Thursday 26 April 2018

Jack of all trades

White Stripes.
White Stripes.
Eamon Sweeney

Eamon Sweeney

In midsummer 2006, Jack White made a surprise, late-night visit to Whelan's in Dublin with his band The Raconteurs on the eve of a concert in the Olympia. The pasty-faced, six-foot-two giant of a man might have resembled a character from a Tim Burton movie, but he was the approachable epitome of affability, greeting startled customers by offering his hand and saying, "Hi! I'm Jack."

White chatted the night away and joined in with some Dublin musicians playing a saw, of all things. His bandmate Brendan Benson acquired a number for Jape's Richie Egan and phoned him up to invite him to the next night's gig to hear a cover of his song Floating, a tune that Benson fittingly first heard a DJ play in Whelan's.

Jack's laidback, fun-loving demeanour that night contrasts dramatically with a profile of Jack written by John Harris. "Those who have spent time in his company have found him to be a tense, tortured presence," he soberly wrote. "Given to shyness, chain-smoking and chronic worry about the possible pitfalls of his own success: egomania, artistic decline, a life spent behind smoked glass."

I'd attribute White's chipper form partly to finding a new creative outlet and lease of life with his new band, providing a welcome relief from the goldfish bowl the White Stripes had become. Also, White could walk into an Irish music bar and not encounter a fraction of the bullshit he might in the UK or the States.

The White Stripes were always pure rock theatre, even to the extent that they famously and erroneously claimed to be brother and sister when they were in fact divorcees. The aforementioned John Harris interviewed Jack on their first UK tour, just after the late John Peel famously said they were the most important thing to happen to rock 'n' roll since Jimi Hendrix. "Everything he said about his upbringing and personal life was, it later transpired, a pack of lies," Harris says. "But when talking about music, he couldn't have been more serious."

White takes music very seriously indeed. A prolific workaholic, White has written and recorded six White Stripes albums, two with The Raconteurs and one with The Dead Weather. Relocating from Detroit to Nashville, White set up the Third Man record label. In an age of promiscuous downloading, Third Man specialises in limited-edition 7in vinyl pressings. One recent project is I Believe in Elvis Presley, a surreal piece of spoken word by BP Fallon featuring trademark playing from White.

"I have three dads: my biological father, God and Bob Dylan," Jack once said. The one-time altar boy even considered joining the priesthood at an early age. He was accepted to a seminary, but is said to have had second thoughts upon learning he couldn't bring his brand new amplifier. "The church uses a lot of red and white too," he once noted. "When I was an altar boy, we had the black and white robes. We only used red and white cassocks for special occasions, like Christmas. I was in a film when I was 10 years old -- The Rosary Murders, with Donald Sutherland and Charles Durning. It was filmed at my church, and they picked a few altar boys to be in a scene."

The occasional actor and Cold Mountain star is gracing movie theatres himself this year, playing himself in It Might Get Loud with the Edge and Jimmy Page, and a documentary about the White Stripes' 2007 Canadian tour, Under Great White Northern Lights, when they played every single province in the vast country. Hilariously, Page's band mate Robert Plant once admitted he was initially reluctant to check out the White Stripes take on blues by saying, "I just assumed that they were taking the piss".

One shouldn't expect gospel truth about anything in Jack's background. It's also said he considered joining the Marines, but instead he ended up working as an upholsterer and gofer for car commercials. "I could see that it was impossible to get your ideas across, with all the people -- the soundman, lighting people, producers -- you had to go through," he says. "I suppose that put me in the direction of a two-piece band."

The maxim less is more applies to no one more aptly than White. In 2002 he told me: "I had an upholstery shop and everything was yellow, black and white in my shop. All my tables, my van and all my tools had to be the same. Everything had to be that way, even my business cards."

Jack slightly altered the colour scheme when he formed the Stripes, who once joked, "What's black and white and red all over? My brain!

"If you're a painter and you go to an art supply store you can get 700 different colours," he continued, speaking from his then apartment in Detroit. "A long time ago, you used to have five colours and you'd have to mix your own paint. It feeds creativity.

"If you want a certain colour and you just go into a store and buy it rather than coming up with it yourself, where is the creativity in that? It's just like those two-piece boxes where you can only put in three components -- vocals, guitars and drums. Just work with that and see what you come up with. We've never been a polished band and we've never worked on albums for very long [Get Behind Me Satan holds the longest record taking a full three weeks, compare that with extreme examples such as Massive Attack, Stone Roses, My Bloody Valentine, etc]. I think it's a mistake to try and do something for 30 takes and keep adding and overdubbing things. If we can't play it live, we're not going to record it."

If Jack is something of a mysterious enigma, Meg somehow manages to take it even further. Born in Grosse Point, Michigan, the famously shy Megan Martha White married Jackson Smith, son of Patti and Fred Smith, last year. Bizarrely, the wedding took place in Jack's back yard in Nashville on the same day that Raconteur Jack Lawrence got married (affectionately called 'Little Jack' by his band mates, even though he's far from tiny).

When White married fashionista-turned-musician Karen Olsen, the official wedding documentation claimed it was the couple's first wedding. Speaking on why he once claimed that Meg was his sister, he says, "I want you to imagine if we had presented ourselves in another fashion, that people might have thought was the truth. How would we have been perceived, right off the bat? When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think, 'Oh, I see...' When they're brother and sister, you go, 'Oh, that's interesting'. You care more about the music, not the relationship -- whether they're trying to save their relationship by being in a band. You don't think about that with a brother and sister. They're mated for life. That's what family is like."

At the end of the day, White desperately yearns to be remembered for his music rather than celebrity. He remarked that he'd most like to be remembered for being part of the blues canon 100 years after its creation. As for other musical endeavours that increasingly can't be dismissed as mere side projects, expect plenty more from the most productive man in rock.

"The Dead Weather was just going to be a project for one among a handful of seven-inches, but it blossomed into something bigger," he reveals about his latest group. "I feel so great that it happened that way, that we never planned it. But we never planned The Raconteurs either -- I went over to Brendan Benson's house one afternoon, The Greenhornes were in town, and all of a sudden we were recording an album. These are the kind of chance encounters I hope happen 20 more times before I die."

Under Great White Northern Nights is out today on DVD and CD

Irish Independent

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