Music Musings: Jack White

I used to HATE Jack White. The White Stripes blew up when I was in high school, maybe it happened earlier there than everywhere else in the world because they’re from Detroit which is only a half hour away from where I grew up in Toledo. Anyway, as a bass player, I was immediately put off by the idea that they didn’t think that position was important enough to fill in their band, even though I was pretty sure there was bass on some of the tracks. I also didn’t really like the schtick with the red, white and black color scheme and “are they siblings or married?” talk in regards to band members Meg and Jack White. But the most damning thing in my opinion was a Guitar World interview with Jack where he badmouthed blues players. That was it for me. Fast forward a decade or so and now I can’t get enough of White, The White Stripes or The Raconteurs (I haven’t gotten into The Dead Weather yet, but I will).

So, why did my opinions change so drastically? Well, first off, I hope I’m not as a judgmental asshole as I used to be in high school. But, even more importantly was watching It Might Get Loud, one of the (if not the) best musical and most interesting rock and roll documentaries I’ve ever seen. If you haven’t seen it (and you really should it’s on Netflix Instant right now!) the conceit was to get three very different kinds of rock and roll guitar players from different generations to tell their stories separately and then get together to talk about records and play music. The three musicians are Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page who I love, U2’s The Edge who I don’t care for (technically, I don’t care for the band, he’s fine) and Jack White. I really appreciated seeing White talk about working as an upholsterer while coming up in the Detroit music scene and even now he does things not to make life easier on himself, but to test his limits. Whether he’s playing with a guitar that is forever going out of tune or putting the microphone a few more feet away from the keyboard, the man seems dead set on challenging himself when it seems like most rock stars decide to take the easy road. I can respect that. There’s something very bluesy about his mindset and hardworking, which comes straight out of the Midwest or really any cold place where people have to work hard for their money.

I was such a fan of the movie and White’s after watching it, that I immediately went out and picked up one of the two Raconteurs records (I honestly can’t remember which one I bought first) and then got the next one. Of course, I’m talking about 2005’s Broken Boy Soldiers and 2008’s Consolers Of The Lonely both of which I have become a huge fan of and have been on regular rotation ever since. How great is “Steady As She Goes”? Super freaking great, but the thing I like most about these two records is how broad they are. You start of with a pretty straight forward rock song like “Steady” and then from there it’s all over the place. The songs might seem disparate at times, but there’s an earthiness to the proceedings that tie all the tracks together. I actually got a Beatles vibe from the records because of all the different elements and kinds of songs, which is not a compliment I offer lightly.

From there I went back to The White Stripes and wound up getting their first album, The White Stripes (1999), and their most recent studio record Icky Thump (2007). Stripes has a lot of raw energy to it which you might expect to have faded by their last record, but that’s not what I see. If anything, I see musicians who have gotten more comfortable with each other (in a good way, not a lazy way) and who have decided to branch playing more kinds of music. I’m nowhere near an expert on the band, only having watched It Might Good Loud and the band’s Canadian tour film Under Great White Northern Lights, and like I said, I’ve only got two of their records, but I feel like I’ve got a handle on the mindset behind the music (at least as much as White is willing to show). He’s a hardworking man with a love for music of all kinds and isn’t afraid to push himself to try and make that music better, which is a huge part of UGWL. Not only do we get more behind the scenes type goodness, but also White’s desire to play shows in unexpected places, to play for people who aren’t fans and to hopefully turn some of those people into fans. I guess that’s what he did to me, so mission accomplished!

From here I’m keeping my eyes open for the White Stripes records I don’t have and getting into The Dead Weather (the fact that he’s a multi-instrumentalist is also impressive) as well as keeping my eyes peeled for other projects he might have in the works, like when he gave Conan O’Brien and his then-touring band a place to record or, well, really anything else the man has planned. He might literally be the hardest working man in rock and roll at the moment, in a time when most people are using their success to make things easier, White’s making himself work harder, even bringing his talent to other artists through his Third Man Records. Anyone with a work ethic like that, is aces in my book, ten year old remarks about the blues aside.

It Might Get Loud (2009) Is Awesome

Gah, I should definitely be writing some freelance right now, but I just had to tell you guys about a documentary called It Might Get Loud. I had heard about it on NPR back when I was getting up early and working like a schmuck. Anyway, the documentary has two real purposes. The first is to put Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), The Edge (U2) and Jack White (The White Stripes, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather) in a big room with their guitars and gear and just watch them talk, ask each other questions and, of course, play together. The second purpose is to follow each member around, get their histories and background as well as a look at what they’re doing now.

Now, right off the bat, I have to say that I’m not a U2 fan, I don’t get the appeal and I had a chip on my shoulder about White after reading an article by him back when I was in high school. I can’t even remember what it was, but he came off as a dick (at least in my teenage mind). I also didn’t like the White Stripes because I was/am a bass player and the band basically said they didn’t need one, which was crazy because they still used bass on several of their tracks anyway. And, I am a huge Led Zeppelin fan. Even with those various feelings towards the participants, I loved this movie.

The doc is completely full of live performances both as a group and individually, which is just fantastic. You’ve got Jack White playing piano, guitar and even building a diddley bow in Tennessee or something and it’s just awesome. I completely take back all the bad thoughts I had about this dude because not only can he play like a wild man, but he also very truly and obviously loves the process of making music in every facet. I also appreciate his love of older equipment, there’s something very cool about it. I still don’t like U2, but I have a lot more appreciation for him as a player. He’s such a perfectionist and a gear head that it’s cool to see him go through his process of how he creates some of his songs. Dude can play. And of course, Page is like a god, but a really cool god. One of my favorite aspects of the movie was them taking Page back to Headley Grange where Led Zeppelin recorded several times. They mixed him walking around and telling stories about the recording with old footage of them just hanging out like regular dudes outside.

But the real essence of this movie lies with them hanging out in the room. It’s a big warehouse with all their gear, some chairs, a record player and some of their favorite records. According to the commentary, which I’m listening to now after just having watched the movie and then the deleted scenes (I would absolutely buy a larger set of this doc with extra footage) the guitar players had briefly met before in passing, but never really sat down. They set it up so that the first time they really sat down and talked was on the stage. It was great to see the reverence both Edge and White have for page. White has their air of cool detachment around him the whole time, so it’s really cool to see him smiling while Page plays one of his songs. Can you imagine? Jimmy freakin Page asking you about your songs and learning how to play them? And then playing his songs with him? Man, I was getting chills watching it. You can tell that there might be some tension between White and Edge because White talks about how he doesn’t like overly technical music because it takes the soul out of it. It’s unclear whether hanging out with a technical perfectionist like Edge changed his thoughts, but they seemed to get along well enough. Though, had Page not been there, I’m thinking it might have been a lot o awkward silences.

I really highly recommend this movie for anyone who’s interested in rock music, even if you’re not a fan of or familiar with these guys (and you really should be). The raw creative energy that fuels these men is infectious. I want to go dust off my guitar, plug in my petals and rock out on my tiny set up, but alas, I’ve got to write. Maybe after I’m done with this…or when I take a break.