How a misfit from the wrong side of Detroit remade himself as the saviour of rock’n’roll. By Miranda Collinge.
Jack White is a name that speaks of America. It is solid, trustworthy, wholesome, masculine. It is brief, blunt, stark, uncompromising.
Many Jack Whites have come and gone, and their stories perhaps say something about the country that made them. William Jack “Three Fingers” White, a Chicago mobster, was charged with and then acquitted of the murder of a policeman, married a showgirl, and was found dead in his apartment from gunshot wounds in 1934. Jack White, an investigative journalist from Rhode Island who died in 2005, uncovered Richard Nixon’s tax fraud, elicited the President’s ironically definitive statement “I am not a crook”, and won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974. Jack White, a long-time customer of Old Hickory Restaurant in Old Hickory, Tennessee, had his favourite table, number 10, named in his honour when he died in 2003 at the age of 87.
Today, there’s Jack White the billiards player from Hollywood Hills, California, who shot frames at the White House, Buckingham Palace and the Playboy Mansion – accompanied by two naked Bunnies – and once claimed that only God could beat him. There’s Jack White who runs a museum of more than 300 accordions with his wife Kathy in their home in Rocky River, Cleveland.
And there’s Jack White, a former upholsterer from Detroit, Michigan, who started a band called The White Stripes with his ex-wife Meg, used artifice, showmanship and aesthetics to reacquaint us with the soul and truth of the blues, and now, as a solo artist, record producer, label boss and concert impresario, has become one of the most confounding and fascinating musical figures of the times.
These are men who made their own strange stories, fashioned their own futures, under their nation’s broad stripes and bright stars. This last Jack White wasn’t born a Jack White. He was born John Gillis, on 9 July 1975, to Teresa and Gorman Gillis, who lived in the part of southwest Detroit known as Mexicantown.
The youngest of 10 children, Jack taught himself to drum so that he could play along with his six older brothers. In his teens, he started working as an upholsterer’s apprentice and when he was 21 he set up his own business, Third Man Upholstery. He had bright yellow business cards made up, upon which a picture of a tack and the words “Your furniture is not dead” were printed in black. Around that time, he met a music-obsessed barmaid from Grosse Point Farms, Detroit, called Megan White (though some accounts say they met in high school).
In 1996, she picked up a pair of drumsticks for the first time, agreed to marry him, and John Gillis became Jack White. Most of this I learn from The White Stripes: Sweethearts of the Blues by Denise Sullivan, one of those paperback rock biographies they sell in chain record stores, which offers more factual detail (though it does say his father’s name was “Gordon”) than Jack himself has ever revealed in one go. Meg, famously, has never been much of a talker. By the time The White Stripes’ self-titled debut album had caught the eye of the Radio 1 DJ John Peel in a Dutch record shop, and through his championing the band had become a phenomenon in the UK in 2001, and then gradually in the rest of Europe and the US, the pair had actually divorced, in 2000.
Not that they let on, of course – they were pretending to be brother and sister. Since then, White has had a brief relationship with the actress Renée Zellweger, whom he met on the set of the Anthony Minghella film Cold Mountain; got married again, to the English model, Karen Elson, presided over by a shaman on a canoe in the Amazon; had two children, Scarlett, six, and Henry Lee, five; resettled in Nashville in a house decorated with taxidermy on the road on which Hank Williams once lived; started two new bands, The Raconteurs and The Dead Weather; set up a record label, store and concert venue also in Nashville, painted black and yellow in homage to his furniture business; got divorced again, in 2011, to celebrate which he and Elson threw a party for their friends; and then The White Stripes officially called it quits.
White enjoys tall stories and malleable truths, but obfuscation is also a modus operandi. He later claimed The White Stripes had put the siblings/spouses confusion out there, along with their strict and startling red-white-and-a-little-black colour scheme, to create an aesthetic and biographical intrigue that distracted from the real nature of their game: to revivify the blues.
By his own design, Jack White himself is something of a riddle; a question mark. A white boy who plays the black man’s blues. A virtuoso guitarist who strips music back to its bare bones. An old-time showman with rarefied artistic principles. A monomaniacal mastermind who relishes the tyrannies of the universe. A backwards-looking visionary. On 30 September 2012, 6,000 people have come to see Jack White perform a sold-out show at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.
