It’s the spring of 2001, and no one has heard of the White Stripes. Well, not no one: They’ve put out two albums, and they just landed in Rolling Stone, which has featured them as one of the bands worth putting on your radar. But this is a time of Papa Roach, Linkin Park, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Creed — there’s not a lot of mainstream interest (even in the alt-rock world) for an old-school blues-rock duo consisting of a brother and sister. “It seems to be really, really odd to end up in Rolling Stone,” the frontman, Jack White, says. “We don’t have anyone managing us; no one’s sending our records out to press or pushing us with radio or anything. Maybe the songs are just good.”
But the band is working on their new album, the one that might capitalize on that hype. White, who’s 25, doesn’t sound like a guy looking for his big breakthrough, though. “The dream of MTV and playing huge places seems to be like death,” he says. “John Waters said, ‘Success is doing what you want to do, how you want to do it.’ That’s pretty much where we are, and it’s a pretty good place to be.”
Jack White just turned 47 and his fifth solo album, Entering Heaven Alive, comes out on Friday. It’s been a very long time since no one has heard of him, or his old band. If anything, it’s possible you are sick of the guy. Not unlike Dave Grohl, he’s become the one rock guy that non-rock listeners seem to like, which has left him seeming like the normcore representative for a genre way past his prime. “Seven Nation Army,” the opening track off the White Stripes’ fourth album, Elephant, now plays on a loop during sporting events, reducing it to a sonic cliché. It’s not just his love of vinyl and vintage recording equipment that makes him seem a little out-of-touch — although, to be fair, when he was a young man, he loved those things, too. He’s a guy who never aspired to be fashionable who wound up being that for a little while. That third album, released around Independence Day in 2001, changed that — in particular, one song off it.
I don’t think “Fell In Love With a Girl” is necessarily the best track off White Blood Cells, but it’s the one that came to define the record and that era of the White Stripes when the pre-fame band was hiding a juicy secret. Even at the time, there were rumors that Jack White and his sister Meg weren’t really siblings — that they’d actually been married and divorced — but it seemed like such a weird thing to cover up. Nonetheless, that rumor added to the White Stripes’ mystique — along with their strikingly simple red/white/black color scheme — which made them seductive during an age of flashier, emptier mainstream rock. Eventually, the truth came out about Jack and Meg, and the mystique started to fade away over time. But “Fell In Love With a Girl” reminds you of how exciting it all once was.
He was born John Gillis, a kid equally enthralled with drums and Catholicism. “I was thinking at 14 that possibly I might have had the calling to be a priest,” he once said, later adding, “Blues singers sort of have the same feelings as someone who’s called to be a priest might have.” He tried out different gigs — upholsterer, working as a P.A. on commercials — before deciding that music was his passion. “I could see that it was impossible to get your ideas across, with all the people — the soundman, lighting people, producers — you had to go through,” White once observed about production shoots. “I suppose that put me in the direction of a two-piece band.”
White had been part of different groups, but the one that stuck was the White Stripes, which he formed with Meg White, whom he’d married in 1996. (He took her last name.) The following year, they started playing together, him on guitar, her on drums — no other musicians. “Anyone else would be excess,” he explained in 2002. “It would defeat the purpose of centralizing on these three components of storytelling, melody and rhythm.”
Their debut, 1999’s The White Stripes, was an ornery, bluesy collection of distorted guitars and rough-hewn vocals. It was an album that was meant to sound like it was 100 years old, aching to recall the long-dead blues artists that had inspired rock’s early greats like Bob Dylan, whose “One More Cup of Coffee” was covered on The White Stripes. Soon, Dylan’s heroes were White’s as well. “I love Blind Willie McTell. He was a huge influence on me,” White said in 2013. “His style was not suave and cool, like Robert Johnson. Robert Johnson is very mysterious and would have no trouble with women — an up-all-night, jukejoint kind of person, you know? Blind Willie McTell comes off to me as more nerdish, by himself, very interested in the intricacies of how things work and the knowledge of things around him. … Blues musicians are telling the same stories that, you know, Lil Jon and Jay-Z are telling today. They’re just telling it in a different style.”
A man whose devotion to bygone musical titans could also be described as nerdish, White didn’t just love the grit and authenticity of the old blues masters — he tapped into their tales of woe, especially their laments over the women who had done them wrong. He sharpened his band’s attack on 2000’s De Stijl, where the songwriting wasn’t so derivative and the production was more dynamic. At the same time, however, Jack and Meg were falling apart romantically, divorcing that same year. But even though the marriage didn’t last, the White Stripes kept going, with White manufacturing a fiction in the press that they were the youngest of 10 siblings. It was a very early-internet thing to do, back before such things were easier to vet online. Truth was, the local Detroit press knew that they’d been married: In a May 2001 interview in the Detroit Metro Times, writer Melissa Giannini noted of Jack and Meg, “They’re both in their mid-20s, formerly married to each other, and don’t want to dwell on their relationship in print.”
