Primary Colors

My best friend, Lindsey, was obsessed with "Jolene" as a child and used to sneak drawing pictures of Jolene in class with a fellow nine-year-old. They were fascinated by what Jolene could possibly have looked like if she could take the indubitably foxy Dolly Parton's man for sport. Well, what about if Jolene were up against 25-year-old singer-guitarist-pianist Jack White, who sings to her, as Dolly does, "Please don't take my man"? Interesting: It's not as if the White Stripes never change the lyrics in the songs they cover. In their rollicking "Lord, Send Me an Angel," from Blind Willie McTell, Willie's "Macon brown" lady becomes a special shade of "Detroit brown." (Notable too is the magnificently titled McTell tune "Your Southern Can Is Mine," the closing track on last year's De Stijl; the band also does songs by Son House, Robert Johnson, Bob Dylan, and even Marlene Dietrich.)

At the sold-out Bowery Ballroom a few weeks back, the White Stripes just looked like two people clowning around—Jack kept jumping up and down, but not in an orchestrated "badass" way, and Meg White was totally phlegmatic on drums, sleepy eyed and chilling as though some dude really did recruit his older sister to play when his best friend got the clap. The story goes that Meg, with no prior experience, literally stumbled into playing drums one day when Jack was practicing in their attic. And De Stijl actually was cut in their living room in southwestern Detroit.

Jack reportedly grew up the seventh son in a Catholic family of 10, Meg's junior by nine months, which sounds sort of romantically false. The band does however thank God and Family before anybody else on every LP. (White Blood Cells' heavy opener, "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," sums up the big picture with its quavery conclusion about the Holy Ghost.) But these pale, brown-haired "Candy Cane Children" (the name of an early single on a Christmas-themed comp) are psychologically siblings at least. They've never had a set list; they just follow each other. Meg, who has a preternaturally adorable, doughy, round li'l button of a face, performs makeup-less and barefoot, and she's always biting her lip while smiling at Jack. Sometimes he comes over to the drumkit and sings to her. And she doesn't say a single word.

Psychologically siblings at least
photo: Patrick Pantano
Psychologically siblings at least


The White Stripes
White Blood Cells
Sympathy for the Record Industry

The band always dons white and red onstage; Jack sometimes just wears a white T-shirt with "Blind Willie McTell" scrawled in red marker. He's less cute in person than in pictures, but that non-cuteness makes him more cute, and he always wears a necklace made from machinery—it's right there on the cover of White Blood Cells, and it says "Property of the Ford Motor Company." Speaking of which, the Stripes' furious, screeching 1999 single "The Big Three Killed My Baby" is their best non-pretty song. "I just can't stand cars," Jack, a former upholsterer, elucidates. "I think they are the worst money pits and killing machines of all time."

There's an awesome interview with Jack on the Internet, by a five-year-old Detroit boy named Lucas, who listens to the White Stripes in the car with his mom and thinks that Jack White is 10 years old. (I would too if I didn't know better, listening to "We're Going to Be Friends"—the sheerest, kindest, simplest melody on White Blood Cells—with its joyful lists including "numbers, letters, learn to spell/nouns and books and show and tell.") Lucas examines issues like "What color is the schoolbus in the song 'Sister, Do You Know My Name?' " The answer is blue. (Re the dominance of peppermint-themed colors, "Why are you mad at the color blue?") Lucas also wants to know why White Blood Cells has such a crazy name and why "are those shadow people bothering you on the front cover?" Jack: "The shadow-people might be bacteria coming at us and Meg and I are the white blood cells. Or maybe it means white blood 'sells' and the bacteria are media and music lovers." And referring to the line "pretty tough to think about the beginning of December" in my favorite new song, "The Same Boy You've Always Known," Lucas also asks Jack, like, what's wrong with December? Because, y'know, December is when Christmas is!

"The Same Boy You've Always Known" has this sort of not fakely presented falsetto, like serious New Kids on the Block, but less tinny, with more shimmering bravura. Or maybe it's Tommy James and the Shondells: "We're laying down again/on a blanket in the clover," and you just know how crimson the blanket is. I think we're alone now, and the simple drumming keeps fabulously fundamental, crashing time, like it's your heart beating in mildly terrifying exhilaration when that ostensible sweet thing's about to do everything. (Jack compares Meg's simple style to Moe Tucker's. "You can get a regular drummer any day of the week.")

Jack's voice can be very pretty, in an obsessive, cracking way; its textured edginess is the opposite of an acquired taste. When he sings really high, it's freaky, fun, passionate. He himself admits, "It's a lot more boring when I sing low than high, a lot less expressive." But despite his maybe-we'll-fuck teenagerness, the mood on White Blood Cells isn't pervy. And it's not awesomely angry, either. It's broody.

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