My first real look at Jack White when I arrived in Detroit was, really, no kind of look at all. Out there in some office-park nether-exit off I-696, I stepped into the hallway adjacent to the White Stripes’ photo shoot. There, 20 feet away or so, an immense figure strode away from me in blood red pants—snug and straight—and a black button down shirt—untucked; he had a walking cane, a top hat and his head held high as dark strings of black hair streamed down around his neck and shoulders.
An hour or so later, I walked into a bar directly across Woodward Ave from the Magic Stick, the downtown Detroit club where the White Stripes used to play (and where Jack famously whupped that dude from the Von Bondies in December of 2003). Slightly bored, Jack sat alone in a booth in the back, looking infinitely less mythical (though now even more explicitly broad and strong) in a white undershirt, tightly tucked-in. He quickly excused himself to grab Meg White, who sat on a stool at the bar, smoking wistfully over a pint of Labatt’s.
The last time I had seen the White Stripes was in November of 2003 after the release of their fourth album Elephant, when the steady squall of noise that first surrounded them in 2001 was reaching new heights. They were no longer an emergent band with a constructed image and funny faux-sibling banter—by then, all of us in the crowd were so familiar with the red, white and black that we almost forgot to notice it. Instead we were there to see if they’d play “Hello Operator” or “The Big Three Killed My Baby”; to see what Delta bluesman or golden-era country star they’d cove.
The show was in one of those concert halls that makes you feel like you’re watching people watch a concert, and Jack White struck an imposing figure. He looked ten, twelve, fourteen feet tall up there, his shoulders robust and his guitar a mere lash—a prop that he abused while projecting massive amounts of sound like lightening bolts from the rest of his physique. Meg, meanwhile, sat behind the drums, all chest and swinging hair and head tucked alternately behind this shoulder or that because she’d almost certainly be smote by one of Jack’s flying bolts if she put it anywhere else. The show wasn’t just good—it was long and intense and menacing and so packed that there was a weird sense of community. Maybe it was because having the White Stripes in town was our little taste of eras past, when the monsters of rock had private jets so they could come play a sports stadium near you.
After the Stripes’ world tour in support of Elephant, the band took more than a year off to rest and weather the backlash that would inevitably follow the record’s overwhelming success (over four million in worldwide sales). Meg disappeared, but Jack stayed busy. He appeared in the Civil War movie Cold Mountain and recorded songs for the soundtrack. He played guitar on and produced Van Lear Rose, a Grammy-winning record for Loretta Lynn. He and Meg appeared in Jim Jarmusch’s film Coffee And Cigarettes, and he recorded a yet-to-be-released album with his neighbor Brendan Benson. Then, finally, he and Meg reconvened in March to record their fifth album Get Behind Me Satan. It took less than two weeks to complete.
Ask Jack White a question, and his eyes darken as he looks at you intently—he holds your eyes and furrows his brow, nodding along to show that he’s with you. Then when you’re done, he talks fast, in a flurry of confidence and ideas. He’s not angry, but he speaks from a place of anger—it’s the dominant emotion of his worldview, not the particular emotion he’s feeling when he says, “In America, culture is so dying that towns don’t have much of their own culture and when they do they latch onto it because they’re so proud of it.” White sweeps his hair out of his face and continues. “But nothing’s gonna last. Now somebody finds out about it—or with the internet, everybody finds out about it—and it becomes commoditized and people throw tons of money at it. A few people make tons of money and then no one cares. That’s not what was happening to Woody Guthrie and Leadbelly. They weren’t getting offers like that.” He pauses, then adds, “They were getting ripped off.”