MOJO magazine is about to celebrate its 300th issue! In honour, they’ve been retweeting all of their covers since issue #1, and since this was my first cover feature of the mag, I’m sharing the text for it with you all now.
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The prone reptile is lulled safely to sleep by the guide who, moments ago, dived into the inky waters of the Ponte Negra river to capture it. A baby caiman crocodile, it measures less than two feet, though we are reliably informed they can easily grow up to ten. Like the snakes, the mosquitoes, the schools of ravenous piranha clouding the waters, it’s one of the many predators we’re warned about as we embark on our trip.
The caiman is passed around the boat to the members of the band’s familial, 10-person entourage, along for this momentous portion of the White Stripes’ first South American tour. To manager Ian Montone, to booking agent Russell Warby, to Meg White, who grabs hearty hold of the reptile, and to Karen Elson (international supermodel and Jack’s sweetheart). Finally, the crocodile makes its way to Jack, tucked at the vessel’s nose, out of his ‘work uniform’ and sporting a pink gingham shirt, straggly bandito beard and wild, wiry hair.
“Jack doesn’t want to hold the alligator,” grins Jim Vincent, The White Stripes’ guitar tech, “He wants to kill it and stuff it!”
Our Ponte Negra excursion began earlier that Tuesday afternoon, a beautiful way to kick off five nights touring across Brazil. Tomorrow night, the Stripes will play the equally breathtaking Teatro Amazonas, an 600 capacity opera house in Manaus, a city nuzzled in the nape of the rainforest, the grandest venue the band have ever played, and housing the smallest audience they’ve performed to in a while.
The peace and natural beauty of the 90-minute boat ride interrupted only by an unscheduled stop at Ariau Amazon Towers – a surreal ‘hotel’ built at treetop-level in the rainforest, composed of catwalks, jetties and dining rooms fashioned from tropical woods (incongruously enough mobile phone charge-points are drilled into these). As we dock, a scantily clad local girl dancing to tribal rhythms drapes hand-fashioned garlands about our necks. We negotiate our way to the dining hall, spotted with stuffed alligators and tanks full of piranha, reeling at the sheer sensory overload of it all. It soon transpires that this unexpected detour is the work of Phil Rodriguez, the Miami-based promoter of the Brazilian shows, a decidedly old-school rock’n’roll character who relishes his work with a showman’s flair. It also transpires that this boat trip is only the beginning of a more involved journey for The White Stripes.
As Jack asks the guide to release the caiman back into the river, it becomes apparent that tonight we’re not going to Jack White, Alligator Hunter or Celebrity Taxidermist. Neither is he about to live out the lyrics of the Stripes song I Fought Piranhas. But, before the week is out, he will have started a riot, married a supermodel at the mouth of the Amazon, and played the most challenging, most electrifying shows of his career.
The last time I interviewed Jack White was early in 2001 for the London Evening Standard, his first interview with a national UK newspaper. We were talking specifically about Sympathetic Sounds Of Detroit, the compilation he’d recorded and produced, showcasing Detroit’s coterie of garage-rock talent including The Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras and The Von Bondies. White Blood Cells, The Stripes’ third album that would catapult them from a garage-rock cult heroes to the phenomenon they swiftly became, had yet to hit the shelves, but one lyric on the pre-release promo was particularly intriguing.
Little Room, in its elliptical way, dealt with the challenge that would face a humble band like The White Stripes should fame come a-knocking. “When you’re in your little room / And you’re working on something good / But if it’s really good / You’re gonna need a bigger room,” hollered Jack, “When you’re in your bigger room / You might not know what to do / You might get to wondering how you got started, sitting in your little room”.
Unaware of the media-fuelled mania that was soon to greet the Stripes, Little Room proved to be particularly prescient, though Jack was adamant that both he and Meg would remain unaffected by success itself.
“We’d never change what we’re doing, we’d never let it affect us like that,” he replied, “But we’ll never have that kind of attention. A band like ours would never make it onto MTV.”
