I had waited several months to get on a plane to Nashville so I could spend a bit of quality time with the most important musician working these days. It was a million degrees, I was trapped inside a marathon and had to walk up and down the parched, hilly streets in very high heels to reach my destination. I was a tad late, but Jack was charming and accommodating, pushing his next meeting back so we could have a cozy chat. He was exquisite in a sheer skintight black t-shirt, his black hair messy and his charisma massive. It was just after 11 AM and Jack White was already in the center of his day.
Pamela- So why do you get up early?
Jack- I like to get up early. I did that when I was in my 20s, get up at noon or 2:00, and then the whole day is gone. You miss the whole day. You go get breakfast and it’s nighttime.
P- But can’t you do your work at night…?
JW- [laughs] Yeah…
P- That’s what I do. My boyfriend’s a real night person.
JW- In the morning if you go and get breakfast and everyone’s buying a newspaper at the diner… and about to go do the things they’re going to do that day… After awhile you feel like everyone’s having this other life and you don’t see any of it. In the nighttime people aren’t as inspiring to me. The daytime people are so much more inspiring like that… the contractors on their way to work.
P- You’re an upholsterer, yes?
JW- Yeah, still.
P- Paul (Reubens) told me he got to see your upholstery equipment
JW- Yeah, he was in my shop! I talked to him yesterday.
P- He said it was amazing. You have it right in your house and you actually still do it. Does it keep you in touch with the real world or something?
JW- Yeah, it’s like… it’s creating. It doesn’t matter what it is, if it’s physical or musical or whatever. It’s the tangible things too, really. The tangible stuff, that’s inspiring. When you work all day long, an 8-hour, 9-hour day, that’s when you start thinking about all of the things you could be doing or writing or recording or painting or sculpting or whatever, when you have to do all this other stuff. If you could combine the two… like in upholstery, I could create, make something tangible, it’s physical labor, and all that fantasizing about what you could be doing besides this. It’s all happening at the same time, so it’s kind of perfect.
P- So you can imagine things while your physically doing it? Wow, that’s a double whammy.
JW- It’s sort of… you just don’t think about the hand parts, it’s hypnotizing.
P- It’s like driving or something, right?
JW- Yeah, driving on a freeway, you can’t remember the last five minutes of the road.
P- My god-daughter was so thrilled I was coming here today, she was beside herself.
P- She said, “You’re having an audience with Elvis!”
JW- Oh my God… [laughs]
P- It’s Polly Parsons, and she wanted to know if you’re a fan of her dad, Gram Parsons.
JW- Gram Parsons? Oh, no way? Of course! Yeah, are you kidding? Yeah, yeah, of course! I thought you were going to say Alan Parsons! [laughs]
P- I think she tried to get you for her dad’s tribute show, I know she tried to.
JW- Was it last year?
P- No, it was about three years ago. She finally got Keith Richards and Norah Jones…
JW- Oh, yeah, yeah, I saw that! Keith and Nora? That was great!
P- She tried to get you to do it.
JW- I know, I was on tour!
P- I know but she wanted you, she’s a really massive fan of yours.
JW- That’s the hard part too, when there’s not enough time for any of those things. I got offered to play on Dick Dale’s record a couple of weeks ago and I’m a huge Dick Dale fan and I can’t do it. You feel so bad and there’s no way to say ‘sorry’.
P- But you’re doing it to yourself, kind of. You’ve got three bands… how do you do that? People want to know, how the fuck you can with two kids, and a wife, and being a producer, and running this thing and having three bands? Do you stretch time? Sometimes I feel like I can stretch time.
JW- Do you? I always feel like there’s never enough time in the day, that I’m wasting the whole day. Like mixing a song or something, I’m like, God, I could be doing all these other things and I have to sit here for six hours mixing this song, when I just want it to be done in fifteen minutes so I can go do something else.
P- Why does it take six hours? Because you do it the old-fashioned way?
JW- Yeah, that’s a good question, we do. We have a song on the new record, the ‘Dead Weather’ record and we’ve mixed it six times now because… it’s recorded on 8-track, but you can’t… nowadays all the things are motorized, and it’s computer and you pick, “Okay, at this part of the song the guitar is going to do this and this can go to that part of the thing,” and the computer remembers it. You just program it all and you press play and you’re done. But this way, if you miss it, that’s it, you have to start all over again. “Oh, I forgot that hand clap…” You know, all that shit.
P- Just like the old way. You remind me of Frank Zappa, he was my mentor, because you do so much and you do it in the old fashioned way. He used to sit for days down in his basement dungeon thing doing what you’re describing. [laughs] I don’t know a whole lot about that, but God it was amazing to watch him.
JW- Did you ever… I suppose you… of course you hung out with Beefheart, too?
