Photo credit: Jesse Grimes
“Hello Amsterdam. I’m Jack White. This is my big sister Meg.”
Jack White is freaking me out. His hair is inky black, his eyelids caked with red eye shadow. Is it the pants? One leg is red, the other black. His face is powdered a pale, pale white, his T-shirt’s tight and bright and red. He makes this move, turns his feet in, knees touching, all hair and mouth and arms and guitar. It’s part Elvis, part Rocky Horror Picture Show. Line Jack White up with Jagger and Bowie and James Dean, with the cast of American iconic girl-boys walking that funny fuzzy gender line. He lumbers over the microphone, huge and sculpted and cocky, shaking his finger at us, screaming his trembling alpha-male thick-tongued blues—and his eyes gleam the wicked look of a seductress. On stage, the White Stripes are less the drunken organic swagger of the Stones’ Exile on Main Street and more the light show and face paint of Kiss’ Alive!. If this night in Europe’s Sin City is a cult-classic midnight movie, then Jack White’s our drag queen narrator. This flick is more camp, less cock.
And what about Meg?
If Jack White is the Rocky Horror transvestite protagonist, who is Meg White? Susan Sarandon’s uptight (and ultimately unwound) Janet Weiss? Meg does more than keep up with Jack’s whimsy, she’s a cool step ahead. She’s pausing between drum kicks to hang, like a marionette, pale arms suspended chest-high. Is she mocking him with her poses? She may be playing Jack White’s puppet, but it’s clear that he can’t shake her.
Was it ever meant to be this way? Jack and Meg started out married and ended up with a crazy red-hot rock band—and a divorce—on their hands. Now we’re left reading in between the lines. This is strange stuff: a candyland fantasy of broken hearts and paranoia and childhood daydreams. And the audience’s part in the duochromatic spoof? I half-expect to see rice thrown, heads covered with newspaper, Bic lighters lit, shouts of “Asshole!” and “Slut!”. The fans are eating up the fantasy, trying to get in on it, playing along with the Big Sister/Little Brother game, screaming for Meg, wondering which song Jack will pull out of his pocket next. White Stripes fans are like little kids licking lollipops, like fat happy brats at the ice cream counter.
The White Stripes are too often heralded as the Saviors of Rock. And the public—the mass middle—is buying it. But do the White Stripes want to be selling it anymore? In interviews the band likes to refer to the mad rush of their success as a signal that honesty is returning to rock ‘n roll, but honestly? I can’t get past the layers of fiction stacked on top of the music, I can’t get past the theatrics. The lack of improvisation and enthusiasm in the live performance isn’t helping. And I’m done with attitude, and rock star poses. Tonight the White Stripes have so thickly wrapped themselves in pomp that, if honesty is present, I can’t detect it.
Paradiso, a medium-sized rock venue just outside of Amsterdam’s city center, is sold out, fans outside are begging for tickets. Inside, the band is starting what turns out to be a generous set—in length. The crowd, as you might expect, is a mixed bag. There’s 30-something rock snobs, standing around with Heinekens, bantering in Dutch about the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and the Strokes. There are 60-year old men, sitting, arms crossed, waiting to be impressed, waiting to see if Jack White can ignite this blues inferno they’ve heard cracklings of on recordings. And then there’s the girl next to me. She’s stacking chairs against the back wall. She needs her space. And she’s enlisting me to help. I can’t understand a word she’s saying, but when we’re done, she makes room for me in her private mosh pit. The band’s wrapping up the set opener, “Black Math”, the second track from their latest, Elephant. The song begins as a stomp. Jack’s scolding: “Well don’tcha think that I’m bound to react now.” Then the tempo changes, a wall of steady distortion replaces the frenzied guitar chords, and Jack’s Jagger-esque cackling pulls us in: “Ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ah ahh.”
The White Stripes are a brand: the bass drum is (and seemingly always will be) a peppermint swirl. The duo, from the beginning, has fastidiously controlled their environment and our perception of it. Listen to Jack own up to his need to own it all in a recent interview with filmmaker (and fan) Jim Jarmusch: “. . . I love that whole auteur aspect . . . being a two-piece band and because the songs are generated from me . . . we can keep everything in this big box and keep people away from us . . .” The stage is set in reds and whites and black, even the T-shirt girl is in character. She’s putting on an affected disposition for the customers approaching the counter with Euros in their hand. She whispers to me: “Do you speak English? Do you know what this says?” She’s asking about a quote on the cover of a Whirlwind Heat seven-inch she’s selling, but I don’t speak Dutch. The guy next to me translates: “Produced by Jack White of the White Stripes.” An endorsement from Jack White is fast cash. This dream of the White Stripes is absurd, simple, herculean. And it’s manifesting.
Most bands touring on a new record play the new stuff and bury the old. But not the White Stripes. This is a band who say more by what they choose not to do. Tonight the band chooses not to force Elephant down our throats. And with the exception of Brendan Benson’s “Good to Me”, the song selection is pretty predictable. Selections that might seem random to the casual observer (“Boll Weevil”, Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”, Bob Dylan’s “Lovesick”) have actually been in rotation for the last few tours. Jack opts out of playing the MTV “hit”, so “Fell in Love With a Girl” gets the shaft. “Little Room” does too. About three-quarters of the way into the set, the energy in the place plummets. The band never regains their momentum. Two hours and 22 songs later, the Whites are back for an encore. “Astro” and “Looking for a Home” sound like a band trying to juice the place up. But it’s hollow. When the last song ends, Jack takes in the applause, standing there, compulsively tap-tap-tapping his guitar.
We slowly spill out of the venue, into the Leidestraat. The sun has recently set, the days are long here. The antiquity of the city shimmers against the Rijksmuseum, on the surface of the canals, on the faces of the pale Dutch people who call Amsterdam home. Businessmen and students and tourists are biking, everyone’s biking, no one wears helmets. Tourists smash pulpy lemons into the bottoms of their beer glasses; old men slowly lift small cups of espresso to their lips. Everything seems to move slowly. But I can’t shake this feeling I’ve got: Jack White is still freaking me out.
The songs are stuck in my head, I can understand the fascination with the White Stripes. But I can’t get a sense of who Jack and Meg White are in the midst of all this drama, I’m dizzied by the spectacle. If their intention is to keep me, the listener, at arm’s length, then they’ve succeeded. I want to know my heroes, I want to understand them. Sure, some mystery is healthy. But with the White Stripes, I’m not going to get too attached. I’ll watch, from a distance, to see how it all shakes out. But should you see a girl, walking down the street, wearing an “I F***ed Jack White” T-shirt . . . well, you can bet it’s not me.