Four years and two albums later, and The White Stripes’ have an MTV film crew on the road with them and the interim success has made a lie of at least some of Jack’s words. Sales-wise they may not trouble commercial behemoths like 50 Cent or Green Day (“Everyone’s adopted our red black and white colour scheme,” snorts Jack, later, “Green Day, My Chemical Romance, everyone.”), but their previous album, 2003’s Elephant, sold in excess of one and a half million copies in the US and 900,000 in the UK. Further profile is generated by Jack’s extra-curricular activities, from recording Loretta Lynn’s 2004 Van Lear Rose album, to his former relationship with actress Renee Zellwegger, and his high-profile dust-up with Jason Stollsteimer, singer/guitarist of The Von Bondies. And while The Stripes’ new album Get Behind Me Satan hasn’t beaten the initial sales of the new Coldplay and Oasis sets released in the same month, Rolling Stone, still somewhat influential among music listeners in the US, has given the record a four and a half star review in sharp contrast to the lukewarm reception afforded the aforementioned acts.
Certainly, the decision to begin touring duties for Get Behind Me Satan in South America, playing countries rock’n’roll groups rarely visit, suggests Jack’s wilful ambition, a desire to play outside the comfort zone, outside their Little Room.
“We asked our agent to find us some places nobody plays,” offers Jack, backstage at the Teatro Amazonas. “We planned a tour of them, probably the first tour we’ve not made money on, even with our small crew. It doesn’t matter. This is the best tour we’ve ever done.”
This South American tour began on May 11, at the Fundidora Amphitheatre de Coca Cola in Monterrey, Mexico, and ends with the Sao Paolo show on June 4, taking in Guatemala, Panama, Colombia, Chile and Argentina. Jack’s favourite moment so far has been the gig in Panama, where almost nobody clapped as they walked onstage. “It felt like we were the opening band,” he laughs, eyes agape. “It was like a challenge. Dustin Hoffman said something recently, that a lot of his motivation as a struggling actor was a sense of proving wrong the people who thought he couldn’t pull a performance off, kind of ‘I’ll show you!’. It’s a good motivation, like walking out in front of an audience hipsters with their arms crossed: when you win them over in the end, it’s the greatest feeling in the world, like winning the toughest chess match.”
Not all of South America has received The White Stripes so coolly, however. Jack and Meg, with Jack’s supermodel girlfriend Karen Elson in tow, were greeted by the paparazzi upon their arrival at Manaus airport, and photographers slyly wander about the Tropical Resort hotel where the band are staying. Indeed, in the lobby shortly before our boat trip, a snapper dressed as a member of the hotel cleaning staff fires a flashbulb directly in Jack’s face without warning. Unthreateningly, but with authority, the six foot-plus White ushers the elfin photographer away, saying “OK, you have to go now…”
In this moment, he seems more the harassed Gentleman of his lyric book, than the fist-friendly troublemaker his episode with Stollsteimer suggests.
The White Stripes could hardly have chosen a more remarkable venue for the start of their Brazilian tour. Shipped brick by brick from Europe in the late 1800s (when three million dollars really meant something), the Teatro Amazonas inspired Werner Herzog’s classic treatise on insane ambition, Fitzcarraldo, centred around the titular impresario’s effort to haul a 320 ton steamship over a small mountain (a foolhardy feat Herzog’s hundreds of native Indian extras had to recreate without the aid of special effects). In fact Jack and Meg could be accused of using the movie as a metaphor for their own endeavours, both on this tour (where, in some cases, the crew have to install new electric set ups in the more poorly appointed venues) and in a wider sense. At least they could be until Meg shame-facedly admits, “We’ve not managed to see it yet. It was out at the video store the whole time before we left.”
The Stripes are the first rock’n’roll band to play Teatro Amazonas, an event auspicious enough for the Brazilian Culture Secretary Roberio Brasa to attend, his teenaged daughters in goggle-eyed throe. The venue itself is breath-taking, a puce-shaded folly of faux-Renaissance splendour and opulence, surrounded by graffiti-strewn houses with wrought-iron window-guards and piles of discarded corrugated tin that pass as shanty towns. It’s a reminder of the flush of money the rubber barons enjoyed at the peak of their industry, smack dab in the poverty that colours even Brazil’s lushest corners.