P- In fact his cousin turned me on to Dylan. Victor went to my high school. Victor, the Mascara Snake? He is one of my best friends in the world… changed my fucking life. I was a Beatle freak, cheerleader type… nothing’s wrong with the Beatles, of course. But then he turned me on to Dylan and the Stones and his cousin while I was in high school. And we’re talking about ’65, so… I was the president of the valley chapter of Beefheart’s fan club, I went to all of his shows.
JW- Oh wow.
P- He was the first person I met in Hollywood and he told me I was a gas.
P- And I went, “What’s that? I’ve got to find out what that is!” [laughs] So you’re a fan of his, too? Victor said he knew you were by listening to your music.
JW- Oh my God, ‘til my dying day. He’s incredible. So is Alison, the singer in my new band, in the Dead Weather, that’s our combined interest.
P- Really? Wow, that’s cool.
JW- I have one of his paintings, too.
P- You know Victor paints. He’s got the most amazing body of work. It’s very different from Don, but it’s astounding.
JW- Really? So when did you last see Beefheart?
P- Oh, it’s been awhile. He’s a recluse and he’s not well. His wife keeps him secluded.
JW- In the desert? Well, he likes it up there.
P- Yeah, he does, but Victor hasn’t even talked to him in a while. I saw him maybe 12 years ago. He had an art show, his last art show, and he was in a wheelchair then.
JW- Aww, really?
P- It was great to see him. He changed my life.
JW- Oh, I bet.
P- Now who turned you on to him?
JW- I was in a band called the Go in Detroit, and the other guitar player came over and had the BBC documentary John Peel made about Beefheart. And he said, “Watch this.” It’s the Cannes Film Festival Beefheart footage, not from ‘Electricity’ but Sure ‘Nuff ‘N’ Yes I Do’.
P- The first album…
JW- Oh God.
P- ‘Safe as Milk’ is one of the greatest underrated albums of all time.
JW- But I was like, okay it’s good, but that was the first time I saw it. But by the time they got to that one point in the film where they played the opening drum fill to ‘Moonlight on Vermont’… Same thing happened with Zappa, was the opening drum fill to ‘Peaches en Regalia’.
P- God, I love that.
JW- Ohhh my God, I still play that over and over again. Every time I play that I have to play that. And ‘Moonlight on Vermont’s’ the same way. [imitates the drum beat] And I have to hear it three times every time I hear it. With both those guys, the drummer got me into them. Why? Why did that ‘Moonlight on Vermont’ drum fill lead me more into Beefheart?
JW- But it’s the structure of it, the conducting of it.
P- Oh God, and he didn’t know what he was doing, you know. He made it all up.
JW- Yeah, it just comes from…
P- Such an amazing place, it came from. So who turned you onto Dylan?
JW- My brothers probably, because I was 3 or 4…
P- You’re the seventh son.
JW- Yeah, yeah.
P- That is so interesting. When did you find out how important that was?
JW- What the family?
P- No, the seventh son part!
JW- Oh, I didn’t know that until… I was just going to say I was listening to Tombstone Blues. I remember singing that when I was three or four years old.
P- You were lucky. So your older brothers were into it?
JW- Yeah, they had the records and were playing them for me.
P- Because I remember the life changing moment when Victor turned me onto Dylan, the first album.
JW- The very first with him holding the guitar? See, I didn’t get that one until I was 18, and I learned every song on that record and I played in coffee houses in Detroit. I played the entire first Bob Dylan record from start to finish, all the time.
JW- You know those silver toned amp and case models where your amp is in the guitar case? I played through that and sang at those coffee shops, all those songs. And people were like, yeah, okay, whatever, that’s 30 years ago. That was my gateway even more, that folk. Like everybody, it’s such a great gateway to all that other music.
P- Do you feel like you’re living some sort of dream? Or living even beyond your dreams since you’re working with Dylan and the Stones and stuff like that?
JW- The hard part for me, and I almost sort of need to go to therapy about it or something, is that I don’t really know how to enjoy it while it’s happening. It’s very hard for me. I know it’s happening. And sometimes when I let myself enjoy it, it almost makes it go away, it almost makes people turned off. I’ve always had this sort of curse. When I get a smile on my face, it almost seems like everyone’s like, ‘okay, we’re going to stop because you’re enjoying it, this has got to end.’
P- I’m sure you’re imagining that.
JW- I hope so…
P- I’ve got to tell you, your bit with the Stones in ‘Shine A Light’, you look so joyous that it makes everybody happy!
JW- I made a conscious decision… Oh good.
P- I was thinking, look at him, he’s so happy. He’s probably right where he could never even have imagined he’d be.
