I’ve always wondered where Bob Dylan thinks he’s going, and what he’s planning to do down in that valley. It feels like a fragment of some larger epic journey. There’s something heroic and tragic about it. He is on a quest of some kind; like Odysseus, he’s waylaid by a beautiful, mysterious stranger; she is a goddess with her own path to follow; who knows how long they’ve dallied together but now she must let him go. But first a little coffee for the road. It’s the mundane detail of the coffee that really makes the story – epic tales are nothing but bluster without the mundane to bring them to life. Now mind you, Bob Dylan doesn’t usually capture my imagination quite this way. Sure, plenty of his songs are epic and full of their own mythology, but they’re also willfully obtuse, jokey, satirical. It’s hard to interpret Bob Dylan’s 115th Dream as a hero quest; more like a buffoon’s comic picaresque. But this is a serious song here, a real hero quest, perhaps an allegory for the trajectory of life, perhaps just spilled over with sadness from a man freshly divorced. Anyhow you look at it, it’s a different level for Dylan. And, as with many of Dylan’s songs, other singers have hit it out of the ballpark, especially those with superior vocal abilities, i.e. Jack White, Robert Plant.
Never having seen the White Stripes is one of the biggest things in life I’ve missed out on. They came, went, and ended all before I had the resources to pursue seeing music. But at least I’ve had the privilege of witnessing the developing phenomenon of Jack White in real time. I think he’s without a doubt the most important figure to emerge within my lifetime, and I’ve met plenty of people who speak of him in even more trembling terms. I’m ready to love anyone who wants to just be weird for the sake of it, and few people get as weird as Jack. The more experimental, the better. The mighty marimba, for example, is sorely underused in popular music. Incorporating the unexpected into their vision so seamlessly was one of the best things about The White Stripes; in their singular world, obsolete equipment and odd instruments were like lost toys rediscovered. Each album was like a musical thrift store of forgotten treasures.
When you gonna ring it? When you gonna ring it?
Keep it sweet and astute, Jack. The White Stripes managed the oxymoronic feat of making simplicity into a high concept. A three-tone color scheme, a guitar and a drum set can carry a world of intricate personal vision, it turned out. Being a concept group wasn’t sustainable, in the end, but how well they sustained it while they could. I was immediately awed by Jack White’s masterful command of image and reference, and it’s still one of my favorite things about him. But having a cohesive graphic image aside, let’s not overlook the bare bones of what makes The White Stripes still matter. Their music was always just so simple and sincere. No amount of funny hats could distract from that.
The final offering from the White Stripes’ ‘little’ series (although not chronologically). Also, at 50 seconds, the shortest. Despite being so short and radically minimalist, it’s one of the best commentaries on the conundrum of fame that I’ve ever heard. Fame, creativity, success and resources are all intertwined but don’t necessarily fuel one another in constructive ways. Which is to say; great creativity demands greater resources, great creativity leads to fame and success, fame and success attract increased resources, increased resources are supposed to fuel more creativity but sometimes end up doing just the opposite. It’s a frustrating fact of life than many a creative person has bumped up against on their rise to the top. It’s bloody hard to hold on to the ideas that drive you when your entire life is turned inside out and you’re suddenly thrust into the malevolent wonderland of celebrity-hood. It’s not just the danger of losing your street cred or authenticity. Many new-fangled stars find themselves losing their most basic sense of identity. Even for those who don’t immediately spin out in a whirl of substance abuse and assorted other bad behavior, it can be difficult to continue finding things to say – to care about, even – when their resources and situation are altered beyond their wildest dreams. That’s exactly the point Jack White makes so concisely, and he would have reason to dwell on those things. White Blood Cells was the White Stripes’ first real commercial success, the record that finally brought them serious fame, and all the upsides and downsides that come with it. For a band so passionately concerned with the authenticity of their own idiosyncratic sound and image, which they had heretofore nourished in relative isolation, the pressures of public scrutiny and the increased expectations put upon them would naturally be cause for a bit of an existential crisis. Fortunately for all, The White Stripes never did suffer the identity diffusion and loss of focus that this song worries about. They managed to carry on knowing exactly what they wanted to do, and making the best possible use of the bigger creative space they were afforded. As Jack White has continued doing with a variety of projects since their breakup, and no doubt will go on doing so until the wolves come home.
Speaking of awesome videos, here is a fan-made gem that probably cost no more than that stack of quarters. The White Stripes’ graphic style is not hard to copy, admittedly, but there’s more to it than the color scheme. I think this is very much in their spirit and nicely referential. They’ve done stop-motion in their video on a much larger scale, and also have used cute little dolls to represent themselves, so all of those elements are straight off the old apple tree, so to speak. But I’m guessing The White Stripes didn’t have much of a video budget for their first album, so they didn’t make any. That first record was a masterful breakthrough, a clear statement of artistic intent signalling the arrival of a fully-formed vision. That is sounded very much homemade a big part of both its charm and its importance. It was charming because it was so clearly made with love, and it was important in that it showed just how visionary two dedicated people with minimal resources could be. So it’s only fair and appropriate that it would inspire a handmade homage.
Are you tired of this little White Stripes series? If so, we’re halfway through it, and it’s their idea, not mine. But if you’re like me, you’re enraptured, because I never could get tired of having an excuse to sit and listen to every White Stripes album, albeit out of order. As for the ‘little’ series, this song is the best offering. I don’t have a huge appetite for this sort of pure Americana, but it’s definitely most amusing to occasionally dip into, and I think The White Stripes are especially suited to exploring roots music. Because I think their vision of what constitutes roots music is more diverse than most; they take in both bluegrass and Detroit blues, and a wide swatch in between. The White Stripes style of rootsiness also reflects the fact that for people of their generation Led Zeppelin and The Stooges constitute roots music as much as Son House or Earl Scruggs. In the sense that enough time has passed that what used to be a contemporary takeoff on traditional musical style is an accepted part of the historical continuum. The White Stripes famously care a lot about musical purity, but their purity is held to their own eccentric standards, and when they explore musical traditions they’re not so much striving to recreate something as it was in the 1950’s, but processing it through their personal lens, thereby creating the next step in its evolution. Because recreating something traditional in note-for-note perfection doesn’t bring anything new to it – it’s just recreation for its own sake. To built on the foundation of the old without losing its spirit, or your own, is what keeps traditions alive.
Not actually one of my favorite White Stripes songs, but in the interest of scientific consistency, I feel compelled to include it. Because, as you well know, every White Stripes album has a song with the word ‘little’ in the title, and this is the one from Icky Thump. This is the only one of the series I’m not particularly crazy about, but it still merits an audit. There isn’t a single White Stripes song that doesn’t have any merit, not one that makes you leap across the room in a mad scramble to hit the skip button. That’s an honorable accomplishment right there; many of the greatest artists alive can’t say the same for themselves. There are a number of songs in the Stripes’ songbook that are unimpressive or mediocre – one can’t be brilliant 100% of the time, you know – but none that make you cringe and shudder and experience proxy shame. I thought Icky Thump, their final record together, was a bit hit-or-miss. Though it had some great moments, and nothing that could be called bad, it didn’t have quite the same sense of noisy delight that their early records were so full of. I don’t know what their personal dynamics were, but it’s easy enough to guess that by that point Meg was just about done with the entire enterprise and Jack’s attention was getting stretched thin by all the other projects he was organizing. It was a sad day when they announced their split, but it was the right move to quit while they were still capable of being a great team together instead of waiting for the inevitable point of just reluctantly hammering it out for a paycheck.