Jack White walks a tricky line, evangelizing for past technologies and musical styles without, on latest album Lazaretto, stooping to full-blown retro purism. An excerpt released today from his recent interview with longtime journalist Dan Rather leans toward the curmudgeonly side.
“Like I said to Dylan one time…” White begins in the video below, via Rolling Stone, from an interview that will premiere tonight on Rather’s The Big Picture. He goes on to observe that, from a certain point of view, musicians in the ’60s had advantages over today. He also decries the “entitlement” of the current generation and criticizes the way, as he sees it, musicians today must be increasingly marketing-savvy.
“I was talking to Bob Dylan and I said, ‘In a lot of ways, you guys had it so lucky in the ’60s,’” White continues. “All these recording techniques that had never been tried before, the Civil Rights movement was coming to a head, the Vietnam War. The whole world was changing… There was so much to sing about. It was like shooting fish in a barrel.”
He goes on to say: “Now, it’s an age that feels — I hate to label the generation now entitled, but the sense of entitlement that’s around nowadays seems to be something that bugs me enough to want to overcome it. I don’t see beauty in teenagers all sitting next to each other texting and not talking face to face. I don’t see that beauty in the way that pop music is all recorded on computers and Auto-Tune and presented in that really plastic way.”
“And I guess I just do my best in whatever I do to try to defeat those ideas and present it in something I think is at least an attempt at getting at truth and getting at beauty,” White tells Rather. “But it is a lot harder now, and I am a little bit jealous of the artists from the other decades because it seemed like you could just do your job and not worry about this periphery of stuff.”
He brings up his record label as an example of how he deals with those outside concerns. “In a lot of ways Third Man Records is a reflection of the idea that I sort of have to be a hustler now to just be a musician,” White says. “I think you could have just been a songwriter at a certain time and everyone else would do that around you. I doubt Frank Sinatra cared what was on his album cover.”
Let’s hope the full interview, which airs at 8 p.m. EST on AXS TV, adds more context, because it’s hard for a whippersnapper to know where to start with all that.
Clearly, White isn’t saying he’s actually jealous of the turbulent ’60s, just that “in a lot of ways” he envies the state of the music industry in that time. But still, even giving the full benefit of the doubt, it’s at best incongruous to praise on era’s advances in recording technology (the ’60s) while in the next breath dismissing contemporary recording technologies as “plastic.”
And maybe White has merely been reacting all along to these straitened times, but it’s at least a bit questionable to reminiscence about halcyon days before songwriters had to hustle considering the White Stripes had their own signature color scheme — and a mythology in which his ex-wife Meg pretended she was his sister.
Also odd is the decision to cite Frank Sinatra, not known for his songwriting (though credits were less freely given then). Besides: Ol’ Blue Eyes may or may not have cared personally about his album cover art, but 1958′s Only the Lonely won a Grammy in that category, to name just one of his records with striking artwork. What’s more, anyone whose sense of style obviously influenced Jay Z wasn’t exactly an image-free scrub.
What’s strangest of all is that White, as a student of music, surely understands that being image-free can be an image, too. This brings to mind my parents’ copy of Peter, Paul and Mary’s self-titled 1962 album. “No gimmicks,” the text on the back cover reads. “Honesty is back. Tell your neighbor.” (Also: “No dancing, please.”)
At the same time, White’s Third Man label has announced another of the projects that shows how the Nashville-based musician has been a dedicated champion of preserving and popularizing sounds that might otherwise be lost or forgotten. This honorable work is an example of White’s classicism at its best.
On November 18, Third Man and John Fahey‘s Revenant Records will release The Rise & Fall of Paramount Records, Volume Two (1928-1932). The first volume lavishly collects 800 digital tracks and six vinyl LPs of material issued as far back as 1972 on Wisconsin’s Paramount label, known for its so-called “race records.” Volume 2 brings together another 800 tracks and six vinyl LPs, focusing on early Mississippi Delta blues from artists including Skip James, Charley Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Geeshie Wiley, The Mississippi Sheiks, Willie Brown and King Solomon Hill.
Like the previous volume, the latest Paramount Records set comes in an extravagant package. Its polished aluminum and stainless steel cabinet contains vintage ads from the Chicago Defender, a 250-page hardcover book and a 400-page softcover book, as well as a sculpted metal USB drive containing the songs.
Listeners in the ’30s, one imagines, never had it so good.
UPDATE: Watch the full interview below.