“And I’m talking to myself at night
Because I can’t forget
Back and forth through my mind
Behind a cigarette”
With those lyrics, I entered my 20s.
No, I didn’t take up smoking.
It was summer 2003, and my favorite band of all time, Five Iron Frenzy, had announced their disbanding and had just released their final album, “The End is Near”. I loved FIF, having discovered them upon my entrance into my teenage years in 1996. They were my voice then, as I struggled to have my own. Disgruntled, ashamed, and sarcastic, they were a perfect match for my middling adolescence. I wasn’t – and am not – even a huge fan of punk rock or ska, but Reese Roper’s transparent lyrics and Dennis Culp’s amazing, poppy arrangements gave me the perfect mix of angst and fun.
Alas, we all have to grow up. I still consider Five Iron Frenzy my favorite band. Some personal connections never weaken or dissipate.
However, in 2003, as I turned 20 and entered my sophomore year in college, I got hooked on The White Stripes. I had, in 2000, first dismissed them as faceless proponents of the early millennial garage rock trend. I finally discovered the hypnotizing and lyrically air-tight “Seven Nation Army” with the rest of the world and immediately went back and picked up White Blood Cells. “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” was an essential track during my first Autumn in Tuscaloosa, and I was fully on board. Since then, every White Stripes album has taken my imagination new places and pushed the boundaries of my ability to process images.
Now we come to the reason I’m posting an ode to a rock band on a movie blog. From the beginning, The White Stripes were a cinematic rock band, and that quality is what made them stick. Every single one of their songs initiated such a strong wave of creativity within me that it became almost like a drug. There are few influences in my life as a storyteller that permeate my brain so heavily as this band.
But why? Why am I so affected by this band from Detroit, a place I’ve never been to? There’s nothing in the music of The White Stripes that mirrors my Swabian, pseudo-catholic, conservative upbringing in the suburban U.S. South. What strikes me about The White Stripes is simplicity. Those other influences I mentioned (the book of Proverbs, Donald Duck comics, early Simpsons, etc.) all portray a type of presumed simple mechanics that I hunger and strive for. It’s that quality that makes the White Stripes so cinematic – that basic, childish rhythm that carries a completely original, aggressive, poetic texture. Their reliance on storytelling and contextual lyrics create a universe for each song, each a window into another world. Each song is a sonic equivalent of a David Mamet or Coen Brothers script… Imagination + discipline.
You can add to that their very visually-minded public persona. The reds and whites and blacks, combined with the narrative the band constructed for itself, are indicative of the kind of showmanship you rarely see in modern music. Also, let’s not forget Jack White’s obsession with cinema trailblazer Orson Welles (Ex: “The Union Forever”, Third Man Records). The White Stripes is music perfectly suited for the information-age film nerd.
Several people aren’t lamenting the end of the White Stripes, pointing out that Jack White is all over the place, working on Bond films and playing with two other bands. This is true, but The White Stripes is a separate entity from Jack White. The idea of The White Stripes is a higher abstraction than any one artist, and I’m proud that it’s ending on a high note.
So where do we go from here? On my recent trip to Germany, I furiously wrote the bulk of a screenplay during layovers, all the while blaring the Stripes on my iPod. This will continue. I still rock FIF when the weather gets warm, and the Stripes will be a part of my storytelling life forever. I’ve made peace with the fact that, in the same way that Five Iron Frenzy guided me to the door of my 20’s, this cinematic rock band led me from being an observer of films to a creator of them.
I close with one of my favorite White Stripes lyrics, an evocative and terrifying image that is one of my singular motivators as an independent filmmaker. The lyric reminds me of the Herzogian nature of White Stripes songs, an idea that Jack White explains in the documentary It Might Get Loud. White mentions that he makes the act of creating music hard for himself, by moving a pedal one step too far away, or by having ragged equipment. This creates a sense of struggle in his art, a noble idea that marries nicely with the band’s simplicity. That struggle for original art through focused simplicity echoes a bit of wisdom my pastor, Andrea Penn, mentioned just this past week. I paraphrase her message: “The hard road is only traversable with a light load.” In this case, it only takes two artists with a few simple instruments to forge a new sound and new imaginations.
Thank you, Meg and Jack White.
“And this old man in front of me wearing canes and ruby rings
Is like containing explosion when he sings
And with every chance to set himself on fire,
He just ends up doin’ the same thing.”