The news that the White Stripes broke up Wednesday really didn’t come as a shock to anyone. It had been four years since their last studio album and tour, but it still prompted an outpouring of social-media grief.
The Stripes, of course, are a duo consisting of Jack and Meg White, once a married couple who carried on long after their divorce to make some of the best music of the last decade. They had been together for 13 years, released six acclaimed studio albums and put on consistently galvanizing live shows.
The duo announced their break-up on the whitestripes.com Web site, saying they would make no more new recordings and no longer perform live. Fans hoping for a tipping-point motivation for the timing of this announcement were left hanging. There were no “artistic differences” or health problems, the duo wrote. “Mostly,” they said, they are breaking up now “to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way.”
My Twitter response Wednesday to the announcement was this: “Stinks White Stripes are gone, but love that they exited while on top, with no cash-in tour. Jack and Meg integrity meter trending upward.”
And make no mistake, the White Stripes could’ve cashed in. Had they announced a reunion or farewell tour for this summer in a concert industry starved for big-name acts, they would’ve been lavished with offers and played to the largest audiences of their career.
Instead, they simply walked away.
So is that going out “on top”? More than a few people questioned my assertion. A few wondered why the duo hadn’t just broken up years ago. They speculated about why the White Stripes let things drag on this long, before finally declaring the inevitable. Wouldn’t going out on top mean making a great album, following it with a triumphant tour, and then marching off into the sunset immediately afterward?
Indeed, nothing the duo did in the last few years suggested there was much of a future for the White Stripes. Meg White’s health issues had prompted the group to curtail what would be its final tour in 2007, and Jack White had occupied himself with other groups (the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather) and other projects (running his Third Man label out of Nashville and producing albums for the likes of Wanda Jackson) that strongly indicated the White Stripes were no longer a priority.
But Jack and Meg White never once treated the White Stripes as an afterthought. Each of their albums was strong, and their last studio release, “Icky Thump,” was among their best. The tour that followed made for riveting theater. The old show-biz adage is to leave the audience wanting more, and the White Stripes did just that. Most fans’ last memories of the White Stripes will be of a band in peak form.
It’s little wonder. The Stripes were meticulous about how they presented themselves and their music—from the red-and-white color schemes of their clothes to the two-against-the-world sound of the songs—even if it sometimes came across as loose, rough and spontaneous. And that careful approach survived through their break-up. Meg and Jack White never rushed into an artistic decision in their career, and they weren’t about to do it as they were ending their musical life together.
We’ll probably never know much more about why the band splintered outside of those few paragraphs on their Web site. They’ve always been extremely guarded in interviews about their relationship. But Jack White once described “tension” as one of the band’s guiding principles, and once you accept that, this announcement makes sense.
In concert, the interaction between Jack White’s vocals and guitar and the way Meg White answered him on drums was as snappy, witty and cutting as the dialogue in a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall movie. Play out the scene a little further, and anything from a kiss to a gun could be produced.
Meg White took a lot of heat for not being a particularly accomplished drummer, at least technically. But she was the perfect drummer for the White Stripes, listening to and playing off Jack White better than any other human being on the planet could have. The body language, the glances between the two, were a theater all their own. That’s why the element I will miss most about the band is not the recordings, great as many of them are, but the live performances. The “tension” that Jack White spoke of was real, and it could be revealed in a smile, a smirk, a flick of Jack’s hip or the way Meg came crashing down on a cymbal with just a little extra force to punctuate one of Jack’s lyrics.
The music offered a glimpse of this relationship, but only a glimpse. In a rare private moment captured in “The White Stripes: Under Great Northern Lights” tour DVD released last year, Jack White sits backstage at a piano playing “White Moon,” a ghostly song of obsession. Meg sits silently next to him, head bowed, mouthing some of the words. There is a glance from Jack, and then Meg begins to cry. The song ends, but the tears do not, and the couple clings to one another, in no hurry to let go.