Each week, Lizzy Goodman guides you through the dirty streets of rock and roll.
Among the many revelations in the recent New York Times Magazine profile of Jack White was the fact that mercurial rocker misses the White Stripes as much as the rest of us. “I’d make a White Stripes record right now. I’d be in the White Stripes for the rest of my life,” he told Josh Eells. “That band is the most challenging, important, fulfilling thing ever to happen to me. I wish it was still here. It’s something I really, really miss.”
“This is a man who lives his life with monochromatic rigor — not just the batty color scheme stuff, but the way he records, the instruments he uses, his philosophy about work and life — it’s all about finding freedom in limitations.”
This made me feel better. Like a spurned ex-girlfriend I’ve been quietly resenting White for the apparent ease with which he’s moved on from his first band. I hated the idea of him out there just living his posh eccentric life with no sense of mourning for the loss of what we had. None of his good works — rehabilitating the careers of Loretta Lynn and Wanda Jackson, unleashing the confident rock banshee in Alison Mosshart, collaborating with the least likely of people, like Insane Clown Posse and the RZA, thereby creating fodder for the most amusing press releases in my inbox — made me feel better. He broke my heart and I’ve never forgiven him, until now.
Heartened by the plaintive anguish White expressed about the Stripes I showed up at the first of White’s two-night stint at New York’s Roseland Ballroom feeling hopeful. Maybe we could be friends?! It was pouring outside but that didn’t stop the crazy-eyed fans from loitering in shadowy corners under Broadway musical awnings whisper-shouting vaguely threatening things like “Do you love him like I love him?!” to those walking by with tickets in hands. I guess I’m not the only one who’s haunted by this guy.
First up inside was riotous new blues-rockers Alabama Shakes whose post-SXSW ascension is one of the best stories in music right now. I thought the room seemed packed for their show but by the time White’s team, dressed in variations on the powder blue theme, had started tugging sheets off his stage set up the venue was filled way beyond capacity. I recognized several music industry impresarios sitting in the strip of exclusive tables in the upstairs balcony alongside the likes of Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, who was there with Dave 1 from Canadian electro duo Chromeo. The rest of the crowd, though, was an assortment of the expected cool city kids — girls in Bianca Jagger hats and slim trousers with boys in Paul Smith plus wealthy banker dudes with willowy models/NYU psych major types on their arm — as well as … how to say this? Normal-looking old people? I saw several couples with the round, jolly look of the Midwestern tourists who ask me how to find Magnolia Bakery when I’m out walking my dogs in the West Village. (Get the banana pudding, people! It’s the jam.)
Within about fourteen seconds of White taking the stage (in mean pointy toed boots and what looked like a fancy black chef’s coat) my grudge started to lift, and not only because the first track he played was “Ball and Biscuit.” In the last fifteen years there have been several artists heralded as the “next Dylan,” from Conor Oberst to Ryan Adams, but, man, the way White is already, at only 36, able to mess with the arrangement of his classic tunes and make them feel both totally familiar and foreign, a Dylan signature, is just one of the signs that he is the leading contender for that crown. White did a bunch of songs from his other bands, including “Seven Nation Army,” and they all sounded like old friends you’ve just met. But the real revelation is the new stuff. This is a man who lives his life with monochromatic rigor — not just the batty color scheme stuff, but the way he records, the instruments he uses, his philosophy about work and life — it’s all about finding freedom in limitations. And yet here he is on tour with the most ornate set up ever: two touring bands, one all-male one all-female, piles of fancy instruments to play with, from violins to multiple drum kits to a couple pianos. But he’s managed to weave throughout this engorged rock excess that trim, taught, uptight and yet totally fluid style of play that is his defining style. When I first listened to Blunderbuss I immediately went and played the White Stripes “Little Room” and pouted. But what sounded like obnoxious bells and whistles on record in concert became crucial elements of a larger whole. We all love Hemingway, but T.S. Eliot knew what the fuck he was doing too, know what I mean?
As I stepped out into the wet streets, soaking my sandals in post-rain puddles, and squish-squashed my way to the Subway I passed a street performer doing a damn good rendition of “Stand By Me”. The plan was to blast on my headphones “Trash Tongue Talker,” the nasty Jerry Lee Lewis-ish stomper White had just made me fall in love with but instead I found myself tossing some singles into this guitarist’s case and genuinely listening: “When the night has come/ And the land is dark/ And the moon is the only light we see/ I won’t be afraid/ Just as long as you stand by me.”
Jack White + The Rest of Us = True Love 4 Ever.