The first question I ask Jon Spencer is not, “Why are you not Jack White”? But from the moment we started talking, it’s been the elephant in the room. Even as I ask obligatory and softball questions about Meat and Bone, his new album with the Blues Explosion, all I can think about is that fucking ex-White Stripes guy.
Just so we’re clear, Meat and Bone sounds nothing like a Jack White record. It is pure Blues Explosion, and it will melt your brain with its awesomeness. But because I’m a realist (or a pessimist, take your pick), I assume Meat and Bone will sell just a fraction of what Jack White’s Blunderbuss sold in Target impulse-buy bins alone. And that annoys me. Not because White isn’t a talented songwriter and performer worthy of a wide audience. I own several White Stripes albums and listen to them frequently. But Jack White deserves to be more successful than Jon Spencer like Steven Tyler deserves to be more successful than Mick Jagger.
“My understanding is, Jack White is a much more traditional pop songwriter,” Spencer tells me. “There’s nothing wrong with that; that’s just his bag and that’s what he’s doing. But it’s music that’s more palatable to a wide, mainstream audience. It sounds very much like what was on the radio when I was a kid in the ‘70s. It’s tried and true.”
Spencer is being polite. I was hoping he’d say something along the lines of “that Nashville-living white-blues-playing bitch can kiss my rubber-pants-encased ass.” But he doesn’t go there. He’s civil. He’s even respectful. So I try a different tactic.
“I understand why people like the White Stripes,” I tell him. “But why don’t they like the Blues Explosion as much?”
He considers this for a minute. “I guess it’s a tough pill for some people to swallow,” he says. “We’re a little too out there. There’s always been a confrontational element to the band. We’re more experimental, we’re more punk. We’re too crazy for some people. But that’s okay with me.”
I’m well aware of why I have a chip on my shoulder about Spencer not being the Jack White superstar he was clearly destined to become. And to be honest, I’d be a little sulky if he did become Jack White. It’s not cool to be a Jack White fan anymore. It used to be, back when White was still playing garage punk in Detroit. But these days, saying you like Jack White is like saying you’re an Iggy Pop fan circa 2012. (Hey, so are Ke$ha and Paco Rabanne!) Being a Blues Explosion fan still means something. You’re not going to impress any 16 year olds by knowing the lyrics to “Bell Bottoms,” or wearing an Acme Tour t-shirt. But still, I take it personally that Jon Spencer is still as famous as he was in 1994, when he was only kinda famous (and only among people who owned more than one Jesus Lizard record) and Jack White is being called “the last big rock star” by Time magazine.
I don’t come right out and say as much to Spencer, but his popularity (or lack thereof) disturbs me not because of what it says about him, but what it says about me.
Jon Spencer is funny. Jack White is not. Spencer is campy and silly and smirking. White is intense and arty and sneering. Spencer mugs. White broods. White sings lyrics like “Every single one’s got a story to tell// From the Queen of England to the hounds of hell.” Spencer sings lyrics like “Eat your bowler hat/ Look at my ass.” White is the guy you knew at college who worked at the radio station and only listened to Leadbelly and MC5 and judged anybody who didn’t. Spencer is the guy who introduced you to the Dead Milkmen and Wesley Willis and smoked all your drugs. In the same way that you are what you eat, you are what you listen to. Your musical choices are a reflection of your personality, or what you hope that reflection looks like. I chose my blues punk role model, and he ended up being the underachieving jokester. Winona Ryder may’ve been in a Blues Explosion video, but she didn’t sleep with Spencer; she slept with Jack White. (Spencer, I guess, is the one she liked “just as a friend.”) It’s like high school all over again, but on a more hyper-meta level.
“We’re not making comedy records,” Spencer tells me.
“Fuck no you’re not,” I agree, a bit too vehemently.
“There’s a bent, crazy edge sometimes, but it’s serious music. That seems to be lost on a lot of people. I’m hesitant to use words like ‘humor’ or ‘fun,’ because when people hear that, they think, ‘Oh, it’s just a joke.’ We’re not a joke. It’s not meant to be ironic, despite what some critics have suggested.”
“You mean Jim DeRogatis?” I ask.
“Yeah, that dude.” He laughs, but it’s a frustrated, disbelieving laugh, like when you run out of gas in the middle of a Nevada desert.
I don’t know Jim DeRogatis. I know he lives in Chicago and writes about music, but I’ve never met the man. I only really know about him because of an infamous essay he did for Penthouse in 1997 about the supposed awfulness of the Blues Explosion. “Spencer almost always dishes out kitsch,” DeRogatis wrote. “And in that regard, he’s in the same league as Dan Aykroyd and Bruce Willis jamming on ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ at the House of Blues.” When I read that, I wanted to punch DeRogatis right in his pasty fat writer face. One night I even tried to convince some of my friends to drive around the city with me, to find DeRogatis and “teach him a lesson.”
“If punk rock means not giving a fuck, then you can’t truly have a punk rock ethos when you’re young and music means everything to you. You have to wait until you’re in your mid-40s, when you only care as much as is absolutely necessary.”
“We should beat him up,” I announced. “Kick him in the kidneys while we’re singing ‘the Blues is number one,’ so he knows why he’s getting pounded.”
My friends laughed at me. There were several reasons Jim DeRogatis was not going to get a beatdown by me. Number one, I’ve never punched anyone in my life, and probably wouldn’t even know how to do it if given the opportunity. And two, I was stoned on a heroic amount of weed, and stoned people do not make threatening fighters.
