The Mysterious Case of the White Stripes: Jack White Comes Clean

As a teenager, White thought about enlisting in the Marines or joining the priesthood. Instead, he settled on rock & roll, preaching the blues with the White Stripes

Photograph by Martin Schoeller for RollingStone.com
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Jack White pulls his black Ford pickup truck to the curb on a quiet, tree-lined street in his native Detroit and hits the 'play' button on the cd player in the cherry-red dashboard. he turns the volume up to deafening and grins proudly as howitzer-fire drumming and squeals of distorted guitar rattle the windshield. There are bursts of marimba, too, which sound like someone shaking a bag of bones. The singing is really just shouting, and the lyrics are kid stuff: "You're my top special, baby/Top! Top!" But the total effect is elementary, irresistible ecstasy.

Photos: The White Stripes on Tour in 2007

Jack is playing "Top Special," a new White Stripes track recorded a week earlier with drummer Meg White — who is sitting quietly in the back seat — for a special Japanese single. The chorus, Jack says over the din, is a phrase popular with Japanese teens: "It basically means 'You're my best friend.'"

There is no better way to describe the White Stripes themselves. A few days later they perform "Top Special" for an adoring audience at Keller Auditorium in Portland, Oregon, the fifth stop on their current U.S. tour, promoting the Top Five album Get Behind Me Satan. But Jack and Meg are playing to each other. He stands at a mike set at the foot of her kit, his eyes pinned on her as he sings and thrashes his guitar. She looks up at him with the same undivided attention as she keeps steady, thundering time.

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It is a perfect picture of a remarkable bond. Publicly, Jack and Meg, both thirty, claim to be brother and sister, even though a Detroit newspaper blew their cover a couple of years ago, revealing them to be ex-husband and -wife (married in 1996, divorced in 2000). But on their five albums as the White Stripes, and especially onstage, there is no mistaking the truth of their relationship. They make music like inseparable kindred spirits. "It will always be us two," Jack says of the Stripes over lunch that day in Detroit. "I will never do the White Stripes with another drummer. She'll never do it with another guitarist."

Photos: The White Stripes on Tour in 2001

The White Stripes are at a commercial and creative peak. Satan is their third hit album in a row, following the 2001 breakthrough White Blood Cells and 2003's Elephant. Satan is also their boldest record, combining the Stripes' whiplash rock and Jack's passion for vintage blues and country music with a gothic-roadhouse tension scored with grand piano and marimba. "There is an authenticity about everything Jack does," says T Bone Burnett, who produced Jack's solo tracks on the soundtrack to the 2003 film Cold Mountain. "I don't know many people under thirty who have done the research Jack has done — and can do a credible Blind Willie McTell cover."

The White Stripes are, in most ways, Jack's creation. He writes the songs, plays everything except drums and devised the band's peppermint-stripe color scheme. And he does almost all the talking. "I'm just a very shy person," Meg confesses at lunch, although she defends the primal quality of her drumming with sweet firmness. "That is my strength. A lot of drummers would feel weird about being that simplistic."

Born John Gillis in 1975, Jack (who took Meg's surname when they married) actually started out as a drummer, at age five. But music was not his first career choice. In high school, Jack, a Catholic, seriously thought of entering the priesthood. After graduating, he considered joining the Marines but instead worked as an upholsterer and, for a time, as a gofer on TV carcommercial shoots. "I could see that it was impossible to get your ideas across, with all the people — the soundman, lighting people, producers — you had to go through," he says. "I suppose that put me in the direction of a two-piece band."

Jack played drums and guitar in several Detroit garage bands (Two Part Resin, the Go, Goober and the Peas, the Hentchmen) before he and Meg, another Detroit native, made their local live debut in 1997. Jack soon found that underground cool came at a price. "We were everybody's secret band," he says. "Then our second album [De Stijl] came out, and it was 'Oh, they're not that good anymore.' When we hit the mainstream, I had to go through that game all over again, on a worldwide scale."

Jack may be a reluctant star, but he is a fireball in conversation. He speaks at high speed, his brown eyes looking directly at you like derringer barrels, and his laugh is a series of short, sharp bangs, like a string of firecrackers going off. For more than three hours, over two sessions, he goes into excited detail about, among other things, the Captain Beefheart and Gun Club records that blew his teenage mind, the album he produced for his idol Loretta Lynn (2004's Van Lear Rose) and the record he's finishing with his new band, the Raconteurs, formed with fellow Detroit rocker Brendan Benson.

"I've got enough time," Jack says cheerfully of having two groups at once. I don't have a day job anymore." And Meg claims she is not worried about the effect on the White Stripes' future. "Jack's always done five things at once," she says. "He was in two other bands when we started this one. This is not unusual."

