The Union Forever: R.I.P White Stripes (1997-2011)

Fast and dirty. Like no other band of their generation, The White Stripes understood that’s the point of rock and roll. No need to belabor a eulogy on Jack and Meg’s medicine show.  Raw...
By    February 2, 2011

Fast and dirty. Like no other band of their generation, The White Stripes understood that’s the point of rock and roll. No need to belabor a eulogy on Jack and Meg’s medicine show.  Raw they gave it to you. Guitars that twitched like the electrocuted and damned. Drums that kept a steady pulse and knew how to get the fuck out the way. De Stijl. The art of simplicity. Minimalism for a maximal age. The White Stripes knew that rock and roll was about rebellion. But they didn’t give you the sad-sack soap box bromides of Chris Martin, or the slick leather assault of The Strokes. They understood the power of natural colors. They attempted to channel an air of mystery for a generation led to believe that they have the god given right to little league fame.

If you call them throwbacks you’re missing the point. Jack White would throw you off a roof for lesser offenses. Don’t believe me, ask the assclown from the Von Bondies. So black and blue you needed a steak to cover the collateral damage. Those Detroit boys don’t play. Jack White told people that he’d originally considered a career in the service of God (CAPITAL LETTERS), and there’s a divine providence that flaps across their music. The sort of stained glass and incense revelations that can only come from channeling the inaccessible parts of your soul. The White Stripes were the rare breed who could say “soul” without needing to use air quotes — that’s because they had nothing else to offer.  Their magic arrived from a place of primary colors and earth tones — as voodoo as it was Christian as it was Old Testament. Their music cannot be compared to anything other than the natural elements. Air, fire, earth, water. White Stripes.  Clean vertical impressions slashing across a dirty smear.

In front of me is a poster. “Presenting from Detroit: The White Stripes: April 5,6,7,8, 2002 @ The Bowery Ballroom.” Jack and Meg, with primal hair and murderous intent. A Son House button inconspicuously pinned across his right breast. That’s where it comes from. Those ancient Delta ideas conjured by lonely and lecherous sorcerers. Dead leaves and the dirty ground. What else do you need to write a song? He understood that there are really only a few decent themes for a story. Death, rebirth, revenge, isolation, love — both lost and found. You may consider Jack White an old soul, but that’s too simplistic. He’ held ancient values that don’t change, no matter how many caskets are delivered to the post-modern morgue of bad ideas. People mocked him for the simplistic color schemes. They called it a contrived put-on or a gimmick. Not true. The Stripes understood the power of an image, the importance of presentation. Their peers wore suits. They wore t-shirts and jeans, but somehow made it look neat. Nary a wasted movement. A leyden jar attack. 300 MPH Torrential Outpour blues. The zebra suits and Zorro hats came later.

How many bands can you remember hearing for the first time? Not many. I wasn’t at that Bowery show — still in college at the time. Acquired the poster via the centerfold of a Mojo Magazine where Jack interviewed Iggy and asked him about Fun House and God. I’d never heard The Stooges before either, but I did afterwards. John Gillis came from the old model, before stupid critics made artists terrified of “being derivative,” and caused them to cover their tracks. Instead, Jack White honored his forefathers. The Son House pin. The Iggy worship. Making documentaries with Jimmy Page.  Where was I? Oh right, the first time. On the fucking MTV Music Awards –– that shrill yearly commercial intended to hawk Viacom stock and Vans. Never heard of them before 2002. I was busy listening to Wu-Tang.  Oh well. So when I saw the Medusa-haired duo stomp onto the stage at Radio City, I saw what I loved in hip-hop transmuted into a thrashing fusion of proto-punk, classic rock, and the electric blues. Wasn’t even paying attention at first. Why would I? But my focus was soon diverted and I started to think that maybe rock music wasn’t all whiny white guys with soft paws.

First time I saw them was at the following Coachella. Sold instantly. Half a mile from stage and my hair went Yahoo Serious. I could tell you why but it cheapens it. Bands like The White Stripes aren’t supposed to be explained, they’re supposed to be felt. They’re the sort that illuminate the flaw of criticism. Nothing can replicate a highly charged combination of protons and electrons detonating across a field of 100,000 people.  Bomb atomically. That’s why rappers loved them. The Stripes had the aggression and anger of all great rap music, and they understood how to alchemize and distill it into three minute bits. No pretense. Nothing got in the way between you and the songs. Just wild voltage and absurd adrenaline. A seven nation army couldn’t hold you back.

Spent the following summer listening to a live recording of “Jolene.” Must’ve heard it 500 times, sometimes for hours on repeat. Jack White taking Dolly Parton down to the Delta. It was one of those seasons where you feel completely dead and are convinced that nothing will ever go right again. But there was a healing power in those quaking vocals, coiled tension, and wildcat thrash. That’s what rock is supposed to do. Saw them a bunch of other times, but you don’t need to hear about that. Saw the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather too. They’re good but they ain’t the Stripes. Nothing can ever be the White Stripes. Jack White understood that better than anyone. He’d turn vicious when people would slag Meg, because they just didn’t get it. There could be no White Stripes without Meg. She’s what tied the little room together. Stark and spare drumming was what the situation called for. A technically superior drummer would’ve marred the primal nature. Fuck being fancy.

So the best band of its generation has gone the way of its ancestors. Can’t say I’m surprised. The signs were obvious and everywhere. Maybe it’s for the best. Like Trey Kerby said, “I can’t get mad at four perfect records, two near perfect records, a billion B-sides that are better than most bands A-sides, an excellent live DVD, Meg White’s tits and the riff to “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Grass.” Nothing’s forever and it’s better to keep the images intact, rather than watch a geriatric Jack and Meg shamble around like Mick and the Sedentary Stones.  Expect more tributes to pour in in this space. Until then, let them have the last word–they earned it.

“Both Meg and Jack hope this decision isn’t met with sorrow by their fans but that it is seen as a positive move done out of respect for the art and music that the band has created. It is also done with the utmost respect to those fans who’ve shared in those creations, with their feelings considered greatly.

With that in mind the band have this to say:

“The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your involvement will never be lost on us and we are truly grateful.”

Download: (from Under Great White Northern Lights)

MP3: The White Stripes-“The Union Forever”
MP3: The White Stripes-“Jolene”

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