Artist: The White Stripes
Album: De Stijl
Jack White writes and sings about what it feels like to be a boy better than just about anyone else I can think of. In fact, I’m drawing a complete blank trying to come up with the name of anyone who mines the same territory, let alone does it so well. (If you’ve got someone in mind, post in the comments!)
The thing about songs like this one and (probably my all-time favorite White Stripes song) We Are Going to Be Friends is that he’s not writing nostalgically. He’s not looking back and trying to recapture the beauty and innocence of childhood. He – or whoever the narrator is in these songs – is a child.
Of course we assume that Jack White doesn’t own a time travel machine that allows him to temporarily transport himself and his gear back 15 or 20 years into the past in order to write a great song. (It would not completely surprise me to find out that he had in fact discovered a working time machine in a Tennessee hollow, or had created one out of spare furniture pieces and electronics parts salvaged from an abandoned Detroit warehouse.)
There’s just this innocence and immediacy in both the lyrics and the performance that says to me that Jack White, more than most well-known male singers, possesses both the desire and the capacity for returning inwardly to the mental and emotional innocence – with all its attendant longing and confusion – of being a boy.
I love how the music and the lyrics work together in this song. It starts off with an almost ominous-feeling chug on the low strings of the guitar. Then that sweet, simple little slide riff comes in. No chords here, just a simple bassline on the guitar, that little eight-note melody, and a lot of open space. (I think one reason Meg’s drums work so well in so many White Stripes songs is that she leaves acres of space for the guitar and voice to just linger in.)
Jack sets the stage, repeating “Cause I don’t really know anyone…”
And then, as “the bus is pulling / up to your house” we get some chords, the tension builds, and then the guitar and drums cut out, leaving naked the line, “I wish you could be sitting here next to me.”
I sure remember that feeling on the bus as a 12- or 13-year-old. Going on a field trip and just longing for the girl I liked to sit next to me. (Knowing she would sit with her girl friends, because that was what always happened, but hoping against hope…)
He repeats that same trick in the second verse:
I didn't see you at summer school But I saw you at the corner store And I don't want to break the rules 'Cause I've broken them all before But every time I see you I wonder why I don't break a couple rules so that you'll notice me
I was never the kid who broke the rules to get attention. I was too scared! But I sure can understand what this kid is feeling.
This isn’t even close to being my favorite song on De Stijl, either.The whole record sounds to me like it was made in a studio in North Mississippi 50 or 60 years ago, recorded live to four-track tape – back in the day when you just got the best sound you could out of your amp and your voice and then recorded straight to analog tape.
When I moved back to Detroit from Atlanta in 2001, I stayed with my friend Kyle Stone (the painter who did the cover art for both of the first two Stand & Deliver albums) for a month until I could get enough money together to move into a flophouse hotel in Greektown near where I was working at the time. We were watching the Red Wings on TV after work one night when Kyle asked me, “Have you heard The White Stripes?”
I said no, and Kyle got that look on his face that meant, “Oh-ho! You’re about to get your mind blown.” He put De Stijl on and handed me the CD case.
Needless to say, it wasn’t long before I went out and bought my own copy.