White has been touring his album, Blunderbuss — marketed as his “debut”, despite him having put out six albums with The White Stripes and two albums each with The Dead Weather and The Raconteurs – since its release in April, when it went straight to number one in the British and American album charts. He’s kept things interesting for himself and his audiences by mixing headline gigs and major auditoria with free shows at surprise venues — an auto-repair shop in Denver, Colorado; a Laundromat in Portland, Oregon — as well as bringing along two backing bands, the all-male Buzzards and the all-female Peacocks, only determining which will accompany him on the morning of each performance.
A few minutes after 9pm, roadies in suits and hats remove white dust-sheets to reveal a drum kit, a piano, a pedal steel guitar and a charcoal-grey double bass, clustered defensively in the middle of the stage. White and his band — the Buzzards this time — stride out to the openings bars of “Freedom at 21” from Blunderbuss. From the first note the sound is hard, defiant, the band are taking no prisoners.
White, in dark red trousers, blue shirt, waistcoat and checked tie, drives them on, mercilessly. Something feels off. Three songs in, the little girl next to me buries her head in her mother’s lap. There’s a disconnect between the audience standing in front of their plush, pink velvet seats and clapping politely, and the tight cabal of musicians, their instruments surrounding them like circled wagons.
Just after 10pm, with some suspiciously sarcastic-sounding thanks and professions of love for New York, Jack White and his band exit the stage. A minute or so later, the lights come up. Then the elevator music comes on. The message is clear: Jack’s not coming back. At first the audience doesn’t believe it. A roadie emerges on to the stage, but it’s only to unplug a guitar and walk off with it. An elderly usher in faded maroon livery – less Gregory Peck, more James Earl Jones – starts pacing the aisle. “It’s definitely over!” he repeats. The people in their seats smile back at him but go nowhere. At 24 minutes past 10, there’s the first boo.
The guy behind me gets on his phone. “This guy’s not fucking serious is he? He’s gonna cause a fuckin’ riot,” he spits. “You pay for a Pearl Jam ticket? They play for you for two and a half-hours, non-stop.” At half past ten, the famous golden Radio City curtain is lowered over the stage to the loudest round of boos yet, and people finally start to give up, shouting “Bullshit!” and “Fuck Jack White!” as they head for the exits.
The next day, Sunday, the Esquire photo-shoot goes ahead as planned, in a studio space in Brooklyn. The interview, which is due to happen immediately afterwards, is looking shakier. Waiting in a café nearby, I’m told yes, it’s on, get set (I’m already carrying around the bottles of Diet Dr Pepper and Coke Zero that I’ve been instructed to provide) and then that it’s off, and that I need to fly to Montreal in a couple of days. The timing’s too tight, Jack needs to get back to Manhattan to prepare for tonight’s Radio City show. The small hitch with this explanation is that when the photo-shoot finishes, Jack and his entourage walk around the corner, and just so happen to go into the bowling alley that just so happens to be facing the café in which I just so happen to be waiting.
Seeing as I haven’t met them yet and they don’t know what I look like, I follow them in. Sure enough, there in the far lane, behind the chattering kids and parents and some silver foil helium balloons in the shape of a “3” and an “0”, I see the unmistakable mop of black hair step towards the foul line. Jack White is bowling, and when a man’s got to bowl, you leave him alone. Two days later, I’m in the Monet banqueting hall in the Sofitel hotel in downtown Montreal, waiting for White to arrive. On one side of the room there’s a leather sofa, a coffee table and two chairs; on the other a vast expanse of drab carpet. Should either of us get the urge to do a tension-relieving cartwheel, it shouldn’t be a problem.
Jack’s tour manager Lalo Medina, an efficient Elvis Costello look-a-like in a black suit and hat, is urging the waitresses to hurry up already with the Coke Zero. Clearly, the man likes his aspartame. And then he’s here, pouring himself a coffee and lighting a cigarillo and talking delightedly about his kids’ funny half-English, half-southern-American accents. Profile writers often comment on how tall White seems in the flesh – he’s an inch or two over six foot – perhaps because he and Meg with their red and white togs and peppermint-swirl drum set always seemed like some kind of rock’n’roll munchkins. He looks normal-guy height to me, but where he does seem out of the ordinary is the get-up, which is more cartoonish in person than it does on stage.
