Interference Remembers The White Stripes

February 5, 2011 · Print This Article

I can vividly recall the first time I heard The White Stripes.  It was in San Francisco, driving down Howard Street on my way home from a movie.  On the radio was the local alternative station, Live 105.  They were airing an interview with some guy talking about how San Francisco was the first city outside of Detroit that had ever liked his band.

The station then played a quiet little guitar ballad called “We’re Going to Be Friends”.  It was sweet, simple, earnest – like something Paul McCartney would write – and it immediately intrigued me.

I later found out the guy was a former Detroit upholsterer named Jack White III, and that his band was a two-person outfit he had formed with a drummer named Meg, whom he claimed was his big sister.

The next day, I purchased White Blood Cells, and the rest is history.

Looking back to that time ten years ago, it strikes me how remarkable it is that I still have total recall of first hearing them.  Like most music fans, I’ve spent so much time saturating my pores in the detritus of various bands, genres, and back catalogs that after a while, it all sort of turns into a big sonic blur.  But, album to album, the Stripes always emerge from the muck, clear as day.  I’ll never forget the first time I heard that opening riff to “Seven Nation Army” rumbling away in my bedroom.  I clearly remember being floored on the way home from the bank when the sound of a marimba came springing out of my speakers during the first spin of Get Behind Me Satan.  And I don’t think any song can take me back to 2003 quicker than “Ball and Biscuit”, which is only a small part of what made it absolutely perfect source music for the opening scene of The Social Network.

Speaking of social networks, I’ve spent a fair chunk of time this week reading Facebook postings and e-mails from friends, as well as various articles from other publications, remembering the band.  Similar stories and memories to mine have emerged from all of them.  The Stripes, it seems, are one of those rare bands that mark time for people and define a particular space in their lives.  Certainly for me, that is the case…. more than any other band – except Radiohead, perhaps – the Stripes are the soundtrack of my college years and subsequent entry into the “real” world.

Maybe that’s the reason their departure stings so hard… that, and the loss of their truly amazing live show.  I only got to see the band live once – a glorious night in Berkeley, August of 2005 – but, hundreds of shows later, the evening stands out as an obvious highlight in my ongoing love affair with live music.

I can’t remember another band tearing into a set with the kind of manic abandon and propulsive glee that Jack and Meg managed at the Greek.  Regardless what anyone might think of Meg’s drumming ability, her onstage charisma is undeniable, and her fierce, corrosive chemistry with White  made their onstage playing feel like an aural battle of the sexes.  This primal, feral approach to music was a huge part of their appeal as performers, and to my mind, it seemed to find its most potent form of expression in the live setting.

Alongside Eugene Hutz of Gogol Bordello, Jack White is perhaps the only contemporary rock performer to truly exude the ephemeral quality that is “rock star charisma” onstage, and every ounce of it was on display that night, with epic, shredding solos punctuating superlative runs through “Ball and Biscuit”, “Death Letter”, and the band’s devastating cover of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”.

Now, it takes a seriously hairy pair of gonads for a man to sing a cover of a country pop tune about female insecurity – from the woman’s point of view! – in a rock setting, much less do it with the kind of conviction White brought to it.  Such was the ingenuity of the Stripes at their peak.

For the encore in Berkeley – when it came time for the delicate performance of “We’re Going to Be Friends” – a promotional radio station balloon bounced up onto the stage, briefly distracting Jack from his singing and guitar.  He promptly picked up the balloon, tossed it into the audience, and demanded a written apology from the radio station for interrupting his song.  It was a mercurial, old-school rock star thing to do, and like it or not, he commanded the stage, and the audience, at that moment.  And much like seeing what turned out to be their final live performance on Conan O’Brien in 2009 – once again, a performance of “We’re Going to Be Friends” – the experience brought me back full-circle to that first listen, in my car in 2001.

Jack may move on to any of his myriad other bands or retro-fetish producing projects, and Meg might move onto, oh, I dunno – being all shy in a corner somewhere – but neither of them are ever going to match the sheer, direct, simple de stijl of the work they did as The White Stripes.  They will be greatly missed.

–Luke Pimentel, Editor


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