February 13, 2011

Random babblings: On keys, seeking, doors, and music

There are moments in our lives when we come across things that open doors for us.  The frame of it can be anything-- a book, a song, a place, a person --but what provides the key?  So often we walk by doors that seem interesting, yet they remain locked because we aren't drawn to explore what's on the other side.  It seems we have to be at the right place intellectually and/or emotionally for the door to swing open and that first step to be taken over the threshold.   

I can easily think of the times when this has happened to me and every one of them relates to a significant interest in my life -- 

Reading Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment in high school was the first big one.  Class discussions of Nietzsche's idea of man vs. superman led to an exploration of existentialism that opened out into the entire field of philosophy.   

A similar opening occurred upon hearing 46+2 by Tool, as I stepped straight from that song into Carl Jung's writings about the psyche and, specifically, the shadow.    

It didn't take long after moving to Maryland in my early 20's to begin finding all of the U.S. Civil War battlefields that are practically in my backyard.  The beauty of these preserved places drew me to the door, but the fascination of learning about the battles and the experiences of the people who lived (or died) during them was what pulled me through.  It's continuously amazing to me just how much can be learned from such a short period in history. 

One thing I've never written about is the vision quest that led to my discovery of Buddhism.  The path through that door was a convoluted one but its eventual impact has probably made a bigger difference in my life than any other.

So what is it that puts the key into our hand?  In Animals in Translation, Temple Grandin talks about the four primal emotions that drive animals:  Rage, prey chase drive, fear, and curiosity/interest/anticipation.  Obviously, these can easily be applied to human behavior and it's that last, curiosity/interest/anticipation, that opens these pivotal doors and pushes us through--

"...this part of the brain [is called] the SEEKING circuit.  Animals and humans share a powerful and primal urge to seek out what they need in life.  We depend on this emotion to stay alive, because curiosity and active interest in the environment help animals and people find good things, like food, shelter, and a mate, and it helps us stay away from bad things, like predators."

When projected beyond our most basic needs, such seeking keeps us not only alive but also sane by triggering our reception to those things that will stimulate us and make us grow intellectually and emotionally.  Without it, we become stagnant and stunted, stumbling down an ever darkening hallway of locked doors.

I babbled recently about being stuck in that hallway and casting about for a key.  Which is funny, really, because at the same time that I've felt stuck in so many ways, I've also been busy exploring an extraordinarily stimulating set of doors opened around this time last year by my discovery of Jack White.  Anyone following this blog who's not a fan of Jack is probably becoming tired of seeing his name, but it's not going to end any time soon because the further I go the more I get.  First was a compulsion to explore his music, then it was the blues music that inspires him, and now, suddenly, it's a desire to understand music in general.  Why now?  I've been exposed to a wide variety of music since I was old enough to hear-- No one in my family sang or played an instrument, but my parents constantly had music playing on the radio or stereo.  You name a musical artist in the 60's-70's, from Burl Ives to the Beatles, and I listened to them at some point.  Branching off into my own exploration of music took me down some unfortunate roads (Kiss and hair-metal), and perhaps that's why music was always an important soundtrack to my life, but not quite an inspiration.  But Jack's passion for music is infectious and watching him play has apparently stimulated that SEEKING circuit in my brain.

The latest door opened yesterday when I picked up a copy of This Is Your Brain On Music, The Science of a Human Obsession, by Daniel Levitin.  The combination of the words 'music' and 'obsession' in the title made me grab the book off of the shelf.  The idea of understanding not only what music is but also why it's so addictive (a favorite theme of mine) is exactly where my head is at these days, and Levitin's book started out on just the right note:  a comparison of how "the work of both artists and scientists is ultimately the pursuit of truth" leading into concise explanations of musical concepts such as pitch, timbre, melody, and harmony had me squirming in my chair in excitement.  When he used the way children sing the alphabet song to explain rhythm, I almost laughed out loud because it was so simple and perfect.  And yet so much of what this book is about is not simple, and that makes it intriguing.      

