For me, the White Stripes will always be summed up by this line from a letter my friend Dan Morgenstern wrote to me in September of 2005:
“Then, all of a sudden, ‘Whose a Big Baby!’ Jeff and I ran down to the stage and there they were. Jack White like a bolt of lightning playing guitar. My God!”
I was living and studying (drinking, really) in Ireland. My friend Jeff had bought me a ticket to see the White Stripes at Coney Island’s KeySpan Park—which was then brand new—for my birthday. Unfortunately, Jeff hadn't known the exact dates of my travel, so I gave up my ticket to our friend Dan instead. That quote sticks with me not just because I remember reading the letter in my sad, sorry room, the window open, drizzle falling outside and feeling so tremendously guilty for missing the show. No, it sticks with me because its how I then always pictured the White Stripes: bolts of electricity, lightning, extreme characters and figures of energy. “Who’s a Big Baby?” is a rare track, a B-Side to the “Blue Orchid” single that I had bought earlier that summer when I couldn’t get enough of Get Behind Me Satan. That summer, we’d sit in my friend Erik’s car at the parking lot of the town beach and drink beer while the sun set over the Long Island sound. We were exhausted and dusty from work, but we’d smoke and drink and listen to “My Doorbell,” “The Denial Twist,” “Forever for Her is Over for Me,” “Take, Take, Take,” and “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).” We’d listen to those songs and argue about which one was the best until the bugs started biting our legs and we’d be forced to think about the air-conditioning in our childhood rooms, which felt less and less like ours, where we’d sleep and then go to work in the heat of the next morning.
Later that summer, Dan, Jeff and I drove Jeff’s new, blue, Subaru Outback across the country (well, Arizona and back) in three weeks. We looped north through Columbus, through Chicago and up to Big Sky, Montana and then all the way down through the Grand Canyon, across through Norman, Oklahoma and then around the bend of Georgia up through Shenandoah, until we returned in the twilight of some August evening back to the fertile lawns of Long Island. On that trip, we listened to the White Stripes. Dan took absolute joy in the discovery of the perverse and bizarre brand of rock n’ roll that “Who’s A Big Baby?” represented. Jeff could do nothing but effusively gush, with his New York bravado, about the “good old rock n’ roll, Domino. This is what its really about. What happened? How come no one makes songs like this anymore, Domino? Huh?” We fought with each other on that trip as wind ripped through the sunroof. We slept effortlessly in our tent in the woods of Wyoming. We washed in creeks in Montana and did push-ups on picnic tables. And one rainy morning in Boulder, I even debated just running out on that road alone, because, well, because I just get urges and feel pent up by life—it’s something most young people feel.
The White Stripes don’t represent that specific road trip or even that summer of my life. Maybe if you made me sit down and analyze the summer I could prove that the White Stripes did define the summer of 2005. However, like most bands that you love, the White Stripes could have defined multiple summers and seasons. They could have defined the summer of 2002, when Dan and I saw them play with the Strokes at Radio City and I got so drunk on the train on the way in that I had to sit on the toilet throughout intermission only to emerge victorious just in time for the Strokes’ set. Or, they could’ve represented the fall of 2003, my first semester at college when I went to my friend Kevin’s hometown in New Hampshire and we cruised the quiet, empty, working class streets and I felt the ghosts of his youth and years of rebellion try to haunt my skin as if they were my own. All of this while we listened to White Blood Cells over and over again and let our cigarettes hang out the rusted car windows.
The White Stripes and their strange world sound-tracked nearly all of my adolescence, my college years and my young adult confusion. I watched them expand on their sound from album to album since I first discovered them in 2001. They are the first band from my formative years, the first contemporary band that I even CARED about, to break up. Maybe that doesn’t mean anything—it probably isn’t any kind of greater symbol for an end of youth—but I will almost certainly miss waiting for an anticipating their next album. They made me think for brief moments that anything was possible in simple rock n’ roll. I remember how loud Elephant felt, how shocking a song like “There’s No Home For You Here” sounded or how vicious “Black Math” could be, especially when Jack switched hooks on a dime. Then, Get Behind Me Satan changed what I had known about the band with a single piano and “My Doorbell,” the best song that Michael Jackson never sang. And then they clouded themselves in weirdness and obscurity with Icky Thump just as they had originally done on White Blood Cells and De Stijl. And there will always be the raw self-titled album with the swagger of the Stones mixed with the shrill basics of Led Zeppelin. Like I said, I will miss waiting for their next album.
Yet, that’s not the reason I’m sad or even melancholy. It’s not the loss of hope, of expectation, of looking for a date on the calendar when I would get 12 or 13 new songs to love and memorize. No, the sadness comes from the fact that I, like most of the characters I write about and like most people in general, am past haunted. The White Stripes in my mind, the electric Jack White and the ghostly Meg, are images of the past. They are not as I remember them in those sunny memories from almost a decade ago. Jack White now pushes his fervent creativity in all directions, laying his vision on records he produces or other bands he plays in like The Dead Weather and the Raconteurs. But those bands lack the immediacy, the bizarre simple creativity that the White Stripes had, that quality that made you believe that rock n’ roll would always be relevant in one way or another. And again, my mind is drawn to the past, to the clammy brick hallways of my high school and my pride in being one of the only true rock n’ rollers, one of the first people to hoist White Blood Cells and Elephant over his head. Instead, perhaps I should be excited, perhaps I should be hopeful that Jack White will continue on. That he will make his own Jack White Band, a shifting group that releases albums that completely change from record to record like the old eccentric guitar genius Jeff Beck, who he most closely takes after. Maybe that’s what I can take solace in.
Yet, as I sit and listen to the light rain falling outside my kitchen windows, as I look out at the slick sheen of water covering my roof, I can’t help but think of the inevitability of the coming summer. Of the pressing of heat and bodies. Of the length of days and those long, sprawled out sweating nights. Maybe its wishful thinking in this cold weather, but I’m thinking of the summer. And my stomach is all tied up with visions of my past and of those summers that I remember, which may not have been as great as I remember them. So, perhaps I’ll have to let them go—all those summers—and let them come back to me naturally in all that I encounter in those burning months of the future. And I’ll have to do the same with the White Stripes. But I’m pretty sure the summer of 2005 was one of the best summers of my life, one that I’ll never forget. And I’m pretty sure the White Stripes were great.