- Two back-to-back White Stripes concerts suggest that Jack White is getting a little cuddlier, and affirmed that Meg White is more than window-dressing.
Last week I imitated David Letterman, and this week I’ll reference Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? So here’s our qualifying round – place the following second bananas of famous rock duos in order, from most important to least important:
A. John Oates of Hall & Oates
B. Andrew Ridgeley of Wham!
C. Meg White of the White Stripes
D. Curt Smith of Tears for Fears
Okay, time’s up: the correct answers are C, A, D, B.
Moving from the rear of the pack, Ridgeley is clearly one of the most useless band members in rock history, the Johnny Drama to George Michael’s Vincent Chase. Smith had a decent new-wave singing voice but was clearly in TFF at Roland Orzabal’s pleasure. Oates – he of the unfortunate ’80s perm and chili-dog mustache – is actually an undeserving punchline and a bit underrated: his guitar playing and harmony vocals are a key part of the H&O sound, and he’s a respected producer. But within H&O, Oates wasn’t really the force behind the power of Daryl Hall, who cowrote most of the duo’s hits, released perfectly good solo albums away from Oates, and was the group’s clear focal point both onstage and on MTV.
By a hair – Oates almost wins this one – the most indispensible second banana here is Meg White. Yes, primitive-drumming, offkey-warbling Meg. (To be fair, this isn’t an all-time list, and Meg would pale in comparison to other second bananas: you can’t have Simon and Garfunkel without ol’ Artie’s soaring voice; OutKast’s Big Boi is as good a rapper as Andre 3000, even if he’s not as interesting or creative; and Fabrice Morvan was no less essential to Milli Vanilli than Rob Pilatus – they were equally talentless.)
The only way to appreciate Meg’s role in the White Stripes – a group conceived, fronted, produced, designed and given the very breath of life by her ex-husband and “brother” Jack White – is to see them live. Which is just what I did last weekend – twice.
I’ve never seen a band live on consecutive nights. (No Deadhead, I.) Over the years I’ve seen several acts as many as four or five times – Beck, Ben Folds – but I guess I’ve never been obsessive enough about any group to want to see them live multiple times in a row. Or the acts I’ve loved have either been too popular (Prince, the Pixies) or too broken up (the Beatles) to make this even possible.
The White Stripes were my first double-show band, thanks entirely to my mother-in-law, , who is still a teenager at heart. A fan of blues-rock in the ’60s and alt-rock since the ’90s, Sara has been obsessed with Jack White’s output since White Blood Cells in ‘01 and now has total recall of everything he’s done since the Stripes’ self-titled 1999 debut. She BitTorrents WS concert bootlegs and can’t wait to hear Jack’s upcoming side project, the Raconteurs, with Brendan Benson.
When Sara heard the Stripes were not only coming to New York but playing in our home borough of Brooklyn, she immediately cajoled us into getting tickets and hosting her for the weekend (which was fine; she was due a visit). Weeks later, when they added a second date, she got excited, because the folks on her fansite told tales of wildly varying set lists and Jack’s random outbursts. A bit sheepishly, she called us back and asked if one of us would mind seeing the second show, too. Stripes fan and loyal son-in-law, I agreed.
The first night, we had a small crowd with us: , my college friend Matt, my friend and former Billboard editor Brian, his girlfriend Sharon. The second night, it was just my mother-in-law and me ( and her beau were at the show, but we couldn’t mingle with them because they were in a different section). The Shins opened both nights – in fine form, I might add – and Brendan Benson was the pre-opener on Saturday; we didn’t bother with pre-opener M. Ward on Sunday.
Sara, a relative newbie to LiveJournal, posted her very own, very good review of the shows the other day. I agree with her assessment pretty much across the board. Night one was frat-boy night, full of drunken, “when are they gonna play ‘Seven Nation Army’?” types, and Jack put on a polished but still awe-inspiring show. Contrary to his enfent terrible reputation, Jack seemed to accept that he was there to entertain – even with all the drunken yahoos in the crowd, he seemed almost cuddly. Night two was closer to the diehard night Sara was hoping for – less overtly crowd-pleasing and a bit quirkier. Jack was still friendly but a little more focused on his work, as it were. Oddly, on night two, the set was shorter: when Jack gets quirky, he doesn’t play longer; he plays bits of more songs, crashing one electric bit into another in a see if-you-can-spot-this-one game. It’s as if he’s sampling himself.