Still, White would introduce his drummer on stage as his sister, trying to keep up the act for as long as he could. But by 2002, the gig was up, although he made no apologies for the deception, insisting that a bit of mystery was essential for an artist. Talking to Rolling Stone that year, he said, “As soon as you say something, people make up their own minds as to what it means. I’m sorry, but I have to pick and choose how those things are presented because I don’t want people to think the wrong thing. I think the only focal point should be the songwriting and the music and the live show. The whole point of the band isn’t, Are we really brother and sister, are we husband and wife; whether we’re really from the city or just pretending, or whether we liked sandboxes as kids or the monkey bars.”
A year later, White was even more adamant, telling The Guardian, “Everyone wants the inside scoop. No, that’s not what you need to know about, that’s got nothing to do with the music we make. What we create, you can talk about. What the songs are, how we present them live and what the aesthetic is, art-wise, to what we’re creating. It’s the same thing as asking Michelangelo, ‘What kind of shoes do you wear?’ It doesn’t really have anything to do with his painting.”
But White being forced to come clean about his marriage and divorce only happened because White Blood Cells brought them to the world’s attention. Not bad for an album made in a mad dash. “They came for three days and did most of the songs, then came back for two days and then we mixed the thing the next day,” recording engineer Stuart Sikes recalled. “Jack told me more than once not to make it sound too good. … Basically he wanted it as raw as possible, but better than if it was recorded in somebody’s living room. He steered me that way, and I ran with it.”
As opposed to the group’s earlier work, these songs had more pop, without remotely sounding commercial, White continuing to plumb the depths of his broken heart. “We just set up and they started going,” said Sikes. “Jack knew what he wanted. Meg didn’t really think they should be recording — she thought the songs were too new. Jack pretty much knows what he wants, has a really good idea of what he’s going for.”
Greeted by glowing reviews, White Blood Cells was most people’s introduction to the White Stripes, who (along with the Strokes) kick-started the so-called garage-rock revival of the early 2000s. Flaunting a primitivism and edge you didn’t hear in nu-metal, the garage-rock revival sought to bring rock music back to its roots, making the old seem new again. White Blood Cells was the first of the band’s records in which White didn’t include any covers, his confidence growing as he veered from the tender childhood reverie “We’re Going to Be Friends” to the blistering “The Union Forever,” which turned out to be an extended riff on Citizen Kane, referencing lines of dialogue and the film’s plotline, building to a shouted chorus of “It can’t be love / For there is no true love / It can’t be love / For there is no true love.”
Those lyrics might have well been the album’s overall theme: White never came across as a misogynist or a whiner, but he certainly presented himself as a man laid low by his romantic failures. And because the record-buying public was just then catching up with his band — and their “Are they or aren’t there?” backstory — White Blood Cells received an extra jolt because of that intrigue. In general, listeners always relish reading between the lines of bad-love songs, savoring the glimpse we think they give us behind the curtain of a famous musician’s so-real love life. And in the case of the White Stripes, the phenomenon was amplified by Meg’s stoic demeanor and tight-lipped manner in interviews. The less she talked, the louder his breakup songs sounded — she manned the drums, while he poured out his pain, the two of them working through their marital trauma in songs they swore weren’t about their relationship.
That was the popular perception, anyway — that’s how it felt to discover these songs in the summer of 2001, thinking you’d stumbled upon an exposé of an ex-couple caught lying in public. Released on the tiny indie label Sympathy for the Record Industry, which had also put out the group’s first two discs, White Blood Cells didn’t lead with a dynamite initial single. (The country-ish singalong “Hotel Yorba” was the first track to go to radio, but it didn’t make much of a dent.) Rather, this was an album energized by tastemaker buzz and end-of-the-year Top 10 lists — by the image of these fresh-faced kids delivering stripped-down rock songs. But in early 2002, “Fell In Love With a Girl” started making the rounds. It didn’t really sound like a single, either — for one thing, it was so short — but that was also its novelty.
When White first heard the song on the radio, “I just laughed. I mean, it would be Staind, P.O.D., then us and then Incubus. Half of your brain is going, ‘What is going on? Why are we even involved with this? This is pointless.’ The other half is full of people going, ‘No, this is new, a quote revolution in music unquote, and something is going to change now, because of you guys and the Strokes and the Hives, and music is going to come back to more realism.’”
