Here are eight words I was pretty sure I would never say again: “Hey, Tower Sunset was really packed last night.” But it was just the Store Formerly Known as Tower Records, temporarily reopened as the ultimate in niche retailing: an outlet only for White Stripes product. This iconic Sunset Strip shop was hosting its first, and presumably last, in-store performance. “Welcome to the grand opening of Icky Thump Records!” bellowed Jack White from a makeshift stage, his moptop barely visible over the heads of the 200 or so fans. “Specializing in the sale of tangible records! Can I get an amen for records you can hold in your hands? Can I get an amen for non-disposable product?”
Well, that wasn’t very green of him, was it? But color-coded control freak Jack is old-school enough to still love his brick-and-mortar, as well as his vinyl. (The Stripes’ new vinyl single sold 10,000 copies during its first two weeks on sale in the UK, the first seven-inch to do so since the late ’80s.) The entire Tower chain closed last year, and probably not since the turn of the decade had anyone had to wait very long for a parking spot in this particular locale’s once-impenetrable parking lot. But White seemed oddly in awe of the the place, as if they were playing the Ryman Auditorium: During the show, he alluded to the store’s storied history, and, in regard to playing there, assured everyone that “We don’t take it lightly.”
Of course, taking over a now-abandoned space allowed White and companythe opportunity to set up the requisite red and white drapes, and toput a reddish overlay over the fluorescent lights that once illuminatedtens of thousands of el-pees. They borrowed the yellow-and-red Towerlettering to make all-new signs — and even paper bags for purchases.(The yellow, in Jack’s world, must have been a huge concession.) As artdirection goes, they could have held their in-store at, you know,Target, but then there would have been that pesky matter of the store selling other stuff.Icky Thump Records opened at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning to sell nothingbut White Stripes merchandise — including, of course, the duo’s excellent new Icky Thump.(Tough luck for anyone looking to pick up the simultaneously releaseddisc from those other Nashville carpetbaggers, Bon Jovi.)
The first 200 customers got a free ticket to Wednesday night’s show,which also had a few non-civilian attendees, like Jack Black, whointroduced the band, and Rosanna Arquette, whom I noticed standing nextto me at one point on the zoom photographers’ riser in the rear. I’mnot sure how many people really “saw” the show, given the non-existentsightlines. I, for one, had looked forward to seeing what kind ofpedals and effects White relied on to get the variety of wonderfullyscreechy guitar sounds on Icky Thump; at times, seemingly usingnothing more advanced than a tube amp, his six-strings sounded like acombination feedback loop and short-circuiting police siren. But afterthe 65-minute set, I’d plumbed no more of the mysteries of histechnique than before, since the heads of the front-row fans cut himoff at about the whites of his eyes. But it sounded glorious,especially when White used a bottleneck guitar (that much I was able toascertain) to arrive at the unique combination of blues, psychedelia,and climactic raveup that is the new album’s “I’m a Martyr for My Lovefor You.” Meanwhile, there was a spot up close, right between the amps,where you could get a good look at Meg White’s physique — er, technique— if you were so inclined. I know who you are, Meg freaks, and youdidn’t need to look so guilty when I spotted you out.
“My sister and I would like to thank everybody who camped out,” JackWhite said toward the end, referring to fans who’d spent as much as 48hours waiting for the “store opening” over the weekend. “Did you getthe pizzas we sent over?” (Let’s hope he didn’t send over any softdrinks, since there were already news reports about neighbors upsetover these dedicated fans using area bushes to relieve themselves.) Aswe left, the crimson-faced 200 were all given white ice-cream bars tocool off. Thinking about the color-coded stuff, therepeated-to-the-point-of-hilarity lies about “my big sister,” etc., youcould object to briefly becoming part of Jack’s hermetically sealeduniverse and a participant in rock & roll’s ultimate example ofextended art direction. Or you could be glad that somebody is exertingsuch total control over his music and marketing, at a time wheneverybody else seems willing, out of desperation, to cede a good dealof it. (And who then, after sealing up that environment, can still makeit sound, like, sonically, all hell could break loose at any moment?)It’s an illusory world, Jack’s — a place where seven-inchers stillrule, and blues by way of Led Zep is still rock’s dominant influence —but I’d gladly drag my sweaty red face back there to live in it foranother hour.