Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Elephant in the Room: The Mystery of Jack White

“Nothing is improbable until it moves into the past tense . . . ” George Ade
As a member of The White Stripes, The Raconteurs, The Dead Weather and the Rome project (with Danger Mouse, Norah Jones and Daniele Luppi), Jack White III has certainly proven himself as a songwriter, singer, performer and musician. But it's also an impressive list when you add up White’s own production work with his bands, as well as producing other stellar artists like Loretta Lynn, Wanda Jackson, The Greenhornes, Dexter Romweber Duo, his wife Karen Elson and even his pal Conan O'Brien.

White also oversees the record label he founded, Third Man Records, where his productions are released and where occasional live concerts are captured on analog tape in the back room. But the real action has always been taking place on 8-track, 2-inch tape in his self-designed, private studio in Nashville, where he's been busy at work since September 2009 on many diverse projects, including Wanda Jackson's excellent album, The Party Ain't Over, and the launch of his publishing enterprise, Third Man Books.

The music of The White Stripes is now a mysterious but influential part of pop music history: a Detroit-based postmodern two-person rock band that ironically and single-handedly returned rock and pop music to their raw roots, while still pushing them both wildly into the future. With low-tech/ high fidelity sonic features, their songs were abstract paintings for the ear, declaimed in a no-holds- barred avant-garde approach to rock’s reckless renaissance. He remains permanently innovative in contemporary rock.

The White Stripes were the sound of the future arriving. It’s the sound of an inventive and volcanic neo-blues nourished by the mercurial founder of The White Stripes, one John Gillis, alias Jack White. He has had an analog mystique before, during and after The White Stripes, especially in special subsequent solo projects with other bands and utilizing his exemplary skill as a brilliantly creative producer of other artists.

The Jack White persona adopted by Gillis is similar in some strategic respects to the Bob Dylan persona adopted by Robert Zimmerman, the David Bowie persona adopted by David Jones, the Elvis Costello persona adopted by Declan McManus, the Captain Beefheart persona adopted by Don Van Vliet and others. It’s the mask that tells the truth. But he is careful to avoid the time-proven adage that celebrity is a mask that eats into the face. Jack White is a moving target par excellence! In fact, he seems to have won all the Grammys that Van Vliet may have earned but could never, ever have won. Now that tells us something about our culture’s changing parameters for what is inside and what is outside of its acceptable artistic limits! Somehow, Jack White has become somewhat mainstream. What is outsider music after him? How did this happen?

What’s true of most musicians, the axiom that once set apart from their songs themselves they are rendered a little mute, especially on the subject of exactly how they do what they do, can never apply to Mr. White, the cutely irascible inventor of a highly successful musical rage machine. White is among the best examples of an even better axiom: eventually every dangerous or new idea can be co-opted by the mainstream and absorbed into its social fabric as it slowly crawls its own uncertain way towards an unknown musical future. But not only is he an idiosyncratic talent as a singer-songwriter and performing musician, he is also a remarkably astute entrepreneur, label manager, producer and musical historian who has demonstrated a canny cultural sophistication in his devotion to the blues roots of rock and pop music and to their analog historical archive. 

End of the Century Blues (June 15, 1999)

After moonlighting with several underground Detroit bands as a drummer (an instrument he would teach Meg White to play in the quirky style he wanted to hear) he founded The White Stripes with his then wife and launched a highly successful attack on the rock music establishment. Together they achieved international fame with their first hit single, “Fell In Love With a Girl,” and immediately secured a strong place within the Michigan underground garage rock scene. What made their sound so refreshing in the context of late 20th century pop music? The fact obvious that he was recycling music history so cleverly.

Girl, You Have No Faith (June 20, 2000)

After only one year, the White Stripes band released a follow-up record that firmly entrenched them in the ranks of kick-ass rockers with an intelligent twist and an eccentric postmodern attitude to the business of making records and entertaining audiences. The drastic simplicity of the band’s stripped- down style and fusion of blues with punk started to make them a paradoxical combination of pure cult status band and highly successful commercial pop band. The cultural times were just right for them to rapidly become a highly effective conceptual brand.

Future Perfect: Beyond the White Garage (July 3, 2001)

With White Blood Cells the band further explored their stripped-down garage-rock style both musically and in their aesthetic approach to performance and video production, maintaining a red, white and black colour scheme with each outing. For John Peel they were the most exciting new band since Jimi Hendrix, and The New York Times characterized White as having, beneath an arty fa├žade, one of the most cagey and darkly original rock styles since Kurt Cobain.

