Fell In Love With a Scene

Going in you knew that the White Stripes were not going to participate in this biography. Why wouldn’t they talk to you for this book?

Handyside: Well, technically, I suspected that they weren’t going to participate, but it wasn’t until I talked to Jack that he confirmed it. Besides my wife and my mother, he was probably the first call I made when the book came up. I mean, they’re pretty private to begin with, but then when you layer on all the stuff that was happening around the time of the book being contracted — the incident at the Stick with Stollsteimer, the peaking of Jack’s Cold Mountain involvement, the Loretta Lynn record, the Grammys, etc. etc., I’m sure it seemed like the last thing they would want to do. Leaving yourself open to a reporter probably didn’t seem like a gas.

And when I did talk to Jack about it, his response was basically that he didn’t think that the time was right. That a White Stripes biography was better served five or ten years from now and that they were still in the thick of it. Which, of course, they were. But still … it was funny, because he said, "Well, I think you could pretty much tell the story of the White Stripes by talking to everyone around us." Which ended up being what I did, save for a few archival interviews I had on hand and a few that Willy Wilson was generous enough to make available.

I think initially that they didn’t talk to me because they simply didn’t want to. That they thought it was, in some sense, another form of the music industry and its tentacles trying to cash in on their fame. Remember, there was already a hack bio on DVD and a hack bio in book form already out when I started this and Denise Sullivan’s Sweethearts of the Blues was in process as was Everett True’s book.

So, short answer is that they just didn’t want to.

Metro Times: Without the luxury of a direct White Stripes interview, what were some of the bigger challenges that you had to overcome?

Handyside: Well, time was the biggest factor. Without a direct interview, I really needed to cover as much ground as possible. I was approached to do the book at the beginning of February and the deadline was May. So that meant a lot of nights sitting in bars with musicians talking about the White Stripes (oh, poor pitiful me, eh?). Actually, I got to shoot the shit with a lot of people with whom I hadn’t had the occasion or inclination to talk about the White Stripes before. So that was kinda nice. Anyhoo, there was the typical wrangling of interviews and people who don’t want to talk for whatever reason — whether they were T-Bone Burnett who probably didn’t see why I even asked, to Dexter Romweber [Flat Duo Jets] who I regretfully never hooked up with to [video director] Michel Gondry whose publicist and I developed what can only be described as a close personal phone relationship in which I would badger him every day and only have to say, "well …" and he’d respond "Michel’s in <insert country name> today …"

There was also a person or two who said, "You know, I’ve been friends with Jack for a long time …" and basically they didn’t want to do anything to alienate themselves from a longtime friend who had suddenly become a celebrity.

I did have to overcome the sort of baggage that comes with writing a book about a band. To be honest with you, I think a lot of books about bands are really full of pompous windbaggery and bullshit projections of importance that neglect the anecdotal and street-level in favor of "historical importance" or whatever. I got some level-headed advice early on from someone who said, "You know, the other books go into the whole ‘mythology of the blues’ and all that shit. Just try to tell some good stories." So, in the end, I hope that’s what I did.

And, you know, I gotta live here. So I didn’t have the luxury of being a drive-by biographer who could spout off 5,000-word passages about the "grit and humanity of Detroit" or come in and piss on someone’s rug and say, "Sorry, mate, just journalism, I’ll have someone come over and clean that up. Did we get that on tape?" and then split town or whatever. Just before I started doing interviews, a crew of folks from some tabloid in the U.K. came over and basically hoodwinked/charmed their way into the homes of some folks in the Detroit rock scene and kinda stalked the turf that Jack and Meg trod these past seven years. They were doing what tabloid reporters do, which is look for gossipy tattle to report breathlessly to yobs sitting on the crapper in East Beckinghamshire or whereverfuckall. They did their job, but they made everyone really super-suspicious, too. So I hope the end product of the book allayed whatever lingering fears folks had about talking to the media about a band that deserves pretty much every inch of ink that comes their way.

It sucked that some people chose not to be interviewed, and I was bummed that some people didn’t return phone calls or e-mails, but in the end, that’s their prerogative.

Metro Times: One criticism is that you glossed over Jack and Meg’s marriage and divorce. Was it difficult to get people talking on record about the White Stripes personal lives? If so, why?

Handyside: There’s two answers to that question and the first is this: Yes, it was difficult to get people to talk on record about the Stripes’ personal lives because Jack and Meg very much still walk among us, as it were. A) No one wants to talk out of school about their friends and B) I got the feeling from people that they didn’t think it had much to do with the larger story. The way I tried to treat it in the book was with some respect but also with the eye toward the notion that these kids were playing with each other throughout the whole course of their marriage and divorce and its aftermath and to note how that affected them as appropriate.

It’s funny, phrases like "rampant speculation" and "oft-rumored whispers" seem to have been used more often in reference to Jack and Meg’s relationship than the actual content of the speculation and whispers themselves. So the whole thing’s just a brilliant tempest in a teapot and another example of how Jack’s a really, really savvy spinner of mythology.

