Jack White will get himself up to no good. He is his own worst enemy, needlessly and recklessly picking fights with others. This year he has publicly blasted the reputations of singers Duffy, Adele and Lana Del Rey, figuring them as mere followers of an original, the late Amy Winehouse. He also dismissed the blues-riff duo the Black Keys as copiers of him. Later he apologized (in a letter posted on his website), by explaining that “recontextualised” statements were difficult to clarify without making them seem “even more petty and strange.”
Here’s a guy willingly digging himself a deeper hole, two hands on the shovel and one foot in his mouth. White’s a rock ‘n’ roll guy who’s always marched to the beat of his own drummer. At one time that drummer was Meg White, his former White Stripes bandmate whom he also offended, by describing her as “one of those people who won’t high-five me when I get the touchdown.”
One of those touchdowns involved his latest solo album. The wild, wooly Lazaretto, with its songs inspired by a rediscovered stash of stories he wrote as a teenager – “It was like I was collaborating with my younger self” – debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart in June. Not only that, a tricked-out vinyl version (which came with hidden tracks beneath the label, a hand-etched hologram and an A side which played from the inside-out) sold more than 40,000 copies in its first week, thus establishing a new high for the most first-week vinyl sales since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking data in 1991.
High-fives for that? Not from everyone: “Every time I see a headline about Jack White’s latest gimmick, it’s kind of maddening,” one indie-label employee told Pitchfork.com. The frustration is that while special-status White pulls whimsical stunts – such as recording, cutting and distributing a record in one day – normal customers, who get no preferential treatment from overburdened pressing plants, routinely face delays in the making and shipping of their LPs.
White’s public stumbles – minor, really, in the overall scheme of things – play like a broken record. At a recent outing at Chicago’s Wrigley Field, White was unfavourably photographed during a baseball game. Because the snapshots showed him being such a sour puss, they were splashed across the Internet, causing a jokey meme at his expense. Even White’s fondness for primitive guitars causes blowback. For years he used a cheap 1960s model originally distributed by Montgomery Ward. It’s an artistic thing: His thinking is that he needs to be at the top of his game to compensate for inferior equipment. Unfortunately, these kitschy, formerly economical instruments are now expensive to buy, and amateur guitarists routinely blame White for the price increase.
So, where and when does White get the love due him? On stage, as he was on Thursday at Air Canada Centre. The man is undeniably one of the most electrifying (and electrified) performers in the game. At ACC, he and his band frolicked with fiddled cosmic Americana, he blistered the air with plutonium-powered blues and he tested an arena’s structural integrity with Led Zeppelin-style stomperoos. Things went Icky Thump in the night, he sang about The Rose with the Broken Neck and the crowd loved the thrill of White’s baby-blue-Telecaster of a knife at its collective throat. After the sprightly Yorba Hotel, White courted Canadian favour by yelling “Rest in peace, Stompin’ Tom Connors.” It was a gesture as genuine as kissing campaign-trail babies, but give him an A for effort, at least.
“I definitely get something out of forcing myself into scenarios that I shouldn’t be in,” White told Uncut magazine recently. He was speaking artistically, but it could be extended to the idiosyncratic way he carries himself. A force of 15,000 fans Thursday chanted to the night’s last anthem, a blustery White Stripes rally call that begins, “I’m gonna fight ’em off, a seven nation army couldn’t hold me back.” It is a song about getting home, which is what the arena is to White.
His is often-tempestuous music – a reflection perhaps of his wild psyche and possibly a response to imperilled times. Whatever, the degenerative state of rock ‘n’ roll was arrested for two-plus hours and White, onstage, is redeemed. High-fives all around.
Jack White plays Montreal’s Osheaga Music & Arts Festival, Aug. 2.