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By Emily Weiss
Like the "virgin whores" who pop up on Internet search engines when you type in "John Lee Hooker," the White Stripes are objects of mass fantasies because they were conceived as a fantasy--a contradictory one. The indie It-band of the hour style themselves as rock's immaculate harlots: amateur impresarios, knowing innocents. They play the blues, which requires skill and knowledge; no, they play garage rock, which requires naiveté and punk zeal. They really can play, but choose not to; no, they actually can't play, but they do it anyway.
It's the dialectic of minimalist metal, and it can feel like a game. The duo's Entry gig last year looked like a rehearsal, an art project, and a fashion show all in one. Singer-guitarist Jack White introduced Meg White as his sister and drummer, yet aside from the stray appreciative glance between them, the Whites seemed to connect to no person or thing in the room besides the monster caveman stomp they summoned. Both wore only fire-engine red and bleached white. Both appeared almost ghost-pale in complexion. Jack was Giovanni Ribisi in a wavy bowl cut; Meg was Wednesday Addams at the go-go. Very cool. Very composed.
But the record I brought home that night--the eponymous 1999 debut on the Sympathy for the Record Industry label--was anything but distant or ironic or superior. The White Stripes wouldn't be worth fantasizing about if they didn't take rock 'n' roll elements that have ossified in attitude--the smirk of guitar-god metal, the sneer of Troggs-rock--and turn them into something disarmingly direct and tender.
Their third album on Sympathy, White Blood Cells, isn't the punk blues you know and love (or hate). Taking their cue from Jeffrey Lee Pierce's seminal L.A. sex bombs the Gun Club, such self-ironizing primitivists as Killdozer ("King of Sex") and Bob Log III ("Big Ass Hard On") have looked to raw, black roots music as an idiom of masculine self-regard rather than a wilderness of bedeviled self-doubt. But when the White Stripes cover Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down" in concert--a touchstone of honky-blues braggarts from the Stones to Pussy Galore--Jack's Robert Plant quaver wilts under the lyric. He seems almost sorry that the "stuff I've got'll bust your brains out."
The Whites, who bring their catchy, crashing sound to the 400 Bar on Saturday, have created something new in punk: cock-rock sans cock. And Jack's intimate, simple lyrics rest on a deceptively plain musical idea: Make every riff a monument, every beat an explosion.
"When me and Meg started playing together, there was this whole childishness to the music," says Jack, speaking over the phone from his home in southwest Detroit. "We started playing as a joke--she had never played before in her life. And I said, 'that sounds like a little girl playing.'"
Long before Jack took to wearing hand-scrawled "Blind Willie McTell" t-shirts at punk shows, he had come across Detroit's own seminal garage history in the form of the first Stooges record, which he found in a dumpster behind his house. ("I just couldn't believe anyone had never told me about it yet," he laughs.) By the time he was jamming with Meg three years ago, he was already playing with other Motor City garage-punk inheritors such as the Go, who gave him the boot when he couldn't commit full-time. He's a die-hard fan of Son House ("the most honest of all the blues performers," he says) and Loretta Lynn, but Jack and Meg took their bare-bones, no-fills-or-frills approach from Detroit greats the Gories, who, like faux-childish savants Beat Happening, never saw need for a bass player.
It's difficult to believe Jack has never heard Beat Happening, who might have made White Blood Cells had they been born in the MC5's stomping grounds. But then, I find it difficult to believe anything about the White Stripes. Though Jack and Meg still tout themselves as siblings onstage, their hometown weekly Metro Times recently announced online that "everybody in Motor City already knew" that the two were ex-spouses--before Time.com's Benjamin Nugent broke the story on June 16, 2001. "In 1996, John (Jack) Gillis and Megan (Meg) White got married," Nugent reported, "and Jack took Meg's last name." How very post-blues of him.
Perhaps Jack did grow up with nine older siblings, as he says. And perhaps he grew up in the house he owns, where the Whites recorded their second album on Sympathy, De Stijl--naming it after a Dutch minimalist art movement. Maybe the Whites are more than Ramones-style siblings. "She's my older sister," Jack maintains. "Time heard a rumor and they thought they'd blow it all up. It's all lies."
Either way, some kind of rumormongering is afoot. Nugent interprets the alleged mystique-making as the band's way of hiding their lives from the press, but this would seem to be another case of having the White Stripes both ways. Hoaxing the media would only invite more attention, which was probably just the idea. Even so, Jack sounds genuinely ambivalent about mass culture spoiling the virgin territory of Detroit's garage scene, which was nourished by ghost-metropolis isolation. "It's like a Southern city," he says of Detroit, comparing it to Memphis, where White Blood Cells was recorded. "There's this vacated, abandoned feeling to those cities. There's not a lot of people saying, 'Oh, let's build a gigantic company right here.' These cities are already done with."
Maybe so, but Detroit was also the subject of a recent "next Seattle"-style Entertainment Weekly travel piece that would be the envy of Twin Cities garage howlers like Andy Hound. The package even trotted out E Street Band guitarist Steven Van Zandt to announce that he is using his months off from The Sopranos to promote garage rock. The glossy's designated buzz band? You guessed it.
Little wonder that the sleeve photos of White Blood Cells find the Whites being menaced by black-clad paparazzi. (The pair willingly poses for the cameras.) The album's "Little Room" describes the classic alt-rock paradox of feeling epic in the attic and stupid in the arena. Still, "I Can Learn" seems more hopeful, if no less contradictory: "I wish we were stuck up a tree," Jack sings. "Then we'd know/it's nicer below."