Whether you’re a fan or not, the massive outpouring of grief in response to the news that minimalist rock band the White Stripes were to split up might seem puzzling. In their exit statement last Thursday, the Detroit duo said they hoped the news would not be “met with sorrow by [our] fans”, emphasizing that the split was not because of health issues or artistic differences. Prolific singer/guitarist/songwriter Jack White will continue to write, perform and record with his other groups the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather, and is indeed likely putting the finishing touches to another such project as you read this. And if rock history has taught us anything, it’s that bands only stay split up until the first date of the lucrative reunion tour.
Fans have registered their dismay in countless threads on the Internet, while others went shopping — according to Amazon, the White Stripes’ live album released last year and documentary Under Great White Northern Lights have seen an increase in sales of 2,644 percent on the site. And I understand why, because Jack and Meg White’s decision to call time on the Stripes’ 13 year career formally marks the end of one of the most memorable groups in recent memory.
I first saw the White Stripes almost a decade ago, at the Texas music industry showcase South By South-West in March 2001, playing an afternoon barbecue party in a parking lot across from a tattoo parlor. Their songs were great — wild and alive with subtle weirdness and ageless riffs — and they played a cover of Dolly Parton’s Jolene that was anything but ironic, delivering its tale of heartbreak with a captivating sincerity. I couldn’t take my eyes off them, the atmosphere between Jack and Meg was electric, as he hollered into a microphone next to her drum kit, holding eye contact with her at all times. They arrived at a moment when rock ’n’ roll was experiencing one of its periodic lulls in inspiration; there seemed to be no real icons, no personalities, no larger-than-life heroes left. But the White Stripes filled this void with incomparable style.
Jack White, an inveterate record collector, understood the pleasures of being a fan better than most other musicians. With the White Stripes, he and Meg created a band alive with the myth, ambiguity and idiosyncrasy that legends are hewn from and fans adore. The first time I interviewed him, back in spring 2001, Jack told me, “Success won’t change us, or the way we do things.” It was this very idiosyncratic way of doing things that helped win them their success, made them a band people believe in, and a phenomenon they identify with.
Later that summer, their first UK tour became the unlikely subject of mainstream press attention: front-page stories in the music press, copious coverage in both the tabloids and the broadsheets, even a feature on BBC Radio 4’s Today program that quoted their earliest champion, DJ John Peel, declaring Jack “the most exciting guitarist since Hendrix.” In their red, white and black livery, they were instantly iconic: You could dress up as the White Stripes for Halloween, and they were recognizable even when rendered in Lego, as Michel Gondry did for the video to their breakthrough single, Fell in Love With a Girl.
The duo made for great copy, especially after evidence surfaced of their 1996 marriage and subsequent divorce in 2000, putting the lie to the brother/sister myth they’d propagated since their first record. At the dawn of the Internet age, Jack was a man from another era: He bemoaned bad manners and the death of the gentleman, and bad-mouthed modern technology, especially the motor car. He might have seemed curmudgeonly, if not for the verve with which he declared his passions: the Delta bluesmen he covered, such as Son House and Blind Willie McTell, and his forlorn hometown’s rich garage-rock heritage. Meg said little in interviews; all you needed to know about her you could glean from watching her perform, the glee with which she pounded skins and cymbals, the way she drained the bottle of whiskey next to her kit over the course of a show. She was the heart of this group, the engine, the inimitable groove.
Success only amplified all the qualities that made the White Stripes unique, bank-rolling their grander ambitions, and they continued to do things not as rock musicians typically did them, but the way Jack and Meg wanted them done. Despite their then-newfound success, 2003’s Elephant album wasn’t recorded in some lush modern studio, but in a pokey garage in Hackney, while their 2004 concert movie, Under Blackpool Lights, was filmed on retro Super 8mm film. Even the merchandise they sold at their gigs was unusual, and of a piece with their aesthetic: There were White Stripes-branded Holga cameras, and hand-made phonographs (called Triple Inchophones) designed to play special 3” White Stripes vinyl records.
In the summer of 2005, I traveled across Brazil with them on their first South American tour, which they booked after a Peruvian fan named Claudia wrote to the Stripes’ record label, begging them to finally perform below the border. Before the week was out, Jack had stroked the belly of a baby crocodile while traveling up the Amazon river, unwittingly started a small riot at an opera house deep in the jungle, and married Oldham-born supermodel Karen Elson three weeks after first meeting her. Resembling a Mexican mariachi as imagined by Tim Burton, he sat backstage at the opera house, pondering the possible mortality of the White Stripes.
“Sometimes, things are only supposed to exist within a certain space in time, and they don’t make sense outside of that,” he mused. “It’s hard to know when to stop. Your friends are too polite to tell you, maybe you should stop and do something else. You have to be really self-aware to know that what you’re doing isn’t relevant any more.”
“I think we’ll know when to stop,” laughed Meg, and maybe they did. Maybe the White Stripes’ final flourish of genius lies in quitting before they made a bad record, before they sold out or bought in, and while their fans still love them enough to be heart-broken by their exit.
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