Get Behind Me Satan must be the most overdubbed album you've ever made. Did you worry about how you would perform those songs live? A duo can only make so much music without tapes and samples.
I've always centered the band around the number three. Everything was vocals, guitar and drums or vocals, piano and drums. So what's the difference? I can only play one thing at a time. The minimalism is still there: vocals, marimba and drums or vocals, grand piano and drums. Or I play piano, Meg plays timpani and she sings. It's all in threes.

The whole point of the White Stripes is the liberation of limiting yourself. In my opinion, too much opportunity kills creativity. I remember in high school, a friend of mine had a magazine with a story about some popular band of the time that was recording an album. The story said they had eighty guitars in the studio to choose from and that there were over 120 tracks of guitar on this one song. Good Lord! Listen to the Stooges' Fun House. You know there can't be more than one track of guitar on there [laughs]. Maybe two.

But when I first saw the White Stripes live, it took me a while to get used to the hole in your sound. I kept asking myself, "Where's the bass? Where's the bottom?"
I can see that. I was in high school when I first heard the Flat Duo Jets. They were a guitar/drums band, and I thought the same thing. Then, within months, they became my favorite band. Some kind of rawness hit me, and I saw there was no need for anything else.

A year ago, I listened to the first tape Meg and I made. It's a recording of the first time we played together. It still sounds raw and cool. We did [David Bowie's] "Moon-age Daydream." Then we wrote "Screwdriver," our first song. There was a red screwdriver sitting on the table. We wrote the song that afternoon, and it hasn't changed at all since that day.

When we play a song I wrote, it's the White Stripes covering a Jack White song-that's the best way to describe it. I write most of my songs on piano and acoustic guitar. Then I show it to Meg, and it's like, "OK, how can we do this onstage?" That becomes the way we do it, from then on.

Are there times when Meg's style of drumming is too limiting — that you can't take a song as far as you'd like to go?
No. I never thought, "God, I wish Neil Peart was in this band." It's kind of funny: When people critique hip-hop, they're scared to open up, for fear of being called racist. But they're not scared to open up on female musicians, out of pure sexism.

Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated. When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing. There was something in it that opened me up. It was my doorway to playing the blues, without anyone over my shoulder going, "Oh, white-boy blues, white-boy bar band." I could really get down to something.

Do you think the brother-sister thing was a miscalculation — that you overdid the mythmaking?
I saw a review of our new album, and it said, "Every single component of the White Stripes is a gigantic lie." What does that mean? Have I sat down and said I was born in Mississippi? No. Did I say I grew up on a plantation and learned how to play guitar from a blind man? I never said anything like that. It's funny that people think me and Meg sit up late at night, in front of a gas lamp, and come up with these intricate lies to trick people.

But because you present that relationship as fact, it obscures your real connection as a couple — the truth and value of what you play together.
I want you to imagine if we had presented ourselves in another fashion, that people might have thought was the truth. How would we have been perceived, right off the bat? When you see a band that is two pieces, husband and wife, boyfriend and girlfriend, you think. "Oh, I see . . ." When they're brother and sister, you go, "Oh, that's interesting." You care more about the music, not the relationship — whether they're trying to save their relationship by being in a band.

You don't think about that with a brother and sister. They're mated for life. That's what family is like.

So when did you come up with the idea?
I'm not saying I came up with anything [laughs]. It's like people thinking we would be more real if we went onstage in jeans and T-shirts. How ignorant is that, to think that because they don't wear a suit onstage that someone is giving you the real deal? People do come and see us and think, "Look at all these gimmicks." Go ahead, man. Go ahead and think that.

How do you write songs? Do you sit down and pound something out every day?
Until a couple of months before Satan, I hadn't written anything in a year and a half. We'd been touring, and I don't write on tour.

Usually, I'll just be walking around the house. I'll go by the piano, sit down, and the first thing that comes out turns into something. It's always the first line. I had a conversation with someone, and I said to myself, "I blew it," after I got off the phone. Then I started goofing around: "I blew it/And if I knew what to do, then I'd do it" [from "Forever for Her (Is Over for Me)"]. You get three lines, and you know: "I better go write this down." Sometimes you find yourself going downstairs and writing a song, even though you want to go to bed. It's out of your control.

How much do you write about yourself? Seven Nation Army, on Elephant. sounds like it is full of autobiography: the experience of feeling surrounded, defensive, even paranoid, after the sudden success of White Blood Cells.
That song started out about two specific people I knew in Detroit. It was about gossip, the spreading of lies and the other person's reaction to it. It came from a frustration of watching my friends do this to each other. In the end, it started to become a metaphor for things I was going through.