A quick guided tour of the opera house reveals a venue rich in history, the auditorium ringed by balconies, boasting a painted curtain by Brazilian artist Crispim do Amaral, while the ceiling’s four painted pillars depict the Eiffel Tower. Sit in the stalls, look up and you might think you’re sitting under the tower itself. Some rooms deeper in the opera house are floored with tiles so precious, so frail, visitors have to don fluffy slippers to pad around in and admire the paintings exhibited within.
Our first location for the interview, a dressing room furnished as it would have been in the Nineteeth Century, luxuriously appointed with all manner of antiques, has to be abandoned, because Meg can’t smoke in there. We’re now congregated in the band’s less salubrious dressing room, Meg receiving a pre-gig shoulder massage from band manager Ian Montone, while Dave Swanson, of Jack White-produced art-punks Whirlwind Heat, films the interview from the corner of the room for a projected documentary on the tour. Reluctantly, Karen Elson leaves the room, saying that she has to try and call her mum again. She’s had trouble getting through.
“It’s a surreal life, but the best ever,” beams Jack, snuggled in the corner on a sofa near the band’s appropriately red, white and black touring wardrobes crammed around the tiny room. “I’ve never felt so comfortable…”
He stops for a second, then dissolves into a helpless cackle. Then, with the generous bonhomie of a new father handing out cigars in the waiting room, he adds, “I’m having a good day… I got married today! You caught me at a good time… I’ll tell you anything you want to know!”
The White and Elson wedding party rose before dawn on the morning of Wednesday, June 1, the day of the Teatro Amazones show, chartering a long boat to take them even deeper up the Amazon than we’d ventured the night before. The spot they chose, the confluence where the Ponte Negra and the Salimones merge into the Amazon, had special resonance for Jack, as he explains, purposefully.
“I’d seen photographs of the spot many times, in the National Geographic; the waters are black and white. The guide told us there are three reasons for this…”
As he begins his explanation, his brow furrows; he looks like a child trying to explain something he takes very seriously. Stripes-watchers will be aware that the number Three has a specific significance for Jack. It’s been that way ever since he was an upholsterer in his teens, and he realised that a table needed at least three legs to stand, that the number was key in carpentry, and in life in general. Seen in this light what initially seems like an impulsive act, an elopement, is soon rationalised with the elemental, earthbound ‘rules’ that govern White’s every artistic expression. With considerable authority, he continues, “It’s because the waters are two different temperatures, two different ph levels, and running at two different speeds…”
“But eventually they must combine,” giggles Meg.
It was “an inevitable thing” he says, of his marriage to Karen. They’d met only three weeks before, on the set of the video for Blue Orchid, the first single from Get Behind Me Satan. Elson, a successful supermodel with a willowy figure, alabaster skin, and a shock of striking copper hair, famed for shaving off her eyebrows for the cover of Italian Vogue, played the female lead.
“We just fell madly in love. It was either gonna happen today, or a year from today, some time… It was gonna happen, we knew it was gonna happen. There was no stopping it.”
On their wedding day, they gathered at a key point – Jack, Karen, and a handful of their entourage – the sun shining upon them through the trees. A traditional shaman priest, sourced by promoter Phil, married the couple. Manager Ian Montone, on hand as Jack’s best man, allegedly shed a tear at the ceremony. Meg was Karen’s maid of honour. Shortly after the ceremony, they repaired to Teatros Amazonas, then on to the nearby Catholic cathedral Igreja Matriz. Within its grand white and yellow walls, mere feet from the filthy bustle of Manaus harbour market, their marriage was blessed by a Catholic priest. If the idea of marrying in such haste seems uncharacteristic for the supposedly old-fashioned Jack White, you could blame it on a newfound sense of urgency since completing the troubled sessions for the new album. Or you could blame it on Meg.
“It was Meg’s idea,” grins Jack. “She was the maid of honour.”
“From the first time I met her, I was telling Jack, marry that girl!” laughs Meg. “And he did.”
Jack’s wedding day offers a stark contrast to the dark period that beset The White Stripes at the start of the year, a period characterised by what the pair view as betrayal and “being burnt”.