“Fell In Love With a Girl” is 110 seconds, powered by a garage riff that sounds like White just came up with it before he started rolling the tape, excitedly getting it down before he forgets it. Meanwhile, Meg bangs the drums, trying to keep up with his guitar and his hyperventilating vocals.
Fell in love with a girl
I fell in love once and almost completely
She’s in love with the world
But sometimes these feelings can be so misleading
She turns and says, “Are you alright?”
I said, “I must be fine ‘cause my heart’s still beating.”
“Come and kiss me by the riverside, yeah
Bobby says it’s fine, he don’t consider it cheating, now”
Lots of songs seek to replicate the mad rush of first love/lust, but “Fell In Love With a Girl” made it sound like a heart attack, a runaway train that was dangerously close to going off the tracks. The live-wire anxiety wasn’t just connected to the risk associated with getting involved with someone who, apparently, already had a partner — it was the narrator’s near certainty that this love affair was going to go badly. (“My left brain knows that all love is fleeting,” he sings later in the song. “She’s just looking for something new.”) “Fell In Love With a Girl” had the locomotion of the Ramones with the weariness of the blues.
White had been dismissive of MTV before White Blood Cells’ release, but the channel significantly helped raise the album’s profile. The band hooked up with Michel Gondry, who was a few years from his own breakthrough as a filmmaker with 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. At that point, he was merely a heralded music-video director who’d worked with artists like Beck and Björk, known for innovative, handmade clips that had a whimsical air. When he first met with Jack and Meg, he walked in with a Lego replica of Jack’s head, proposing this was what he wanted to do with “Fell In Love With a Girl.” “You couldn’t argue with that,” White later said. “When someone brings a Lego sculpture of your head to dinner and says this is what the video’s going to be, you pretty much say, ‘That’s it, go ahead.’”
The video, which won three MTV VMAs, including Breakthrough Video, was a labor of love for Gondry. “We filmed them on video with a small crew, just me with a camera and maybe a makeup artist, and then we edited it,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “Then we printed it on paper, and my father did a little programming to pixelize the Lego blocks, but we actually had to build all the bricks. I know the band still believes we did half of it on computer — but no. We really shot every Lego block on 16mm. We had to build everything. And it took forever. There were absolutely no digital effects involved. … Lego the company refused to endorse the video or help us. We had to pay for every single box we used, because they thought the music of the White Stripes was not matching their image. And then [later] they asked the White Stripes to support their brand, but it was too late. The White Stripes were not into doing that anymore.”
Beyond being colorful and clever, the “Fell In Love With a Girl” clip accentuated the group’s appreciation of minimalism, proving that you didn’t need a lot of money to make something vital and original. Plus, Jack and Meg didn’t have to worry about revealing too much of themselves, maintaining their air of mystery as Gondry remade them as moving blocks. But the fact that Meg’s Lego doppelgänger at one point lip-syncs the woman’s dialogue from the song only extended the band’s coy tease: Was she actually the subject of “Fell In Love With a Girl”? At a time when those mysteries hadn’t yet been solved, we looked for clues everywhere.
Part of a musical movement — not to mention riding a wave of emerging Detroit-area rock bands — the White Stripes only got bigger in subsequent years. Elephant, which arrived in 2003, hit the Top 10, White working with antiquated recording equipment and continuing to keep the instrumentation bare-bones. Meg stayed out of the spotlight, while White became a rock star, briefly dating Oscar-winner Renée Zellweger, whom he met during production on the 2003 period drama Cold Mountain. He would brag about doing shows without a preplanned setlist, wanting to ensure things stayed spontaneous. And along the way, reporters stopped asking Jack and Meg about their romantic past — everybody knew the truth now, so what was the point?
The band made two more superb records, Get Behind Me Satan and Icky Thump, and then in 2011 they called it quits. “The reason is not due to artistic differences or lack of wanting to continue,” the band said in a statement. “Nor any health issues as both Meg and Jack are feeling fine and in good health. It is for a myriad of reasons, but mostly to preserve what is beautiful and special about the band and have it stay that way.”
To the end, the White Stripes very much cared about preserving the idea that a band was a precious, mysterious creative entity. And within the White Stripes’ mystery was the fascinatingly unknown dynamic between Jack and Meg — him the gregarious rocker, her the shy drummer, their bond so apparent on stage and in their public appearances, even though they wouldn’t say a word about their marriage and what had gone wrong. Their rapport felt weirdly progressive for a band that otherwise liked to recall the past — maybe exes could stay friends and still have a rich artistic life together? There was something poignant about the notion that Jack kept writing all these songs about bad love next to the woman who first broke his heart.