While the album’s themes of love, hope, betrayal and paranoia were written over the period of a four- year creative development, the record itself was recorded in less than one week at Easley-McCain in Memphis, Tennessee. Again produced by its volatile frontman, this record propelled them into the open arms of music critics and expanded their formerly strictly cult status into a genuinely mainstream genre, one they largely invented for themselves along the way.

The album’s cover art satirizes the very irony of their growing public acceptance by featuring the duo surrounded by press photographers seeking to capture their image. It has since been acclaimed as a classic rock breakthrough, especially in the manner with which it dealt with certain new-century attitudes towards celebrity, persistent attention and the (then) new realm of the internet and social media platforms.

Elephant in the Room: Arrival of the Genius (April 1, 2003) 

Jack White saw the future of music in a surprising way: by singing it back to us in the original blues formats of the past but morphing them into a violent Bigness that could perhaps only have happened in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, once the surrounding society had become immune to surprise. Yet surprise us he does, and that magic public-access borderline was crossed dramatically with Elephant, recorded in two weeks during 2002 in London’s Toe Rag Studios. White again self-produced the record, with assistance from Liam Watson, and he brilliantly navigated his way into the mainstream pop world with his usual opulent aplomb, somehow managing to mass-market a serious work of sonic art as an album of apparent anti-love tunes.

Each of the three records before its release, White Stripes (1999), De Stijl (2000), and White Blood Cells (2001), had been a major statement, of course, but one made to and for a smaller cult following for their experiments in a new sonic zone one can only call metal-punk-blues. On Elephant, he embraced a tone that was even more paranoid and pissed-off than all three put together.

On one side of the line drawn by Elephant, their first release for a major commercial label (V2), we had an experimental fringe group busily wearing away the resistance of an industry while entertaining a small but influential audience, and on the other side of that same line we had rock royalty at its loftiest Grammy-winning heights in full command of its creative sway.

Blues Turning Purple: Vinyl Lust (June 7, 2005)

The band’s fifth album, Get Behind Me Satan, was retro-recorded in White’s own home and marked a change in his musical direction, focusing on piano-driven melodies and more rhythm-based guitar playing by White. He began to play down the punk, garage and blues influences that informed his earlier work, using a mandolin and acoustic guitar to free himself from the niche of being the new rock guitar god in town. His experimentation resulted in less commercial attention and fewer sales, something that clearly didn’t bother him at all.

White’s own record label, Third Man Records, began to make inroads as an alternative to having any unwanted dependence on the industry. By this stage he has also begun to experiment with other bands and fresh personnel outside The White Stripes persona, something which had begun to chafe on his creativity once the format became too big and commercially successful to adequately satisfy his appetite for constant innovation.

White’s work with alternate band members and completely different creative projects was launched at this stage, following up with the last White Stripes album to feature ex-wife Meg as the drummer, muse and his creative foil.

Meg Becomes Memory: Return to Form (June 15, 2007)

With Icky Thump, the only recording for the Warner Brothers label, the band reaches both its creative apotheosis and beginning of its demise as a format. It marked their return to the punk, garage and blues forms for which they first became famous. The title is derived from a Lancashire exclamation of surprise. He just can’t help himself, in exactly the way a young Pete Townshend, say, or a John Lennon couldn’t. Not by half. That’s what gives his kind of composer and performer an edge that no amount of craft or artifice can simulate. It is also what makes the White sound sound so special: the sheer danger of someone going all the way, as far as it’s possible to go and then some, in order to bring back the goods.

But White goes even further than his god-like precursors in one very real sense: he doesn’t disguise his rage in pop songs where paranoia is used as an ornament, preferring instead to package it raw, a kind of emotional sushi that quickly becomes an acquired taste if given half a chance. Amazingly, the Jack White composing and performing persona started out on the far fringe and somehow moved to the middle mainstream, and it was with his solo projects and powerful producing skills that this surprising cross-over first took place. Because if The White Stripes had become somewhat mainstream, then doesn’t that mean that now literally anything is possible? Anything, that is, but survival: Meg White would depart the band after this record’s release and with a degree of personal controversy. 

