Written by Phillip Mottaz
Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Cure's "Untitled," Radiohead's "Optimistic," and M.I.A's "Paper Planes."
After the White Stripes' beautiful performance on the final episode of Late Night With Conan O'Brien, I had an email discussion with fan of Tripwire and my good friend Chris Vander Wal. It all started with his email giving me a link to the video, summing everything up with "I assume you don't take requests, but as songs that are Great At This Moment go, this one's pretty damn sweet."
Rather than get into a whole messy editing process where I trim out my lame parts while making his insights look like my own, I've decided to print the discussion in its (near) entirety. Footnotes have been added for clarification and dramatic effect.
And now... our emails....
PM: I've been okay with that song, historically, and when this started, I was a little discombobulated at its variation. But then when they both sing together in that big wail, it hit me that they're the best band of the last 10 years. So great.
Five minutes later...
PM Again: Okay, I'm playing it again.
The big thing this version does is that -- due to the limitations of having only 2 band members -- you get many of the pluses of doing a "classic rawk" version of the song, while retaining the intimacy.
That song felt like sitting in on a White Stripes pre-concert warm up.
Did you ever see them when they were the "exclusive" band for Conan a few years back? It was when Elephant came out.
I haven't played that album enough lately.
A Little Later...
PM: If it actually does turn out to be an article, you can probably expect to see a lot of this stuff we're talking about get re-worked and ripped off.
CVW" Well, so far you're the one talking, so you're ripping yourself off, I guess?
I read somewhere that the arrangement of that version is from a "lullaby" that was on Conan's show. Sort of a nice goodbye present for him, I guess. I like his heartfelt appreciation to them at the end, too.
I have nothing to add to the smart comments you've already made. Curiously, I found myself thinking of the WS show we went to in Chicago, and the 4 minute man-crush I had on Jack White during "Black Math". This is obviously a much different type of performance, but I totally got reminded that he is a capital 'R' Rock Star. He's just got it. And I love the quirkiness that Meg has, how it contrasts and complements his vibe. Together, and in particular on this song, there's a great sweetness and sadness that comes through their pairing. That song could've come off us annoyingly earnest and trite, but it's not- there's legitimate power and magnetism there.
I interject here...
PM: Yeah. That part near the end, when he gets real quiet almost gave me chills. Not literally, but I leaned in close because I thought I could feel the tension in the audience.
CVW: Also, and this is totally obvious, this performance is great precisely because everybody knows they really can rock hard. The choice to play it kinda low key (the intimacy you talked about) but not do an acoustic performance is, like you said, so great.
In an e-mail the next night, Chris continues...
CVW: Y'know what I love about that performance (you can later edit out the fact that I'm HAMMERED on all the red wine brought to our home tonight for the Oscars)... it's mournful. It's all the great rock star stuff you've mentioned -- the emotion, worked out by the physical push to the mic, the willingness to really shout out when it's necessary -- but with the feeling of a dirge, like Jack and Meg are kinda mourning the passing of an era. It's a song about becoming friends, so nicely and notably used in Napoleon Dynamite, but from that eighth grade perspective: we were friends, and I hope to God we stay friends, but maybe that's changing now. And if it does, I want you to know how much I love you. What you are might be diminished, but not stolen. And if it is diminished, then I still know how great you are, and I'll remember.
Like you said, only Conan's (temporary) house band could do that song -- beloved by him -- that way. Take the familiar, and not simply mine it,but find something new within it. I've seen some negative talk on the performance, primarily at the AV Club comment thread, and even that is a sign of something great -- the audience does not get what they expect. Cliched love is about taking the form that is expected; true love is love by whatever honest means necessary. Do Anything to make it work. Jack and Meg made it heartfelt for Conan, and who cares what any one else thinks, even on national television.
Now I should drink some water. I sincerely hope [you] find something usable in there, 'cause I did try.
PM: There is much useful there.
I've been curious to find more negative reactions, because the only other person* I've spoken to who has seen it commented on Meg's guitar playing. "Stick to barely playing the drums" was the lasting thought.
And I think that's bullshit because if the White Stripes have proved anything in their work, it's that skill and proficiency are overrated as well as secondary to the song itself.
That version of "We Are Gonna..." doesn't need a super-skilled guitar player. It needs those "chuck-a" sounds, so it only requires someone to provide those "chuck-a" sounds. To keep the beat. The guitar is a rhythm instrument, and Meg's the rhythm expert of the band. It makes sense. If you got Joe Satriani (who I pick on a lot, by the way) to play that part, it would be a waste of his abilities and annoying. He'd have to look down on the song, and he would lower himself to play it.
Meg, on the other hand, must raise herself up to the level of playing a new instrument (assuming she's never played before, which I doubt) for the purposes of the song. I once wrote a song with Mike and he had just bought an accordion, so we thought it would be cool to throw in an accordion solo. He wasn't great, but it added something. It was really just four notes, but they were the right four notes.
Limitations like these allow for more honest expressions of feelings and emotions; things that skill and proficency work to conceal.
I hate making Beatles references, but I must: I always laugh when people scoff at Ringo's abilities. While he wasn't the greatest drummer in the world, if he wasn't there, then they wouldn't be the Beatles. Everything would sound different. That's the way that band's chemistry worked to create art greater than the sum of the contributing parts. "Greater than the sum of their parts" is what the White Stripes are all about.
From here we went on debating whether Sean Penn won his Best Actor Oscar outright or with the backlash of Prop 8 power behind him, though we never got to deep into whether Heath Ledger "deserved" his Oscar -- or whether his performance in The Dark Knight would have as much power -- if he hadn't died. Eventually we got back on track...
CVW: I agree with you on this, even if it took me many teeenage years to understand it: imperfect technique to create the right feeling is always better than perfect technique to create an adequate feeling. "Greater than the sum of their parts," indeed. People whining about Meg's guitar or Jack's anguished singing are missing the point. A perfect performance (and I am a Joe Satriani fan) might have nothing to do with stimulating the right emotion. Tell me that Meg and Jack weren't playing their hearts out that night, that there wasn't something arcing that night; structure and technique is appropriate, but heart and honesty is transcendent. Some viewers may not honor Meg and Jack, but they'll remember what happened. Even in criticism, the naysayers will keep that welding spark alive.
Also, isn't that the beauty of a "Greatest Song At This Moment?" Sure, maybe we might criticize Meg's playing, but for this tiny second the song is perfect. Who cares? If someone needs to find a fault 24 hours after performance, then I'm sure they're chastising a lover for mistakes or looking to hurt an external entity for what is lacking. Right now, there is beauty in front of you; don't focus on the death of the flower, but that fleeting bloom right now while it lives. Such hating drives me a little nuts.
End of email conversation. And yes, we really do talk like this.
Three quick notes on the way out: I'm not simply reprinting the emails because I'm lazy, but because some parts are said so well that I'd either have to continually sight or quote my way into a bibliography, and that's no fun. So I guess it's a whole other level of lazy we're talking about here.
Secondly, *The only other person I'd spoken to about the performance at the time of the writing is a musician friend of mine. He writes music and plays bass. I've been good friends with three great bass players and none of them liked the White Stripes, thereby fulfilling the truest point: bassists hate the White Stripes.