There are passages in the book that talk about their dynamic onstage and how it changed when they were breaking up as a couple. And there are parts about their offstage dynamic, too, as it related to the continuation of the band. There are quotes about how they were each other’s first true loves. People talk about how the band almost broke up when Jack and Meg broke up. I mean, honestly, everything else is either in the public record or just blah-blah speculation predicated on the notion that any of this will matter in 10 years.

That it took the mainstream media more than a year to consult basic fact-checking resources is a humorous tidbit that is not ignored. I mean, what else are you going to say? I’m sure the catty shit will come out in ten years when all the spotlights have moved on and people are desperate for that last bit of quote-love from the NME or Spin or something.

Metro Times: You’ve had this right time/right place opportunity as a music journalist in Detroit to document the White Stripes since the band’s inception. You’ve been more than a casual observer. So it stands to reason that many of your local interviews for this are musicians with whom you’ve developed friendships over the years. A critic at a Florida daily paper leveled a criticism saying that you mention other Motor City bands so often that you could be their publicist. How do you respond to that?

Handyside: Pardon my French, but screw that guy. These are bands that Jack and Meg White mention so often that they might as well be their publicist, too, if that’s the criticism. It seems like that’s part of what has afforded them some small level of normalcy in the post-"Fell in Love with a Girl" period — they was able to be boosters for the people that helped get them where the are. And they (particularly Jack) were graceful and outspoken and quite real about it. That’s part of their story. I mean, you can’t stand at Woodward and Warren and throw a rock without hitting a Dirtbomb or a former Dirtbomb. One of ’em is Jack’s nephew, another is the guy who recorded their early stuff, one introduced him to his current booking agent, a couple of them were photographers for DeStijl and Elephant and another is a dude whom Jack idolized as a kid (and another just happens to have written a biography of the White Stripes). Yeah, Detroit’s a small town. I don’t know if any of Kid Rock’s biographers got called out for mentioning the Howling Diablos too much, but they probably should have if they had a ground-level view of Kid’s rise to Republican Poster Boy status.

Yes, I have developed friendships over the course of the last ten or more years with some of the people that I interviewed for the book. But by the time I got asked to write this book, people had been interviewed about the Stripes so often, they had their rote responses down pat. So maybe I was able to cut through that ’cause I’ve been around or whatever. Part of what I wanted to do with the book was write a ground-level view of the band and I think I was able to do that because of the gracious, "I said I wasn’t going to do any more interviews about the White Stripes, but since you asked …"

It’s funny, because my brother’s reaction to the book — and he’s paid pretty close attention to the whole arc of the Detroit rock scene phenomenon, too — was that it kinda made him sad for a scene that has since essentially disappeared.

Metro Times: Jack and Meg and the rise of the White Stripes — and the scene from which they sprung — are drawn with remarkable clarity. Could you have written this book if you weren’t from Detroit?

Handyside: Thanks. I’m sure I could have written a book if I weren’t from Detroit, but not this book. It’s no trouble to string together a bunch of previously published interviews and write about the confluence of blues and punk rock and whatever. I think there’s a place for that. I just don’t think I would have been motivated to do that.

I wrote this book because I honestly love this band and have been lucky enough to have been around during a really fertile period in Detroit rock ’n’ roll.

Metro Times: One theme in the book suggests that White knew what he wanted — took hard notes on what to do and what not to do in terms of establishing music as a career — and simply went for it. How much of the White Stripes success was fortuity and how much was self-fulfilling prophecy?

Handyside: Yeah, the kernel of that idea sprung from an interview with Brendan Benson who said that when he had opened for the Stripes, everything was so buttoned up that the band were free to let chaos and spontaneity and improvisation and all of those things that I, personally, feel are the heart of rock ’n’ roll (with apologies to Huey Lewis) rule for an hour and a half. And Greg Cartwright from the Reigning Sound — a real musicians’ musician talked about Jack really having a clear idea of his goals and visualizing them and vocalizing them and acting toward them and, in addition, having a kind of monastic approach to achieving them. And it seems like that idea extends itself into the Stripes’ larger picture, too. It seems perfectly clear to me that Jack (and Meg, presumably) realize that when you intend for something to happen — or self-actualize or whatever psychological term you have to give it — it’s much more likely to occur. And when you have such an unlikely proposition as the White Stripes, you’d best be intending your ass off all the time. And that seems to be just what Jack and Meg have done. So while I think that the timing was right, if they hadn’t been prepared and fully confident in what they were doing, they’d be a long-forgotten curio in the archives of the Gold Dollar website. Plus, it seems like Jack had a good healthy (?) stubborn streak from the get-go that gave him the nerve to say no when conventional wisdom would be whispering "dude. Say yes."

Metro Times: How does the local musical and cultural environment that greeted the White Stripes six years ago compare to now?