Solo Weather Report: The Storm Subsides (May 16, 2006)

Somehow he caught the tenor of the times to such an extent that White has become a household name (almost) and his unique style of blues gone mad has become a stalwart for a remarkably diverse listening audience. The question of how such an edgy composer and performer, and how such quirky and esoteric records, could become so potent an emblem for our post-millennial times is the perennial question. What our collective embrace of his music says about us is almost as intriguing as what White’s music says to us. Often he appears to need more than one band with which to express his multi-faceted ideas, and he has become equally famous for fronting several groups simultaneously. The best example of this phenomenon is The Raconteurs and their debut album, which won Best Rock Record at the 49th Grammy Awards. It was followed by Consolers of the Lonely, which was nominated for Best Rock Record at the 51st Grammy Awards and won in the Best Engineered Album category. Another ancillary band was formed by White, Dead Weather, which released two albums, Horehound in 2009 and Sea of Cowards in 2010. However, luckily for us White would record again under his own name with the release of his next project, a debut album as Jack White. A master returns to form. 

Going Home Alone: Blues in a Feeling (April 23, 2012)

At long last he issued a solo album, remarking that after putting it off for a very long time, he finally felt he could do so because he had a collection of appropriate songs that felt like they could actually be released as solo material. He has stated, “These songs were written from scratch, had nothing to do with anyone or anything else but my own expression, my own colours and my own canvas.” This flexibility and confidence apparently came from the freedom of having his own studio and also having musicians in his hometown of Nashville who could come in on short notice, working on the fly as he moved from person to person in the room. The entire album was recorded on 8-track analog tape in collaboration with sound engineer and producer Vance Powell, with whom he used “100 different production styles on the record.” This is his first solo masterpiece.

The album received Best Rock Record and Album of the Year nominations at the 2013 Grammy Awards. He was finally on his way as a solo artist.

He was suddenly Mr. Jack White. Most pronounced on the record was the absence of the percussive force which for many of us first firmly established his groove, the manic Bonham-like drumming of ex-wife Meg. Most profound, however, was the sudden arrival, thirteen years after his emergence as a radical re-inventor of a blues and rock vibe first initiated by his fellow Detroit artists MC5 in the 60’s, of a fully matured artist capable of starting the second half of what would clearly be a long-distance creative career race. 

Reaching the Limit: Finding Quantum Rock (June 10, 2014)

Technically only the second solo outing by Jack White released as Jack White, Lazaretto can therefore be regarded as only the second studio album by White and is also the album on which he really reached his full stride as an artist. Reportedly based on a lost manuscript of short stories written when he was 19 and found in his attic in between tours for the Blunderbuss album, it also features the highest number of contributing musicians (17) he had ever worked with, as well as a stellar cast of four different technical contributors to the final soundscape. Here he continues to eschew the idea that it is necessary for him to adhere to only one given style or to regulate his creative impulses for the sake of commercial continuity. Gary Graff was the critic who captured the most essential ingredients of White’s greatness on this record when he identified White as a characteristic shape-shifter, "one engaged in gleeful sonic alchemy as he stirs together a dizzying array of influences, from garagey psychedelia to earthy Americana.” As usual, his Third Man Records also released a limited- edition version on blue and white vinyl, packaged with a 40-page book, fold-out poster, national archives photo and seven-inch special featuring demo versions, in addition to an “Ultra-LP” version containing hidden tracks that are pressed into the vinyl and depend on chance needle grooves, as well as holograms that appear on the record’s surface when it is played. In other words, it is a work of multi-media conceptual art. It is also his second solo masterpiece.

The Ghost Who Walked: Getting Thumped (September 18, 2009)

Under the umbrella of their Icky Thump concert tour across Canada, an exploration of their overall live performance style. Further evidence of White’s ironic appeal, as well as the curious mythologies that have formed around the several groups he has formed over the years: the mystical number three, the romance with red, white and black, the sibling legend, the neo-surreal cover art, the preference for analog, the fetish for vinyl, his love of open tunings, the initial and eventual reception to his quirky records, their recurring musical motifs, his videos as works of visual art, his dark and enigmatic lyrics, Meg’s anxiety, his unique guitar skills (favoring a 1964 JB Hutto Airline, a 1970s Crestwood Astral 2, and a 1950s Kay Hollowbody) and his considerable production prowess.

He’s still in the process of conducting his long-term experiments with the popular song. He’s managed his creative energies with a heavy dose of paradox, especially since he has made breaking the rules of excess into an art form itself while at the same time painting music which on the surface is deceptively basic and simple. It is not simple, it is an incredibly complicated matter to achieve something as primal, as primitive, and as private in public. White turns our notions of pop intimacy inside out. For some reason, it helps us to frequently be told on his liner notes that “no computers were used during the writing, recording, mixing or mastering of these records.” His music is palpable and visceral and the experience of hearing it is practically haptic. 