But I never set out to write an exposé on myself. To me, the song was a blues at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The third verse ["I'm going to Wichita/Far from this opera forevermore"] could be something from a hundred years ago. It won a Grammy for Best Rock Song. [Laughs] Maybe it should have won for Best Paranoid Blues Song.

You wrote about the actress Rita Hayworth in two Satan songs; "White Moon" and "Take, Take, Take." But it's hard not to hear your own mixed feelings about celebrity, especially in the latter.
Rita Hayworth became an all-encompassing metaphor for everything I was thinking about while making the album. There was an autograph of hers — she had kissed a piece of paper, left a lip print on it, and underneath it said, "My heart is in my mouth." I loved that statement and wondered why she wrote that.

There was also the fact that she was Latino and had changed her name. She had become something different, morphed herself and was trying to put something behind her. And there was the shallowness of celebrity when it's thrown upon you. All of that was going around in these songs: what had been thrown on me, things I'd never asked for. Every song on that album is about truth.

What inspired the cover photos on White Blood Cells — the two of you hounded by black figures with cameras? Could you feel the big time just around the corner?
It was the way we were looked at in the garage-rock scene at the time: "Look at what's happened to them." The people in black were the bacteria. We were the white blood cells. "Is this attention good or bad? Who do you trust now?" But then it became more than a neighborhood-scene problem. It became a global problem.

What was the best thing about success when it first hit the White Stripes?
It was mind-blowing to think that people were even interested in this music. Every moment was shocking. We weren't high-fiving each other. It was more like, "What does this mean now that the weight is on our shoulders?"

By the time the big labels were offering us deals, we said, "If you think we're giving up our freedom now, you're crazy. We want this and this, and if you can't give it to us, we don't care. We'll make our own records."

What did you ask for?
I told'em I didn't want money. I didn't want big advances. I wanted complete artistic freedom. Nobody is going to tell me what songs are going to be on an album and what should or shouldn't be on the cover. Also. I never wanted to owe anybody any money. And we don't. Our albums are made so cheaply that we recoup the day they come out.

What was the worst part of the media attention? Was there an absolute-bottom moment in the years between White Blood Cells and Satan?
I remember being in a minefield, always trying to avoid something, never feeling comfortable — even knowing about the people who had come before me and been through the same things. A lot of it is evil, and it doesn't matter how much you know and how much you've experienced. You have to keep pushing until you find your niche, your little spot.

You never see me and Meg on a reality-TV show. We don't go on MTV's Cribs. We don't walk down red carpets with our dates, exploiting relationships. We don't look for any of it. We avoid it.

Meg is particularly good at that. How has she managed to stay out of the spotlight that is on you all the time?
Meg always says, "The more you talk, the less people listen." She's right. She doesn't open her mouth very much. Meg also reminds me of Rita Hayworth. Rita Hayworth never looked at any of the photos taken of her. She didn't care what she looked like or what people thought. That's really something-to be that strong. Meg's the same way. She doesn't care about the photos or any of that stuff.

What does she care about?
She's a very simple person. She loves music. Her record collection is twice as big as mine.

Can you imagine being in a band without her?
Not this band. All the beauty would be gone. There is something about the way I attack things and the way she attacks things. She has an innocent personality, but she's behind the big drum set, pounding away like a caveman. And at times, when I'm supposed to be the caveman, I'm singing something quiet and delicate. When you put those dynamics together, something interesting happens. I've played with other guys — and it doesn't work.

What kinds of music were around the house when you were growing up?
My dad was into the big bands: Glenn Miller, Gene Krupa. He never got into rock & roll. My older brothers were, but they weren't into Detroit music. I found the first Stooges album in a dumpster behind our house, in the garbage of my next-door neighbor Brian Muldoon. I ended up working at his upholstery shop.

What did your parents do?
They worked for the Catholic Church, in the same building in downtown Detroit. My dad was a maintenance man, and my mom was the cardinal's secretary.

The church uses a lot of red and white too.
When I was an altar boy, we had the black-and-white robes. We only used red-and-white cassocks for special occasions, like Christmas. I was in a film when I was ten years old: The Rosary Murders, with Donald Sutherland and Charles Durning. It was filmed at my church, and they picked a few altar boys to be in a scene.

