I remember the first time I saw Jack White play guitar. And the same as how I know where I was when I saw Raiders of the Lost Ark for the first time, I’ll never forget the experience.
I was working at The Late Show with David Letterman in New York. When there was a band I liked playing on the show, I would sneak up to the balcony and watch the sound check before the taping. I saw some amazing music up there by myself. Pearl Jam, Pete Townsend, U2, B.B. King, Tom Waits, Ben Harper and many more. I was told that the White Stripes were going to play the show the next day. I had heard a little of the buzz surrounding them and had read a couple blurbs in some British music magazines. I wanted to see it for myself.
So the next afternoon, I snuck up to the balcony. When I looked down to that historic stage I only saw two people. A cute barefoot girl sitting at a small drum kit and a guy with a cheap guitar I had never seen before standing in front of a stuffed zebra head. Both were dressed in red, black and white. There were peppermint swirls decorating the drums. I was intrigued.
Jack got the cue from Biff the stage manager and the Stripes started playing “Fell In Love With A Girl.” I’d never heard anything like it. It was simple and pure and, well, amazing. I was really interested. Then, something incredible happened. Biff asked the band to play something else while the sound guys played with a few of the levels. Jack nodded, pulled a metal slide out of his pocket and said something to Meg. Then he ripped into a version of the Son House classic “Death Letter,” one of my favorite songs of all time. “I got a letter this morning, what do you reckon it read? It said the gal you love is dead.” Now tell me that’s not poetry. My mouth hit the floor of the balcony. What the hell was this? Are you kidding me? I was blown way. I’d never heard the blues sound like that. And that was it. I was a convert. I was on board with the White Stripes.
The tourists in the audience that night seemed a little confused when they heard the Stripes, but that didn’t matter. It wasn’t their crowd. Even Letterman looked up from his desk when they were playing. Something he rarely does. Dave saw it too. There was something special about this little (literally) band from Detroit.
After work that evening, I walked the nine blocks down Broadway to the Virgin Megastore in Times Square and bought the first three White Stripes albums. They have been one of my favorite bands since that night. I could tell they were the real thing. Some may have thought the Stripes were a gimmick. And I suppose that in some ways, there are. The difference is, they are a perfectly executed gimmick accompanied by a world-class guitar player. Jack is, without doubt, one of the most gifted guitarists of his generation. Not that long ago, Rolling Stone magazine named him the 17th greatest axe player of all-time. That ranked him ahead of George Harrison, Buddy Guy and Freddy King. Record after record for ten years, Jack has shown us that he is a musical force. He’s a creative genius with the musical morals that rarely exist outside of Eddie Vedder.
I tend to gravitate towards bands that have longevity and a strong body of work. Bands that have their sound grow and evolve. (An exception being the Ramones. They are in a class by themselves.) And I’m very selective. It’s not that I think that Maroon 5 is a particularly bad band. But, the way they sound, you know, here today, Third Eye Blind tomorrow. Same with bands like Matchbox 20, Nickleback and Dashboard Confessional. Here today, Gin Blossoms tomorrow. Okay, I do think that Maroon 5 is a bad band.
The only other time I have seen the Stripes live was by chance when I scored Saturday Night Live tickets and they happened to be the guest. That was good time, amazing to sit in that historic theater and see SNL in person.
The last few years I have missed the Stripes live shows. In New York they were playing the Bowery Ballroom and I couldn’t get tickets. A couple years later in Los Angeles, I was out the state on a job and missed another set of shows in The Greek Theater. It was frustrating. But a few months ago, I finally got White Stripes tickets. To see them in one of my favorite rooms, the historic Paramount Theater is Seattle. My cousin Aaron and I bought a couple pre-sale seats in the balcony and I have counted down the days until I was going to see Jack play guitar live.
And then, wouldn’t you know it, with the show just days away, I get an email from The White Stripes. Meg is suffering from “acute anxiety” and is “unable to travel” and tour. For crying out loud. I never make light of anxiety, depression or the like, I’m not angry at Meg. I’m just disappointed and bummed out. The Stripes are the band I have not seen that I want to see the most. They have eluded me over the years, like my White Whale I haven’t been able to catch. And now I have to wait who knows how long to see them.
Maybe after the next amazing record, and the ensuing tour, I will be able to in the audience with thousands of others and appreciate the chance to hear Jack play his Airline Res-O-Glass guitar.