JW- I’m glad it connected like that, because when I got out there I thought, I don’t want to go and play it cool, or play like I’m too cool to be here, I want to pay my respects, as well, because it’s an honor.
P- Do you get completely nervous before events like that one, or are you centered when those kinds of things happen?
JW- That’s another funny thing about me. I don’t know nervousness. I don’t know it. I don’t even really know what it is. Like people tell me, ‘oh I’m so nervous,’ and I tried to empathize, like, ‘oh, there, there.’ But I don’t really know what you mean. I’ve never felt that. I’ve always been able to walk out onstage and it’s just like, yeah there’s a lot of people standing in front of me, so what?
P- That’s just amazing. Well, what about excitement? There’s a difference between nervousness and excitement.
JW- These are always the questions where I feel like I should lie.
P- No, don’t lie. [laughs]
JW- I should lie and say, yeah I get nervous, or yeah, it excites me. Excitement’s sort of like when something’s completed. Like you see with Dylan, too, he moves on… he holds the things that are precious to him and he doesn’t let anybody come and take them away. And the people who go out and give it ALL away, here, this is what’s happening, let’s all have a party, it gets used up, like it’s the flavor of the week and then it’s all over. When if you keep progressing and moving forward, all right, that was great, that song happened, but I’m already on to this other song. Then people are like, whoa, whoa, slow down, man. We’re not even into this yet! And I think I’m naturally more down that path and the excitement comes later on. Like I’m laying down in bed at night thinking, wow, at 2:00 this afternoon that thing that happened was great. That really worked out right. But at 2:00 when I was there, I’m not like high-fiving anybody. [laughs]
P- Perhaps you’re just so present to it, that you’re just living it at that moment. Perhaps that’s it. What’s your spiritual… were you brought up in a religious way?
JW- Catholic. With all those kids you’d have to be Catholic.
P- Yeah, I figured. Were you an altar boy?
JW- Yeah, and I was an altar boy in a film called ‘The Rosary Murders’, when I was 10-years old, with Donald Sutherland and Charles Durning.
P- How did that happen?
JW- They came and filmed it at my church, my school. The school I went to was this huge complex and the writer of the book lived in my neighborhood in Southwest Detroit. That’s where it took place in the book so that was crazy.
P- And you were so darn cute they wanted you, right?
JW- [laughs] I don’t know why they wanted me! There were a 100 altar boys, I don’t know why they wanted me. But there was another altar boy that got to drop the cross on the priest. He was to fall asleep and drop the cross on the priest and I wanted to be that kid really bad. As a matter of fact, in between takes they yelled cut, and I actually went over and picked that cross up and held it, and came back and the director said, ‘no, no, you can’t do that, we already have this other guy doing it.’ And I said, ‘oh, I thought maybe we could take turns or something and whoever did the best take would be in the film.’ Showbiz, already showbiz.
P- Why did you want to do that? Just for the dramatic aspect of it?
JW- The other boy was a part of it. He was a part of what was happening. He was creating and I was an innocent bystander holding a candle nearby. I’ve never even really talked about this before. I didn’t even think about this until you…
P- Well, I’m very interested. I’m a very spiritual person, I was born again and all that as a child. So were you a Jesus person as a kid?
JW- My dad was born again and my mom was a hard-nose Catholic, but by the time I had grown up things had changed for my family religiously, but not the family make-up at all. But it was a lot of Christian group battleground growing up. So I didn’t really know what to think of any of it.
P- So you stepped away from it?
JW- Yeah, because I think it was a remnant of a past thing. My parents are from the depression, they had me when they were really old. My parents were senior citizens when I was a kid. So it’s almost like this remnant of a dying age of life, a golden age like Eisenhower, right-wing, John Birch Society, Christianity thing going on, but it was 1990, and didn’t really apply. But I’ve taken a lot of things from it, most importantly God. I’m just glad I got God out of all of that because I would hate to have waited until I was in my 30s to have discovered God, in whatever aspect.
P- But do you align Jesus with God, at all?
JW- Yeah, I sort of default to Jesus. Do you know what I mean? I listen to all kinds of spirituality and respect all of it, and if I’d grown up in China, that would’ve been my path over here. So I don’t believe this one’s better than the rest, but I default to Jesus because that’s the one I know.
P- That’s exactly how I am, because I’ve experienced and experimented with every kind of spiritual way, ans I always come back to Jesus too, because of the same thing. Do you pray?
JW- Oh yeah.
P- To him?
JW- I pray to God.
P- You pray to God, to actual God. And how do you see God? As the whole world, do you see all of us as a piece of God? Like I see all of us as a piece of God and we all, everything makes up God.
