Crocodile, 441-8441. $10 9:30 p.m. Wed., July 11
THE FIRST TIME I see the White Stripes is at an all-ages show at Sit & Spin in November. They sound great, but what really gets tattooed on my brain is watching towering singer/guitarist Jack White greet a 4- or 5-year-old kid after the set. The size difference between the two makes their handshake look comical, but the remarkable thing about the encounter is the complete lack of condescension on Jack's part. He is pleased to meet him; he is glad he came.
It was charming, though not entirely surprising. Listening to White Stripes songs is, in many ways, like talking to a smart kid—the experience is wholly sincere, charged with raw electricity, and sometimes takes unexpected turns. Sure, plenty of other bands take a minimalist approach to rock—the White Stripes use only guitar and drums—but most of them are just being willfully stupid. Drummer Meg White's rudimentary pounding, though, is no put-on; she bangs away like a kid who doesn't want to wait to learn the fancy stuff. And while the songs Jack sings are not always so innocent and simple, his delivery is always as genuine and direct as the most precocious tyke.
Jack, via telephone from his Detroit home, explains his respect and admiration for the purity and exuberance of youth: "I love kids a lot. They're so funny, and they're really honest. When a kid likes one of the White Stripes songs, then I know it's a good song because they're not lying." He also reports that his nieces and nephews are especially fond of "Hotel Yorba"—the ultracatchy romp from their just-released third album, White Blood Cells—and have been doing lots of dancing about the living room to it.
THE SECOND TIME I see the White Stripes is at an outdoor show in Austin, Texas. Jack and Meg take the stage late in the afternoon. Toward the end of the show, the sun has set, the floodlights projecting their enormous shadows on the brick wall behind them. Scores of stray bats from the nightly migration along Town Lake fly over their heads. It's eerie, otherworldly: The effect doesn't last very long, but for a few moments it no longer seems like we're on a bustling city street but instead in a clearing in the Southern woods—the kind of place where blues men of old made deals with the devil or plied some supernatural ability. It was a scene befitting a band with an abiding interest in American folklore. "I love American legends," Jack says, "things you don't know the whole story about—like the story about Blind Willie McTell being able to locate people in a room with his mouth using echo location. I love stuff like that, even if it's not true." He laments the fact that today's media-saturated landscape is a place where "there's no mystery to anything anymore" and protests that "after 50 interviews a week, everyone knows what I've had for breakfast."
That he expresses a fondness for tall tales, and that he is so acutely aware of the threats to privacy brought on by success, only makes the swirling "controversy" about the true nature of Jack and Meg's relationship all the more intriguing. Are they brother and sister? Are they a divorced couple? I don't mention it while talking to Jack—it's really none of my damn business—though he does reinforce the party line by making several references to his "sister Meg" and mentioning something about their shared adolescent listening habits. The mere possibility that their biography might be concocted—and that they could have gotten away with it this long—is both hilarious and heartening. If nothing else, it adds to their mystique—something few other bands can claim to have at all.
No matter what the end result of the rumor mongering, the White Stripes will at least have one shield left in their arsenal of privacy—the good old Motor City. The liner notes to the recent compilation of local bands, The Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit (recorded and produced in Jack's attic), explain that "no suit from L.A. or New York is going to fly to Detroit to check out a band and hand out business cards." Considering how many excellent bands now reside there (check out the new Dirtbombs record!), it's shocking that a feeding frenzy hasn't yet set in. The idea that Detroit is a burned-out ghetto war zone, though, keeps the interlopers away, allowing the area's bands to grow and support each other in relative peace. "I hope the perception about Detroit stays the same," says Jack. "Same thing goes for the people from the suburbs here who are afraid to come into the city. I hope they all stay out. I hate those people anyway."