“So we’ll give him a verbal beating,” I countered. “We’ll explain to him why he’s a horrible little turd who doesn’t have the capacity to appreciate true musical genius because he’s such a horrible turd.”
The vote was unanimous. Jim DeRogatis would not be verbally accosted by me or any of my friends that night. And it was time for me to go to bed.
“I think it gets easier,” Spencer tells me. “When you get older, you don’t give a fuck as much anymore.”
He’s talking about Meat and Bone, and whether he cares as much about having a hit album at 47 as he did when he was 27. Turns out he doesn’t. And I feel the same way. I still love the band, but not as loudly. Jim DeRogatis, if he still gives a shit about the Blues Explosion, could write a freshly vitriolic diatribe about how Jon Spencer is more racist and unoriginal than ever, and I probably wouldn’t get through the first paragraph before losing interest and checking Facebook.
I find this weirdly enlightening. If punk rock means not giving a fuck, then you can’t truly have a punk rock ethos when you’re young and music means everything to you. You have to wait until you’re in your mid-40s, when you only care as much as is absolutely necessary. I love music, and I love the Blues Explosion. But I will not, under any circumstances, pretend that I’m going to punch anyone to defend it. Not anymore.
At some point, our conversation drifts from Jack White and the fickle tastes of mainstream music fans into the murky “inside baseball” topic of parenting. It probably starts when my son, a 16-month-old named Charlie, wanders into my office and growls in a perfect imitation of a dinosaur. (It’s pretty much all he does these days.) This leads to Spencer revealing that he too has a son named Charlie—actually, it’s Charles, because his wife, Cristina Martinez, his fearless and beautiful cohort in bands like Pussy Galore and Boss Hog, “didn’t want to use a nickname as a name.” And that just opens the floodgates to a deluge of parenting minutiae.
I’m hesitant to share details. I find it all fascinating, but it’s the kind of conversation that’s riveting mostly if you’re a parent and are really, really into talking about how awesome and terrifying it is to have kids. Spencer tells me things like “You’ll be surprised, it goes really, really fast. It’s very fleeting. But it’s an intense love, man. Enjoy it.” This from a guy who wrote the lyrics “My father was Sister Ray/ Take a whiff of my pant leg, baby/ FUCK!”
He may not care about beating Jack White at his own game, but he gives a fuck about some things, like not mortifying his son. “At times I worry that I’m embarrassing him in some way,” he says. “He grew up around his parents being in bands and playing punk rock. I don’t think he really gives it a second thought.” He pauses, laughing at just how wrong that is. “Well that’s not true. But I hope it’s not something that worries him.”
I saw my first Blues Explosion show in 1998. It was life-changing. When they played “Wail,” I danced like there were electrodes on my nuts. I fell on my ass several times and nearly gave myself a concussion. I left the show covered in beer and sweat and at least one cigarette burn on my shirt. Now here I am, thirteen years later, talking to Spencer about being a father and ruining sleepovers for our respective Charlies and trying not to make the same mistakes that our fathers did.
Life moves fucking fast.
I ask him about his prostate. Because that’s what guys in their 40s ask other guys in their 40s. “Full disclosure, I’ve experienced that right of passage,” he admits. “It’s a little strange that my MD recommended it a little early.”
“Because you have a family history of prostate cancer?” I ask.
“No. I think my doctor just wanted the money. That’s not a joke. It’s a problem with the medical industry.”
“My doctor wants me to have a colonoscopy.”
“And you’re 43? That’s ridiculous.”
“That’s what I thought! These doctors are crooks.”
“A lot of the stuff, the prescriptions and the procedures, it’s motivated by profit. It’s an epidemic in this country.”
Spencer isn’t annoyed by the interview’s trajectory. He actually seems pleased by it. Meat and Bone, he reminds me, is about growing old. “That’s a big theme running through these new songs,” he says. “You know?”
I didn’t know. But now that he mentions it, it makes perfect sense. “Bag of Bones,” my favorite song on the new record, which I can already sing from memory, couldn’t be more obviously about aging. “I’m an old mean man/ Don’t got to wait for Halloween to scream and wail/ I’m an old bag of bones.” I don’t know why I didn’t put the pieces together until now.
“Our bodies are just the machines and gears that carry around our thoughts and ideas,” Spencer tells me. “You can grow old with experience and grace, but you’re still trapped. Your body’s still going to fall apart. There’s nothing you can do about it.”
We go on like this for awhile. Suffice is to say, Spencer’s prostate is fine. He’ll be making music, god willing, for many years to come. He may never be Jack White, but he’s okay with that—and so am I, though it took me a little longer to get there. If I ever get to chance to interview Jack White, I probably won’t ask him about the Blues Explosion (which was, I’ll admit, always a dark fantasy of mine) and whether he feels sheepish and silly that he ended up with the career that Spencer had squatter’s rights to. Because I realize now that it doesn’t matter. But I also won’t ask him about his prostate. It could be as huge as a watermelon, but I’m not going to be the journalist who tells him he should let a doctor stick his finger up there and check it out.
I’m an old man who’s lost his fight, but I still have a little of that punk fire in my belly.
Meat and Bone is out 9/18 on Mom & Pop Music. Stream “Bag of Bones” below: