Friday, August 10, 2012

Jack White & His Beige Suede Shoes

I was lucky enough to be in the front row this afternoon for the Grammy Museum's "Intimate Conversation" with Jack White.  Alas, I noted that there was no guitar on the stage (as it turns out, White does not view himself as a guitarist so much as he does a drummer, despite his inclusion in Davis Guggenheim's documentary about guitar heroes, It Might Get Loud (access my post on that film by clicking here).

There was a turntable between the two chairs on the museum stage, however, and after a while, a stage hand brought out a large box.  "Magic tricks?"  my companion mused.  Not far off.  Of course it was a record box, and during the interview, White recounted his company Third Man Records' attempts to put a hidden track under the label of a vinyl record.  When it turned out that the labels could not be soaked off, however, they found a way to record over the labels--and White played us part of a thus hidden song (unnamed; it appeared to be from Dead Weather's Sea of Cowards).

Jack White appears to revel in surprise and the unexpected.  He is one of those artists who possess what Keats called Negative Capability (click on my Favorite Quotes tab for the full reference)--the ability not only to tolerate, but to court uncertainty and mystery and ambiguity.  Interviewer Robert Santelli (Executive Director of the Grammy Museum) asked White about his songwriting process on Blunderbuss.  White described it at least three times as his pushing to "attack myself," by which he meant to put himself in situations in which he was expected to have the answers, but didn't.  (It's no wonder that White reveled in what might happen when he finally got together with Jimmy Page and The Edge at the climax of It Might Get Loud--on his way to the stage to meet them in the film, he seems to relish the fantasy that it could end in a fist fight.)

White explained that when he worked with his previous bands, the songwriting process was quite collaborative.  But the "hired guns" brought into the recording studio for what became Blunderbuss expected him to have the material and to tell them what to do.  So White surrendered (some might say faked it), and just started playing.  When the musicians would ask what was next, and White had no idea, he might just say, "It's an 'F,'" and go with it.

Sometimes White dreams songs, and he related a recent dream with vivid, archetypal imagery.  He never used to write them down, thinking he'd remember them.  He learned better.

White referenced something he's been reading titled Faking It (I presume it's Barker and Taylor's book, whose subtitle is The Quest for Authenticity in Popular Music), and what really came through in the interview was White's own essential authenticity and the purity of his love for music.  Yes, he is a raconteur who curates a consciously stylized image (at the end of the interview he quipped something to the effect of, "The shoes say it all," smiling down at his natty suede oxfords) and utilizes what might be perceived as hype or mere marketing ploys--the all-female and all-male alternating bands, for example, and sending records up in helium balloons.  

But what White seems to be doing is employing the artifice to make music new to us--to make us take notice.  (Not unlike Dylan, who was a strong influence on White and who went electric to similarly wake us from our dogmatic folk slumbers.)  White acknowledged that all music comes out of previous music, but expressed his disdain for the "re-" concepts--terms like recreate, re-envision, re-interpret, and so on.  White intrinsically understands that he needs to embrace and then to (fist?) fight with his forbears, as Harold Bloom posited in The Anxiety of Influence.

Decades ago I wrote a dissertation proposal on the Romantic poets' use of the long, epic poem as a means of transcending the more confessional sonnet form and using the self as a character in order to expand consciousness and avoid solipsism.  Hence, for example, Byron's character Childe Harold, who was ironically perceived as simply autobiographical and who turned Lord Byron into the rock star of his age.  Jack White is the rock star who seems to be playing with that role and its trappings in order to get at something that is elemental and enduring.  But every generation needs new shoes, a new lens to make us see those eternal verities anew.   Like Joyce's Stephen Daedalus, White's the artificer who acknowledges his debt to the past and strives to use his own voice to forge something that reflects the "uncreated conscience of [his] race."

White may have blunderbussed his way in forging his solo effort, but it resulted in one of the best albums of this year.

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