Too much too soon: When the band wanted the spotlight turned off
Jack and Meg White, collectively known as the White Stripes, peer tentatively out of the doorway of their dressing room at the MTV Movie Awards at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. In the hallway stands Sharon Osbourne, and she is perturbed. It seems that Eminem's bodyguards deigned to ask her to remove her brood from the hallway so that the scrawny white rapper could pass by. "Crack a smile, little boy," she cackles as Eminem and his muscular entourage walk past. "Keep your head down. Don't look at me."
Jack and Meg shake their heads in disbelief.
"We've slipped into some other dimension," mutters Meg.
"I can't even fathom why they asked us to perform here," says Jack.
Today, the White Stripes have reached a pinnacle of popularity far beyond their biggest dreams — or nightmares. For the past five years, Jack (on guitar) and Meg (on drums) have been bashing out raw, bluesy garage rock in their home studio in Detroit, recording three albums for independent labels and demonstrating how big a sound just two people can make. As the rock pendulum swings away from new metal, it seems to be heading straight for the White Stripes and a handful of other retrominded rock bands that they've been lumped in with, including the Strokes, the Hives and the Vines.
"I just laughed," Jack says about first hearing his song "Fell in Love With a Girl" on the radio. "I mean, it would be Staind, P.O.D., then us and then Incubus. Half of your brain is going, 'What is going on? Why are we even involved with this? This is pointless.' The other half is full of people going, 'No, this is new, a quote revolution in music unquote, and something is going to change now, because of you guys and the Strokes and the Hives, and music is going to come back to more realism.'"
Of all these bands, the White Stripes are the most original, which makes their success even more surprising. Their music is raw and meaty, ranging from bottle-neck-blues dirges to childlike ballads to squealing Zeppelin-esque guitar stomps. It is shot through with a sense of history: of records that Jack White pledges his allegiance to, most of them by Delta bluesmen. And it is highly improvisatory: No two White Stripes shows are the same. There is no set list. Jack White simply plays what he feels. If he isn't feeling "Fell in Love With a Girl" within the first two bars, he'll switch right away into a new song, and who gives a shit about the pop fans.
At the MTV Movie Awards, for the first time in their history, the White Stripes are being treated like rock stars. And they hate it: They are at heart indie rockers and Detroit scenesters, more focused on credibility than fame. After the Eminem incident, Jack and Meg briefly run into the party-hard singer Andrew W.K., who steps up to the couple and admits that he actually isn't from Detroit proper.
As the Stripes are dragged outside the Shrine for what will be their first-ever red-carpet experience, Jack tries to back out twice. They watch as a man announces the name of each arriving celebrity in a booming baritone over a loudspeaker, as if at a sporting event, and ask him not to announce the White Stripes at all, especially in such a cheesy fashion. When it is their turn to walk the carpet, their preference is not heeded: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Whiiiiiiite Striiiiipes!" They dash down the carpet, heads down and avoiding all interview requests. At the other end, Meg says, grimacing, "It's awful." And Jack asks, "Hey, did Jack Osbourne just flash me the peace sign?"
On their latest record, White Blood Cells, there's a song that imagines a moment much like this: "Little Room." You start out playing your music in a little room, but if the music's good, you graduate to a bigger room, and then you miss what you've left behind. When he wrote "Little Room," Jack was feeling guilty about being an indie-rock star and getting more attention than other Detroit bands. You can only imagine how much more intense those feelings are now that indierock stardom has given way to rubbing shoulders with Eminem stardom. "We've never aspired to this level of attention," Jack says before going out onstage. "Look at all the money they spent. This is ridiculous. I don't know why we're doing this."
The history of the White Stripes is somewhat murky, because of the simple fact that Jack is loath to talk about it. Onstage, he introduces Meg as his sister, which is about as plausible as his claim that she is an android and he is human. The Stripes are, by all accounts, former husband and wife Jack Gillis, 26, and Megan White, 27. Jack grew up in a low-income neighborhood in southwest Detroit, where, he says, he was the youngest of ten children. He went to a mostly black school, out of place as the lone classic-rock lover in a rap world. He began playing drums at age eleven, and later taught himself to play guitar and piano in order to accompany his drumming on a homemade recording. As a fan, he worked his way backward from Bob Dylan to discover the blues artists who inspired Dylan — Son House, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell — all of whom served to convince him that the Twenties and the Thirties were the golden age of music. In 1997, Jack encouraged his then-wife Meg, who had briefly played violin around age seven, to take up the drums, and the two named their band after something that captured the simplicity they were going for: striped peppermint candy. He never planned or desired to add anyone or anything else to the band. "Anyone else would be excess," he says. "It would defeat the purpose of centralizing on these three components of storytelling, melody and rhythm."
In Pomona, California, after the MTV Awards, the White Stripes play a club show. In five years together, the duo claims to have never canceled a show. In order to ensure they make this one, MTV provided the Stripes with a helicopter. After the gig, the artist Paul Frank drops by with a red-and-white-striped drum stool and guitar strap he has made for the band. Backstage, Meg tries to do push-ups. She gets through two.
"I can do more, honest," she says when teased for being the weakest drummer in rock.
The show itself a strong one. You can tell Jack thinks so, because he plays "Boll Weevil" as an encore, a traditional folk-blues song, which he generally plays to cap a successful performance. But afterward, Jack admits only to feeling discomfort. "I have a problem with enjoying things at the moment," he says. "I'm too lost in some other thought. I'm scared of actually enjoying things. We could do a great version of 'Death Letter' by Son House on a certain night, and if I was smiling and enjoying every moment of it, I don't think anyone would understand how much that song means to me."
Most of the songs and stories aren't about Meg or himself, Jack says, and if they were, "I'd be afraid to tell people that it was myself."
Why is that? "I think that if I said such and such song is about myself, people would get the wrong idea and not take the idea that they are allowed to relate to that."
Two days later, Jack and Meg squirm in their seats poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel in Hollywood. The more the interview touches on personal subjects, the more uncomfortable Jack grows. He says that a sense of history and honesty are the most important attributes of playing music, yet onstage everyday he lies about his and Meg's history. It seems there is a fear of putting himself on the line and exposing himself to misinterpretation or, even worse, ridicule.
"As soon as you say something, people make up their own minds as to what it means," Jack says. "I'm sorry, but I have to pick and choose how those things are presented because I don't want people to think the wrong thing. I think the only focal point should be the songwriting and the music and the live show. The whole point of the band isn't, Are we really brother and sister, are we husband and wife; whether we're really from the city or just pretending, or whether we liked sandboxes as kids or the monkey bars." (For the record, Meg liked the monkey bars.)
But what if, hypothetically, everything about Jack and Meg's personal life was common knowledge? What if everyone knew where they came from, all about their relationship, their favorite color, everything? What would happen?
Jack does not hesitate to answer this. He looks straight across the table, and says, as serious as his music, "Then we are completely dead."