Today's music lesson is on the element of harmony.  As described by Levitin--

"Harmony has to do with relationships between the pitches of different tones, and with tonal contexts that these pitches set up that ultimately lead to expectations for what will come next in a musical piece-- expectations that a skillful composer can either meet or violate for artistic and expressive purposes.

As a band, the Raconteurs are a terrific example of this concept.  Anyone who followed the White Stripes might have had trouble imagining Jack working in harmony with other musicians.  Meg was as much muse as partner for him, a springboard that launched his ideas and allowed him the freedom to explore them in a different direction every night on stage.  But sitting down with a song-writing partner?  Adding not only that second singer/guitarist/songwriter, but also an experienced drummer and bass player to the equation?  In many ways, working with these other musicians could have been as difficult a set of constraints for Jack as the red and white box he created for the music of the Stripes.    

Typically, the results confounded the sort of expectations that Levitin described.  The Racs created moments of gorgeous harmony in songs such as Together and These Stones Will Shout.  Other songs like Intimate Secretary were a combination of both meeting and violating harmonic expectation, when Jack's voice or Patrick Keeler's crashing cymbals would be used as a jarring contrast to the mellowness of Brendan Benson's singing.  Then they'd throw in an entire song that would be dissonant to the rest of the album, as with Broken Boy Soldier or Five On the Five.  But one song sums up for me the dynamic that defined this band, that balance of harmony and dissonance that electrified them.  From the glorious blending to the quirky separation of Jack and Brendan's voices and guitars, the only thing wrong with this song is that it's just too short.

Official video of the studio version of Level--

Live version recorded on set--

I've come to feel that discovering Jack has been like walking up to a huge mansion and being handed a ring of keys to every door inside it.  It's led into one room after another, each containing new sounds, new genres, new understandings, new experiences...  and for that I couldn't possibly thank him enough.         

February 7, 2011

Three bands, three songs, one strange bird

In a blurb in the December 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, Jack White was asked whether he prefers playing guitar or drums.  He replied, "The guitar is a strange bird for me.  I never really had a desire to be a guitar player-- it just fell on me.  The drums would be an actual passion of my life."   Fans the world over probably sat frowning and scratching their heads over that one. The man plays as if the guitar is both a natural extension of himself and at the same time some alien creature that he's dead set on beating into submission.  

In each of his three bands (the three that most people know about, I mean), there's been one song that became a showcase for his bizarrely contradictory relationship with the guitar.  One song played at pretty much every show, during which he seemed to turn himself inside out and wrench forth a part of his soul.  All three are impressive enough in their studio versions, but became something definitive when performed live. 

In the White Stripes, that song was Death Letter.  The choice is fairly obvious--  originally performed by Son House, this is what the Stripes were all about.  Jack has stated that everything about the band, from their child-like demeanor to the color scheme, all of the "gimmicks", were intended as a distraction from the fact that they were two white kids from Detroit playing the blues.  In some of the best performances of this song, Jack would segue into House's Grinnin' In Your Face or Blind Willie Johnson's Motherless Children at the end of his solo, but this version from the 2005 Glastonbury Festival contains no extras.  It doesn't need them. 

Much has been made of the scene in the film It Might Get Loud in which Jack smears blood all over his guitar during the solo of the Raconteurs song, Blue Veins.  It's certainly amazing to think he'd be so possessed as to keep shredding after slicing open a finger.  My own personal favorite performance of this song is one in which he's so overcome that he stops playing and stands transfixed at the mic for an entire, electric minute.  But the performance that most people would direct you to, the one so intense that Jack demolishes his guitar, a monitor, three mics, and then stalks off the stage a jittery mess, is the one from the 2008 Bonnaroo Festival.

Though he went back to the drums for the Dead Weather, any fan will tell you that the highlight of that band's shows was the moment each night when he stepped out from behind the kit to play guitar on Will There Be Enough Water. The song is sparse lyrically but gives Jack multiple opportunities to open up on the guitar.  Even on one occasion when he was seemingly trashed to the point of needing to lean against a speaker stack for support, he was still able to rip incredible sounds from his guitar.  But just about the best performance of this song I've found is one that I was fortunate enough to witness, at the 9:30 Club in DC in 2010. (Recorded in two parts, be sure to watch both.)

