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Page 45


ily band, and that she was his sister. Be-
tween 1999 and 2007, they made six rec-
ords. (The group split up in 2011.) Their
second record, “De Stijl,” made in 2000,
was an homage to the nineteen-twenties
Dutch modernist movement of the same
name, whose members included the
painter Piet Mondrian. De Stijl reduced
artistic forms to fundamental terms, and
the notion of restrictions appealed to
White, who believes that, as far as his
imagination is concerned, having too
many choices is stultifying. The number
three is essential to his purposes. He says
it entered his awareness one day when
he was an apprentice in the upholstery
shop. He saw that the owner had used
three staples to secure a piece of fabric
and he realized that “three was the min-
imum number of staples an upholsterer
could use and call a piece done.” The
White Stripes were built around the
theme of three—guitar, drums, and voice.
As both a stance and a misdirection, they
wore only red, white, and black. White
wanted the White Stripes to play the
blues, but he didn’t want to be seen as a
boy-girl band attempting them.

“The first thought when we started
was that we were an art project with
punk-rock theatre,” White said in the
car. “My voice was so cartoony, so high.
We were playing with how much can we
mix it all with the blues.” Just as De Stijl
was about compressing forms, “the blues
were taking music down to three chords,
twelve bars, three lines,” White said. “The
simplest components. You’ll see some of
that in this house.”

The house was at the end of a cul-de-
sac, on a wooded lot. It was long, like a
barge, with a flat roof and rows of win-
dows along the front. Its previous owner,
a man named Dave Corner, was stand-
ing in the driveway. He had white hair
and was wearing jeans and an untucked
shirt. White sees many of his experiences
as worth documenting, and he had hired
a film crew to record him and Corner
talking about the house. He wore a tight
black suit, a black shirt, a yellow tie, and
yellow plastic wing tips for the occasion.
While the crew set up indoors, he paced
in the driveway. White’s manner is rest-
less—a foot or a leg or an implement in
his hand is nearly always in motion. His
bright shoes rising and falling against the
pavement made him appear to be dancing.

The camera crew was in the living

room, at one end of the house. Corner
sat on a couch and White sat in a chair
beside him, as if on a talk show. White
asked Corner what his favorite part of
the house was. “This living room,” Cor-
ner said. “It’s so peaceful.” The room had
windows that rose to the ceiling, and be-
yond the windows were woods. White
asked what the rain sounded like on the
flat roof. “Like heaven,” Corner said.
White said that in Nashville he’d had
microphones installed under the eaves
of his home, so that he could hear the
rain better. He has two young children,
a boy and a girl, from his second mar-
riage, and he said that his ability to make
the rain louder had led them to believe
that he controlled the weather.

ore people know a fragment of
White’s music than know his name.

That is because the signature guitar ri�
from his song “Seven Nation Army,”
which the White Stripes recorded in
2003, became an internationally ubiqui-
tous stadium anthem. It might be the
second-best-known guitar phrase in pop-
ular music, after the one from “Satisfac-
tion.” It consists of seven deliberate, some-
what ominous, mainly descending notes.
When the phrase occurred to White, he
thought he might use it if he was ever
hired to write a song for a Bond movie.

“Seven-nation army” is how White
pronounced “Salvation Army” as a child.
He was born John Gillis, and was the
seventh son and last child among seven
boys and two girls. One of his brothers
is deceased, and White is sometimes
plagued by the thought that he might be
the last in his family to die, after hold-
ing vigils for the others. His siblings in-
clude a postal inspector, a property man-
ager, a child psychiatrist, a pastry chef,
and a musical archivist and musician.

I asked one of his brothers, Stephen
Gillis, what White was like as a child.
“Very energetic, always doing something,”
Gillis said. “He still has the same person-
ality. His brothers and sisters would take
him to the movies, and when his musi-
cian brothers needed a drummer they
said, ‘Keep a beat for us.’ Our father did
building maintenance. He also did radio-
and-TV repair, and that merged into hi-fi
systems. He had reel-to-reel tape record-
ers, and we always had music.” White
was an altar boy, and during high school
he was accepted at a seminary in Wis-

consin. “I was thinking I might become
a priest,” he said. “At the last moment, I
learned I couldn’t bring my guitar.”

