Douglas Martin is not interested in gold mines, oil wells, shipping, or real estate.
October 2, 2003. Ten people deep, seated among my closest friends at a Red Robin, smiles circling as the staff performed their obligatory birthday announcement. Handclaps striking through the air like tiny shots from miniature cap guns. This detail’s entirely unimportant if not been for the presents stacked in front of me. The most important is a CD that bears the image of two people sitting on a treasure chest, the man dressed in red like dapper Nashville cowboy, the woman holding a handkerchief and draped in a black velvet, Victorian gothic dress. Skull and pellets littered among the woman’s bare feet. A black lamp hanging perilously, dangling above the man’s head with its cord rising past the frame of the shot.
Starting with the iconic “bassline” of “Seven Nation Army,” forged from Jack White’s famed Sears-bought guitar filtered through an octave pedal, I must have listened to Elephant at least fifty consecutive times that night. Rock music was never my first language. I’m a second-generation hip-hopper whose parents dabbled in DJ’ing while enlisted in the Army before I was born. Years earlier, I had my first life-altering musical experience with Nirvana, a group that struck the perfect balance of visceral intensity, infectious melody, and lyrics that displayed equal parts aggression, romance, heartbreak, and humor. Living in High Point, North Carolina until 1998, I didn’t have access to indie-rock back then, and mainstream rock bands thought having heart, brains, and balls were mutually exclusive concepts. In those days, nearly every rock band except Radiohead left me cold. The off-center British Invasion-style rock of Elephant changed that.
Within a few weeks, I had all four White Stripes records memorized. “Apple Blossom” was the first song I learned on guitar. There’s a fitting irony that comes with The White Stripes being so vital to our generation, because they seemed so displaced. Long before Twitter and Tumblr oversharing, the Internet became the great equalizer in shedding mystique. The Stripes combated this by implementing a dress code of three primary colors. They warred against it by a sort of self-mythologizing unseen since Kurt Cobain — naming their sophomore record (my favorite) after an art movement. They violently rejected modernity in favor of organic, romantic times, writing essays in their liner notes and titling them “The Death of the Sweetheart“.
The Big Three killed Jack White’s baby, and he was hell-bent on revenge. Here you had a guitarist possessing an appreciation for downtrodden blues players, a lyricist singing about carrying the object of his affection over mud puddles, a man who fought piranhas and fought the cold. A band who bafflingly made a two-person racket heavy enough to make you feel like cannonball had hit. A cheap six-string and rudimentarily played drums pummeling everyone with eight metric tons of force. Let’s talk about that drumming. As Jeff alluded yesterday, Meg was much more than the dead weight she’s usually referred to as. She was even more than their secret weapon. Meg was the heart of the band, the backbone of the band, the woman whose sloppily-kept time bolstered the band’s raw energy.
Meg’s imperfect drums served as a humanizing counterpoint to Jack’s preternatural wizardry at guitar. Though they were eventually outed as ex-married’s, the two had a bond that suggests they actually were siblings Jack pretended they were. Note the wild tangents of their shows– none of which was accompanied by a written setlist. Brother and sister, ex-husband and ex-wife, it wouldn‘t have even mattered if Meg turned out to be Jack‘s surrogate mother. There is a reason why her turn at the mic for “In the Cold, Cold Night” was always met with thunderous applause.
From “Jimmy the Exploder” all the way down to “Effect and Cause,” the band blasted their way through wildly creative blues-punk, classic country ballads, and tender acoustic folk tunes across six records and fourteen wonderful years. In both concept and execution, The White Stripes has no peers. Jack once sang that truth doesn’t make a noise, but a contradictory and more accurate self-analysis came from the start of the second verse of “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”: “If you hear a piano fall, you can hear me coming down the hall.” The White Stripes showed up to a party they were never invited to, their seismic impact leveling every obstacle. Among the scores and scores of bland, mediocre rock groups with major-label deals, every now and again, a genuinely thoughtful band sneaks into the mainstream– making the radio, what used to be MTV, and everyone’s lives better for it.
As the direct precursor for a stratospheric percentage of all the bands I’ve ever written about for this website, The White Stripes deserve the distinction as the preeminent Dirty Shoes band. The band famously used to bookend their live shows with a cover of the traditional blues song “Boll Weevil,” with Jack near-screaming the song’s final lyrics: “Well, if anybody asks you people / Who sang you this song / You tell ‘em it was Jackie White / He’s done been here and gone / He’s looking for a home! / He’s looking for a home!” He and Meg managed to find that home in the hearts of fans all around the world, but let me be the first to suggest that there should be a nice little rug laid out for them in the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. Preferably a red one.