Today he’s wearing black trousers, a tight black T-shirt, a grey-striped boxy jacket and a black hat with a feather in the band, from beneath which his shock of black hair protrudes. His skin has a powdery whiteness to it. On his feet are sparklingly clean black-and-white two-tone brogues and equally dazzling white socks (the only colour he wears).
Jack had yesterday off and spent some time with the individual members of his bands. He talked about “religion, tobacco and fiddle players” with the Peacocks’ violinist, Lillie Mae Rische, and went to the movies with the Peacocks’ drummer Carla Azar to see the Bruce Willis sci-fi movie Looper, which he says he liked. So far, so normal; but his assessment of it is typical of the way a Jack White conversational thread develops.
“I was really pleasantly surprised how good it was, because sometimes time travel movies give you a headache trying to make sense of it,” he says; he talks at rapid-fire speed. “Because you know, Stephen Hawking has stated that time travel in the past is impossible. Time travel in the future is very much a possibility. You can always go into the future: you just have to go fast, you just have to go at the speed of light. So you can always go into the future, that’s never been a problem. But going into the past is impossible. But that aside, reality aside, it was a good movie.”
White doesn’t do small talk. Or rather, his small talk always ends up turning into big talk. This makes interviewing him tricky. Not because he’s not interesting – quite the reverse: he’s likeable and engaging and laughs a lot – but because his answers to seemingly straightforward questions tend to meander off at unexpected, ruminative tangents that leave me full of more things to ask him but quite unable to remember quite what my original question was. Of course this could be a ploy – to rabbit on entertainingly about all sorts, and leave me less and less time to probe him about his personal life – but at least it’s an enjoyable experience.
To borrow his own phrase about Bob Dylan, one of his heroes who he can now call a friend, “He’s very good at making sure you don’t know him.” Many of our conversational strands end up being rerouted to what celebrity means in the current age, about what it is to be an artist. It’s obviously something that he’s thought about a lot, and which troubles him sometimes. “The goal of modern celebrity,” he begins, “is to make yourself into the lowest common denominator. ‘Hey, I’m a guy just like you. I like a beer, a football game…’ Especially in reality television, you’ll see people will go so far as to make a fool out of themselves just to prove that. I don’t want to see a reality show about Michelangelo. You know, Clint Eastwood is doing one with his family [Mrs Eastwood & Company] and it’s such a disappointment. Forget the speech, man,” he says, referring to the Hollywood actor’s bizarre monologue at the Republican National Convention in Florida in August.
“The speech was cool compared to that. There’s no reason to put yourself in a position that makes things completely unspecial.” Does that mean Lady Gaga, who has been known to cook pasta at home in Louboutin heels and full black-and-white wig, is an example of a celebrity who really lives their vision? “I don’t think she lives it,” says White, “because it’s all artifice. It’s all image with no meaning behind it. You can’t sink your teeth into it. It’s a sound-bite. It’s very of this age, because that’s what people want. They want a Twitter line, a gif, a jpeg, an MP3. Twitter is the most perfect example of modern living. It’s very interesting. You know, just a side opinion about Twitter,” and he’s off: “I think the only people who should have [Twitter accounts] are comedians. Because it’s all about one-liners. I would love it if Conan O’Brien or Reggie Watts or Stephen Colbert were to walk into a room and tell me one joke and leave. But you don’t want Gore Vidal telling you ‘I’m doing my dishes right now.’”
Jack’s own sense of being an artist seems have to have emerged pretty early on. He says his family has recordings of him singing Johnny Cash songs when he was three or four years old: “I don’t think I knew all the lyrics but I had the gist of it.” His upbringing, the last in the family’s large litter, during one of Detroit’s final phases of “white flight”, gave him a particular outsider’s perspective.
“My mom’s Polish and she was born in the Depression. I was raised by people who were senior citizens, along with nine brothers and sisters. So I was really raised like a kid in the Forties from Europe, plucked in the middle of blue-collar America. We’d go to Catholic school and that was a decaying religion in Detroit at the time because there were no white people left — they’d all moved away — and Detroit was already decaying as well. But all of that showed me the beauty of music, song-writing structure, family, folk, culture. All of those were involved in constructing how I looked at the world.” It can’t have been much fun at the time, though, trying to relate to kids his own age. “Yeah, I didn’t really have…” he stops. “My friends were really not… I went to an all-Mexican school and graduated to an all-black high school, and I’m coming home and watching The Godfather and listening to Hank Williams and reading about the Second World War or whatever, and at school everyone’s doing none of that!” He laughs loudly, like a Gatling gun.
