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

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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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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