I’ve been lucky to see Jack White perform twice—once with The Raconteurs in 2006 and once with The Dead Weather in 2010—and at both shows I knew I was witnessing a rock god in his prime. On September 21, 2007, I was supposed to see White’s greatest ensemble, The White Stripes, perform (their live act is legendary) at the scenic Greek Theater in Berkeley, California. That show was canceled, and The White Stripes never toured again. On Wednesday the world learned that the highly influential rock group has disbanded permanently.
I was raised by a Beatlemaniac mom and a Deadhead dad; accordingly my early musical education consisted of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and The Who. In middle school I tried to expand my horizons, but my ventures to the local record store were disappointing. Cranky sales associates offered me music by Linkin Park and No Doubt — these were decent bands, but they didn’t capture the essence of rock ‘n’ roll I was familiar with.
Most of my peers liked Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and 50 Cent. I wondered if popular rock ‘n’ roll had become a lost art. Then something happened that altered my musical bearings forever.
I was watching VH1 on a Saturday morning and a video came on like nothing I had ever seen before: a red and white visual explosion, thumping drums and the now ubiquitous opening riff that has become our generation’s “Smoke on the Water”. The White Stripes had arrived.
From that moment on Jack and Meg were constantly in my musical rotation. My first middle school crush wasn’t set to a pop song, but to the gritty and honest “You’re Pretty Good Looking (For a Girl)” off The White Stripes’ sophomore effort De Stijl. Most kids my age got down to Kelly Clarkson’s “Since U Been Gone” in 2005, but my summer jam was “Blue Orchid” from that year’s Get Behind Me Satan, when The White Stripes diversified their sound.
The White Stripes catalog (six studio LPs and a live album) doesn’t have a weak link, but the highlights are are White Blood Cells and Elephant. Clocking in at just under 10 minutes, the four song sequence that opens White Blood Cells is The White Stripes at their finest, contained within a relative nutshell, and capped by their best track, “Fell In Love With a Girl.”Elephant is the band’s masterwork, meandering from heartfelt ballads (“In the Cold, Cold Night,”“You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket”) to garage rock fluency (“Black Math,”“The Hardest Button to Button”) to impressive musical chops (“I Want to Be the Boy,”“Ball & Biscuit”).
The White Stripes are special because they contributed a completely original new sound to music, not unlike The Clash, U2, and Nirvana. The White Stripes are already a band that future artists will be compared to. Their brand carried the torch of rock ‘n’ roll royalty and remained definitively unique.
Part of this uniqueness is achieved through their homage to musicians of other eras and genres, which stimulated the growth of my own musical horizons. Before hearing The White Stripes’ covers of “Death Letter” and “Stop Breaking Down” I didn’t know that Son House and Robert Johnson — two blues legends — existed. Jack and Meg took these Delta blues standards and put their Detroit spin on them, just like their ventures into bluegrass, country, folk, and even mariachi music.
A lot of people have offered me the consolation that now that The White Stripes are done, Jack can focus on his other bands. I’m more or less content with that, because he’s made some fantastic music outside of The White Stripes. Ultimately, though, no ensemble he is a part of will be able to capture the allure, brilliance, and originality of the red, white and black duo from Detroit.