Allow me to gush for a minute. I’m second-to-none in my admiration and respect for the music you create, and the music you champion. Although I was an admirer of the White Stripes after my first exposure to them (White Blood Cells, as is true for most people), it was after the release of Elephant that I signed on the Jack White train. Since then I’ve looked at the White name as being an imprimatur for quality music. The Stripes, sure, but also the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather, the Third Man stable of singles, and most recently Blunderbuss, an album I rated as a solid A+ and compared to Revolver. If it’s got the Third Man logo on it, chances are good that I own it. And that includes The Vault premium membership releases. I admire your playing, your singing, your songwriting. If you recommend the work of another artist, I go out of my way to give that artist a listen (Seasick Steve, for example).
The thing that has always struck me the most, though, is that you get it. Whatever “it” may be in terms of music, you get it. You understand the power of the music. You get the romance of sitting down with an LP, lowering the needle onto the vinyl, and losing yourself for 30-40 minutes. Most people don’t. They like music, of course. They may even consider themselves “fans” of this band or that singer. But only music obsessives (like me and, I assume, like you) know the rush of putting on the new album by one of your favorite artists, or a time-worn classic that you just can’t get out of your system, and listening to it to the point where it becomes hardwired into your DNA. There are so many albums like that for me: the entirety of the Beatles oeuvre, Quadrophenia, Sticky Fingers, Bringing It All Back Home, Forever Changes, just to name a few. I know every note on those albums. That little drum fill, the sudden change-up in the bass, the slight break in the singer’s voice. You know what I’m talking about, Jack.
You get it.
Then, of course, there’s the other side: seeing your favorite acts performing live. For me, that rush of blood to the head seeing Paul McCartney live and thinking, “This is a Beatle. In front of my very eyes.” Or seeing the Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and countless others. It is electric to see these people demonstrating their art, showing their mastery, hearing them speak (“How are you, New York?” Well, I’m doing just great now that you’re on stage. Thanks for asking.). You get almost giddy seeing that stage set up, hearing the piped in music as the crowd comes in around you, waiting for the house lights to dim, seeing the movement on the fringes of the stage. Then the mounting anticipation when you finally hear those first notes as the musicians hit a few strings to make sure they’re live and in tune. You know what I mean, Jack.
You get it.
So what the hell happened at Radio City Music Hall on September 29th?
I admit that I wasn’t there, but I know people who were, including music obsessives like me and you. These were people who spent hard-earned money in bad economic times to come see you; people who decided that the greatest birthday celebration would be to see Jack White live at one of the great venues in all the world; people who spent money on gas, tolls, and parking. More to the point, these were people who went through all the feelings of anticipation that I described above. And what did they get? A 50-minute show (at best) plus a couple of snotty comments directed at them from the man they paid to see. Then a walk-off the stage. No encore. No bringing out the female band.
And no explanation.
There are a lot of things that can go wrong at gigs. I understand that. I saw The Who when Pete Townshend had a fever of 102 degrees. “A lot less jumping around, but I played some great guitar that night,” he said of the two-hour show. I saw Los Lobos play a short set when Cesar Rosas couldn’t get an amplified note out of his guitar for the first ten minutes…but they played their full, alloted time. I saw Albert Collins in a small bar when his guitar kept cutting out on him (he played for 90 minutes). I’ve been to concerts with lousy sound, and in lousy conditions. I’ve been to great shows, and a couple of really, really bad shows. Lonnie Brooks was incendiary in his first set when I saw him. By the second set he was so wasted he had to sit on a chair to play.
But the act you pulled at Radio City Music Hall was like something you read about in the biographies of the most unreliable rock stars. This was Jim Morrison passing out before the show. This was Sly Stone wandering off stage never to return. This was Axl Rose slamming his microphone on the stage and shouting “I’m going home.”
My friends left the show that night confused and angry. But the root of the anger…and you get this because you get it…was disappointment. You’ve always seemed to be something of an anomaly in rock music. You’ve always come across as a straight shooter who cares about his fans. Through Third Man Records you seek to bring great music to more people.
But leaving a show halfway through with no explanation, and no apologies, is prima donna behavior of the worst kind. It shows contempt for the thousands of people who laid out their money and sacrificed their time to see you perform. Those people made the effort. Where was your effort? The sound in the audience was, by all accounts, good. Maybe on stage it wasn’t great, but is that any reason to disappoint thousands of fans and admirers? You made a crack that the audience was like “an NPR convention” but the people I know who were there said the audience was lively and loud. But even if the audience had sat on their damn hands and kept their mouths glued shut, is that any reason to walk off stage? Some audiences are harder to please than others. Deal with it. There was apparently some sort of disagreement with “a shirtless fan” in the front. If he was that bad, you could have had security escort him out. There was talk that you didn’t like the ubiquitous cell phones that were snapping pictures and videos of the show. Well, I hate to break this to you but that’s all part of freedom in the 21st century. Look up the word “ubiquitous” and realize that this is how it is, and there’s no going back. The same night you did this, Justin Bieber vomited on stage and then rushed off. He came back out a few minutes later, apologized, joked with the audience and finished his damn show. I never thought I would say that Jack White could learn something from Justin Bieber, but there you go.
There are a lot of people out there who are willing to give you the benefit of the doubt, and who may be willing to put this aside as just a really bad night for Jack White. But you need to give them a reason. Your failure to explain why you did what you did just shows the contempt in even greater clarity.