“A lot of extreme behaviour was going on. I was fighting a lot of losing battles,” Jack sighs. “It was one of those moments when I felt like giving up. My mistake is, I continued living where I’m from, Detroit, after I got successful.” He laughs, mirthlessly, as if he were chiding himself for his naivety. “You’re not supposed to do that. I lost a lot of friends, a lot of people burned us… It seemed like the family of musicians that we’d found, that I’d loved and that had embraced us, had in some cases turned its back on me.
“I just have too big of a heart, you know?” he continues, his face screwed up, as if still tormented by self-doubt. “I wanted to know why they hated me so much. I couldn’t just blow it off, say, ‘Hey, it’s their problem’. That seemed egotistical to me. Maybe it is my problem,” he ponders, for a second, before shaking his head. “I was hurting myself too much, being too open to all that. You can’t keep tearing yourself apart.”
The attacks, on Jack’s name and honour, came from close quarters. First came his infamous fist-fight with lead Von Bondie Jason Stollsteimer, then a lawsuit from long-time friend and erstwhile producer, Jim Diamond.
In the case of the former, Jack had taken The Von Bondies along as support on an early UK tour, produced their sublimely-spooked debut album, Lack Of Communication, and was dating guitarist Marcie Van Bohlen. What media attention they enjoyed (later parlayed into a lucrative major label deal) appeared to be thanks to The White Stripes affiliation. But Jason was soon bad-mouthing his patron, telling your correspondent in May 2002, that Jack stole his riffs from old blues songs without acknowledging the sources, and that “Jack had little influence on the sound of Lack Of Communication, he ‘recorded’ it, more than produced it.”
Simmering tensions came to a head at the launch party for the debut album of Detroit band Blanche, on December 13, 2003, at legendary local venue The Magic Stick. Following a fracas between Stollsteimer and White, in which the former sustained a well-publicised and rapidly photographed black eye, Jack was charged with assault and battery, to which he pleaded guilty in a Detroit court, paying five hundred dollars in fines and two hundred and fifty dollars in fees. He was told not to contact Stollsteimer, and forced to attend anger-management classes.
“People say Jack has a short temper,” insists Meg, “But he went years of being fucked with by Jason. Jack had been holding himself back, you know? There’s nothing you can do sometimes. The negative people are going to get burnt. You have to keep that in mind sometimes. They might hurt you, but they get theirs in the end.”
So, if he could have his time over again, would Jack still punch Stollsteimer?
“Oh yeah,” Jack snaps back. “Very much so. It’s definitely something that should’ve happened a long time before that. I don’t know what took me so long. One of the Detroit Cobras told me about this Sean Penn movie, Mystic River, and a line about how, when you’re a leader, sometimes you have to be the janitor too. And that’s true, sometimes you have to clean house,” he concludes
Following the incident with Jason, late last year the band were sued by Jim Diamond, ex-member of The Dirtbombs and owner of Ghetto Recorders, the local studio where many key Detroit garage albums were recorded, including the Stripes’ self-titled 1999 debut. Diamond was demanding past and future royalties on the first two albums, and ownership interest in the master-tapes.
“That’s another ridiculous situation,” sighs Jack. “He’s claiming he produced our first two albums, but I recorded our second, De Stijl, in my living room, by myself. He’s ruined one of the more beautiful things that’s happened in his life, the family of Detroit musicians he was a part of. He won’t be able to look back on that period and remember the great time we all had, all he’ll see is a lawsuit. During that time I started to realise, when you fight for the truth in this whole environment we live in, then it’s a lost cause. You can’t win.”
Spend any time with him and you notice that Jack sees the pursuit of truth as a battle, one where the chips are stacked against him. Indeed, the album title, Get Behind Me Satan, seems to suggest a conflict of biblical proportions against an inexhaustible enemy.
“It’s super-appropriate for everything the album is talking about,” replies Jack. “It can mean, You’re either for me or against me. And if you’re not going to help me, get out of my way. Or maybe it relates to the Devil’s music, and having the Devil back you up while you’re playing it. Or, perhaps it relates to aiming for the truth, for doing the right thing, and telling the Devil to take his temptations away.”
So are you spiritual people?
“I’m very spiritual. I’ve recently gotten into the cult of the Saints, in the past year. Pushed aside a lot of my musical idols, and put the Saints up there instead. The church defines them as people who have definitely made it into heaven, no matter what path they took. That’s interesting to me. I have statues of various saints sitting on top of my speaker stacks, onstage.”
