Known Pleasures: The White Stripes & Some Notes on Mystery by Marshall Walker Lee

1. Mystery / A Demon

Mystery has its own weather, it operates according to a freaky logic, and I like it. Where art intersects with mystery you find big wind, warm rain, snow that falls from the ground up, even though the mystery itself remains obscure. Some quality or anti-quality, hidden as it were in plain sight. Similarly, I am told that in the bowels of my watch there is a wedge of quartz and this quartz makes the watch tick—I don’t know how. Mystery moves the system without touching it while art, always in thrall to mystery, sneaks up with a bottle and stopper, watching, waiting. And, yes, I know that that Mystery and Life and Art are abstract concepts but so what? When the floor begins to boil and the man with the guitar opens his chest to let the devil out (6:28, wait for it) it helps to have a concept to hold onto:


That’s the White Stripes, Jack and Meg, performing in 2003.  Bear with me while I go ahead and point out something obvious: Jack White is a demon. He witches the very air. I know because I’ve seen it happen.

During a show at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, in the middle of the song “Black Math,” Jack White snapped a string. The high-e, I think. A silver thread that bobbed along beside his hand as he played on. Solo, chorus, verse, a little flourish at the end. After the song he spun around and grabbed a new guitar. The show went on. And yet it didn’t, not for me. I had seen the string snap, I had watched White’s face, a mask, impassive, doll-white, as he curled around his guitar like a question mark and hammered on the five remaining strings. And then something happened. You may not believe me but it started raining, hot wind rolled down from the rafters. Suddenly I understood: the guitar was a prop, a toy, at most a kind of dowsing tool. White was pulling sound out of the ether. The strings were incidental. He made the music by sheer force of will.

Remember Powder? Pale guy with a big IQ, a bald head, psychic powers? Remember in the last scene when he takes off running with his head thrown back, his eyes fixed on a storm cloud churning overhead, and then a bolt of lightning strikes him but he just keeps running? That’s what I saw at the Masonic. Jack White leaned into his solo, snapped a string, played on. Lightning struck, he just kept running.

2. I Know Next to Nothing about Music

But I understand that music is inherently abstract in that it doesn’t aim to reproduce or represent natural forms (I suppose that synthesizers do, but even then the point is to destabilize the sound-form and transform it into pure noise). In principle, music, like mathematics, grows out of some covert order or disorder that connects the disparate forms and motions of the Universe. That sounds a lot more glamorous than subject + object + verb. And it goes a long way towards explaining why music, of all the arts, has the most truck with mystery. Here’s a test: pick a pop song (I picked “Videophone“!), hold it up against one of Kinkade’s “Paintings of Light“, compare. Wow, right? Who knew that Beyoncé was a crystal witch? She’s knee-deep in the Covert Order, sending secret data back to earth. And, OK, yes, Kinkade’s a hack, but keep in mind this a song about consumer electronics!

So, basically, Music = Mystery. Now back to the White Stripes:

So, basically, White Stripes = Mystery. Mystery clings to their black cloaks (I should say “clung,” the White Stripes called it quits in February of this year). And a good deal of the mystery is—was—manufactured or at least encouraged by the Stripes themselves. For a while they pretend to be siblings. They fooled The LA Times, The New Yorker, Newsweek. In a 2001 profile of the band, Rolling Stone dubbed Jack and Meg “the greatest brother-sister act in Rock,” whatever that means. In Detroit, where I lived and where the band had been performing since 1997, it was common knowledge that the Stripes had once been married. Jack, born Jack Gillis, had taken Meg White’s surname and blah blah blah. If you want to know the rest go Google it. It’s all there on Wikipedia, I’m sure. Eventually, the media caught on, even the dopes at Rolling Stone. When the press confronted Jack about the sibling/spouse confusion his attitude was basically, who cares, next question.

More mystery: the White Stripes toured with cheap equipment and recorded on a four-track in Jack’s basement. On stage, Jack sang to Meg, he stared at Meg, he dedicated songs to her. As in, he turned around and said, “This one’s for you, Meg.” And Meg? Mostly she seemed sedated. In interviews she hid behind Jack’s shoulder. Jack answered the questions, or rather he avoided them. He wrote spooky, bluesy jams about the Civil War, Citizen Cane and numerology. The band embraced constraints and limitations of all kinds, from antique instruments to their distinctive red and white costumes. In 2003, Jack sat down for an interview with The Believer. Predictably, there was a catch: Jack would only talk about upholstery. Here’s my favorite bit:

BLVR: Did you ever get into taxidermy?

JW: Yeah, yeah, definitely. I have a huge taxidermy collection at my house.

