--that come to Honolulu always stop by and say hello. They're nice kids. Sort of like these kids, I'd imagine" Don

WHITE STRIPES DOSSIER

NAME Jack White (ne John Gillis) INSTRUMENTS Guitar, vocals, keyboards AGE 26 HOMETOWN Detroit PARENTS' OCCUPATIONS Maintenance-man dad, secretary mom YOUTHFUL OBSESSION WWII. "I was a big Army freak from when I was 5 or 6. I almost joined the Marines, then I got scared 'cause the sergeant came to my house. I just changed my mind instantly."

NAME Meg White (nee Megan White) INSTRUMENT Drums AGE 27 HOMETOWN Grosse Point, Mich. PARENTS' OCCUPATIONS Same as Jack's, she insists unconvincingly YOUTHFUL OBSESSION Country music

DISCOGRAPHY: The White Stripes (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 1999); De Stijl (Sympathy for the Record Industry, 2000); White Blood Cells (Third Man/V2, 2001)

MEG'S GRANDMA'S CORN SOUFFLE

INGREDIENTS:

1 16 oz. can of creamed corn 1 16 oz. can of corn niblets 1 box of Ritz crackers, chopped 1 egg

Mix creamed corn and niblets together. Chop crackers into little bits. Mix some of the crackers into the corn with an egg. Take the rest of the crackers and spread on top. Bake like a casserole for 40 minutes at 350 degrees. Says Meg: "It's awesome; the egg makes it solid and the crackers make it crunchy. Really good comfort food."

Copies Sold

Week of release (7/8/01) 2,061

Week single added to N.Y.'s K-Rock (3/10/02) 7,706

Week after March 18 Letterman appearance 11,356

Week ending April 14 13,412

RUBBER BARONS: Forget Detroit. The world's most prodigious producer of vehicle tires is LEGO. No, they don't own Goodyear. We're talking tires for toys--311 million a year.

FILM FACT White Blood Cells' "Hotel Yorba" plays a key role in a scene in 28 Days Later, an upcoming movie from Trainspotting director Danny Boyle.

FIVE MORE WHITE AND RED THINGS WE LIKE

1 Santa Claus 2 The University of Maryland Terrapins 3 Campbell's Soup 4 The Canadian flag 5 Wine

CHILDISH, BILLY (b. 1959, Chatham, England) Since 1979, this revered garage maestro has cranked out more than 80 albums of blissfully primitive three-chord rock under such monikers as Thee Headcoats, Thee Milkshakes, and Thee Mighty Caesars.

Essential listening: Thee Headcoats, Elementary Headcoats: The Singles 1990-1999 (Damaged Goods)

Meg's Road Reading [Motley Crue/The Dirt]

Jack's Road Reading [Coal Miner's Daughter]



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