Benjamin Nugent – “White Lies and the White Stripes” (2001)

February 15, 2011 at 10:59 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A Time magazine article from June 16, 2001 of the now-sadly-defunct White Stripes…

It’s a comfort to realize that even in the Internet age, rock ‘n’ roll still knows how to keep a secret. To most of the media (The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The New Yorker, for example), Detroit’s neo-garage rock duo, The White Stripes, are siblings. After all, singer/guitarist Jack White, 25, and drummer Meg White, 26, have the same jet black hair and pale complexion, often perform in matching red and white outfits, and introduce themselves as brother and sister. But to Detroit, and to knowledgeable fans across the nation, the White Stripes are, first, a band with great songs and a distinctive sound, and second, a former husband and wife with a savvy sibling act that has duped the press.In 1996, John (Jack) Gillis and Megan (Meg) White, got married, and Jack took Meg’s last name. Jack says he grew up with ten older siblings in the southwest Detroit house he currently shares with roommates, and this is rumored to be true. Meg, he claims, grew up in the suburb of Grosse Pointe.  By 1997, they had formed The White Stripes, and over the next two years they recorded an obscure, worthy self-titled album and numerous obscure, worthy singles. Last year they divorced, but the band remained intact and released its most immediately accessible album to date, De Stijl. It’s unclear precisely when they began to call themselves brother and sister, but by the time Rolling Stone declared them one of 2001’s “Next Big Things” the charade was on. Now their upcoming third album, White Blood Cells (June 25, Sympathy for the Record Industry) is garnering well-earned rave reviews and the press is still deluded.

A few big publications have seen the light: on May 11 Entertainment Weekly reported “the rumor is she’s his ex-wife,” and on June 15 the New York Times finally got the facts right in a blurb, after buying the falsehood in an earlier article. In the Detroit area press, it’s old news that the Whites were once bride and groom. But the myth is still at large: The New Yorker, usually considered fact-checking’s vaunted ideal, refers to the White Stripes in its current issue as “two siblings from Detroit.”

It’s remarkable that their sibling ruse has been so effective on the coasts, but its no mystery why the White Stripes have attracted notice. Over their past two albums, they’ve built up a precociously large roster of simple, nigh-perfect tunes, from rave-ups redolent of mid-’60s rock (“You’re Pretty Good Looking”) to childlike love songs (“We’re Going to be Friends.”) Jack’s vocals and guitar are sharp and plaintive and precise, and Meg’s rhythms have drive and swing. Predictably, they wish their music would get all the attention, and don’t speak on the record about the sibling issue. One can only speculate about what purpose the fib serves for them, but it seems likely they’re loath to gab about their divorce and they hope to exercise some control over the hype descending upon them. At any rate, it’s clear they have their reservations about being exposed to media scrutiny. The cover of White Blood Cells depicts a horde of black-clad attackers surrounding the two band members; open the CD case, and a second picture reveals the thugs to be paparazzi with cameras. “A lot of the lyrics are kind of paranoid,” says Jack, of White Blood Cells. “It does kind of match all these figures coming at us on the cover.” The song “A Little Room,” he says, is about how “attention is both good and bad,” a theme that runs through the album. A raspy, fifty-second guide to living with fame, the song cautions, “You might have to think of how you got started/Sitting in your little room.”

Jack’s room is still pretty small, in the literal sense; a modest-sized bed and some shelves take up the better part of it. But as he is pointing out various junk sculptures and random red and white objects in his house, a friend surfing the Internet calls him into a room that has become a slapdash White Stripes office to show him something on the screen: a copy of the first White Stripes single has just sold for $100 on eBay. “It was at $68 yesterday,” Jack laughs, shaking his head in amazement. Soon after, the keyboardist for the Black Crowes calls about Kate Hudson and Chris Robinson’s guest list for an upcoming show. “Yeah, we’re going on Craig Kilborn,” Jack mentions to him casually. “Yeah, it’s our first time doing TV.” (That appearance is scheduled for next month.) The White Stripes may have only sold around 25,000 albums in total, but celebrity appears to be steadily knocking at the door of their little room.

Fame, so far, doesn’t appear to bring many pleasures for the band. “I hate encores, I hate autographs, I hate T-shirts,” Jack says succinctly. But at the White Stripes’ most recent show in Detroit, the last of three consecutive sold- out performances in the area, the pleasure the crowd took at the two local kids’ success was palpable. The bartenders showed up clad in the band’s signature red and white, and Jack was able to let the audience take over vocal duties on a few memorable lines. For that matter, it was hard not to be moved by a video tape an elementary school teacher from nearby Kalamazoo sent Jack of her class belting out “Apple Blossom,” a song from De Stijl. “I cried the first time I saw this,” Jack mutters as he watches it. Somehow, it’s easy to believe him. And it’s hard to begrudge him his right to nudge the spotlight toward his band, and away from his private life, by any means available. Even at the expense of the truth.

Benjamin Nugent

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