NME War Story: The White Stripes

Some time last year, after I wrote a piece for them remembering what At The Drive-In were like as a live band back in the day, my former employers at NME asked me to pen a ‘war story’ from my time there, to tie in with the paper’s 60th anniversary. Now, in the majority of the NME ‘war stories’ I tell my students, the punch-line is most often at the NME’s expense – I had a pretty miserable time there, to be honest, and thinking of those days only makes me glad that I now write for outlets like MOJO and The Guardian instead – but I figured the story of how I first saw The White Stripes back in 2001 might scratch their itch. I submitted this piece to them, and it subsequently fell down the back of a filing cabinet or something and got lost, but I was fond of what I wrote and so I’m putting up here, for perpetuity (or until the polar ice caps melt and drown WordPress’s servers).

Also linked below – actual youtube video footage of the show that would win me the first UK coverage of the White Stripes! I’m pretty sure you can see Steve Gullick clamber onstage to take photos at one point…

How The White Stripes saved my skin

Sometimes, your lucky break is just a question of good timing and better fortune.
It’s the March of 2001, and I’m in Austin, that wonderfully weird pocket of Texas, for the South-By-Southwest festival, where the world’s musical talents showcase their noise before industry types, media types and just-plain-love-to-rock types. I’m writing an NME feature on the sublime Elbow, making their debut on the international stage at SXSW.

My secondary focus, however, is to satisfy an itch that began months before, when Simon Keeler – label honcho, distributor and pusher of singular underground rock’n’roll – sent me De Stijl, the second LP by a blues-punk duo from Detroit. The album seduces from first spin; it’s the glum era of Starsailor and JJ72, and De Stijl is a breath of air so fresh it stings. I need to see The White Stripes play live. And soon.

It seems a forlorn hope. Despite John Peel playing their tunes on his Radio 1 show for months now, the Stripes’ international profile is non-existent, and it’s unlikely that Jack and his sister Meg could afford the airfare to play the UK, or to fly me over to interview them.

But lo: the White Stripes are playing SXSW! And I’m gonna be at SXSW!

I’m here with Steve Gullick, a grizzled angel of a man who takes the greatest photographs, and whose hunger for strange and wild music matches my own. Our Elbow duties completed, we head off into the Austin night, to catch as much awesome noise as we can. Somehow, though, our paths never cross with those elusive White Stripes.

We’re blessed, however, by the company of Steve’s friend Justin Russo, who’s here with Hopewell, the awesome New York psych-rock band he shares with his brother Jason. After a night that ends past sunrise in our cheap motel on Interstate 35 – also home to dozens of visiting groups, ensuring the parties never quite end – we wake groggy and dazed at lunchtime. In such a mindset, getting tattoos makes perfect sense.

After a brief cab-ride into town, Steve and Justin perch in the naugahyde chairs of a tattoo parlour on Red River, receiving their ink. Justin has misplaced his passport, and only the parlour’s least-experienced artist is willing to risk inking him without proof that he’s over 21. Inexperienced tattooist + lots of alcohol in Justin’s system means There Will Be Blood.

With Justin looking like a ketchup-splattered extra from a Peckinpah flick, my desire to get a Black Flag tattoo instantly dissipates, because I am a wuss. I don’t wish to admit this however, and edge toward the door, hoping to think up a smart excuse to avoid the needle and still appear ‘cool’.

And then it happens. I hear a familiar slash of slide-guitar from across the street. The White Stripes, that band of all my dreams, are playing a secret day-time show in the parking lot of Fat Tuesday’s across the street. I explain to Steve and Justin that I couldn’t possibly get a tattoo, that I need to see the band across the street. They buy it, sorta, and we head over the road.

Minutes later, Jack White – pale with a shock of black hair, dressed in scarlet – begins his cover of Dolly Parton’s ‘Jolene’, and I realise I’m in the presence of greatness. Steve realises too, and is soon onstage, snapping away. Their performance – a blur of lust, genius, blues and soul, Jack hurtling between microphones and scraping gold out of his guitar-strings, Meg thumping away with tongue-poking abandon – is everything I could have hoped for.

Days later, Steve’s photos and my review are published in NME, scoring this obscure Detroit duo their first UK press coverage. That summer, they play London for the first time, a bona fide phenomenon, NME cover-stars.

A decade on, I still don’t have a Black Flag tattoo (though I did write a book on ‘em, plug-plug), but Jack White remains the greatest rock star I have ever seen.

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About steviechick

Freelance journalist, author, lecturer, sub-editor.
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