In his review of Get Behind Me Satan, Sasha Frere-Jones asked, “How much of this hokum helps the band make music or exploit White’s gifts?” Really? Did he just say “hokum“? And this guy writes for The New Yorker! Frere-Jones swings and misses by a mile. So the band could keep a secret, so what? Would a tell-all interview in Spin have helped the band “exploit White’s gift”? Would less “hokum” (re: mystery) give The White Stripes some advantage in the studio, would it make the music more expansive, more complex? Of course not. In the same review, SF-J bemoaned Meg’s sloppy drumming and suggested that Jack find another drummer with a more advanced straight-time technique. His recommendation: Cindy Blackman, the drummer who performs with—wait for it—Lenny Kravitz. Okay, sure! Just put her in a pair of red leggings and presto chango!

I love the hokum. I love the bunkum and the hogwash, too, the whole kit and caboodle!

After all, the White Stripes play roots music: folk, bluegrass, country, blues. Roots music sprouted in the swamps and bayous of the Antebellum South where hokum, in the form of sympathetic medicine or hoodoo, acted as a physic for the stupefying meanness of slave life. Every myth conceals a key. “Follow the Drinking Gourd”. “Swing Low”. “Wade Out in the Water”. So bluesmen are fabulists by nature. Robert Johnson met the devil on the Dockery Plantation; Jack and Meg are siblings. Sounds alright to me.

3. “Little Room”:  A Manifesto

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.

And when you’re in the bigger room

you might not know what to do

you might have to think of

how you got started

sitting in your little room.

Celebrity spews back what it is fed. When the culture stops respecting privacy it loses touch with mystery. We demand more facts, more photographs, more anecdotal evidence, and our celebrities oblige us. They invite us into their big rooms.

4. Brief Interlude in Which I List, Without the Aid of Wikipedia or Google, Everything I Know about the Rapper DMX

Nickname: “X,” New Yorker, Ruff Ryder, arrested while on tour with Redman and Jay-Z for stabbing 4 guys at a club in Boston (acquitted, but I think he did get nabbed a little later on for staging dog fights in his basement), sometime actor, sometime preacher, fitness nut, beefed with Ja Rule (yuck!), wrote a book which I will never, ever read called EARL: The Autobiography of DMX. Ahhh! Get this shit out of my head!

I don’t blame DMX, I blame myself. Trivia c’est moi—I was born this way. As a child I would write down facts about our neighbors in a notebook: Mr. G, 6 foot, black mustache, smells like Clorox. I atomized our block, collecting leaves and rocks and bits of broken things. I poured over atlases and star charts, Trees of the American Midwest, Civil War Facts & Figures, several dozen Bathroom Readers. Now I own a smart phone. It’s a laptop in my pocket, the ultimate enabler, a kind of factoid flask. I drink and drink and drink. Mystery cowers in a corner.

5. “Larger Activity” / White Moon / The End

We know life is so busy

but a larger activity shrouds it, and this is something

we can never feel, except occasionally, in small signs

put up to warn us and as soon expunged

— John Ashbery, “Flow Chart”

And so I put up barriers. I keep myself away from Wikipedia, I take a walk instead of reading up on Jack White’s marriage to an English model—I already know that Jack and wifey exchanged vows in a canoe. Enough’s enough. I want to live with mystery. I want to feel the warm, weird weather bearing down.

One last clip. The band’s Ur-myth in dreamy black and white. Jack croons the creepy/weepy ballad “White Moon” in half time. Meg, seated beside him, starts to cry. Something is either very wrong or very right. Are they siblings? Spouses? Best friends? Where are they, exactly? Someone’s parlor? Of course there’s more I want to tell you, a context to establish. Rita Hayworth and the Golden Dollar, Meg’s subsequent withdrawal from public life, the importance of ghosts. But those are just the facts. Busy, loud, ultimately boring. “White Moon” is the truth—and it doesn’t make a noise.




I realized today, Companion,
that you and the Other are one.
Which Other? you ask. All of them.
You go from desk to desk collecting mortal energies
you spill your miracles across the bathroom floor
while I’m at lunch
bent over my silver eggs, my glasses fogged,
nose twitching like a wounded animal.
When you say so
I’ll start barking
deep hoo-hu-HOO hooo HOOO.
One day, Companion,
you and the Other
move to the primeval forest.
No one calls me.
My phone sprouts coarse hairs,
one night it stands up and goes to join you in your tree house.
I have always been sorry
that there’s not another world where the moon
shines down on You
and me and all the Others
as we tug at our ill-fitting clothes
and drink from wooden cups
a kind of family
but better than family
the maple syrup in our cups shining like polished oak,
as we drink and laugh with
our hearts open like the fingers of a hand.
I have always been sorry, Companion,
that instead of worshiping
I was taught to measure noise
with this blue pen.
Instead of singing
I slurp my soup and go to bed

Marshall Walker Lee can see three mountains on a clear day. His writing has recently appeared in Octopus, Portland Review, elimae, and Matchbook. He  lives in Portland, Oregon where he is the co-editor of Poor Claudia.

Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints? Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.