As he prepared to tear into “Jimmy the Exploder” during the White Stripes’ first-ever live appearance — July 14, 1997 during an open-mic night at Detroit’s venerable and now-shuttered Gold Dollar — Jack White asked permission to “allow us to bore you for a couple more, here.” As if boring was even part of the equation — or would ever be.
If everyone who’s said they attended that inaugural performance was really at the Gold Dollar, of course, it would have been at Tiger Stadium, the local baseball team’s home field about a mile or so southwest of the club. But the three-song set, not coincidentally on Bastille Day, certainly snapped the small audience at the venue to attention and gave the then-husband/wife duo a word-of-mouth lift-off that made the White Stripes the most exciting new rock band to see in its home town.
Not that fame was on the agenda then. “It’s a house that me and Meg live in, so outside interest never really matters. It can’t get in,” White declared early on.
Jack White was a known quantity in the Detroit music scene at the time. Born John Gillis and the youngest of nine children raised in southwest Detroit, he played drums in the local cowpunk band Goober & the Peas before moving on to Two-Star Tabernacle, in which he birthed some of the songs that wound up on the White Stripes’ platinum fourth album, “Elephant,” in 2003. He’d met Meg White at Memphis Smoke, a Southern cooking joint in the Detroit suburbs where she bartended.
The couple married in 1996 (he took her last name), and if the idea of starting a band with a spouse who had no musical experience (or aspirations) seemed odd, it played in a city that had a taste for oddities — musical and otherwise. Meg’s no-frills early bashing gave Jack plenty of room to explore ideas and stitch together influences, a raw confluence somewhere between Son House and the Stooges.
Two of the first three songs performed live at the Gold Dollar in ’97 — the traditional “St. James Infirmary Blues” and “Jimmy the Exploder” — wound up on the White Stripes’ self-titled debut album in 1999. The duo grew up in public in Detroit, each successive show, including many returns to the Gold Dollar, building their sound and the repertoire of originals and covers that would populate the band’s early albums. Jack even threw piano into the mix during a July 1999 show at the suburban Magic Bag.
Just as interesting was the mythology they built around their endeavor — the red, white and black color motifs, the stylized clothing and the claim that they were siblings rather than married, a stance they’d maintain even after their divorce in 2000. Their relationship was an open secret in Detroit and was periodically documented by the media, but fans and friends accepted it as part of the package.
Like their peers in the indie and garage-rock scenes, the Whites expressed ambivalence about the buzz building around them. “I always thought our appeal was horribly limited,” said Jack, who also did some playing with the Go and the Hentchmen during the White Stripes’ early days. “You just figure there’s no way a two-piece band is going to do anything bigger than the garage-rock scene. But for some reason, something caught on.”
That was indeed the case in Detroit, where the White Stripes were head of a class that included the Go, Dirtbombs, Detroit Cobras, Von Bondies and others. Jack paid homage to the scene by putting together the 2001 compilation “Sympathetic Sounds of Detroit.”
“I think garage rock means innocence,” he explained at the time. “We’re just playing the kind of music we want to and not really worrying about it in commercial or kind of industry terms. But people just need a new tag for things, especially when they become popular...like grunge or new wave or punk rock. So let ‘em call it garage rock; the name’s been around for 40 years, anyway, so why not?”
The White Stripes’ hometown-hero tenure lasted until the rock mainstream caught on to their sophomore album, “De Stijl,” in 2000, with Next Big Thing notices from Rolling Stone, New Musical Express and beyond.
“White Blood Cells” was teed up for its platinum success, and the group celebrated with its final performance at the Gold Dollar on June 7, 2001 — to a capacity-plus crowd that the duo treated to a performance of the new album in its entirety.
“Right now it seems like the right time and place for this kind of music,” Jack noted. “And if it seems a little more accessible to other people, and more people, that’s fine with us.”
Gary Graff is an award-winning veteran music journalist based in metro Detroit, writing regularly for Billboard, Ultimate Classic Rock, Media News Group, Music Connection, United Stations Radio Networks and others. He also makes a weekly appearance talking about music news on the syndicated “Bob and Brian Show” in Wisconsin. Graff’s work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Guitar World, Classic Rock, Revolver, the San Francisco Chronicle, AARP magazine, the Detroit Jewish News, The Forward and others. Graff was the founding editor of the popular MusicHound record guide series and has co-written and edited books about Bob Seger, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen, as well as a volume on “Rock ‘n’ Roll Myths.” A professional voter for the Grammy Awards and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Graff co-founded the Detroit Music Awards in 1989 and continues as the organization’s chief producer.