The White Stripes: The devil inside

For The White Stripes' front man, the blues is American music in its purest form. Nick Hasted charts Jack White's obsession
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The Independent Culture


Jack White will never have the blues badly enough. Though The White Stripes' new album, Get Behind Me Satan, suggests the legendary bluesman Robert Johnson's crossroads soul-sale in its title, and the band's music draws deep and long from the genre, the reality that spawned the blues is an unreachable lifetime away. That blues, lived by White heroes such as Johnson and Son House, was born in the Mississippi Delta a century ago, a place so poor you might actually have to eat dirt, in conditions of near-slavery. It was the product of a private black cosmology forged in bloodily violent, wildly hedonist juke-joints that no white man ever visited. It's a far cry from the The White Stripes' foray into Glastonbury next week.

White knows this all very well. "I was saying, 'These are my idols,'" he admits, "yet I probably disagree with their lifestyle a lot: wife-beating, drinking and carousing, sick behaviour like that." So where does perhaps the 21st century's greatest rock band get off with their continued harking back to such alien, ancient music of oppression?

The first clues lie in White's early life in Detroit. Growing up in a mostly Mexican and black neighbourhood, where hip-hop ruled, his real environment was not one he could fit into. And modern America as a whole horrified him. He saw it as a place of rampant consumerism and greed, while his instincts were essentially puritan. Shunning his own generation, he made older friends. It was from this more experienced crowd that, aged 18, he first heard Son House's "Grinning In Your Face", and found his musical calling. "There was truth in that record," he said recently. "I realised that less can be more. Why get a bass player, when it's already truthful?"

Joining with his "sister", or more likely ex-wife, Meg White - an incestuous conundrum with its own Southern Gothic spice - he formalised the aesthetic starkness House's acoustic blues offered on the Stripes' second album, De Stijl (2000). Including cover versions of House's "Death Letter" and Blind Willie McTell's "Southern Can is Mine", it was based around the abstract art movement of its title. This provided an academic theory of restraint from which the band would never deviate, permitting only red, white and black clothing, and two instruments. Such constraints, though they smacked of a lofty art project, were at the blues' heart already. In a world of 50-track studios and sampling, it was music that still allowed only 12 bars, and three-line verses, a haiku-like cage from which to force subtly personal expression. It was a form that could sever you from technology, corporate demands, and rock excess, forcing you back on your own primitive resources. For Jack, this made it songwriting's "pinnacle".

He was not alone. One of his early teenage heroes, Kurt Cobain, had been an obsessive Leadbelly fan, introducing grunge kids to the blues when he revived "Where Did You Sleep Last Night" with a marrow-chilling scream on Nirvana Unplugged in New York (1994). Moby, Nick Cave and PJ Harvey also rediscovered the genre at the millennium's turn. White's intentions went deeper. He knew the world that had made the original bluesmen was lost. In a doomed romantic gesture, that only made him want to turn back time, and revive that gone America even more. "When it all comes down to it, what I really want is for folk music to still be around," he recently admitted. "At times, we almost ignore our own music. If we have the stage, we've gotta play Son House's music, because there's nobody else to keep it alive."

It seems a contradiction that a band who on stage can seem the most radically exciting rock band on earth, should see themselves as conservationists. But this puts The White Stripes in alliance with another White hero, Bob Dylan. Like Dylan's recent blues albums, White's obsession with the values of a mythical American past is a way of resisting his country now. As Dylan wrote in 1993, blues is a music from "before the insane world of entertainment exploded in our faces": it is "against cultural policy". Singing within that by now imaginary world's confines shields White from the ubiq-uity of reality and music TV.

Dating Renée Zellweger, as he did, and so becoming an MTV gossip staple, may seem to capsize that concept. But when Whitevisited an MTV awards show recently, all he talked about was the late skiffle king, Lonnie Donegan. As when he put a nightmarish version of the antique "St. James Infirmary Blues" at the heart of The White Stripes' biggest British headline show at Alexandra Palace last year, he is trying to lure fans into an older, less frivolous universe too. It is music that refuses Pop Idol's false comforts. White wants to replace such modern minstrel shows with a world with "dignity".

But Jack White's wish to live in the past is finally more confused and troubling than that. As Elephant's alternate title, "The Death of the Sweetheart", suggests, he also pines for a mythical, pre-war America of chivalry between the sexes, where, he has admitted, "there were a lot of things involving masculine and feminine ideals that were closer to one's own nature". The near-misogynist "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine" is among many Stripes songs showing his discomfort with modern relationships, which he sometimes reduces lyrically to pre-adolescent, nursery school innocence. Blues lyrics, which describe relationships settled in lawless shacks with fists, knives and guns, are certainly simpler. But the American archetype that most fits Jack's own fantasies of chivalrous decorum is , of course, the pre-Civil War, slaveholding South.

"That's the real America," he has said of the region. "That's the last bastion of culture in the country, where people really have American culture." He was pining for Appalachian mountain songs, not slavery's whip-crack, or fainting Southern belles. But Jack White's naivete about the world he excavates for his work was confirmed by an early NME interview, when he wished he'd been a black man in the Thirties, instead of a young white male today.

If he seems split between sipping mint juleps on an antebellum porch and slugging gin in the shacks down below, that only shows how fanciful and weird Jack White's 21st century blues really are. That he has somehow made them the foundation of the greatest rock band extant is perhaps the strangest fact of all.