Mysteries demand resolution, of course, and once the White Stripes split, Jack White pursued a solo career, sometimes reflecting on what had happened to his old band. “I’d make a White Stripes record right now. I’d be in the White Stripes for the rest of my life,” he said in a 2012 interview with the New York Times Magazine. “That band is the most challenging, important, fulfilling thing ever to happen to me. I wish it was still here. It’s something I really, really miss.” He placed the blame at Meg’s feet, adding, “Some people can live their whole lives in limbo, I’d rather cut the lifeline so we can move on with our lives. There came a point where I said, ‘If we’re not doing this, we need to put an end to it right now.’ And that’s what she wanted to do.”
There had been some signs of strain within the group before their dissolution. In 2007, the White Stripes canceled their tour due to Meg “suffering from acute anxiety.” But two years later, she married Jackson Smith in a ceremony held in Jack White’s backyard, and the bandmates’ connection was only further illustrated by a terrific concert documentary from that year, Under Great White Northern Lights, which highlighted their unspoken connection — especially during a tender, emotional embrace near the end of the film. But White’s comments after the band’s split betrayed a certain petulance, the kind you associate with a pissed-off former lover who still wants to get some jabs in. “I don’t know what her reasons are,” he told the Times about her reasons to walk away from the White Stripes. “Having a conversation with Meg, you don’t really get any answers. I’m lucky that girl ever got onstage, so I’ll take what I can get.”
It wasn’t a good look for White — and Meg’s choice never to respond only made him come across worse. In a world of indie-rock groups that reform or return in new iterations, Meg White just went away. We shouldn’t have been surprised considering she warned us back in 2003: “I’ve always kind of lived in my own world. Everything else outside me seems far, far away. … Like, people recognizing me on the street never interested me. I’ve always been kind of suspicious of the world, anyway, so it’s pretty easy for me to live in my own little world.”
In a 2005 interview, Jack White spoke admiringly of his former bandmate, noting, “Meg always says, ‘The more you talk, the less people listen.’ She’s right. She doesn’t open her mouth very much.” And even though she’s stopped performing, her absence has seemed to haunt White’s subsequent solo career. Reviewing White’s second solo record, 2014’s Lazaretto, music critic Steven Hyden observed, “White continues his pleading to a dominant, unnamed feminine figure who has left him alone, vexed and alienated,” citing recent interviews he gave in which he lashed out at Meg as proof that she’s living in Jack’s head rent-free.
Whether or not Hyden’s assertion was true, his case is strengthened by the fact that White’s solo albums — including this April’s Fear of the Dawn — lacked the electric originality of the White Stripes’ material. Was it because it’s hard for lots of artists to replicate their early success? Was it that we’d gotten familiar with White’s approach? Was it that he broadened his sound, leaving some of the restrictions behind and embracing an air of experimentation, that made his music less resonant? Or did he miss Meg — not just as a bandmate but as a muse? Did Jack’s silent partner end up having more influence on the White Stripes than people gave her credit for at the time?
In a way, White himself acknowledged that, telling Rolling Stone in 2014, “I would often look at her onstage and say, ‘I can’t believe she’s up here.’ I don’t think she understood how important she was to the band, and to me and to music. She was the antithesis of a modern drummer. So childlike and incredible and inspiring. All the not-talking didn’t matter, because onstage? Nothing I do will top that.” The more solo albums Jack White makes — no matter how accomplished they might be — the more we miss Meg White.
In December 2020, the White Stripes put out My Sister Thanks You and I Thank You: The White Stripes Greatest Hits, a collection of their standout tracks, whose title referenced a comment Jack White used to make to audiences back when he was still keeping up the ruse that they were siblings. Using that as the name of their best-of was a wry joke, a way to show how long ago those days were. “Seven Nation Army” is now their biggest hit, becoming such a ubiquitous anthem that there’s little surprise left in it. But “Fell In Love With a Girl” retains its breakneck appeal — the way the song just stops, as opposed to concludes, continues to hold me in thrall. What happened to that couple in the song? We don’t know — the mystery remains.
Back in 2002, Rolling Stone asked White what would happen if listeners actually knew what was fact and what was fiction in the White Stripes’ story. What if we learned the band’s mysteries they’d tried to keep hidden? White responded, without joking, “Then we are completely dead.” He’s always had a flair for the dramatic, but he wasn’t entirely wrong. The White Stripes didn’t die once we discovered the truth about Jack and Meg. But our relationship to them changed. Suddenly, they became just one more couple with lots of baggage — baggage we read into, or baggage that we projected our own baggage onto.
Love is fleeting, so is mystique.