Master Producer: Interpreting the Other (April 27, 2004)

There’s a multitude of simpatico bands White has been active with as engineer, producer, mentor or member, including his fellow Detroit grunger Ben Swank and The Soledad Brothers in 2000 barely a year after forming The White Stripes. White also produced the debut album Lack of Communication by The Von Bondies in 2001; and Whirlwind Heat’s album Do Rabbits Wonder? in 2003.

In 2004 White produced a remarkable album for the great Loretta Lynn, Van Lear Rose, in addition to writing one of her songs and performing throughout the record. Lynn was 72 and White was 28. The record won best Country Album and Best Country Collaboration at the Grammys in 2005. The same year White produced The Muldoons’ Red and Black EP, and The Greenhornes’ Sewed Soles.

2009 was an active year for White, who produced Dan Sartain’s Bohemian Grove; Transit’s C’mon and Ride; Solo’s Fly Farm Blues; and Smoke Fairies’ Gastown. He produced the great Wanda Jackson’s 2010 release You Know I’m No Good in 2010, as well as The Black Belles' What Can I Do? And he even found time to produce his then-wife’s peculiar album The Ghost Who Walks, with Karen Elson, as well as Dex Romweber Duo’s Live, and Nobunny's Live. In 2011 he produced another Black Belles record, as well as another brilliant Wanda Jackson album, The Party Ain’t Over.

Rosetta Stoned: Decoding the Narrative 

How to analyze the allure of Jack White? This is not the same as explaining it, or making it more accessible, but rather placing it in context. Ironically the best way to do this is by exploring some of his precursors, some of the artists who made him possible as a force of nature and culture. One of his primary creative nodes is Don Van Vliet, the one man whom he always dreamed of producing but whose late-stage illness and retreat from the music industry made it impossible to do so. White has been able to channel much of the snarling Vliet rage and bluesy mess captured so magically in 1969 (six years before he was born) on Frank Zappa’s masterpiece Hot Rats. Van Vliet’s masterful and scary Beefheart song, “Willie the Pimp,” is quintessential Jack White. Listening to it today, especially in the context of a Blunderbuss song like “Freedom 21,” goes a long way to helping us understand just what White has been getting at for the last twenty years. The purpose of this essay, apart from extolling his remarkable virtues as an artist, producer and recording entrepreneur, is to contextualize White by situating him in a historical continuum which runs (via Led Zeppelin) all the way from Van Vliet back to Beefheart’s own stylistic origins: the raw blues of Howlin’ Wolf. If Beefheart was Wolf on acid, then White is Wolf on Ritalin. Genius is just too pallid a word to describe what he is obviously capable of achieving.

In addition to his stellar recording and producing resume, he also focuses on his extra-curricular work in film soundtracks (such as Cold Mountain, Quantum of Solace, delivered after Amy Winehouse’s title song deal fell through, Shine a Light, It Might Get Loud, The Great Gatsby, and The Hateful Eight). He complements this hectic creativity on film with his own work as an actor (in The Rosemary Murders, Mutant Swinger, Cold Mountain, Coffee and Cigarettes, Under Blackpool Lights, American Pickers and Portlandia) and as both a music and a book publisher with Third Man Records and Third Man Books.

White’s own words form the best crux or point of departure for this career-length endeavour: “I think that sometimes love gets in the way of itself you know, love interrupts itself . . . We want things so much that we always sabotage them” (Interview Magazine, 2012).

Donald Brackett is a Vancouver-based popular culture journalist and curator who writes about music, art and films. He has been the Executive Director of both the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada and The Ontario Association of Art Galleries. He is the author of the book Back to Black: Amy Winehouse’s Only Masterpiece (Backbeat Books, 2016). In addition to numerous essays, articles and radio broadcasts, he is also the author of two books on creative collaboration in pop music: Fleetwood Mac: 40 Years of Creative Chaos, 2007, and Dark Mirror: The Pathology of the Singer-Songwriter, 2008, and is a frequent curator of film programs for Cinematheque. His current work in progress is a new book called Long Slow Train: The Soul Music of Sharon Jones and The Dap-Kings, being released by Backbeat Books in Spring 2018.

No comments:

Post a Comment