Were red, white and black your favorite colors as a kid?
After I apprenticed as an upholsterer for a few years, I opened my own shop, Third Man Upholstery. Everything was yellow, black and white. All my power tools were yellow and black. I had a yellow van. I ran my business like a cartoon. I was making out bills in crayon and writing poetry inside people's furniture. I didn't care if I made any money. I was so happy to pull up in front of someone's house wearing a yellow-and-black uniform, with a yellow clipboard.

But the White Stripes' colors were always red, white and black. It came from peppermint candy. I also think they are the most powerful color combination of all time, from a Coca-Cola can to a Nazi banner. Those colors strike chords with people. In Japan, they are honorable colors. When you see a bride in a white gown, you immediately see innocence in that. Red is anger and passion. It is also sexual. And black is the absence of all that.

You grew up in a Mexican neighborhood where all the other kids were into hip-hop. How did you become so obsessed with blues and country music?
When I worked in Brian's shop, he started playing me all kinds of music, like the Cramps and the Velvet Underground. I got into blues in my late teens. I knew about Robert Johnson from the bands that covered him. And when I heard him, I thought it was OK. Then I heard Son House's a cappella song "Grinning in Your Face" [from the 1965 Columbia album Father of Folk Blues]. That was a transformative moment. There's nothing there, just that voice. And what he was singing made so much sense to me: Don't care what other people are saying about you, what they think. It was what I had been struggling through my whole life. I never liked the same music anyone else did.

It all exploded for me after Son House. Robert Johnson became extremely beautiful. And I kept digging, to Charley Patton.

Two of the hottest numbers in the White Stripes' live show are Bob Dylan covers: "Isis" and "Love Sick." How important was Dylan to you as you started writing your own songs?
The Dylan songs we cover were Meg's idea. She has more Dylan records than I do. But there's no doubt about it — I have three dads: my biological father, God and Bob Dylan. Nobody accused Dylan of ripping off Woody Guthrie. They knew Dylan was embracing him, that he wanted to become part of that family of songwriters and traveling musicians — the family that keeps handing things down, one to another.

Which White Stripes songs do you think may be handed down, through that family, someday?
Oh, man, that would be egotistical. [Long pause] Some of the more blues-based things felt important to me when I wrote them. In "The Big Three Killed My Baby" [on The White Stripes], I felt I connected with what I wanted to talk about: my city and the evil it contains, the big three automotive corporations. Somebody told me yesterday that they thought "I'm Lonely (But I Ain't That Lonely Yet)" [on Get Behind Me Satan] might be a song people will sing twenty years from now. It didn't hit me like that when I wrote it.

You recently married Karen Elson in the middle of a tour, deep in the Brazilian jungle, on the Amazon River. Did you just wake up that morning and say, "Let's go"?
There was nothing I could do to stop it. It was like a song that can't stop coming out. I felt, "One of these days it's going to happen. It might as well be today." And it was the perfect spot: three rivers, black and white waters combining to make one.

Does this mean you are a much happier person now than you were a year ago?
Satan is the end of any unhappiness I have. Get behind me — that's it. Any troubles I have are well-represented: betrayal, loss, pain, whatever's going on in my head and life. I got the last things out on that record. I'm done.

But I've changed so much in the last ten years — so many times, without even knowing it. I've been pushing and pushing, always taking the hardest road to do everything, whether it's playing live without a set list or recording on eight-track. Because I can't be proud of things by taking the easy way out. And I do that with my own life. I'm always searching, to get closer to the truth: the right thing to do, why I'm here. It's a lifetime endeavor. You're never finished with that.

But how do you define truth, in music or otherwise? The White Stripes are, in many ways, a work of artifice: the color scheme, the brother-sister thing, the two-piece sound.
Some people will see a band wearing jeans and T-shirts and go, "They're just like me. That's true." But it's not necessarily so. And if you think Ashlee Simpson is the truth, you gotta have your head examined. I hate to call Rolling Stone on it, but you defended that crap. When she used that backing track on Saturday Night Live, Rolling Stone said, "Oh, everybody uses a backing track on Saturday Night Live." I raised my hand and said, "I didn't!"

I'm trying to find a way to be positive about the future of music. It's hard. I feel sorry for kids today who don't get exposed to things that are more realistic than what they're getting. But I'm not a retro-ist, saying, "Hey, you should be listening to rockabilly and old country." I don't like it when my job has to be anything other than a songwriter. Sometimes I've had the feeling that I'm supposed to teach people something, that I have to use my "power" for good. That's lame. I don't think Gene Vincent had to worry about that.

But I feel much happier now than I've ever felt. I got through a lot of confusing times. And I've always done what I wanted to do, no matter how bad things got. I have that freedom. And I will never take that for granted.

This story is from the September 8, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 982: September 8, 2005
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