Little White Truths
Inspired and determined, Jack White gets personal, crafting a White Stripes CD so surprising it recalls the Beatles' creative leap on "Rubber Soul."
By Robert Hilburn, Times Staff Writer
The White Stripes' Jack White is ready for a break as he slips behind the wheel of his vintage four-seat Thunderbird and switches on the ignition. White has been working feverishly on a new album, and he is just days away from starting a grueling world tour.
The CD, "Get Behind Me Satan," is a a daring creative advance in which he and drummer Meg White have added layers of imagination and depth to what was an already thrilling sound.
Despite all the gloom surrounding the record industry about the way bottom-line consciousness at major labels is stifling creativity, White shows how a fiercely independent artist can still make music that is both cutting-edge and commercial. The Stripes' last album, 2003's "Elephant," sold 4 million copies worldwide and won an album of the year nomination in the Grammys.
In "Satan," which will be released Tuesday on Third Man/V2 Records, White sets aside his signature blistering guitar lines on most of the tracks. Marimbas dominate one song, grand piano and/or drums highlight others, and he mixes them in dazzlingly original ways.
The subject matter is more personal — anxious, even desperate looks at conflicts between innocence and morality on one side and compromise and betrayal on the other. Even in some of the album's gentlest moments, a guitar suddenly cuts through like a knife through a curtain. "It's probably the most cathartic record I've ever made," White says.
The creative leap in "Satan" is, in its way, reminiscent of the breakthrough the Beatles made in "Rubber Soul," the album that not only introduced more adult themes to the Beatles' compositions (the disarming vulnerability of "In My Life") but also new instrumental textures (mysterious sitar touches in the sophisticated "Norwegian Wood").
For all the assurance of the new album, however, the "Satan" recording sessions left even the normally workaholic White drained.
"It was the first album that was really hard to make," the singer-songwriter says. "It wasn't because we needed inspiration or help creatively. I was writing songs every day, which is unusual for me. I probably have 35 done. The problem was outside things."
The tape machine kept breaking, microphones often went on the blink, water dripped from the ceiling. You can even hear part of Meg's drum kit tumble over at the end of one song. "Torture," White sums it up. "It got to the point where I was almost feeling, 'Let's forget it. I can't take it anymore.' "
Despite the frustrations, the Stripes recorded the album in just over a week in March for under $10,000. (It's not uncommon for major label bands to take months and spend $1 million in the process.)
And White hasn't let up. He's worked nonstop on every detail of the album's launch, including planning a tour that would take the duo to Mexico, Chile, Russia, Poland and Greece before the U.S. leg, which includes Aug. 15-18 dates at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
That's why a ride in the Thunderbird must seem especially inviting on this rainy afternoon. He wants a couple of double cheeseburgers and onion rings from his favorite bar, about 45 minutes away in Dearborn.
Everything about his car, from the upholstery to the tinny radio, is original — except for the supercharged engine features that make the car's roar as loud as a jet as White pulls into the street.
By the time he hits the freeway, the noise from under the hood makes the car feel as if it's going 120 miles an hour, though the speedometer reads a prudent 65.
The car skids noticeably when he encounters a sudden traffic tie-up on the wet streets.
"Sorry about that," he says, smiling. "I should have told you, this car's got '90s power and '50s brakes. "
The same could be said about Jack White.
A state of readiness
"I've been working all night on the artwork for the album," White, 29, says by way of greeting as he walks down the stairs of his elegant turn-of-the-last-century home.
On stage, he plays guitar and sings with an immediacy that makes him seem dangerously near imploding. And even at home, his mind seems amped up, as if he's about to excuse himself at any minute and race back to his home studio to put his latest thoughts on tape.
The house documents his endless fascinations. The main floor spills over with a crazy quilt of passions and projects — from religious statues (he thought of studying for the priesthood as a teenager) to pinball machines, animal heads on the wall and a drum kit in the hall.
White leads a guest to a back room where the Stripes recorded "Satan." The room is so crowded that White can barely make his way past the guitar cases and microphone cords to show where he did his vocals.
"A formal studio would have killed this record," the 6-foot-2 musician says. "People didn't used to have enough money to do more than one or two takes, so they would put everything into each one.
"That's what created the urgency in so many of those records. It felt like the singer's life was on the line. Now you have millions of dollars of technology to help you in the studio, but it doesn't help at all."
What does help are things like an obsession with a former film star.
White makes his way back to the living room and sits in a chair next to a photo of Rita Hayworth.
"I've been fascinated with her for years," he says. "I used to have a picture of her in my van when I had my upholstery shop. When I was making this record, I had so many images flying through my head, I had to get centered on something. I needed an anchor, and she became it.
"She was a metaphor for everything I could think of. She was a beauty, a love goddess. The red hair, the innocence, the fact she lost all her memory with Alzheimer's. She was a pinup, but I heard she never cared about any of the photos she took."
Hayworth is one of the central characters in "Take, Take, Take," a centerpiece of the new album. It's a playful but telling story set in a seedy bar where a star-struck fan meets the seductive actress. The fan keeps asking more of Hayworth — a better look, an autograph, a photo — declaring each time, "That's all that I needed."