In that case are the White Stripes an Old Testament or New Testament band?
“We’re, uh…” stammers Jack, momentarily thrown. “I don’t know… That’s a good question. Maybe we used to be Old Testament, and this new album is the New Testament?”
It’s early Wednesday evening, June 1, the day of Jack’s wedding, and the Teatro Amazonas show. The crew have pulled off another one of their so-called everyday miracles, and rewired the glorious relic in preparation for that night’s performance. The Stripes play a brief, relaxed sound-check, Jack pounding out oldie Sugar Never Tasted So Good on his newest toy, a red and white concert marimba (the only instrument he ever received a formal lesson on), and strumming newie As Ugly As I Am with Meg cross-legged at his feet on the bongos. Karen Elson – still on a very perceptible high from her wedding that morning – ducks into the balcony we’re watching from, gazes over at Jack, and mock-swoons, before dissolving into giggles.
“See you in a bit,” she whispers, “I’ve still not managed to phone my mum and tell her. She’s going to go mental!” The next day, her local newspaper, the Manchester Evening News, announces the wedding with the bathetic headline, ‘White Stripes Star Marries Oldham Girl’. It’s oddly fitting, given her absolute lack of supermodel affectation.
A couple of hours later in the Teatro’s bathrooms the Brazilian rock fans slick their thick black hair back into killer quiffs, looking wild and lusty, like the audience for the Muppet Show crossed with the cast of Richard Linklater’s ’70s stoner memoir Dazed & Confused. On stage the lights are shaded by exquisite white porcelain shells, the plethora of red and white instruments – marimba, old vox keyboard, Meg’s drum-kit and tympani, four old amplifiers with Jack’s guitars and mandolin resting against them – scattered across a number of scarlet rugs. The black backdrop is painstakingly stitched with white palms and bushes, an apple glowing white and red at its heart. Jack’s signature, I I I, spots the stage, on the amplifiers and the guitar monitors.
A strip of white gaffer tape leads the band safely through the cluttered, blacked-out backstage to Meg’s drumstool (white leather shaped into the ‘starlite mint’ swirls, an unsolicited gift from designer and friend Paul Frank).
Despite the near-euphoria that greets the band, the audience – seemingly overawed by the venue’s grandeur – stay seated until Jack enquires “Y’all gonna stand up or what?” He then lurches over to the marimba, hammering at it and kicking his pedal to switch the guitar feedback on and off, unleashing the unearthly roar of The Nurse, the first of a number of tracks from Get Behind Me Satan that pepper the set. The effect on the audience is instant and galvanising.
Next Jack’s whip-sharp slide is snaring in verses of Motherless Children, and blasts of Son House’s Death Letter howled with the breathless power of a hellfire-consumed preacher. Caught up in the moment, he trips over a cable and hurtles into Meg’s drum-kit, sustaining purple bruises that’ll leave his leg looking like a side of ham. Staggering back to his feet, pride and adrenaline nulling the pain, he strums the first chords of I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself and is joined by 600 voices, only to break from the song a verse in.
Grinning broadly, he gazes up at the main balcony, directly opposite the stage, where Karen is standing. At this moment the sense that Jack is simply playing a character or dissolves. As he soaks up the moment, he sings a deftly-altered version of Neville Fleeson’s 1920s ballad, Apple Blossom Time (not to be confused with Jack’s own Die Stijl favourite Apple Blossom).
“One day in May/You’ll come and say/Happy is the bride the sun shines on today,” he croons to Karen. “What a wonderful wedding there’s going to be/What a wonderful day.” Karen, overcome by tears, blows a kiss to her husband, the audience gazing as one in her direction. Returning finally to the Bacharach/David classic, the Stripes bring their set to a shuddering end, leaving to chants of “Come back! Come back!”
“Excuse me,” proclaims a breathless Jack, minutes later, addressing the audience. “My sister and I want to try something special.” And with a Zorro-like panache, he takes Meg’s hand, bounds offstage, tears down the aisle with her and out to the neighbouring square, Praca Sao Sebastiao. The pair are followed by a clutch of their crew, and then the entire opera house audience. Armed with an acoustic guitar and bongos, Jack and Meg launch themselves into a bare version of We Are Going To Be Friends for the fans outside who couldn’t get tickets for the show and who’ve been watching it broadcast on video screens in the square.