As a teen-ager, White began to sweep
up in the shop of an upholsterer, next
door to his parents’ house. When he was
twenty-one, he opened his own shop
and called it Third Man Upholstery, be-
cause he was the third upholsterer on
the block. Black and yellow, the colors
of Stanley tools, signify work for White,
and were the colors of his business. He
had a yellow van and a yellow cutting
table, and he wrote his invoices in black
crayon on yellow paper. “The bill itself
was a poem,” he said. “No one under-
stood it—‘I just wanted my dad’s wing-
back chair fixed,’ they’d say. The presen-
tation wasn’t good for business.”
(Employees at Third Man Records wear
black outfits with yellow accents.)

Aficionados of White Stripes lore tend
to believe that half-Polish Jack Gillis met
Meg White in 1993, at a co�eehouse in
Hamtramck, a Polish neighborhood of
Detroit, where he occasionally played folk
songs and read poetry on open-mike
nights. (White says that he doesn’t re-
member any of that; “Meg was just al-
ways there,” he wrote me.) Jack and Meg
married in 1996, and he took her name;
he is legally John White. They lived in
the house that he had grown up in, which
he had bought from his parents, in a neigh-
borhood called Mexicantown.

The White Stripes began in 1997, on
“a day we were in the attic, and I was
recording something, and I asked,
‘Would you mind playing a simple beat
for me?’ ” White said. “I didn’t tell her
what to do. Maybe I said a couple things.
She sat down and did it.” What she did
struck him as childlike and una�ected
by the wish to impress.

The White Stripes’ first paying gig,
for a percentage of the door, was at a
Detroit club called the Gold Dollar, on
August 14, 1997. Neil Yee, who owned
the place, told me that most bands put
their amplifiers on the floor or on chairs.
White put his on a pedestal draped with
a red cloth. He and Meg wore red-
and-white clothes. Most of the audi-
ence stepped outside to talk or smoke.
Among those who stayed was a musi-
cian named Dave Buick, who now works
at Third Man Rec ords. Buick was in-
trigued by the clothes and the care that
White took to arrange the stage. “Just

Page 46


the visual part alone was enough to get
me curious,” he said.

Buick had inherited a little money
from his father, and he used some of it to
record Detroit bands and issue vinyl sin­
gles. About five weeks later, having heard
the White Stripes a few more times, Buick
saw White in a club and asked if he would
like to make a record. White
asked how much it would
cost. Buick said about five
hundred dollars, and, before
he could say that he would
pay for it, White said he
couldn’t afford it and walked
away. A few weeks passed be­
fore Buick saw White again
and could explain.

In their living room, the
White Stripes recorded one of
White’s songs, called “Let’s Shake Hands,”
along with “Look Me Over Closely,” which
Marlene Dietrich had recorded, in 1953.
“It wasn’t what we expected,” Buick said.
White says that the song was a declara­
tion that the White Stripes weren’t going
to observe punk proprieties. Buick pressed
a thousand copies, which the band sold at
their shows and which Buick took to rec­
ord stores and clubs around the Midwest.

After making another single with
Buick, the White Stripes made three al­
bums with an independent label in Cal­
ifornia, then signed with V2 Records, in
the U.S., and XL Recordings, in England.
“Elephant,” their next record, was released
in 2003, and went to No. 1 in England
and No. 6 in the U.S., which unnerved
them. “We had no business being in the
mainstream,” White said. “We assumed
the music we were making was private, in
a way. We were from the scenario where
there are fifty people in every town. Some­
thing about us was beyond our control,
though. Now it’s five hundred people, now
it’s a second night, what is going on? Is
everybody out of their minds?”

Jack and Meg divorced in 2000.
In 2007, the White Stripes, on tour,
abruptly cancelled eighteen dates, say­
ing that Meg was suffering from “acute
anxiety.” They never toured again. For
years, Jack was crestfallen.

