e-mail me at billdeg@umich.edu


White Stripes, RIP

My roomate in college liked a Detroit band called Goober & The Peas, so we used to go see them play their odd country/punk around town. They had a rotating roster, but for a while their drummer was a kid younger than us. A couple years later he switched to guitar and changed his name to Jack White. After I grew up, his band, The White Stripes, got me re-invested in new music. By the late 90s, I was married and spending my time getting a PhD, not listening to bands. Plus, rock and roll seemed pretty boring anyway. Linkin Park, that kind of thing.

I lived in Tucson then, but read the Detroit papers online, and they were starting to talk about this band that played Captain Beefheart covers and had hokey elements like dressing in red and white. Their sense of fun knocked me over, hokey or not. I listened to "De Stijl," their best in my opinion, on repeat while helping my friend Hung tow a 1940 Cadillac from New Orleans to Los Angeles around Christmas, 2001. We drove a huge red dumptruck and when it was my turn to drive and Hung's turn to sleep, Hung had to get us to an entrance ramp and point us in the right direction because I was pretty shaky when it came to making turns in that monster. That's what I think of when I hear "Hello Operator" and "You're Pretty Good Lookin for a Girl." Towing a 1940 Caddy across Texas--a pretty good video for the old-fashioned music.

Nicole and I saw them live in Tucson, at the Hotel Congress, in early 2002, while I was finishing up my dissertation. There were lots of kids at the show. Not college kids, little kids. I felt kind of creepy, a 20-something among all these middle-schoolers getting dropped off by their parents. They opened with "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground" and the guitar was impossibly loud and sweaty. No setlist. Jack would just nod at Meg and she'd know what he meant. When they quieted down for "We're Gonna Be Friends," with all those young kids there, miles from Washington where our country was getting ready to go to war with half the Middle East, that was a totally unironic, tender moment. Seems like a week or two later, they were being played on the radio, alongside crap, and they were on the MTV awards show doing "Fell In Love With A Girl."

We moved to Southwest Ohio a few months later for my first professor job--speaking of growing up--and, 2002, 2003, those were the final years of the independent Oxford, Ohio, radio station WOXY. And WOXY had good final years: The White Stripes were in heavy rotation, plus Gossip (before they became a dance band), Sleater Kinney, the local band The Greenhornes, Bloc Party, The Kills when they first started up, Flaming Lips and Wilco had popular records then, the British punk band the Libertines. I taught a lot of English majors during those years and we were listening to the same music. Lots of good English major music during 02-03. And the Stripes were the gateway to a lot of their friends' bands in Detroit: the Dirtbombs, the Detroit Cobras, the Electric 6, and a long list of others. Those bands had their fifteen minutes, and now they continue to make fun and energetic, non-hipster music on a smaller stage. Nicole and I saw the Stripes one more time, probably in early 2003 in Cincinnati. More popular now, still playing the same songs, and no less committed to that vision of a guitar, drums, and voice.

I didn't like "Elephant," "Get Behind Me Satan," and "Icky Thump" quite as much as their first records. Sure, songs like "Seven Nation Army" and "Blue Orchid" became anthems, but they no longer sounded like the only songs of their kind. Mainly, I guess, because everybody else was imitating Jack White. And the band was name-dropped in the movie School of Rock. And Metallica covered "Seven Nation Army." And they band shared a stage with Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. Like Nirvana ten years earlier, the band represented a weird moment when something from the underground takes a peak at the sunlight. And that's not a bad thing, because more people get to partake in something real.

The band broke up a few weeks back and that's a shame. Listening to their music reminded me that just because I'm married and have a real job doesn't mean I have to grow up.