It’s an electrifying moment, spontaneous, and not a little dangerous. The sliver of a song is cut short a verse in as surging fans from the square breach the fences keeping them from the opera house. They storm from every direction, grasping at the band, ripping some of Meg’s beads, tearing Jack’s mariachi pants and snatching a couple of the Saint medallions around his neck. Karen, a few feet away and oblivious to the very real threat of stampeding fans, calls out to us, tears in her eyes, “This is such a magical day! I’ve married such a wonderful man!”
Jack and Meg dash desperately back to Teatro Amazonas followed by hordes of fans. Security shut and lock the front doors as the venue reaches capacity. Those locked outside attempt to kick and punch their way in, then disperse, returning peacefully to the video screens in the square. Our tour passes secure us access via the side entrance, and we’re soon onstage with the crew and the band, wired by the craziness that has just occurred. The remaining crowd in the opera house are chanting the riff to Seven Nation Army, which the band themselves deliver, fantastically ragged, by way of a closer.
The moments immediately after the show are a blur, backstage swarming with chaos, the Culture Secretary’s daughters dissolving into sobs upon meeting the band, the crew scurrying to dismantle the stage, a battery of police in riot gear waiting outside. Tour manager John Baker bounds out, as fast and forcefully as his crocodile-skin shoes will allow, and barks to the cops, “Who here speaks English?” Within minutes, he has negotiated the band’s safe passage out of the venue, while dazed teenagers still mill about the square.
Back at hotel after the show, spirits are high, the crew and Meg downing capirinhas (strong cocktails mixing lime, mint, and local tipple cachacha) and, every now and again, whooping and revelling in the day’s events.
“That was wild, that was beautiful, in every way,” he grins Jack, disappearing off to bed. “What a great day: it started with a marriage, and ended in a riot.”
“We’re going over to the beach to get Meg some fresh coconut juice,” says tour manager John Baker. It’s approaching midnight on Thursday June 2, the day after the near-riot in Manaus (dubbed “The White Stripes’ Delicious Irresponsibility” by one Brazilian newspaper headline), and a following a full day’s travelling to get to Rio. Despite being expressly warned against visiting the beach after dark, there’s something about Baker that inspires a feeling of safety. That something isn’t, however, the butter knife he slips down his underpants on the way out for self-defence. Thankfully, the knife isn’t required as our mission to secure Meg a freshly-chopped green coconut and drinking straw is threatened only by the profound language gap between ourselves and the guys selling the fruit on the beaches. But getting what the Stripes want, against all odds, is John’s mission in life these days.
New Zealand-born Baker first heard the Stripes back in 1999, at a Donnas aftershow party in Australia. Their music, however, had been taped over another band’s cassette, so he was clueless as to their identity. A little detective work revealed the band’s contact deals, and soon Baker – whose other pursuits include helping young Antipodean bands like Mint Chicks – was offering Jack a series of shows in Australia over a year before they set foot in the UK. Jack didn’t believe the proposition was genuine until John mailed him the airline tickets.
Like most of the Stripes’ touring crew, Baker has been a part of the band’s ‘family’ since before “the ‘madness” set in. And it’s to this closeness familial unit that Jack turned to when everything seemed to fail him at the start of this year.
“I felt I didn’t feel I had anyone to talk to,” he remembers, of his darkest moments. “So I started focusing on the people who gave out love and positivity.”
It was, says Jack, this positivity that saw him through the initial Get Behind Me Satan sessions.
“The ceiling was leaking, the equipment broken, we’d wait days on end for stuff to get fixed,” sighs Meg, eyes turned up to the ceiling, listing some of the maladies plaguing the sessions Jack himself describes as “Bizarrely cursed”.
“Just the weirdest stuff started to go wrong,” he continues. “When we were recording White Moon, Meg’s rack of bells fell over; you can hear it in the background on the album. Nothing was working, everything was broken. Then we wrote and recorded Blue Orchid and everything fell together. The riff was so simple, so effective, it cemented the album together. It really rescued our mentality at the time, too, because we were about ready to jack it all in.