With the Stripes finally officially ended, and his band-mates from both the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather off playing with their original outfits, there's a lot of speculation currently amongst fans about what Jack will do this year. The one thing that every single one of us seems to agree on is that we desperately hope he'll continue his weird relationship with the guitar, that thing he's apparently never had a passion for yet plays so damned passionately.

Edit 9/29/2011:  Here's another take on this theme-- The Many Shades of Jack White from Gilles LeBlanc at ROCKthusiast.

February 5, 2011

A White weekend: The Meg version

I wasn't going to write any further about the end of the White Stripes.  I've read so many wonderful articles and blogs about it, it seems like every music writer out there has already had a crack at saying anything I might say better than I possibly could.  But this weekend is the first anniversary of my "White weekend", when I was stuck at home during the 2010 east coast blizzard and spent five days watching It Might Get Loud and trolling YouTube, discovered the fantastic White Stripes message board called The Little Room, and became hopelessly addicted to Jack White's music.  So the occasion seems to call for expounding just a bit about the most special of his three known bands.

Unfortunately,  I didn't have the chance to see this band in their element.  Back when I first heard of the White Stripes, a bit after the release of Icky Thump, they were taking Canada by storm and titillating the whole world by playing surprise shows at bowling alleys, back-country bars, on fishing boats, even, most famously, on a municipal bus.  I listened to the album, heard the stories from that tour, and thought that this was a band I should be into.  For whatever reason, though, I didn't latch onto them at the time.  By the time I realized my mistake last year and dove headfirst into their albums, it was too late.  They were already over, though no one knew it at the time.  

This is not as gutting for me as it is for those people who were in the right place at the right time and avoided my error.  For those fans who were attached to this band for years, who were actually fortunate enough to experience them live, last week's announcement must have seemed like a bomb had dropped.  I can't fully know what that felt like, though I definitely recognize the sadness of it and feel regret at being so very late to what was such an incredible party.

Fortunately, I still have much to look forward to from one half of the band.  It sounds cliché to say it, but Jack's a force of nature.  He'll always make music, it's apparently as essential to him as oxygen.  Whether he'll revive the Raconteurs or the Dead Weather, create a new band, finally make that long-asked-about solo album, or just contribute searing guitar riffs on the recordings of other musicians he produces at Third Man Records, he's sure to continue providing the world with excitement and stimulation for years to come.

But what about Meg?  It seems that many people overlook her contribution to the White Stripes.  There are endless debates at message boards and in YouTube video comments about her abilities as a drummer.  And, even if it was subconsciously, Jack must have realized how having a cute bare-footed girl with pigtails behind the drums would attract attention and make people stop to listen to his music.  But just like the debate over her and Jack's marital status vs sibling-hood, any question of Meg's contribution to the band is entirely academic.  She was essential because she did something undefinable that inspired Jack to tremendous heights.  Jack's said that he wrote the majority, if not all, of the songs in the Stripes catalog on his own, on piano or acoustic guitar, and then brought them into the studio where they became White Stripes "covers" of his initial words and music.  What would any of those songs have been without Meg?  It was her "childlike, caveman" drumming that inspired him to begin with, she brought some spark to the equation that alchemized his writing and created magic.  As Jack put it:

Meg is the best part of this band. It never would have worked with anybody else, because it would have been too complicated. When she started to play drums with me, just on a lark, it felt liberating and refreshing. There was something in it that opened me up. It was my doorway to playing the blues, without anyone over my shoulder going, 'Oh, white-boy blues, white-boy bar band.' I could really get down to something.” 

And he was fiercely protective of her as his partner and band-mate.  In one of the many blogs written about the Stripes in the last few days, one writer mentioned that Jack would "turn vicious when people would slag Meg, because they just didn’t get it."  In a thread at the Little Room forum, someone mentioned the belief that Jack wrote the song Truth Doesn't Make a Noise about Meg, which is something I've also felt--

My baby's got a heart of stone
can't you people just leave her alone
she never did nothing to hurt you
so just leave her alone

The motion of her tiny hands
and the quiver of her bones below
are the signs of a girl alone
and tell you everything
you need to know

I can't explain it
I feel it often
every time I see her face
but the way you treat her
fills me with rage and I
want to tear apart the place

You try to tell her what to do
and all she does is stare at you
her stare is louder than your voice
because truth doesn't make a noise

For all Meg's silence, the moments when she did use her voice made a difference.  

