Possessing artistic sensitivities, an engineer’s precision, a businessman’s shrewdness and the existentialist knack for self-induced hardship (and resultant self-denying credit), Jack White has matured into a certain-to-be future-rock-legend.
His work ethic, diversity of thought, introspective vulnerability, manual dexterity, sibling position and religious indoctrination add up to a complex, thoughtful, irreverent iconoclast. One of his major influences is a man who created luxurious life amenities for the Robber Barons of the 19th Century.
I posit that by belonging to a cohort called Gen-X, Jack White makes art that makes sense of our generation’s chaotic, turbulent childhood. His multi-prong approach to expression speaks to more than just The Lost Generation. He speaks of Love: his language is Art.
Making Flippers a Living
White Stripes’ first album was released in 1999, when Jack White was 24 years old. His latest album drops July 2022. He will be 47. It seems like everything has changed. And listening to him now, it’s apparent that it has. And hasn’t.
Persnickety and prickly with the press, I’m interested in Jack’s take on the common theme (love) running through his multi-media empire/operation/endeavor/passion. Just as a song influences a chef cooking a dish, how does crafting, writing, producing, designing, and the myriad of other interests intersect with his music?
How did he get famous? Certainly not by being press-friendly. Or sound-bite quotable. Public and private legal battles, personal and professional, caused ripples each time they hit the fan. His thoughtful responses and legal countermeasures paint in the colors left out by an incomplete or incompetent gotcha press.
The genres and iterations of his music parallel the trials and tribulations of his life. Videos like “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” foreshadow some of the desolation and isolation of the past two Covid years.
I didn’t feel so bad ’til the sun went down
Then I come home
No one to wrap my arms around
Wrap my arms around
Well any man with a microphone
Can tell you what he loves the most
And you know why you love at all
If you’re thinking of the holy ghost
If you’re thinking of the holy ghost
Becoming a father and navigating marital legal issues and the spillover into the public of personal/professional “feuds” has had a lasting effect, so much so that he doesn’t see himself ever betrothed again in the future.
Youngest child with nine siblings 7-21 years older. Growing up in the Catholic church, an altar boy that almost entered the seminary. Upholstery business owner at 21 who designed his own uniforms, made a payroll, and named it after a 1949 movie about a washed-up pulp fiction novelist.
His song diversity stretches from Jolene to You Are The Sunshine Of My Life to Temporary Ground to Love is Selfish to Battle Cry. An intellectual foundation and contrarian nature forged in the analog childhood of a digital rock star prepared him for this?
His roster of collaborations includes a Who’s-Who of Rock and Country Hall of Famers, Pop and Hip-Hop Giants, session knowns and unknowns, music-genre-jumpers and Gangsta Rappers. He even installed a microphone in the rain gutters of his house to partner with that sound.
Scanning the scope and breadth of his body of work—all of his work—will take some time. Full disclosure: my level of familiarity with Jack White prior to this assignment was limited to his commercially-viable pop songs. Seven Nation Army I’d heard as well as the James Bond duet song. Saw him on SNL. He was more of a celebrity sighting to me than a daily ritual.
I have been immersed in all things JW the last 48 hours, and my head is still exploding and reverberating. I recruited my sister, a music industry veteran, and my millennial son, who shared that his love of White’s music in high school was based on the fact that the hot metal-goth chicks were into it. And he wanted to score.
Both came at White and his music with admiration, but for completely different reasons. The music-pro sister respected the entrepreneur and promotional activities which gave him institutional musical freedom. Something drastically lacking to hear her tell it.
I found some illuminating quotes from White that explains his rationale behind making some of his offerings rare and valuable.
We sell a Wanda Jackson split record for 10 bucks, the eBay flipper turns around and sells it for 300… If 300 is what it’s worth, then why doesn’t Third Man Records sell it for 300? If we sell them for more, the artist gets more, the flipper gets nothing. We’re not in the business of making flippers a living. We’re in the business of giving fans what they want.
make no mistake, we could make twenty thousand split color whatevers for you, and they’ll be worth 20 bucks, and you’ll pay 20 bucks for them, and you’ll never talk about them, desire them, hunt to find them, etc. why should ebay flippers, who are not real fans, dictate the price, make all the profit (taken from the artist and the label) and take the records out of the hands of real fans. there’s a guy who waits in a black suv down the block from third man who hires homeless people to go buy him tri colors when they are on sale. doesn’t even get out of his car. should he be charged ten bucks or two hundred? don’t be spoiled, don’t insult people who are trying to give you what you want.
My son said he hadn’t listened to or followed White since high school. He went back and re-listened, saying he was surprised to discover how well it held up. His assumption going in was that it would feel nostalgic.
This brings me to Jack White’s songs. Specifically, they are mostly all about love. Love gained. Love lost. Love-Hate. Love longed for. Love rejected. He writes and sings about the beauty of love and the pain of love. Most poignantly, about no love.
In Two Against One, a collaboration with Danger Mouse and Daniele Luppi, the album project is based on the film scores of Ennio Morricone of Spaghetti Western fame. White wrote the lyrics on three of the songs by listening to the music and singing stream-of-consciousness lyrics into a handheld recorder while riding around in a car. The ones that spoke to him he fleshed out. The video is a masterpiece of texture: sonic and visual.
One, I get the feeling that it’s two against one.
One, I’m already fighting me, so what’s another one?
One, The mirror is a trigger and your mouth’s a gun.
One, Lucky for me, I’m not the only one.
And if it looks to me like you in your reflection
Plan to add your own fight to this dimension.
Then tell it that this ain’t no free-for-all to see,
There’s only three
It’s just you and me against me.
Influences are one of the 10 squares of interest as you land on his homepage at Jack White Art and Design. A pulp-fiction artist. Industrial designers. Visual Artist. Dude that looks like he invented Ikea furniture. And a post-Civil War cabinet maker who was commissioned by the Big Four Railroad Magnates.
Perusing his project portfolio says more about him than any love-song-lyric or rich-man-trophy. One that particularly stands out to me is Clark Park Baseball Field. Anonymously designed and funded in 2009 because that’s where he “learned how to play baseball as a child in the 1980s.” As a softball dad I salute you.
In 100 years, Jack White will be a 21st-Century legend. Not a rock-star legend. But a legend legend. Why can I be so sure? Because he doesn’t think old thoughts. His brain sees the same things in life that we all see. He just transforms those things into something completely new, completely irreverent, but now, completely necessary. Like building a guitar out of a board, a piece of wire and an old Coke bottle. We could watch him just putter for hours.
Like launching a full-print quarterly magazine, Maggot Brain, intentionally and proudly without a website in 2022. Like being anti-digital until he was pro-digital. Growth happens with an open mind. The words from his website understate his mission. In Art. In Design. And, he proves, in Life.
All of these actions adds up to the Now. I don’t know if Jack White has slain his demons. And now, I’m not sure he wants to. After all, he’s ridden them this far.
Photo credit: Raymond Flotat