The White Stripes
I'm wandering through the backstage labyrinth of Fujirock when Jack White and I pass like ships in the night. This annual festival, held in the mountains of Japan five hours and a bullet-train decompression from Tokyo, is an annual rite where homegrown and international artists mingle in the cultural stew that is our rock/pop birthright, a miscegenated music that refracts in the funhouse mirror that is Shibuya at midnight.
I've just seen the White Stripes live for the first time in the all-too-appropriately-named Red Tent. I've heard the records, watched as their star nova'd from novelty act to name-to-drop, and am acquainted with the denizens of the scene that sensurrounded them: the Demolition Doll Rods, the Von Bondies, the Detroit Cobras, the Dirtbombs, not to mention Mojo City forbears like Fortune Records, the MC5/Up/Stooges, and strangely, at least in my take on their lineage, the techno scene centered around Juan Atkins and Kevin Sanderson and Derrick May, coupled with the minimalist hip-hop sensibility that would birth the rhyme schemings of Eminem. Not knowing what to expect when the Stripes 'stripped-down take on rock and blues elementals meets a live audience, I am charmed by Meg's good-natured give-the-drummer-some bashing and White's Airline guitar-distorto, each succession of chords and stark beat elemental pure hook. I dig.
"Hey," says Jack as our paths cross, each of us on our way somewhere. "Thanks for Nuggets." Or words to that effect (those cans of sake that automatically heat when you open them are having their own effect).
Ah, the if-you-dug-it that follows me like a note of high-frequency feedback. But if any group can lay claim to being that which Nuggets prophesied (not to mention proselytized), the Stripes can park their customized car in the great American garage and rev their glasspacks. Removed from mid-'60s accessorizing (Farfisa organ, fuzz-tone guitar, the vocal-as-yowl, bowl haircuts and polka-dot shirts and a whiff of psychedelia in the air), I've always thought of the bands that populate the various incarnations of Nuggets as returning to the primal source of the music, reinventing and reminding and reinvigorating rock's basic building blocks, bringing it all back to the root source of why we pick up a guitar or slam drums and want to make a blast-furnace noise, preferably loud enough to be heard in the next rock generation.
The Stripes no-bass move was not unprecedented, especially on a Detroit scene where the Doll Rods, formed out of the ashes of the much-beloved Gories (who heydayed around the turn of the '90s), featured a female drummer more Moe Tucker than Moulty and a twin-guitar attack that hardly hurt for bottom (no one could accuse drummer Christine and singer-guitarist Danny of lacking bad ass). The Demolition trio waved the banner for this raw mélange of blues and caterwauling, practically living in their touring van, and along with bands like the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, created a refiguring of the classic carburetor that brought classic blooze and rawk back to its bedroll source, deep in the groin.
There was no difference, except in the shape of the primeval howl, between blues and doo-wop and hillbilly and gospel, just like that shop on Third St. in Detroit where Jack and Devora Brown sold their 45s and recorded their "Truly Great Music." I got to stand in the backroom studio of their label, Fortune Records, once, in the early '70s, and remember how the carpet was worn away under the microphone, the threadbare tragedies and triumphs of their hits — Nolan Strong blowing "The Wind" with the Diablos; Andre Williams and his paean to "Jailbait"; Nathaniel Mayer's "Village of Love" — and the way those songs needed to be sung. "I Believe," sanctified Mary Pierce in Fortune's gospel series, and yes, we will testify.
The Doll Rods got more attention from scanty dress and less from their bottomless cornucopulata of sound, true progenitors, and the Stripes 'built upon this sense of Look to candy-stripe their lack-of-color family name. The Whites 'five albums, beginning with 1999's self-titled debut, grab their riff-a-rama and shake it (don't break it), Jack displaying a sliding guitar as early as "Suzy Lee" and his debt to both "St. James Infirmary" and St. Bob's grizzle ("One More Cup of Coffee"). From there, in an acclaimed arc, you've seen the videos with their attached hit song. Jack's pre-Stripes stint in the wack-country Goober and the Peas showed he was a singer who liked to crossroads stylistic boundaries, and within the Stripes 'quintet of works, you can hear him slowly expanding his reach and grasp, even adding bass, letting the world know that there are no self-imposed boundaries. The Stripes 'air of decayed Southern Gothic showed in Jack's sympathetic production of (c and let's not forget the w) goddess Loretta Lynn, gifting his respect and desire to rekindle the flame of what made her music grand ol 'opry. His lyrical skills — sometimes overlooked in the White Stripes sense of presentation — are wry, humorous and quirky: "I really want to be your friend / 'Cause I don't know anyone …" Or standing outside ringing that damned doorbell.
The White Stripes 'template could keep on going, and surely will, since all it depends upon is a demonic riff (Get Behind Me Satan), but in Jack's recent submergence within the Raconteurs, he allows the group context to expand his playing field. Broken Boy Soldiers is not a solo project in disguise: With a rhythm section from the Greenhornes, themselves in garageic lineage from Cincinnati (home to that other great independent label of the Midwest, King Records), and co-conspirator Brendan Benson, these "old friends" make a true band with a smart, infectiously listenable personality, despite the reference-pointing that the band encouraged by aiming their preview 7" at the record geek community, releasing its "Steady, As She Goes" teaser in a limited edition of 1,000. I hear shards of semi-familiar lickings as I spin through the download — Bad Company, Rush, Badfinger, the blessed Zep and Be-A-Tells — but we are talking the many salutations of a music that has lovingly cannibalized itself over a half century. Like their "Intimate Secretary," I like to shop. And dig the dig.