JW- Yeah, yeah, yeah, I think so too. My main focus on God is that he’s creating from nothing and we’re creating from the pre-existing materials, especially as artists. We can only take the wood that he put here and make something out of it. We can’t create from nothing. That’s what divides him from everything, not only from people, because we are all a part of him, like you said. But it divides it all because it’s the one thing he has that we can’t touch and we could never come close. I mean the greatest thing we could ever create be it the Empire State Building or a Pyramid or something, it’s laughable to a planet or a solar system.
P- Yeah, it’s so vast it’s impossible to comprehend
JW- So that’s what compels me to him all the time. That’s my daily thought about God.
P- Do you think that you need to be a good person because of aligning with the God spirit? Are you just naturally a good person do you think, or do you work at it?
JW- I think about it all day long and try to do it all day long, but sometimes I don’t understand the perimeters. I do understand the need for sexuality, the desire for sexuality, but there’s no desire for me to rob a bank. There’s no desire in me to take from other people or to hurt them, but there is a desire in me to correct someone trying to knock me down. If you’re trying to push me down and walk all over me, there’s a desire in me to jump up and strangle. [laughs] But I don’t understand what’s the difference between that and looking to take from people and destroy them, sort of way. Walking the earth and taking, I don’t feel that desire at all. I want to put something new out there, that wasn’t already there, but not to take from anybody. Because it’s all intertwined. It’s sort of the unanswerable question, right?
P- Yeah, but I always try to answer it. I always try to go there, always try to blow up things, you know. [laughs] Shred it and see what’s inside. What about inspiration? Is that something you have to go after, or does it just come to you? Or is it always there, or do you have to work at it?
JW- I think it’s always there, yeah, it’s always there.
P- Oh, that’s so, so lucky.
JW- Is it?
P- Yeah! Or the fact that you realize it’s there. It’s probably there for all of us, we just don’t realize it, but the fact that you realize it’s always there? Cool. Because I write books and I have to sit my butt in a chair, but I do everything in this world to avoid that. So then I finally sit there and say, okay I’m going to do this. And I’m writing a fifth book, it’s about my spiritual life.
JW- Oh good!
P- And I’m going to put you in that book.
JW- Oh that’s so nice.
P- There’s a chapter on my musical inspirations from Elvis to Dylan to Leonard Cohen to the band, Sparks… Do you like them?
JW- Oh yeah, oh yeah, they’re great.
P- And you’re the final person in there because you are so special…
JW- Oh, I’m going to blush now.
P- God, but you’re doing just exactly what you should be doing. You know how you feel that with some people? You’re just totally aligned with what you’re here to do. That’s what it feels like.
JW- Oh thank you. That makes me feel good.
P- And this place, my God! This is awesome!
JW- What do you think? Yeah, we’re just finishing building it.
P- God, you must be so excited… the actual master of your domain kind of thing.
JW- Yeah, I’m trying to make a one-stop place where everything can happen. I sort of stumbled into the building and I thought, wow, this is pretty much just big enough to do all these things if we space it out. And then it’s great for me, because when I was younger I wanted to be sort of a filmmaker or an architect. Then working in the upholstery shop, I loved furniture, listened to all the architects do the furniture, like Jacobsen and Eero Saarinen, and now I’ll actually be able to use some of that design. I’ve been using that design desire to do album covers, but to actually incorporate — because you could never actually afford the materials and things like that or have a place to do it or any of that. That’s a blessing too, just to have the opportunity to do some of that stuff.
P- Yeah, you can incorporate all of it. Who’s that guy?
(pointing to a giant photograph on his office wall)
JW- That’s Charley Patton, the blues singer. Before Son House, before Robert Johnson, he’s their dad. And this is the only picture of him, this was like a blow up of it. They found a full version of the full body. He’s sitting down in this photo and he’s playing guitar with what looks like a switchblade. You can’t really see. It looks like there’s a knife underneath his finger.
P- Look at his expression.
JW- Yeah and he almost looks like he was white, the features and Howlin’ Wolf said he was half-Cherokee. Yeah, there’s a whole story.
He and Son House drove to Wisconsin to record and Son House stole his girl, Son House sat in the back seat with his wife. Took his wife on the drive there.
P- Wow, what a song.
JW- And they go and record together the next day.
P- So you love musical history obviously. Do you read all those biographies on people?
JW- I do at times and it’s scary for me. Those are the sort of books I like to read, factual, things that really happened. And at the same time I get scared. It’s like the same thing I have for records. I don’t have a huge record collection. I get scared because I know I could go into it and have a hundred thousand of them. You know what I mean? Then I’ll be this guy with goggles in my basement.
P- It’ll take too much time.
JW- Yeah, same with producing records. I don’t want to know what everything does on a mixing board because it’s a whole path that you could fall into and you just become this mechanic. So I dabble in biographies, I read concise histories of people… a lot of times I’ll find myself reading half of a book and then I’ll have to stop. I mean Bob Dylan’s book, I couldn’t get through it. It was too close to me.
