THE PRIMAL LINGO
By Morgan Sykes
"I've been stalling on this narrative for eight years because if you autopsy your obsession you might discover facts about yourself that you won't henceforth be able to abide. But I'm trying to understand it now, how the White Stripes . . . hijacked my daytime hours and infiltrated my midnights." —William Giraldi, "Jack My Heart"
In his essay "Jack My Heart," from our just-released Summer issue, William Giraldi confesses to a long obsession with Jack White, erstwhile front man of the White Stripes—he of the fedoras, Loretta Lynn collaborations, and Third Man Record vinyl reissues. Giraldi plumbs the depths of his fixation with candor and humility, copping to a host of antics understandable only in the context of his candy-colored mania. However, he also frames obsession in a more encompassing scope, questioning the demographics of permitted preoccupation ("If you're a prepubescent lass with Bieber eyes, infatuation is fine"), its strange glamorization, and obsession's omnipresence in literature. Building on these themes, I caught up with Giraldi via email this past month and asked him to riff a bit more on the fever of obsession.
Why not only share this obsession, but disseminate it in so public and permanent a fashion? And why now—is the timing at all relevant or conscious?
I struggled for eight years to write this essay. As soon as the obsession began I knew I'd have to write about it, but I kept putting it off because I was apprehensive about what the obsession would reveal about me. My pal George Singleton said that this essay took some guts to write, and that never occurred to me, but I think George is right in his meaning that any time a straight man writes about an obsession with another man, that's rather sensitive territory, for obvious reasons, although I have no problem seeming gay. I struggled with writing this essay because I was aware that this obsession with Jack White, that any obsession, is an admittance of deficiency, of being stuck in some awkward larval stage, of not having the requisite power in the world, of feeling diminished or half-formed, of not having the life you were meant to have. Who wants to admit that in public? But that's the writer's first requirement, that raw and skinned exposure. The timing seems perfect, I know, because Jack's new album has just been released, but I turned in this essay to [OA editor] Roger about ten or twelve months ago, I believe, before I even knew that Jack had his second solo album in the works. Roger has a keen intuition about timing, about when pieces should appear, and, as usual, he was right about this one.
This piece is hilarious. You write so candidly about the engrossing private world you inhabited. Some of this humor is from the perspective of hindsight—revealing your thought processes and habits of devotion with an honesty perhaps enabled by distance. You mention a moment, when the Raconteurs opened for Dylan, that you realized your behavior may have been a little over the top. Was this the moment that you identified your obsession? What do you think allowed for or prompted this realization?
Yes, that Raconteurs concert in Boston was a stabbing moment for me. But I had been aware, since the beginning, since the obsession began in 2004, that it was an occult force upon me, that I was being puppeteered by an energy that felt outside my control. I'm not special in that regard, I know. Rock 'n' roll, like literature, like all genuine art, can be a sublime, Dionysian communion. At its best, it always is. But the only thing that allows for the realization that one is in the grip of obsession is a rare moment of sobriety, usually in public, when one understands that other people aren't privy to this extreme state of feeling, of experiencing, and that's what happened to me that night in Boston. If you can have enough of those moments, you can comprehend that perhaps something is off-kilter. Plus, your bank account should let you know. I was spending obscene amounts of money to fuel this obsession. My wife, who was my girlfriend then, implied that this madness eventually would have to wane a bit if she was going to be a part of my world and we were going to begin a family. If the essay is funny it's funny because all obsessions are comical in their blatant dismissal of normality.
You analyze your obsession through a few lenses. You specifically write about the maleness of it, the Americanness of it. How do you think your own creativity and identity as an artist play into obsession or obsessive behaviors? How necessary is obsession to the creative process?