“Recording this album relieved so much from me,” Jack adds. “A lot of stuff was filling up my spiritual knapsack, you know? A lot of hopelessness, a lot of ideas that weren’t coming together. It felt good to get those songs, which had been hanging around for a while, on tape and out there. To clear the air, so we could just go out and play.”
Recorded under pressure and released less than three months after recording finished, …Satan is The White Stripes’ heaviest, oddest set yet, paradoxically leavened with glorious ‘pop’ moments. The insanely addictive My Doorbell, is a fine example, boiling the essence of Led Zeppelin II down to three minutes of bouncy soul-pop with nary a guitar attached. But it’s the more unhinged songs that dominate. Red Rain, all bloodied blues and swan-diving riffs, revisits the same slide-scorched landscapes as Zep’s In My Time Of Dying. Manaus favourite The Nurse is a ballad of obsession and betrayal, regularly torn apart by blasts of distortion.
“The whole album comes from what a lost cause it seems, to fight for truth,” explains Jack. “I had a few weeks there where I didn’t care about the truth at all. And then, one day, uh… I don’t want this to come out wrong, but a miracle happened to me. There was a dictionary on the table, and I picked it up, and at the top of the page I opened was the word ‘truth’.”
“We experience synchronicity a lot,” urges Meg, as if in defence of Jack’s miraculous story. “When coincidences occur, it’s for a reason. That’s happened throughout the whole course of the band. When it happens, you know you’re on the right path to something. When it’s not happening, I worry that something might be wrong.”
Truth is, White admits, one of his “obsessions”.
“It’s probably a complex of mine. Irony is so prevalent in our culture now, it’s the easy way out, the easy metaphor,” states Jack. “Like, I heard the new System Of A Down single, ‘BYOB’, the other day, and I just assumed its chorus, ‘Everyone’s going to the party, gonna have a real good time’ was ironic. It seems it’s all anyone can think of nowadays. I would’ve been more impressed if they’d actually meant it, you know? “Gonna have a real good time! Yeah!” That would be more punk rock, to me.
So if you despise irony, do you view it as a risk, to be sincere?
“Certainly. Because people don’t buy it, you know? I’ve always said, the whole brother/sister, red-white-and-black aesthetic of the band ensures that anyone who would be put off by these things, who would consider them gimmicks, wouldn’t buy our records. And I say, ‘Good. We don’t want to be friends with you, if you aren’t interested in digging beneath the surface.'”
The reality is, of course, that for all Jack White’s obsession with “the truth”, The White Stripes are a fake, a sham, a big lie. Painted in red, black and white, like a cheaply printed comic strip, almost everything about them is a fabrication. Jack White was born John Gillis, and his ‘sister’ Meg is actually his ex-wife, wedded before the band formed, and divorced before their second album was recorded. This isn’t denied rumour, as it was when the Stripes first hit the UK, back in 2001, but fact, backed up with documentary evidence (copies of their divorce certificate have now surfaced on-line).
Given this knowledge, almost every aspect of The Stripes’ phenomena gains an extra intrigue – not least the fact that it was Jack’s ex-wife, not his sister, who urged him to so speedily marry his new girlfriend. The frustration is, of course, that in interview it’s impossible to breach such subjects. The fictional creation that is Jack White would disappear in a puff of logic were he ever to acknowledge the existence of John Gillis. Slyly acknowledging that the Stripes’ brother/sister angle might be a fiction is as close as we’ll get to a peek behind this Lone Ranger’s mask. And even then we are chided by Jack for focussing on such trivia.
“I tore a page out of the book of cool,” leers Jack, “And it’s a boring book!” It’s Friday, June 3, and The Stripes are playing Clara Hall, a cold and artificial venue tucked inside a shopping mall in Rio. Head colds that have dogged the tour have resurfaced, Jack’s voice is shot, the band’s energy sapped. Adding to the low spirits is the fact that this afternoon, Karen Elson has had to leave for a modelling assignment.
With the odds against them, however, Jack and Meg are still able to sermonise and stomp their way through a show of mostly crowd-pleasers. “I played ‘My Doorbell’ and just felt all the energy sucked out of the room,” he scowls afterwards, “So we didn’t play any more new songs.”