P- Chronicles? Oh I loved it so much.
JW- I loved it too, that’s what I’m saying! I mean I love it and I’ll get too close and I can’t [it’s like] “All right I don’t want to know the next paragraph…”
P- You go into it? You just go there?
JW- I can’t, I can’t… I don’t know what. It’s just opening a Pandora’s Box or something, where you start going, “Why, why, why that? I’m not going to get an answer for that question in the last sentence.” It’s like if someone might say, “could I show you a movie of your dad when he was a kid?” You would say, “Yes, of course, that’s so beautiful. I totally want to see that.” But at the same time, “Oh it breaks my heart, it’s gonna break my heart. No, don’t show it!”
P- You’re incredibly sensitive.
JW- That might be it. And some people become, like Charley Patton almost seems like he didn’t even really exist, so maybe it’s easier to read about him.
P- And not as much known so you can fill in the blanks.
JW- Yeah, fill in the blanks maybe.
P- How about Robert Johnson, isn’t there only one photo of him too?
JW- There was two and they just found a third one. It was in Vanity Fair a couple months ago, it was crazy. It was on the kitchen table and I’m flipping through Vanity Fair and I’m like, “Is that a new picture of Robert Johnson?” Some guy found it on eBay.
JW- “Unknown blues singer. B.B. King maybe??” on eBay and some guy bought it and it was Robert Johnson. And he looks so good. Just a good lookin’ guy.
P- Yeah. He got in trouble for that I guess.
JW- What I hate is they made a stamp of the one Robert Johnson photo but they airbrushed the cigarette out of his mouth. That’s a shame.
P- Paul McCartney, too. Remember that famous picture of the Beatles where he’s holding a cigarette? It’s a very famous one in their little suits, they eventually just took it out, and his hand is empty; it looks really weird.
So what made you choose Nashville? The red, red state of Tennessee? That’s confusing to me, but… is it because of music?
JW- I think all together the south just felt comfortable to me. Every time I was down here on tour it felt like ‘home’ comfortable. Then I found myself working down here all the time, like we did ‘White Blood Cells’ in Tennessee, recorded Loretta Lynn’s album here in Nashville, mixed Satan down in Memphis. I thought, why am I coming to Tennessee all the time, why aren’t I coming to Chicago, it’s closer to Detroit. But I just gave up; I just had to move down. I just had to give up and finally do it. [laughs]
P- And you’re happy living here?
JW- Yeah, yeah, SO HAPPY, I really love it here.
P- You’re here for good with this place, it seems like.
JW- Yeah, I had to just invest in something solid and this town just feels so right, not too big, not too small. They respect music even the plastic side of Nashville, the plastic country and western side of things, whatever that means, the bigger picture though is that they respect musicians here a lot. Everyone’s in the music business so everyone kind of knows what’s going on, and if you’re in from smaller towns, or even the New Yorks and L.A.s, it’s hard not to get trampled and sucked into different things, different scenes and people who aren’t really on your side, they’ve got some other secret agenda. I don’t think anyone has a secret agenda here. I think it’s a totally out loud, open agenda here. You know what I mean? They don’t mind being on the side of a bus or a billboard here AT ALL. That’s the goal. So I’m not going to hurt their feelings.
P- Do you go out? Do you go see bands?
JW- I do sometimes, but I don’t want to engross myself in the community of rock here too much. I did that in Detroit and I was just in it. Eat, slept, thought, drank and ate it. It’s all well and good if you don’t succeed, do you know what I mean? But if you get up to the next level then you’re asking for trouble. So it’s tough. And I hate it because I want to go to every show, I’m really inspired by it. I want to just put on disguises and go in, but it’s tough.
P- Do people bug you?
JW- Yeah. Not as much here, it’s better.
P- Yeah, I would think so, there are so many musicians here it might be easier.
JW- You just want to pop in somewhere, especially with the internet now… you just want to pop in and check someone out, all of the sudden it’s an endorsement. And I’m just checking them out.
P- Yeah. Yeah, you’re in a different place now. It’s a very interesting place. You’re on some level of your own, there’s really nobody else doing what you’re doing really, on the level that you’re doing it. It must just be great! Are you feeling very happy about your life?
JW- Yeah, I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing.
P- Definitely. God, it’s wonderful. You have the best sense of humor in the world.
JW- You think? What makes you think that?
P- Your lyrics!
JW- Oh, okay, that sense of humor! [laughs]
P- But you always somehow get something deep in there, too. You know? There’s levels of it that different people can hear on different levels, I think. Which is so cool, it’s wonderful. Well, I probably shouldn’t take up too much more of your time because I was so late.