Nothing, of course, is enough for the fan — reflecting both the emptiness of pursuing false values and the way fame can seem like a cage for the one being pursued.
For years, White insisted he was writing about other people. His own life, he said again and again, was too boring.
He can't make that claim now.
There was a childlike innocence to much of the Stripes' music and even their red-and-white peppermint outfits. But the new songs are more complex, more wary, more revealing — as White struggles, sometimes with biblical imagery, over classic matters of integrity, honor and temptation. "I don't need any of your pity," he snarls in one tune. "I've got plenty of my own."
Elsewhere in "Satan," White sings, either in a frenzied falsetto or wounded whisper, about spoiled innocence, in the exotic, guitar-driven "Blue Orchid"; the bruising battlefield of romance, in the achingly beautiful "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)"; and dangerous options, in the bittersweet "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)."
In singing about betrayal and rejection, he's not exempting himself from guilt. There are times in the album when he could be alluding to his own misdeeds as easily as someone else's.
New looks come with this new terrain. On the album cover, he, especially, could be a jaded actor from costume dramas of '40s or '50s movies. Tyrone Power meets Hayworth?
"Everything we do, from Meg's hairdo down to my guitar strap, is just an attempt to get you to listen to the story in the songs, even if it takes a while to understand the story," he says.
"You might listen to 'My Doorbell,' for instance, because it's catchy, then six months later something may happen to you where you feel like the character in the song and relate to it in a different way.
"When I started singing it, the song was kind of lighthearted — 'I'm thinking about my doorbell, when you gonna ring it, when you gonna ring it?' — but then it became something more. You can tell a lot about people by when they come around and when they don't. Is it out of friendship or do they want something?"
A transfer of tension
White talks about the new album with the intensity of the music itself. You sense that the turmoil and complexities in the songs didn't end when he wrote them down. The tension is in the music because the tension is in him.
As White puts more of himself into his music, though, he's taking himself further from the record marketing machine. He plans to do only three formal interviews to promote the new album.
"I'm not sure the record company is happy about that," he says. "The theory is that if you do 700 interviews rather than 10, you will sell more records, and the more time you spend at radio stations, the more they will play your record. Maybe, but maybe not. Maybe it's best to just use all that time to make better records."
Though the Stripes were on the cover of virtually every rock magazine on the planet after the success of "Elephant" in 2003, White has kept a low profile since. Even while dating Oscar-winning actress Renée Zellweger, whom he met on the set of "Cold Mountain," he avoided joining the parade of celebrity regulars in People and Us Weekly.
"I hate that celebrity stuff," he says. "It trivializes everything."
Born John Gillis, White is so quiet about his personal life that fans long thought Meg was his sister — until reporters in Detroit learned that, although now divorced, the couple had been married for a while in the '90s and he had adopted Meg's last name.
The bond between them is obvious from the way they speak of each other during the interview.
Meg's so shy that it's probably a relief that he does all the talking. She does, however, respond quickly when asked if she remembers the first time she saw White perform in a club.
"The thing that struck me the most was that he was fearless," she says softly, sitting across from him in the living room. "He wasn't trying to be whoever was popular at the time on the radio. He was unique, and that's what he wanted to be. And he's never changed."
Meg is an elementary drummer, but her basic approach adds a warmth that balances nicely the torrential fury that White often injects.
"I hated it when we started getting popular and there was this round of 'Meg sucks' or that she was a 'horrible drummer,' " he says, looking over at her. "Those people couldn't be more ignorant. She brings a childlike quality to the music, an innocence, which is perfect for what we do."
White is so driven that he produced last year's acclaimed Loretta Lynn album and he has been dividing his time lately between the Stripes and another band he has formed with fellow Detroit singer-songwriter Brendan Benson. "Brendan is a lot more song craftsman," he says toward the end of the interview. "I'm more emotional and from the hip. It's an interesting contrast."
Rumors of that other band have led to speculation that "Satan" would be the final White Stripes album, but there is something about the partnership with Meg that White seems to prize too much to let it go.
"I don't know," he says of the future. "On one hand, I'd be shocked if we were still making records in 10 years. In a lot of ways, rock 'n' roll is for the young. There's also so many other things going through my head — bluegrass, blues, country. Then again I see the Stones and I am really impressed they are expressing their rock 'n' roll attitudes at their age. That's not easy to do."
Whatever his musical path, White is unlikely to temper his vision, which is rooted in the blues and country musicians who laid the foundation for rock 'n' roll in the '40s and '50s. In recordings by artists as varied as Blind Willie McTell and Hank Williams, White, who was raised in a lower-middle-class area of Detroit, found a raw emotional honesty that was far more vital than the commercial trends of his youth. The music gave him not only a sense of self-identity but also a confidence in his own future. He guards that rawness and purity fiercely.
"Anytime I have any question about what decision to make," he says, "I just ask myself, 'Why am I doing this? Why did I want to start making music?'
"The answer was the music gave me a reason to hold my head high at a time little else did, and that's important. Any time you forget that principle is important in what you do, just turn on MTV and see all the things that can go wrong with a band and its music. Nothing, whether it's more sales or getting your picture in more magazines, is worth more than being able to hold your head high."
Robert Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Calendar.firstname.lastname@example.org.