His comments exemplify just how The Stripes have, in the last four years, learnt to gauge their audience. The band’s relationships with their fans is exemplified further the following night at the Sao Paolo gig, the last date of the tour the following night, that sees a deluge of guests, invited and uninvited. Of the former, a teenage Peruvian girl named Claudetta and her family are the most honoured. Last year Claudetta e-mailed The Stripes, begging them to play South America. Her plea was a very real influence on the band’s touring plans, but logistics demanded the band miss Peru off their itinerary. Though poor, Claudetta’s family scraped together enough cash to take a short holiday in Sao Paolo, and the four of them are now seated side of stage, as the band stride out and greet the audience of the imaginatively-named Credit Card Hall.
As for the uninvited guests, they’re the ones hovering around the dressing room door while the band are playing, laying in wait for their prey. Like the guy with the video-camera, filming a documentary of his nomadic experiences for MTV, toting a vintage Lou Reed album he wants to give to Jack. Actually, make that ‘wants to be filmed giving the album to Jack, for his documentary’. Via John Baker, the film-maker’s self-serving offer is denied, but this doesn’t stop him offering one of the production crew cash to pose as Jack’s hand ‘receiving’ the album on-camera.
“Some kids chased us down the street a few blocks, in Panama,” muses Jack, later in the bar of the Unique Hotel, Sao Paolo. “Once they caught us they said, ‘Hey, we just wanted to say thank you, we saw you play the other night’. They gave to us, they didn’t take from us.”
This give-and-take relationship defines Take, Take, Take, one of the most intriguing songs on Get Behind Me Satan, inspired by an autograph hunter’s relationship with Rita Hayworth where the actress had left her lip-print on a handkerchief followed by the words ‘My heart’s in my mouth’.
“It blew my mind for her to have written something so metaphorical as an autograph.” begins Jack. “Give me a little credit. I can think of something more interesting to write about than how terrible it is to be famous. It’s more about how kids today aren’t taught how to be humble, or when enough is enough. I’m not whining about celebrity; I’m whining about parents not teaching their kids manners.”
While manners is a recurring theme of White’s, during our five day sojourn with The White Stripes we encounter many facets of his personality. There’s Jack The Giddy Newlywed, Jack The Reluctant Celebrity failing to elude the paparazzo’s flashbulb, Jack The Young Buck stung by cynics who snickered at his collaboration with Loretta Lynn and his work on the Cold Mountain soundtrack, who wanted to use his newfound fame to direct a new generation to the music he loved, but who now says “We’ve done too much paying respect to the past, we can’t move forward on our knees anymore.”
We meet the offended, old-fashioned boy griping about reality TV show Are You Hot? “They bring out people onstage, and judge them. The presenter has a laser pointer,” he seethes, shaking his head. “Parents tell their children not to make fun of other kids in the playground, and then they watch garbage like that. What are they teaching these kids? What kind of a role model is someone like Paris Hilton, dressed, basically, like a slut, and behaving stupid, because it worked for Ozzy Osbourne? They only know what they’re told, and reality television’s telling them to judge everything around them. It’s really ugly. I think we should be ashamed of ourselves.
“You know you’ve matured when ask yourself ‘Why do I bother?'” he continues, darkly. “The politicians, they’re doing anything they want to do, taking whatever they can get, making themselves happy. They don’t care who gets hurt. And when you reach that point and ask yourself, ‘Why bother?’, that’s when you really turn into an adult. Because you make the decision, yes, it is worth bothering. If only for it’s own sake.”
And as far as The White Stripes are concerned, there’s the rub. Having been hailed as the band who could quite possibly save rock’n’roll from itself and having been plastered over the covers of innumerable magazines (with or without and interview), Meg and Jack have ridden out a storm that they will tell you was not of their own making to return to that Little Room.
“Our way to handle it all was to dig deep, and push real hard against all the bullshit,” concludes Jack. “We knew, once we broke through that barrier, we could always get back to where we used to be. And look where we are now, right back where we used to be. We played Panama the other day to people who’d never heard of us, and we won people over. You can’t beat that. That felt good to us. That’s better than selling millions.”