JW- No! Go on with whatever you’ve got to do! You don’t have to shorten it just because of the marathon!
P- [laughs] Okay. Do you remember when you felt that you were going to do music for your life? Do you remember that moment or whatever it was that you felt this was what you were going to do? Or is it just something innate and you thought you were going to be a musician from day one? Or was your goal to be an upholsterer to start with?
JW- No, upholstery is what I was resigned to do because that’s how it is. I’m not going to get anywhere with music in Detroit. The city was, when I was a teenager… forget it, it’s just not going to happen. Even when the White Stripes started going out on shows, I was still thinking, obviously this is music that people could care less about. These two people, brother and sister, blues band dressing in red, white and black doing this and this, with peppermint on the bass drum and acting like little children. It’s a limited audience, you know? There’s like 50 people in every town who might dig this. We thought, that’s fine. If we don’t have to have a day job, that’s not bad. Not extra ambitious, but realistic, you know? Maybe that’s why things end up happening that way. Maybe that attitude, some Murphy’s Law starts creeping in… well, because you don’t want it, we’re going to give it to you. Or not because you don’t want it, but because you’re so pragmatic about it.
P- Accepting of reality. Jesus said, “It is done unto you as you believe.” And I think that is so important if you can live your life like that. And you obviously were doing it so you did believe in it, right?
JW- Yeah, yeah.
P- So I put a lot of stock in that statement. Because I don’t know if you feel this way, but I think we really do create our world with our thoughts and words and deeds, right? And I think that’s what that means and I try to live my life that way.
JW- That’s a good one, I’m going to try and remember that one.
P- Yeah, “It is done unto you as you believe.” That’s, that’s… potent.
JW- It really is.
P- And the other one he said that I love is “Love your neighbor as yourself,” because most people don’t love themselves. I think that’s the intense part of that statement.
JW- Right, right, that’s very true. You can only give them what you’ve given yourself.
P- So what’s your self-confidence like? It’s good, right?
JW- Um, yeah. And I think maybe it gets misunderstood by people because of it. It’s so, the will to do whatever it is, that confidence is so strong it’s intimidating to some people around me to the point where they turn it to a negative thing, or turn it to an egotistical thing or a cocky thing. And there’s not much I can do about it. I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. I just say I’m sorry a lot, or say I don’t know, it’s gotta happen. Sorry if it hurts anyone’s feelings, I try to be polite on every other angle of it. I said something to one of the guys in the Raconteurs last year when we were on tour. I said, “People see me onstage and they like what’s happening and they like the energy that’s being put out, and I’m going for it, and it’s 100%, and it’s not written down on a piece of paper, you’re seeing it as it happens. But they don’t want to live with that guy. They don’t want to have breakfast with that guy. They just want that guy [up] there because it’s a neat package to observe.”
P- The intensity of it? The focus of it?
JW- Yeah, I guess. Because that intensity goes to when we’re driving down the street and I can’t stand the fact that all the people are wearing flip-flops now. Like why can’t they have more respect for… [laughs] It’s like a tiny little thing, you know what I mean, but it goes on and on and on.
P- So you’re always that intense. [laughs] I feel the same way, I was going to comment on the way you dress yourself up. It’s so important. I think Kurt Cobain wrecked it. I mean I love him, but I think he wrecked rock fashion for a very long time. And I noticed right away that you guys were dressing up, that this is so important. Remember how the Who used to dress up? The Kinks? It made you want to be there and love it and observe it and get inspired yourself to look cool.
JW- We’re at an age now where everybody wants to be, ‘hey, I’m just a normal guy like you, I’m just a six-pack drinkin’ smart ass like you.’ The people on the music television that are giving you the comments about things, they’re putting people on the screen that are giving their opinions about stuff, but you have no idea who these people are. Why I should trust them or care about their opinion. Not that you have to be famous to be believed. The phrase I don’t like is, “He doesn’t take himself too seriously.”
P- Yeah, that’s a weird one.
JW- I want the people I idolize to take themselves very seriously. Do you know what I mean? The only “don’t take myself too seriously” is Salvator Dali filling up a limo with cauliflower or something. But I mean do you want Dylan to not take himself seriously? Of course not. I don’t want him to be on some TV show making a fool out of himself. I want him to have the self respect, so that… Like you were talking about. If you respect yourself, then maybe others can respect you, too.
P- That’s exactly it. Dylan read my first book and told me I was a good writer one time. I’m sure that’s how you felt when he just asked you to do a Hank Williams song on a record he’s producing, right? That must’ve felt great that he reached out to you.