That's the key, you're right. Lesser artists obsess over greater artists when those greater artists assert a potency and command the lesser artists feel incapable of. I was in a creative rut and some fairly feverous emotional havoc when the obsession began, and Jack represented, asserted, expressed all the creative lightning I was yearning to generate. Any artist worthy of the name is going to be obsessive about his own art, about getting it right, down to the very word, the very comma. Yes, some species of obsession is necessary in the artistic process, I'm sure, but understand, not only was I obsessed with getting my own words and commas right, I was obsessed with this tornado of an artist, this tsunami of creative integrity, Jack White. For me, American maleness has everything to do with it because American men are bred to believe in a kind of manifest destiny of their own ambition, their own will to power. If you can dream it, you can achieve it, and other such nonsense. The thing is, some guys do achieve it, through sheer will and talent-and, in Jack's case, uncommon genius—and they refuse to compromise themselves in the process.
You reel off a list of ill-fated literary obsessives: Ahab, Gatsby, Anna Karenina, et al, and also reference both Lennard J. Davis and Saul Bellow—Davis, regarding the glamor attached to obsession, and quoting Saul Bellow: "Other people's obsessions don't turn me on." Going back to our pantheon of obsessive people in classic literature, it would seem, contrary to Bellow's claim, we are extremely turned on by other people's obsessions. Why are stories of obsession and obsessives so compelling?
Yes, you're right about that, and Bellow's narrator is wrong. We are turned on by other people's obsessions. I can remember, when I had just begun publishing stories and essays in literary journals, in my early twenties, I was invited to give a talk to a literature class at a college, and I spoke about the poet John Berryman, about how his poetry and his life story had overtaken my own life for about eight months, and there was this blond beauty in the class, and we spent time together for about a month afterward, and why? She was turned on by my obsession with Berryman. She told me that. Obsession and obsessives are compelling to read about because they embody the most primal desires we all possess to one degree or another. Plus, for the novelist or storywriter, the obsessive is perfect material because he's organically dramatic, hell-bent and twisted—his narrative is already there. It's no coincidence that the greatest obsessive in the American canon, Captain Ahab, is also the greatest seeker of the sublime, a Romantic quester in the grand tradition of Milton's Satan. All obsessives have some element of romanticism pulsing within.
What makes Jack special or unique to you personally? You mention so many elements of his art and persona you find compelling, but can it be reduced to a single statement? Also, is this essay a postmortem on a dormant obsession or is it still alive?
My single statement would be that as a guitarist and vocalist and performer and producer and songwriter he has no living equal—not even close—no one else exceeds at those five elements together. He's also unusually articulate and intelligent for a rock god, and, as my friend Allan Gurganus says, "He's a beautiful man," and Allan knows more about beautiful men than anyone you can name. Plus, his charisma as a person and performer are downright addictive. You can see it, feel it—and "see it feelingly," as Gloucester says to Lear—when the Raconteurs are onstage and Brendan Benson is playing alongside Jack: poor Brendan looks like a country bumpkin. Jack has that quality that Marlon Brando and Jim Morrison had at their prime: you cannot take your eyes off him. What's more, his artistic integrity is unassailable. How else does one earn the friendship and admiration of Bob Dylan and Neil Young and Keith Richards and Jimmy Page? The obsession has gone, yes, but I miss the White Stripes with a ferocious longing. Mostly it's just my four-year-old, Ethan, and I watching old Stripes concert footage. We watch their show "Under Blackpool Lights" and I still feel all those feelings that surged in me when I first saw it ten years ago. Jack's two solo concert tours, with six or seven people on stage, with the keyboards and bass guitar and fiddles, with the blue color scheme: there's too much going on for me. The White Stripes were phenomenally special, a raw and intimate experience that won't ever happen again.
This essay is certainly Jack-centric, but you lavish love on Meg White as well. How did she play into your Stripes obsession? What do you think of her fade-out from public life in contrast to Jack's continued output?
