Peppermint Twist: The White Stripes’ blues in the red zone
by Jay Babcock
Originally published December 28, 2000 in LAWeekly
“I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”
Jack White of the White Stripes is on the phone from Detroit, and he’s not giving up the secret. I’ve got a lot of questions for him about the astonishing things I saw him do at Spaceland last week. Things like Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” done straight-up, gritty and desperate. Slide runs on a weird semi-acoustic guitar during an “In My Time of Dying”-esque number that would make Jimmy Page swoon. Sweet, almost Kinks-y pop-tinged songs with titles like “You’re Pretty Good Looking” and “Apple Blossom.” A monumental cover of the country-blues standard “Death Letter” that was full of spit ’n’ bitterness. Vintage Cramps-like menace riffs slowed down to two-player bombastic blues, topped by gasp-worthy field hollers. This was honest, open-hearted music by someone with preternatural skills and an ambitious range — music that not once lapsed into strutting licksmanship or bonehead cave-stomp. Music as much evocation as invocation, a congeries of train whistles and assembly-line clangor, of the scent of buttercups and bacon grease.
It was a performance so good that I witnessed an act that’s usually beneath members of L.A.’s infamous bet-you-can’t-impress-me audiences: After the show, a dude stood at the foot of the deserted stage, thought for a few seconds, then furtively pocketed one of Jack’s spent guitar picks.
At Spaceland that night, something mighty powerful happened. The kind of thing that can get you thinking that deeper, potent forces are at play. I don’t know if this is the devil’s music, but I do know it’s something well beyond what a red guitar pick can reveal.
The White Stripes are Jack White, 25, on guitar, vocals and piano, and Pippi-tailed sister Meg, 26, on drums. They were born and raised in southwest Detroit in a Catholic family in a Catholic neighborhood. They are the youngest of 10 children. Jack is the seventh son.
Their latest album, De Stijl, was recorded on 8-track in the living room of the house Jack owns — he bought it from his parents when they moved out.
“It’s a wooden house, three floors,” says Jack. “I think it was built in 1911 — my whole life I grew up here. I was a drummer for a long time, from 11 on. About 15 or 16 I picked up the guitar — I used to play guitar with my friends after school. We’d record Bob Dylan songs on 4-tracks. When my parents moved out, they left a piano and I taught myself how to play it. I don’t really know what it is I’m doing. I’ve got this thumb-and-pinky technique and I just base things off of that. I know how I want it to sound.”
When did you start listening to blues music?
“Since I was 18. I’ve always loved blues, especially Son House. A few years ago, I didn’t have a lot of money to go out and buy records, so I only had, like, the major things — Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters. But some friends in Detroit started working at record stores where I could get discounts! So now I have a pretty nice collection. Blind Willie McTell I only got listening to last year. I fell in love with him immediately.”
The records a musician hears can change everything. Robert Johnson listened to phonographs by Leroy Carr and Lonnie Johnson. Son House listened to Charley Patton’s records, he once said, “before I ever started to play or think about trying to play.” House also learned from a Clarksdale musician named Lemon, who had in turn listened to [Dallas] Blind Lemon 78s. Dylan checked out records by “Bukka” White — who had learned from Patton’s records. It doesn’t sound like the White Stripes have been spending much time listening to the wheedle-ee beer-commercial boogie stuff that’s passed for mainstream blues in this country for the last 30 years.
“I’m not too big a fan of electric blues. I don’t like Buddy Guy, Stevie Ray Vaughan and all those guys. I like Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, that’s the only electrics that I think are any good. It’s a difficult line to walk, though, being white, and having had the influence of the Yardbirds and Cream and other bands in the ’60s that already did this kind of electric blues in a hard style. At least they knew they wanted to go where the dirt was, and go where that real feeling of soul was.”
White people have been doing blues in the last five years in “alternative” circles, but it always seems to be done with smarmy, ironic cool.
“An easier way for white people to be involved in the blues is to make it like it’s a parody of wild, bluesy antics. All this stuff with raunchiness and swearing and talking about naked girls and all that, I’m really turned off by that kind of stuff. Lyrics are real important to me. I wish music could be more like Cole Porter and different Broadway writers from back in the ’30s and ’40s — more melody and idea instead of just chords and lamenting about girls and cars or drugs. That’s really getting old.”
The album artwork for De Stijl — as well as for the White Stripes’ first album, in fact the band’s whole visual aesthetic — uses the red-white-black color scheme, which is the strongest color combination in alchemy and most of the West’s magical systems, as well as in voodoo.
“I’ve never heard about that one. I’ve heard of red, white and black being the most powerful combination. That peppermint candy, that’s where we got the band name from. I thought we’d call the album De Stijl because [the early 20th-century Dutch De Stijl art movement] broke the art form down to the simplest parts, and they had to abandon it because they couldn’t get it any simpler than it was. It was a question of how simple should the White Stripes be, what’s out of bounds for us, and what are we supposed to be doing with this band?”
The White Stripes do a lot of covers — Son House, Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson, Dylan, Joe Primrose’s “St. James Infirmary Blues” — and the new Sub Pop single is all choogle-n-yelp Captain Beefheart. Beefheart did the theme song (“Hard-Working Man”) for the Schrader brothers’ 1978 film Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor, Yaphet Kotto and Harvey Keitel as beat-down workers at one of Blake’s “dark Satanic mills” — a Detroit auto plant. It’s a lost classic.
“I’ve heard the song from that movie, yeah. For the single we did ‘China Pig’ from Trout Mask Replica as an acoustic blues song, and on ‘Ashtray Heart’ and ‘Party of Special Things To Do’ we used different recording techniques, going straight into the board, with fuzz guitar and bass. That was the first time we’ve ever done that. When a song feels like it needs something, I just wanna have it there.
“We want to start working on our new album, I think it’s gonna be called White Blood Cells. We’d like it to be a double album, ’cause there’s enough material. I’m thinking about doing one disc at a real studio and one disc here at home. Just a bunch of country songs and a lot of piano songs that I’ve written.”
All of which are helpful answers. But the main question. It’s something like what people asked Robert Johnson when he came back from his trip to Arkansas, or what Pete Townshend wondered after he first saw Hendrix: How did Jack White get those sounds onstage?
“There’s a technique I have where I can put my pick in the palm of my hand and pluck with my free fingers. And I can pull it out whenever I want to switch it back to the pick to play loud again. It just came naturally, I dunno . . . ”
And what about those two guitars: the snazzy red-and-white electric one, and that acoustic guitar that looked like it was made out of paper?
“The red one is an Airline, a guitar that Montgomery Ward sold in the ’60s. And the other one is, yeah, it’s . . . um . . . Actually, I don’t want to talk about that. It’s kind of a personal thing.”
God is in the details, said architect Mies van der Rohe. And sometimes something else lurks there too.