JW- Yeah, there’s such a reverence for everything he represents, let alone him. Everything he represents alone, is like a joining of the family just to have a conversation. And you talk about that [Hank Williams] song too… The great thing is I live on the street Hank Williams lived on in Nashville and that song just came out of the pile he sent over, I picked that one. And there was this phrase about this girl with red hair, and I went, whoa, whoa, and I read backwards, ‘you know that I know that you ain’t no good.’ That was the first line! And I was like, oh my God! And I prayed to God, I said, please, Hank was walking on this street at one point and I’m sitting here now… let it happen again. And it happened in five minutes and that song came out. It was so cool. I was so thankful to be an antenna like that for a second. Because Hank wrote the song, let it be an antenna again. That was nice. I can’t wait for that record to come out.
P- So how’d you come to live on Hank Williams’ street?
JW- It was an accident. I didn’t even know until after I moved in they told me, “Oh yeah, Hank Williams lived on this street.” And a month later I saw a documentary talking about it.
P- Wow. That’s incredibly magical.
JW- Tammy Wynette bought his house after he died. It’s still there. It looks strange. Tammy Wynette sort of made it into this giant ranch home, that almost looks like a church office. The home has been encapsulated by Tammy’s construction around it. Someone told me they came and took Hank’s house out of the middle of it and moved it somewhere! [laughs] But I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I didn’t know what Loretta was talking about when she said, “You know you live on Hank’s street. Well, I wanna go over to Tammy’s house, ‘cause I wanna go in the basement and get all them songs. I wanna find out where all them songs were.” I’m thinking, what songs? And why’s she bringing Tammy Wynette into this conversation? I didn’t know Tammy had bought the house. But then how funny, because then those songs were the songs that Bob got from Hank’s estate. It came back around, didn’t it?
P- They were just words, and you wrote the music?
P- So you got to write with Hank Williams?
JW- Yeah! [laughs] That has not been lost on me. I want to write that down on a piece of paper and frame it.
P- Absolutely. I don’t know, you’re just… and you’re a kid still. I’m 60 years old.
JW- You don’t look it!
P- And you’re just a kid doing all this amazing, outrageous stuff. Are you going to produce other bands besides your own?
JW- Yeah I have a bunch of projects now. This is a part of this whole system. Because I have the studio I designed too and I’m producing acts that are coming through, and like I’ll play the drums or bass and produce it as a musician part of the band, then you’ll come here and take the photo for the cover…
P- It’s all in-house here.
P- And it’s an old-fashioned studio like Frank would’ve had?
JW- Yeah, 8-track. It’s combined so you have to… I mean the Beatles did Revolver on a 4-track, so an 8-track should be enough to do something.
P- God, that’s so wonderful. How about Axl Rose spending 11-years on his record?
JW- I know! What’s going on with that? I wouldn’t want to spend 11-years on one thing!
P- But you’re the exact opposite of that. What was the first live show that you saw, do you remember?
P- Wow, are you lucky! How old were you?
JW- Ten years old and I had seat #666, I remember. [laughs]
P- My first show was the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.
JW- Really? The one they have the recording of?
P- Yes, and I have it on vinyl because I was there! Now, if you have another couple minutes I have a question from my son’s best friend about Orson Welles. When did you get into him? What were your favorite movies of his? And how were you able to use those lyrics? Did you have to legally obtain them?
JW- That was a pretty big strange debacle. First I worked at the FOX Theater in Detroit as a bus boy when I was a teenager, and on my breaks I got to go see the shows. And they had a re-showing of Citizen Kane. Mindblowing. Midway through it I thought, I shouldn’t be liking this, at 15, as much as I’m liking it. I don’t get it, why is a movie from 1940 doing this to me?
I took a few classes in college, but when I couldn’t afford to anymore I started sneaking into film classes when they would watch Citizen Kane. I would just sneak in, watch and join the discussion, to the point where the teacher would ask, “where’s that info from?” And I’m thinking, I hope he doesn’t ask me how I got in this class. I’m not in this class! The song was when we were on a tiny little indie label when we were selling a thousand records, and I looked all over to find who wrote the lyrics that I used. Because I sing a song they sing in the film, and I just couldn’t find it anywhere, so we just put it out. Then we got signed to a major label and it got put out worldwide and all of the sudden… So now 50% of the song goes to some 90-year old lady. I don’t even know who she is, she owns the rights. I still don’t even have an original version of that song, I’ve never seen a record of it.
P- Wow, it’s amazing someone actually came out of the woodwork.
JW- It was from a newspaper article, someone brought it to light and we got a phone call the next day asking, what’s going on with this? It was meant to be a tribute. But, it’s come around again because coming in the White Stripes film this year, we show the song in the movie and cut to the scene in Citizen Kane where it’s being sung, and we show that on the screen while I’m singing. They approved it. So at first they wouldn’t let us use it, but now they do. I’m doing all the talking here!