“You don’t really know what’s cool any more, and I had so many older brothers and sisters and I cared what they thought so much. I was indoctrinated to assume that if I was ever going to attempt anything new in my life, it had to be approved through that committee.” (The committee had its uses though. His brother, Joe, sold him his first four-track, and gave him a guitar he still uses today in return for helping to move a refrigerator.)
As a teenager, he started going to coffee houses in Detroit, hanging out with older artists, and playing songs, reading with them, going to their studios and having “these really long pack-and-a-half-of-cigarettes conversations with people 30 years older than me.” It doesn’t sound that different to his life now; he’s been embraced by an elder generation of legendary musicians including Dylan (who, he told The New York Times in April, has been teaching him to weld) and Jimmy Page, with whom he appeared in a 2009 documentary about guitars called It Might Get Loud. “They know that we’re all part of a family together and they came before I did and they know that I know and respect that. Those are all my aunts and uncles.” What links them, says White, is the blues.
“It’s strange because it seemed like the old school might not have gotten [The White Stripes] but because we were so blues-based they couldn’t help it.” Despite the considerable success of his solo record, The White Stripes, who grew up through Detroit’s late-Nineties garage-punk scene, will probably always be the band by which he is defined. I wonder if he misses them since they split. “Yeah, I always will miss The White Stripes,” he says. “My dad’s dead; it’s like saying do you miss your dad? [Gorman Gillis died in 2006.] Of course, I always will. How could I not?” And is he still in touch with Meg? “Uh, not too often. She doesn’t answer her phone so it’s very hard to talk to her.” Jack’s relationship with Meg has always been one of the most curious aspects of the band. Not the whole brother-sister ruse, but the dynamic between them. He seemed to dominate, doing nearly all of the talking and often speaking of Meg’s “childlike” drumming ability with a wonderment that could seem condescending. Not that she’s complaining of course: she’s since remarried, to the musician Jackson Smith, and faded further from public view than ever. Her silence – be it through anxiety or incredible self-possession – means that the legacy of The White Stripes, if there is to be one, is pretty much down to Jack alone.
“It’s strange to know that there’s beautiful moments that no one will ever know about. Moments on the stage, or in the studio. It’s whether or not I’m going to tell you, because Meg’s never going to tell you. There’s a sadness to that, a romance. When you experience something beautiful the first thing you want to do is share it with people. In The White Stripes, it was impossible to share the good moments with Meg because she was very uninterested. If something nice happened to us, it wasn’t like we would hug or have a drink. That wasn’t what went on.”
Even when recording, Jack sometimes found himself alone in a crowd. “We would record a White Stripes song in a studio, and it would be me and Meg and an engineer. So we would finish a mix of a song and I’d say, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good!’ I’d look around and Meg would just be sitting there, and the engineer would just be sitting there. So it would be sorta like, ‘OK… let’s just move onto the next one.’ It was just me by myself. But it was the best thing for me. It taught me a lot about trusting my gut. Now I take that wherever I go.”
There’s trusting your gut and there’s imposing your will, and sometimes it has seemed White has done as much of the latter as the former. Not only because of his perceived relationship with Meg, but even the look and scheme of the Blunderbuss tour, with its two backing bands waiting to be summoned at his whim, and the stage design’s heavy use of blue, White’s latest colour fascination, and the Roman numerals “III” — they are emblazoned on the lights, and partway through his set a backdrop of three giant slashes is revealed. White has been obsessed with the number three since having a staple-related epiphany while reupholstering a couch; he often uses the name “Jack White III” and he wears a ring with the three marks on it on his wedding finger. For him, it represents the Holy trinity of music: storytelling, rhythm and melody (though given his Catholic upbringing, it’s not hard to imagine a more fundamental spiritual influence is also at play).
“Some reviewer saw the show recently and thought because of the colours and that the girls in the band were wearing dresses that equals I’m a control freak, that I sit down and we have rehearsals and I pinpoint every detail,” says Jack, lifting up his hat from the crown, like a kettle lid releasing steam. “I can see that, yes. I can say 100 per cent of the crowd might get that feeling, but if they saw me working, they would be shocked. My meeting for the whole tour probably took about 15 minutes.” In fact, he argues, the live shows are freewheeling affairs.