Handyside: Personally, I think the scene of seven years ago was a lot more fun and freewheeling and open-ended. That’s part of what let the Stripes be embraced by the audience in town that had their ears open enough to pay attention. A perfect example is that six years ago, Chris Fachini (from Godzuki and Ace’s High and Rocket 455) put out a project called Teach Me Tiger that was a really great four-track run at Motown/Phil Spector/Beach Boys-type indie-pop. And he put out a couple singles and never really formed a band around it and it just sort of was what it was — a fun and interesting experiment by a talented musician who knew more about music than was probably good for him if he wanted to be a star even on the indie level. Now, six years later, due to the general enlargement of the audience that the Stripes helped to spearhead, Saturday Looks Good to Me have managed to find an audience using essentially the same template and have done successful tours and gotten critical acclaim. Mind you, I think Saturday Looks Good to Me are great, but six years ago, it probably wouldn’t have been supported enough to grow into the cohesive outfit that it has.

There was a really great esprit de corps among the bands that came up in the city in the mid-’90s that now seems kind of quaint and it’s easy to romanticize it. But now there’s more of an infrastructure to support it (even if there isn’t really still a go-to local record label, but that’s another story). Then, the Old Miami was just as viable a gigging option if not more so than the Magic Stick.

I mean, now there’s a lot of marketing that goes on around the Detroit scene or whatever and people have managers and now how to get to Europe and not come home broke. And if a band has those goals, that’s super-duper for them, but at the time not many bands around here had a "we’re gonna ‘make it’" attitude. There seemed to have been a lot more chaos and irrepressible manic energy and Neil Yee provided a clubhouse for that, bless his nomadic soul. Sometimes I think I really really miss those times and sometimes I think it’s just the rosy-tinted rear-view of a 32-year-old.

Metro Times: Besides White’s abilities to skillfully bottleneck musical history — and then simplify it in song — he’s also a master at celebrity. He makes celebrity high art. You managed to demythologize much of that. Did you still admire the man once the book was completed?

Handyside: You know, I have learned not to engage in hero-worship very often as a music writer, but there have been a few odd ones that have slipped through the cracks and even though I’ve been an acquaintance of Jack’s for some time now, as an artist he still is right on the perimeter of that company.

I think the reason he makes celebrity a high art is that he doesn’t seem to take any opportunities for granted and seems to smell the desperation on marketing people when they get a whiff of something that’s actual and real. That sounds kinda cheesy, but he realizes the position of power he’s in vis-à-vis the media. He doesn’t over-expose himself or the band and they don’t have to do anything they don’t want to do. Hell, the first time the Free Press wagged about Renee Zellweger being in town, they didn’t even realize that she was shopping at a grocery store with Jack. So even though it’s pretty clear he wanted to be famous and well-known as a musician, his ambivalence toward celebrity gives him that sheen of mystery that doesn’t burn up all their cultural capital in one flash.

I do still admire him now that the book is completed. If for no other reason than that I have a better understanding of the constant barrage of crap, queries, responsibilities, time demands and other shit that makes a normal life all but impossible and even with all that, he’s still managed to keep his eyes on the ball and accomplish a great deal. With the exception of the incident with Jason Stollsteimer, he’s kept his personal side as personal as possible and made his public persona into a vessel large enough to grow into. But that thing with Stollsteimer seems like it was really shitty all around for everyone involved.

Metro Times: You have two small children, a wife and a house, plus a full-time regular job. Your schedule is not exactly tailored to author a book requiring countless hours of reporting and interviewing. How long did the whole process take? How did you manage to meet the deadline?

Handyside: The process took from the beginning of February to the beginning of June all told. Seriously. And not to be dramatic or anything, but I had just decided to put an addition onto my house to accommodate the arrival of my daughter, so that was going on at the same time. I honestly have no idea how I did it except through the extraordinary support and patience of my wife and son. I would basically clock out at work, come home, grab a bite to eat, head to a bar or a coffeehouse with my tape recorder, do interviews till 11 or so (mostly "so"), come home, write for a couple more hours, sleep, get up and do it again.

And my bosses and managers at my day gig (Krissy, Dave and Ken) kept me honest while understanding that this was something I really, really wanted to do.

Metro Times: Who are some music biographers that you respect?

Handyside: To be honest with you, the last music "biography" I really enjoyed was Please Kill Me. But John Savage writes a damn good book and Peter Guralnick spins a yarn like nobody’s business.

Metro Times: How does it feel to have a book on a major publisher sitting on bookstore shelves around the world?

Handyside: Weird and wonderful. It’s different than having a record out there, when you pretty much know who’s going to be buying it because you’re touring and actually meeting people and all that stuff. And it’s very different from regular music journalism. When I write for Metro Times, I know that there’s the potential for 110,000 people or so reading it. With a book, there’s more of an investment of both time and trust and attention to a relatively smaller audience. But in the end, it feels awesome. Like a really satisfying accomplishment. I wrote something that hopefully has the narrative force to carry through 90,000 words and can provide some entertaining late night reading for people who love rock ’n’ roll as much as I do.

Metro Times: Any word from Jack or Meg about Fell In Love with A Band?

Handyside: Not yet. But they have my number and my e-mail and I’m honestly really curious to hear what they think.

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