P- That’s what you’re supposed to be doing! Because I want to put you in my new book, I’m so excited! But this is also for Rolling Stone Italy.
JW- They put the prettiest picture of Meg and I on the front cover because the ‘Salvation Army’ song I wrote became an anthem for their soccer team there. And even the President of Italy sang the song and everything. I wanted to fly there and see it, because it was a chant in the streets of Italy.
P- That is amazing!
JW- It was quite amazing. My friend was on a beach in the Mediterranean and a cruise ship went by and the people on the boat were chanting the riff of the song and the people on the beach were answering them back, going back and forth. And I didn’t get to see any of that. But they used the prettiest picture of me and Meg on the cover of that Rolling Stone. We had taken a photo for the American Rolling Stone, and they used a bad one, they always do. It’s always a white background and the worst shot. But they used the best one for the Italian one. It’s like an album cover. Meg looks great. It’s like perfect.
P- I sent you my books, but you haven’t read them, right?
JW- I’m in the middle of the first one, but I remembered when I first saw that book in the bookstore when I was a kid. I was scared of you when I saw that book when I was a twelve years old. I would actually go to that book and flip through and look at those photos every time I’d go to the bookstore. I don’t know, you scared me, like this girl’s too much! She’s like over the top, outrageous!
P- Yeah, I guess I was outrageous back then.
Wow, that’s so cool thinking of you picking that book up.
JW- But redheads have always attracted and repelled me magnetically at the same time. That’s in line with Ginger from Gilligan’s Island.
P- I was going to say how far back does that go?
JW- Oh God, it goes back to that, yeah.
P- Maybe other lifetimes, maybe it’s Mary Magdalene or something.
JW- Maybe so, maybe so.
P- I’m totally into her.
JW- What do you think of Monica Bellucci doing that? Do you think Mary Magdalene was a red head, is that what you’re saying?
P- I don’t think so, but she’s been a flaming redhead in a lot of those portraits through the eons, because she was supposedly a whore, which of course she wasn’t… But that’s how she’s been painted through the years, so you imagine her as a red head anyway. Have you red the Gospel According to Mary Magdalene.
JW- Yes, I’ve read that, yeah.
P- Good! You have? You are so cool! Most people don’t even know that exists!
JW- [laughs] And the James Gospel, too.
P- And the Gospel According to Thomas. What a difference.
JW- Yeah, they’re so interesting.
P- And the Gospel According to Jesus by Stephen Mitchell?
JW- I haven’t read that one, no.
P- That’s where all the professors have honed down what he actually said, and it’s 22 pages only.
JW- Oh, I’ll read that. Let me write it down.
P- It might be my favorite book because it changes peoples lives. Do you know Todd Snider by any chance?
P- Oh. Do you know his music? I turned Todd onto Stephen Mitchell and he said it just changed everything for him. It just made him so happy because it takes all of the guilt out of Jesus’ words and sin. Because he never really talked about sin that much.
JW- What do you mean?
P- Well, sin only means being separated from God, which is impossible, so the word sin doesn’t even count.
JW- Sin means being separated from God.
P- Yes, the original meaning for it in that language is separation from God, which is impossible. But if you think you’re separated from God, that’s what sin actually is.
JW- Oh, okay, yeah.
P- This book explains a lot of that, it’s just so wonderful. But Magdalene, how about when the disciples ask, “Why does he kiss her on the mouth?” that whole passage?
JW- Yeah, yeah, yeah, that’s great.
P- And His answer was, “Because I kiss her on the mouth.” It was so zen! Oh, he’s my hero! I knew he was my hero, he’s even more my hero now!
JW- You know I named that one album because of my favorite phrase Jesus said about ‘Get behind me Satan’ because the triple meaning behind that is so powerful. Even the idea that he could ‘get behind me’ as in back me up.
P- Well, he was his brother.
JW- Yeah, but the idea of Satan cannot only be some evil figure or whatever, but the idea of that is beneath all of this is get behind me, get with me on it.
P- You know I never even thought of it that way? That’s fantastic, because I don’t really believe in the devil but I know that people do bad things, that’s what the devil is to me.
JW- Yeah, yeah, right.
P- But yeah, ‘get thee behind me Satan’. I was very impressed with that title.
JW- Yeah, I had to take the thee out just to exemplify the double meaning.
P- But I know the bible, Jesus’ words especially, like your lyrics, you can read them, see them, hear them on many levels.
JW- Whoa, thank you. I hope so. That’s tricky to do without starting to fall into the clichÈ phrases. And sometimes you can get away with it or not.
P- It depends on how you follow the clichÈ phrase up, or what you say right before it.
JW- Right. [laughs]