“We don’t have a set list on stage and people in the crowd find out a few songs in that that’s what’s going on. I want people to understand that this is not rehearsed. This is happening. In the moment. And you’re part of it.” Which brings me neatly, if a little uncomfortably, to the whole Radio City thing. I’d gone to the second night, too, the Sunday, and the difference between the two could not have been more pronounced. With The Peacocks this time, White had put on a show that crackled with energy, urgency and yes — sexual chemistry — and the crowd, perhaps cautioned by the events of the evening before, had given it all they had. (The press had indeed reported that an “angry crowd” had formed after White “abruptly” ended the Saturday show, but the news story was overshadowed by Canadian pop-moppet Justin Bieber, who threw up on stage in Arizona on the same night.)
They were certainly contrasting experiences, I say. “Ha!” laughs White. “Yeah, it was two different shows.” And why the difference? “I think the first night, the mob had decided they’re going to go watch Gone with the Wind,” he says. “In these times, it feels like a lot of people think a rock’n’roll show is the same as going to the movies, that a ticket is an emblem of entitlement. Whether they know it or not, the crowd’s in control of my show, not me. If I was playing in an old folks’ home, and I played a couple of songs from the Forties and everyone clapped, and then I put on an electric guitar and played a Jimi Hendrix song and everyone started covering their ears, now I know the next song I do should not be electric and loud. I saw that first night, just hundreds of people straight-up not clapping. So I have no idea what to pick for the next song. I have no duty to explain to them how this all works. And also I have a duty to provoke.” Curiously, the first night, as the ship was going down, White talked a lot, often admonishing the crowd with a demonic smile (“Quiet down, I’m trying to hear myself think!”).
The second night, he spoke hardly at all and didn’t smile once. “I’m glad you caught that,” he says. “I was trying to prove a point to them. People might not have understood what I was saying to them at the mic. They want to think it was anger or diva-like behaviour. It was exactly the opposite. They were the ones telling me what to do. Smiling is the exact opposite of what they want at that moment. It’s confusing and that’s exactly where I want to be. You can’t give them an easy Democrat or Republican version of everything. Life isn’t like that. Love isn’t like that. Beauty isn’t like that. I’m going to grab this Coca-Cola.”
I tell him I’d been carrying around a bottle of Diet Dr Pepper, but unfortunately couldn’t fly with it in my hand luggage. He looks confused. “Diet Dr Pepper? That’s what you like?” No, I say, that’s what I was told you like. “Oh really? That’s funny, I must have asked for it one day when I was in London or something.” And then he’s off on an amusing tangent about the perils of ordering drinks in Europe, where The Dead Weather would get weird looks at a bar for ordering a “French martini” of Chambord, vodka and pineapple juice (“It’s like it’s not manly enough or something, but pineapples are prickly and vodka is pretty hard core”), or the London barista who called him “big man” when he asked for a coffee with skimmed milk (“I should have asked for soy…”).
With that, Lalo pokes his head round the door for a second to tell me to wrap things up. I have time for one more question. I pick what I fear may be a corny one. What’s your favourite American folk song? He has a couple of answers. “Grinnin’ in Your Face,” by the blues legend Son House, which he references often, and then when I say I was thinking more on the lines of older, sing-along stuff, he offers Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”. “It’s written by an American about America inside of America, forever. America in a big sense is an arbitrary notion. It’s also the world. It’s society. It’s everything about human existence. That’s the hard part when you listen to something like that. Like the actual [US] national anthem for example. It can make me cry. When it gets to the line, ‘Oh say does that star-spangled banner yet wave, o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?’” he pauses, “it can really get you man. Because you have a question mark at the end of that… I’m sorry. It’s just such a beautiful thing.” I look up from my notes and realise White is welling up. “As a songwriter, to question the audience, to question the listener, to question the person who’s singing… To make the people ask the same question out-loud… Does this flag actually wave across the land of the free? Does it? You know? The idea that you’re involved together. Not alone. Not by yourself. As a culture.” He pauses a last time, seeming to suppress a sob. “I think that’s very beautiful.” Jack White (not his real name) sits there, quiet for a moment, transfixed again by the possibilities of the question mark.
Interview by Miranda Collinge
Photographs by David Slijper
Styling by Catherine Hayward