”Where are you, Don Ho?”
Jack White is scanning song titles on the jukebox at the Norwalk Bar in Hamtramck, Mich., a workingman’s watering hole in the grimy, downtrodden Detroit enclave. It’s hot — April’s first 80-plus-degree day — and Jack’s in black: suit, shirt, bowler hat. It’s a getup that prompts the crusty barkeep to ask, ”Did you just come from a wedding?” Although he looks out of place amid the Norwalk’s Sans-abelt-pants-and-polyester-shirt crowd, Jack was a regular here in the days — only four years ago — when he ran a nearby upholstery business.
Right now, he’s miffed. ”They used to have it on here,” he snorts in disgust, turning from the juke-box.
”Sorry, Meg,” he says to his diminutive musical partner, ”no ‘Tiny Bubbles.”’
She shrugs. ”It’s a new era.”
A new era. The phrase hangs in the air like a poignant snatch of feedback, echoing many people’s hope: that the White Stripes are heralds of a dawning musical era in which passion, not fashion, reigns supreme. Let’s face it: Rock & roll — the real stuff, the kind that shakes your nerves and rattles your brain — is in short supply these days. Watching MTV or listening to the radio is an exercise in self-abuse: teen pop to the left, mook metal to the right, and an appalling mass of overproduced mediocrity in the middle. Here, at last, is a duo that’s doing it right: stripping things down to the primal spuzz, kicking up a racket that’s an inspired mix of electrified Delta blues, Zeppelin riffage, Velvet Underground thud, and MC5 firepower. With hooks, yet.
And, against all odds, it’s catching on.
”Well you’re in your little room/And you’re working on something good/But if it’s really good/You’re gonna need a bigger room.” — ”Little Room,” the White Stripes
Let us pause to consider two rooms. Concert halls, actually. At New York’s Bowery Ballroom, April 8, the Stripes — just Jack on guitar, Meg on drums — are winding up their sold-out four-night stand with a white-hot 90-minute set. The place is packed with hipsters. You can’t turn around without bumping into one of the Strokes or, incongruously, Bette ”Wind Beneath My Wings” Midler. Everyone is doing the boho bop — that is, standing stock-still.
Flash forward six nights to Michigan State University’s Union Ballroom, in East Lansing. A convulsive throng of Midwestern college kids are moshing, sloshing, crowd surfing — even occasionally cracking heads. Juiced by the volatility, Jack caps off the encore by whipping his guitar around his neck, stopping short of a full-fledged Townshend destructo-bash- arama, before setting the instrument on stage, where it emits ear-piercing feedback shrieks.
Pounding back a couple of beers in the Norwalk the day after the Union Ballroom ruckus, Jack is in an expansive mood, holding forth on everything from the power and primacy of the blues to Captain Beefheart. Meg, onetime bartender and cook, and now the Stripes’ deadpan, low-energy (like, really low-energy) tub-thumper, seems to adhere to the dictum ”Never speak unless spoken to.” Demurely smoking Camel Lights and downing bourbons and water, she listens attentively, content to let Jack do the jawing.