Meg lives in Detroit and hasn’t con­
sented to be interviewed in years—
through a friend, she politely declined my
request. Jack says that she was endlessly
criticized for the simplicity of her play­
ing, and he wonders whether the assault

finally wore her down. She did nothing
fancy, but she did something astute and
original. She played almost entirely on
the beat, with no adornments, which left
silence and vacancies in places that more
conventional drummers usually fill. She
was a novice when she started, but by
the end she had developed a refined ver­

sion of minimalism. If you
like the way she played, you
can’t get that fix anywhere else.

hite is tall and phys­
ically imposing. He

still has the White Stripes
haircut, parted in the mid­
dle, with long bangs like ten­
tacles, but, lately, unless he’s
onstage, he usually combs his
hair back. In civilian life he

looks a little like Astro Boy. He has a high
forehead, a sharp nose, and a pliable face.
His speaking voice is husky, and lower
than you might expect if you knew only
his singing. He says he is a vocalist
more than a singer. “I don’t have a sing­
the­national­anthem voice,” he said one
day while we were driving around Nash­
ville. “What I do is vocalize characters.”

White’s temperament is purposeful,
and his attention is constant, verging on
watchful, which can make him seem ag­
gressive. He drinks coffee steadily. His
stage manner is agitated. Before per­
forming, “I’m drinking a Red Bull, a shot
of whiskey,” he said. “I’m backstage with
a baseball bat breaking things. You have
to work yourself up into a frenzy.” He
can respond immoderately if he thinks
he’s been crossed. In Detroit, in 2003, he
got into a fistfight in a bar with another
musician and was ordered by the court
to take anger­management classes. He
tends to move abruptly among tasks.
“White wore me out,” Ry Cooder, who
produced a recent Third Man record,
told me. “I wasn’t prepared. He had a big
Mercedes, with a custom sound system,
and he drove like hell through Nashville
traffic, with Slim Harpo at DefCon 1
volume. We pulled into a filling station,
he jumped out, gassed up, jumped back
in, and tore ass out of the station and
made a bad U­turn in front of traffic. He
worried me a little. What if he’d left the
pump hose in the tank? What then?”

In the White Stripes, White played
cheap guitars, hoping to make plain
that the instrument is not the point.

Now he has his guitars chopped like hot
rods. A White guitar solo is often a se­
ries of collisions, a challenge to a song
to defend itself. He likes fat, sludgy tones
and clipped attacks, often repeating a
note as if he were throttling it.

When White was eighteen or nine­
teen, he heard Son House’s recording of
“Grinnin’ in Your Face,” an admonishing
chant with hand claps (“Don’t you mind
people grinnin’ in your face / Just bear
this in mind / A true friend is hard to
find”), which is still one of his favorite
songs. The White Stripes performed it
occasionally as an interlude, and White
wrote a type of response called “Little
Room,” which appears on “White Blood
Cells,” the band’s third record, from 2001.
“Little Room” is a pithy and circular hom­
ily on the anxieties of the creative life; it
might almost be a piece of needlepoint.
“Well, you’re in your little room / and
you’re working on something good / but
if it’s really good / you’re gonna need a
bigger room / and when you’re in the big­
ger room / you might not know what to
do / you might have to think of how you
got started / sitting in your little room.”

White wrote me that he thinks of “Lit­
tle Room” and “Grinnin’ in Your Face” as
“statements to live by, and methods to
push myself forward deeper into art, truth,
the blues, performance, etc.” He went on,
“Pushing myself into corners, identifying
with the underdog, becoming the over­
dog, being punished for that, retreating,
advancing, learning to live in modern
times, all the while creating at every turn.
That’s the life path I chose long ago, and
I couldn’t derail myself now if I wanted to.”

nything that captures White’s
imagination can occupy him. He reads

scripts in the hope of directing a movie—
he said he was disappointed at losing the
opportunity to direct one about a Detroit
drug dealer and F.B.I. informant called
White Boy Rick. He contributes designs
for baseball bats to a company in Texas
called Warstic, in which he owns a share.
At least eight players in the major leagues
use Warstics. White also collects esoter­
ica. He owns Leadbelly’s New York City
arrest record, James Brown’s Georgia driv­
er’s license from the nineteen­eighties, and
Elvis Presley’s first record, a demo that he
made in 1953, when he was eighteen. White
bought it for three hundred thousand dol­
lars at an auction, and loaned it to the

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