It’s been a White Stripes soundtrack ever since Jack and Meg announced they’re breaking up the band. It’s the end of a unique case of musical chemistry. “I don’t know why it works so well,” Jack White told me in 2002. “It’s like some kind of language you teach each other or something. You communicate without speaking, just through looks, and know what we’re gonna do next. Meg’s really the best part of the band, I think, just the way she does what she does onstage. She’s really innocent and childlike. I wish I could be that innocent and childlike — I just do an imitation, but she’s the real thing.”
Nobody ever accused Meg of being a drum virtuoso, but she and Jack knew all the same songs, allowing them to make up the show as they went along. “We read each other’s minds — it does feel like that,” Jack said. “I don’t know how it happens, but that’s always the best part of playing together. We never use a set list, and we never rehearse, really. We just try to keep it as spontaneous as possible and keep it coming off the top of our heads. If we had a set list and everything, it would be just kind of structured, and I’d get bored.”
Now that the Stripes are pulling the red and white apart, it feels like Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown getting divorced — totally shocking, in that not-at-all-shocking kind of way. At first the news might have seemed like no big deal, since the Stripes have been lying low since 2007, while Jack White still makes a great record or two every year with one of his other bands, right? But then the crushing reality sank in. No more Stripes live shows? No more of Meg’s enigmatic smile or ponytail-bopping cymbal crashes? No more screaming along with “Boll Weevil”? So here’s a playlist of White Stripes deep cuts, celebrating the unique bond of Jack and Meg. The union forever!
“When I Hear My Name” (The White Stripes, 1999)
A raw punk throwaway from their debut album — a bit like Spinal Tap’s “Gimme Some Money,” in fact — but the first song I ever heard them play live, at New York’s Bowery Ballroom in the spring of 2001. That first White Stripes show you see is a moment you never forget.
“Look Me Over Closely” (B side of “Let’s Shake Hands,” 1998)
They did this Marlene Dietrich tune live all the time, and like so many of their other covers, it stretched out beyond the blues into the sort of thing you’d assumed Jack White hated — he never struck anyone as a German-cabaret kind of hombre. But the combination of show-biz roué melodrama and genuinely fucked-up sexual menace made it perfect for the Stripes.
“Little Room” (White Blood Cells, 2001)
One of *White Blood Cells*’ many jaw-droppingly honest songs about hard-fought adult romance, using indie rock as a metaphor for long-term sex (“When you’re in your little room, you’re working on something good”) and pondering how to keep that beat going strong. It proved they were a lot more soulful — and more wounded — than people had initially guessed.
“Hypnotize” (Elephant, 2003)
This one always reminds me of a bartender I used to know, who would always go to the jukebox and play this song six times in a row at the end of her shift. She’d always sing along — “You’re the kind of girl a guy like me could hypnotize.” I’m pretty sure none of the guys in the room stood a chance of hypnotizing her, but I still think of her when I hear the song.
“Rated X” (B side of “Hotel Yorba,” 2001)
A Loretta Lynn country classic — the first time I heard them do this was a 2002 live show where Jack stopped whatever he was playing and started riffing on the intro to this. Meg giggled and refused to sing it at first, but he just kept playing it until she joined in. Can’t pull that kind of shit when you have other people in the band, now can you?
“Truth Doesn’t Make a Noise” (De Stijl, 2000)
Like so many Jack White songs, it’s about listening to a girl, and looking at a girl, and trying to imagine what it’s like inside her mind. “The sounds of a girl alone” — what kind of noise is that? There were not a lot of male rock singers attempting anything remotely like this at the time. Sad to say, there are even fewer now, but it’s no wonder other singers still find this kind of emotional intensity hard to imitate.
“You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” (Elephant, 2003)
One of relatively few White Stripes songs that have anything to do with men, although it’s typical that Jack spends this song telling the guy what an dolt he is for failing to appreciate female mysteries. One of the many astonishing tunes on Elephant, which for my money remains their absolute peak. Even though Elephant is a universally acclaimed five-star classic, I still think it’s weirdly underrated, with songs like this that no other band can figure out how to copy.
“I’m Finding It Harder To Be a Gentleman” (White Blood Cells, 2001)
The first taste of Jack’s bitchy side, and a dose of punk aggro that made the baggy-shorts brigade of Anger Management Tour rejects on rock radio sound like the phonies they were. These days, now that corporate rock has returned to the sorry shape it was in ten years ago, it’s even harder to imagine anyone getting on the radio with venom this strong.
“I’m Slowly Turning Into You” (Icky Thump, 2007)
Seeing the Stripes onstage in an arena, turning their personal psychosexual torments into air-guitar sing-alongs for massive crowds around the world, somehow didn’t kill the intimacy level — it only made all the emotions in the songs seem louder, heavier, and harder to escape.
“The Union Forever” (White Blood Cells, 2001)
We have to close with this one, full of quotes from Citizen Kane and Minor Threat. Hopefully, it’ll be the opening song on their reunion tour — which can’t come fast enough. Thanks for the memories, Jack and Meg!