Listen to this track by tri-colour schemed indie-blues-rock twosome from Detroit The White Stripes. It’s “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground”, a cut as taken from their breakthrough 2001 album White Blood Cells. It served as the third single from that record scoring a top twenty showing on the Billboard Modern Rock chart.
The impact The White Stripes had on rock music by the beginning of the two-thousands was hefty. Their music challenged many of the conventions of the time, while also reinforcing many of the same that fans had perhaps forgotten about. It was brand new, and yet somehow dusty and old at the same time. The band’s approach certainly undercut the idea that to make new music, one had to leave the past behind. But is also undercut the idea that one couldn’t take a left turn when it came to presenting it in a new context.
That what this song illustrates so well, and perfectly frames why The White Stripes were able to make such an impact on the mainstream.
After grunge and Brit-pop, no one saw this new configuration coming, except perhaps those who were on the scene in Detroit from whence The White Stripes had come. Instead of rows of guitars, bass, and elaborately kitted out drums stood one guitarist Jack White and his “sister” Meg White behind the bare-bones kit. There was no bass player, and therefore no traditional bottom-end that traditionally anchored the groove. And considering how rooted in classic r&b this band was, that seemed to be a radical decision. Going even further back in examining the band’s musical DNA however, perhaps that’s not so surprising a decision after all.
The blues by this time is known for its conventions and by its influence on the trajectory of many kinds of rock music. As we’ve learned, the blues as many know it today is only a facet in a dark and mysterious jewel. At one time, the blues was skeletal and ghostly, known more for its limits than by how expansive it could be when passed along into rock music. That’s what Jack White took as his starting point for a new band. This music is rooted in the blues like so many strains of rock music. But, it reveals that this primal source was far more diverse than it had been expressed in a rock context previously. It was not just three chords and three lines, easily interpreted and digested. It deals in shadows, and with dark stories that bind humanity together, sometimes to our dismay. Jack White added garage-rock wattage, and Meg White added a blunt and crashing stomp. But a third presence can be sensed in their music too; that same ghostly and skeletal presence that has always been at the heart of the blues, which may not have been as apparent if they’d gone with a more traditional set up.
This song is one of the best examples of this phenomenon, a classic tale of tainted love. The video for the song expands on its themes, with a trashed house full of memories standing as a cold and desolate reminder of a relationship long gone. “Thirty notes in the mail box will tell you that I’m coming home” also has another message; that none of them were read. Death, abandonment, and loneliness are classic elements to the early blues records that Jack White had absorbed by the time he wrote this song, before electrified blues music and the blues-rock that it spawned used these same themes to hang guitar solos on instead of letting the stories breathe a bit more. The White Stripes invert this; no solos, no fluidity in the riffs, and no barriers to the spirit of what’s being communicated; lost love that perhaps could have been saved at one time, but now lies behind a door that can no longer be opened.
I didn’t feel so bad till the sun went down
then I come home
no one to wrap my arms around
wrap my arms around
This song reminds us that the blues is night music, invoking the dark periods of the soul we’ve all felt at one time or another. It exists beyond the confines of convention or genre. It connects in many forms. I think besides the return to riff-driven rock music that The White Stripes embodied so well by 2001, this is why the band were embraced so readily. They shook the blues loose from its bindings for an indie-rock audience, and reminded us how resonant the music could be in a new context, while also serving to evoke the spirit of older contexts at the same time.
The White Stripes broke up in 2011. But, Jack White is an active and innovative musician and record producer today. Check out the latest news at jackwhiteiii.com.
You can revisit all things stripey at Third Man Records.