Anyway, back to Meg: the simplest way to describe the White Stripes’ stage presence is to call Jack a hyperactive moon and Meg the Earth. He flits around the stage, switching instruments on virtually every song (electric guitar, then acoustic, then mandolin, piano, marimba), while quite literally orbiting around her drum kit. Her kit always faces sideways, so they can watch each other while she’s thumping away; truthfully, he watches her more than she does him. Jack has microphones set up both in front of the stage and right near her kit, so they can sing eye-to-eye if the moment warrants a bit of drama. He draws near her for a verse, then flits off to some other part of the stage, but not for more than a song, sometimes a half-song. Her gravitational pull on him – even years after the end of their romantic life together – is constant.
This stage setup can be seen as an act of generosity and chivalry on Jack’s part, a way to make Meg feel like the center of attention. (Not like she needs it: every horny indie-rock fanboy knows that Meg is cute, capable and has huge…tracts of land.) It can be viewed as Jack showing off, proving that the White Stripes are a true duo who need no embellishment – thought it’s pretty obvious that they get offstage backing on occasion – and proving to his critics that Meg is as important onstage as he is.
Or it could simply be a reflection of Jack’s sense of reality: for whatever reason, he needs Meg. There’s a bit of Fred Astaire–Ginger Rogers going on there (quoth Katherine Hepburn: “He gives her class, she gives him sex”), but that’s not it. Meg has become, in her own modest way, not only a decent and reliable drummer but also an integral part of the White Stripes’ sound. I’ve poked fun at Meg’s workmanlike bash-bash-bash before, and some critics have said worse; not since Ringo Starr has a drummer been so tarred as outclassed by her company. But watching them live, it all makes sense: Meg’s baby–John Bonham thump provides all the bottom that Jack White’s songs need, giving him plenty of space to play around but a rock-solid foundation. Sure, he could be playing with Jim Keltner or Dave Grohl, but who needs that much drumming? For the White Stripes to work, Jack needs symbiosis. In his ex-wife, he has just what he needs.
The first time I saw the Stripes live, it was the summer of 2002, in a double-bill with the Strokes at Radio City Music Hall. White Blood Cells had just been re-released on a major label, Elephant wasn’t even a gleam in Jack’s eye, and the twosome were out to prove that their newfound MTV exposure and rock-press hype hadn’t spoiled them. They were technically the show opener, and some of the crowd eager for the Strokes clearly weren’t into it, in no small part because Jack wasn’t trying to please anybody: he stomped and squealed and pealed off unflinching blues riffs, rarely finishing a song and barely acknowledging the crowd. I, for one, loved it.
The only person Jack seemed even aware of in that cavernous hall that night was Meg. At that point, all the details about their complicated relationship weren’t out yet; the press was still digging around for evidence of their brief marriage and taunting Jack for the whole brother-sister charade. Onstage, Jack looked impassioned but self-absorbed, a large chip clearly on his shoulder. His interaction with Meg seemed one of swimmer-escaping-sharks to piece-of-handy-driftwood. They were focused on each other, but for all their bravado, they looked like they were clinging to each other out of necessity.
The Jack we saw last weekend was older, newly married, a platinum journeyman, a bit more settled (in my mother-in-law’s opinion, perhaps too settled; she wanted to see a little more freakout at the show!) – a guy confident enough to entertain the crowd in his own peculiar idiom. Yet his devotion to Meg remains undimmed. Meg’s never going to be fool enough to try to go solo, but she’s matured and gotten more confident, too. Her drumming was natural and unforced, and her vocal on “In the Cold, Cold Night,” after a couple of bum notes, bordered on flawless. (She’s still gotta work on singing Get Behind Me Satan’s “Passive Manipulation” in key, though.) Even after observing all of Jack’s dalliances with celebrity – dating Renée Zellweger, marrying a model, producing Loretta Lynn – she looks more unfazed to be sharing a stage with him than ever.
So, final trivia question: When is Meg White going to record a drum solo?
Answer: On the final White Stripes album, the next-to-last song – just like Ringo. It will last 15 seconds, and, defying expectations, it will kick ass.