Aside from fan favorites such as In the Cold, Cold Night, her accompanying vocals on songs like This Protector and Little Ghost add a subtle touch that couldn't be achieved with Jack's voice alone.  And Rag and Bone is probably the best example of a song that just did not work without Meg's participation--  There were three versions of the song recorded for the album.  One was never pressed and has apparently never been heard.  The version on the vinyl release of the album is Jack singing altered lyrics alone.  While the words and delivery are still clever, the tune falls flat.  It's the addition of Meg on the cd version that provides the sass necessary to bring Jack's part to life and elevate this song to one of the best on the album.  

But while her effect in the studio might still have been all but invisible to people not paying attention, it was blatantly apparent on stage.  I envy anyone fortunate enough to have seen this live.  I've watched it countless times in recorded performances and the writer of a tribute article in the Chicago Tribune described it perfectly:

"In concert, the interaction between Jack White’s vocals and guitar and the way Meg White answered him on drums was as snappy, witty and cutting as the dialogue in a Humphrey Bogart-Lauren Bacall movie. Play out the scene a little further, and anything from a kiss to a gun could be produced.

Meg White took a lot of heat for not being a particularly accomplished drummer, at least technically. But she was the perfect drummer for the White Stripes, listening to and playing off Jack White better than any other human being on the planet could have. The body language, the glances between the two, were a theater all their own. That’s why the element I will miss most about the band is not the recordings, great as many of them are, but the live performances. The 'tension' that Jack White spoke of was real, and it could be revealed in a smile, a smirk, a flick of Jack’s hip or the way Meg came crashing down on a cymbal with just a little extra force to punctuate one of Jack’s lyrics."

The chances of Jack ever finding anyone else who creates the same seemingly psychic, magnetically endearing interaction with him are slim. I would assume that Meg's going to continue living her life as discreetly as she has since the Stripes first went on hiatus back in 2007. She obviously never felt the compulsion to perform that Jack does and is probably very happy to be out of the spotlight. But for 10 magical years, she gave it her all and was a true partner in a band that made so many people so very happy. How could anyone not love her for that?

February 3, 2011

My sister thanks you, and I thank you. Goodnight.

I may or may not write more about this later, still processing how I feel about it.  In the grand scheme of things, it's not monumental.  It's not even a surprise.  But the emotional impact this band has had on the people who connected with their music is a special, special thing.  This announcement is gracefully worded, yet so utterly sad in its finality...

The White Stripes would like to announce that today, February 2nd, 2011,
their band has officially ended and will make no further new recordings or perform live.

The reason is not due to artistic differences or lack of wanting to continue, nor any health issues as both Meg and Jack are feeling fine and in good health.

It is for a myriad of reasons, but mostly to preserve What is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way.

Meg and Jack want to thank every one of their fans and admirers for the incredible support they have given throughout the 13 plus years of the White Stripes’ intense and incredible career.

Third Man Records will continue to put out unreleased live and studio recordings from The White Stripes in their Vault Subscription record club, as well as through regular channels.

Both Meg and Jack hope this decision isn’t met with sorrow by their fans but that it is seen as a positive move done out of respect for the art and music that the band has created. It is also done with the utmost respect to those fans who’ve shared in those creations, with their feelings considered greatly.

With that in mind the band have this to say:

“The White Stripes do not belong to Meg and Jack anymore. The White Stripes belong to you now and you can do with it whatever you want. The beauty of art and music is that it can last forever if people want it to. Thank you for sharing this experience. Your involvement will never be lost on us and we are truly grateful.”

Meg and Jack White
The White Stripes

A fellow Stripes fan summed it up best on her Facebook profile by quoting the way Jack ended so many of the band's shows:

"My sister thanks you, and I thank you. Goodnight."