The only biography of the mysterious genius pulls no punches.
Jack White: How he Built an Empire from the BluesPublisher: Overlook-Omnibus
Length: 320 pages
Author: Nick Hasted
Publication date: 2016-10
Jack White is a carefully cultivated mystery -- except when Jack White is an earnestly unscripted jackass. Remember that time he said that black people were in some ways better off in the '30s?, or that machismo is exciting because it seemed to him that men and women should naturally differ in their roles? Or the whole thing with Meg maybe being a sibling or maybe a wife, and why hasn’t she uttered more than 15 words at a time since the White Stripes began? And wow, don’t you remember where you were when you first heard “Seven Nation Army”? Can you believe how Third Man is now an empire of music, books, culture, innovation, urbanity, and upholstery? Why on earth hasn’t Jack White written a memoir? He’s so interesting and weird, like a Willy Wonka!
That’s the problem. Bless Nick Hasted for trying to -- and pretty much in the middle distance succeeding at -- writing the first ever comprehensive biography of the many-headed and controversial hydra that is Jack White. Did White have any input on it or involvement with it, or did he give approval of it? No, no, and I bet he’s got it tacked to a dartboard somewhere. White is a tortured person. Some say he's trapped in prisons of his own making, while others speculate on his childhood terrors, and still others extoll his genius in music composition and design theory. Any serious writing about his life and work will need to grapple with whether and which interpretation to privilege in the final analysis.
Hasted presents all three versions of White through a variety of sources. He doesn’t have exclusive interview content from White, though he did spend some time in Detroit and in London interviewing people in White’s orbit. The first problem is that White always keeps his cards pretty close to his chest, so the assorted members of obscure townie scenester bands are not particularly capable of expounding at length on the man’s true character. What they provide instead is a surprisingly engrossing series of tangents on the history of Detroit, from Motown to the MC5 and Iggy Pop to hip-hop. They lovingly remember precise details of group formation and bar culture, preserving with terrific clarity the bands and dives that faded too quickly away. The author visits what is left of many of these spots, slipping into the occasional first-person take on what he saw and whatever it might still seem to mean.
The rest of the book is cobbled together with extreme feats of synthesis and transition work. It reads as though Hasted acquired every single interview ever given by or about White. This style certainly demands a proper works cited page in the back as well as probably an index, but instead there are only a couple books on Detroit, the blues, and the De Stijl design movement, plus an exhaustive discography. It’s a good start, but it’s not enough.
Hasted rather expertly stacks all the interview quotations on top of each other, gliding as best as is possible through a patchwork meant to assemble some type of inner life for White. It’s a tricky business. Like his hero, Bob Dylan, White can be a reticent interviewee, sometimes an outright dissembler, but usually at least guarded and cynical about the business of interviews where he has regularly been burned by momentary displays of enthusiastic authenticity that end up making headlines due to their alarming social implications or general oddball flavor.
We don’t really have any reason to trust White’s answers to questions about himself. Hasted wants to let the heavy quotation structure flesh out a portrait of White on its own, but it’s difficult to resist commenting on signs that White is a basket case. To his credit, Hasted doesn't mind dropping harsh adjectives on White when it's obviously earned. Throw a rock in the Rock City and you’ll hit somebody who can offer up a first person account of some messed up situation or conversation where White doesn’t exactly come up smelling like roses. The media attention he’s been given also bears this out and White himself shows a keen awareness of that in the most beleaguered way. But then, equally undeniably, White is a man of many talents.
Hasted spends a worthwhile number of pages on digressions about the musical contribution of Son House or the philosophy expounded by Dutch neoplasticism. Perhaps the clearest value of this biography is that it helps a new generation work backward toward some great roots. Young people may be deeply familiar and still following along with White’s myriad creative projects, but their appreciation of old Detroit may dead end back at Eminem, or they may not know why bold symmetrical coloration is such an appealingly structured pattern. They may never have seen Citizen Kane.
That’s White’s favorite movie, perhaps equally valuable to him for the motifs of nostalgia, media and loneliness exhibited in the story as well as the obsessively completist control Orson Welles insisted upon over the production. The Overlook Press graciously sent me an uncorrected proof copy of Hasted’s book where one thing stood out as damningly crucial: a change of title. The front cover and press kit show that the title is Jack White: How He Built an Empire from the Blues. But the original title is still listed on the header for the left-side pages throughout: Citizen Jack. Would White be insulted by an explicit comparison to Welles? Or thrilled by it? It’s a flattering condemnation, isn’t it?
That prompted me to a deeper, harder question: White is always expanding, but is he growing? See if you can tell whether this line appears on the first page of the book or its last page: “He was a sometimes lonely, benign emperor of the blues, and he was doing more with each day of his life than anyone else had thought possible.” Is this a reference to White at age 19, or his present age of 41? Wow, can you believe he’s only 41? It’s possible to admire someone who is despicable. It’s possible to devote years of one’s life to writing a book about someone who will never acknowledge you, and in turn not thank that someone on your acknowledgements page.
What factoids it is possible to gather about the man are in some ways the least interesting aspect of this book. Hasted is working in a territory that is both more free and more constrained than the usual biographical fodder. You can’t get at any type of realism when the subject himself will barely permit impressionism. Jack White may open the floodgates, but it’s unlikely to deliver any results better than this treatment of Citizen Jack.