In the White Stripes, Jack couldn't have been Jack unless Meg had been Meg, so she was central in that way. I found her composed and important and beautiful and, at my most vulnerable, circa 2004, I longed to nap on her bosom. As I was struggling through an early draft of this essay I gave it to Steve Almond, rock 'n' roll freak par excellence, and he said, "Has it ever occurred to you that you married a Meg White?" No, it hadn't occurred to me, but put Asian eyes on Meg and that's [my wife] Katie exactly. And in my life she functions just as Meg functioned in the Stripes: as muse, as support, as the engine without whom nothing runs. Meg's dissolution from public life is a source of colossal heartbreak for me, of course, because it meant the death of the Stripes. Ethan will never see a live White Stripes concert and for that I have a very hard time forgiving Jack and Meg. The words "Jack White" are still spoken in my house, in one regard or another, every day of the week.
The rawness and power of the Stripes' guitar-and-drums sound is something you mention again and again. How do you feel about the lyrics and Jack's songwriting, as both a fan and a writer? Any particular lyric or song especially potent to you?
His songwriting has a depth and dynamism and torque rare among many popular musicians because he has his hands in every moment of the process. "Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground," from White Blood Cells, is among my favorites, the lyrics simple but mysterious and unexpected. I was so charmed by his playful lyrics on those early Stripes albums, songs such as "We're Going to Be Friends." And I love "Girl, You Have No Faith in Medicine," from Elephant. What a jam that is, the guitar work like the devil making love, and I never saw them play it live, not once, not in the dozens of Stripes shows I attended.
I myself, as a writer, feel a certain envy toward the immediacy and power of musicians and the performance component of their art. Writing can be an isolating, very cerebral enterprise whereas music, especially rock 'n' roll, is a physical, vigorous, and collaborative art form. Both of the obsessions you mention in this essay are charismatic rock musicians (Axl Rose and Jack White) rather than, say, an author. Thoughts on this?
Rock & roll, or music in general, inspires obsession with a ferocity unmatched by any other art form, and I say that as someone who has dedicated his life to literature, someone whose life has been about books from day one, whose life would have no meaning outside of literature. Music is the primal lingo. For Schopenhauer, it was the shining embodiment of what he called "Will," the creative force that pervades existence, that keeps existence marching to the drummer, if you will. I know what you mean about envy: I think most writers feel that. I forget who said it, maybe T.C. Boyle, that all writers dream of being rock stars. Anyway, it's a familiar enough feeling, and, lately, when I watch or hear Jack I have the very distinct sensation of missing out on the greatest command and effect an artist can have. It's a feeling of extreme diminishment for me, so I have to limit how much I listen to him or else I'll mope about feeling dejected. What's ridiculous about this, outright absurd, really, is that I don't have a musical cell anywhere in my blood, didn't come from a musical family, never held an instrument, and, what's more, I don't have the constitution to be a rock-n-roller, on the road, away from home. I'm a fundamentally lazy person who can't stand to be apart from my boys and my bride and my books. But what I mean is, if I could have been born a different person, if my parents had been different people, if I could have been reared with a different disposition, I could have gone into music. I could have had a different life. Jack and I are the same age. At twelve years old, when I was trying to figure out how Homer works, he was playing Son House songs on his acoustic guitar.
Who or what is your favorite literary obsessive or obsession?
Milton's Satan doesn't often get referred to as an obsessive but I've always comprehended him that way. I remember being a teenager, struggling my way through Paradise Lost, and then feeling the most pointed excitement when Satan showed up. His sedition, his maniacal quest, his hubris and bravery: he is, as Harold Bloom says, the very embodiment of the poetical sublime. We should also bear in mind that Ahab wouldn't have been possible without Milton's Satan, that Melville got the idea for Ahab while rereading Milton, so the most famous obsessive in American letters is a direct result of and homage to the Satan of Milton's epic.
Are there any nascent obsessions percolating in your psyche you care to allude to?
For Mr. Freud, obsession was a signal of stunted maturity and neurosis, both born, of course, from some sexual upheaval in the unconscious. I half believe that. He called it "fixation," and I'm relieved not to be fixated on anything other than my boys and my bride, which is as it should be. No, no more obsessions for me. It's an exhausting way to be.