New Feature: B-Side History: The Alternate History of a Band.

The B-Side. In the scope of rock history, and depending upon who you ask, it’s either merely a filler to occupy the backside of a superior A-side, or track that complements and augments how great a single is as an entity to itself. And in the rare case of, say, the Beatles, a B-side can be just as popular and defining for a band as “Strawberry Fields Forever” backed with the B-side (and equally popular radio hit) “Penny Lane.” But what is most frustrating about the B-side is that A) acknowledging that the B-side even exists to most casual listeners is that the very phrase has been relegated to the crossword puzzles of the world, and B) these songs represent a kind of effort in songwriting that is equitable, and yet, oftentimes, overlooked and forgotten thanks to overwhelming popularity of an A-side that, more likely than not, far more catchy to a general audience.

But consider what happens when an audience forgets about the B-side, and an artist takes advantage of such a generalization. And in an instance of optimism, they release a song that is far more intimate, more true to the artists’ perspective, and less a show of their power and ability to conceptualize and edit their way to an A-side. And while some A-sides and singles can be as random and confusing as any other song ever released (consider David Lowery’s blog on Camper Van Beethoven’s wild success on “Take the Skinheads Bowling,” hosted on his ‘300 Songs’ blog that, unfortunately, is currently ‘unpublished’ for some reason or another), it doesn’t change the quality that most B-sides tend to have being something far more intense and personal and devoid of the qualities that make A-sides hits.

These are the songs that matter more to the superfans out there. The collectors, the geeks, the freaks, and off-beats. These are the songs that we search for, hopelessly, on every bar jukebox, sometimes successful and sometimes in futility (if you want to know a place where you can hear “Pinball Wizard” backed with “Dogs,” and you happen to be in Ithaca, NY, e-mail me), sometimes to incredible success. And even though I plan for this feature to stray to simply highlight forgotten singles in general, I stand by this promise: every band has a secret history, and it’s my mission to shine a light upon it as worthy of your regular musical diet.

With that in mind, let’s kick this off with a double shot of the White Stripes, and take a listen to an intense love song and a an angry split sider on pinball: “Red Bowling Ball Ruth” and “Hand Springs.”

After the jump: exactly what I said we were going to talk about.

Jack White, with his big sister Meg on the drums, at the Metro Times Blowout, 1999.

By March 1999, the White Stripes were prepping for the success that would follow their eponymous debut album — not that they knew at the time, but certainly, the energy in between the two Whites was probably electric and anxious. For their first single in support of their debut album, they chose the political highlight, “The Big Three Killed My Baby” — a song in protest of the auto industry and Jack White’s almost unusual dislike of automobiles in general. Since releasing the song, Jack White has gone on record to say that music is no vehicle for politics — a stance he’s more or less kept, with the only other overt exception being “Icky Thump” — addressing the subject of the treatment of immigrants — and potentially,  “The Union Forever,” which quotes liberally from Citizen Kane, and takes that film’s message of money and unions to heart.

On the B-side to that blistering damnation of the auto industry, is “Red Bowling Ball Ruth,” a ramshackle blues-punk song, complete with a more-intense introduction that doesn’t reflect the punkier nature of the song. Upon multiple listens to the song, it does little more than sit as a repository of classic Jack White imagery and his penchant for muscle-bound riffing. Aside from the blues noodling intro that eventually segways into a hard, square riff, the song’s strengths are in the lyrics and Jack’s primitive vocals. His vocal chord-shredding scream, combined with trademark White Stripes imagery of the red bowling ball,  broken teeth, and an evocation of a saint, mark out the territory that the White Stripes would come to occupy for the rest of their career, being representatives and preservers of a kind of Americana lost to time or locked away in an alternate dimension, possibly both.

That’s not to say that this is the first White Stripes song to represent that quality — the very first single, “Let’s Shake Hands” has that exact quality going for it — but it shows the dedication to the aesthetic that would become most closely associated with the band in its fairly short career, that being of a different kind of Americana, one that reflects a kind of aesthetic that is immediately appealing for American audiences, yet entirely alienating in how dark they become.

Much like the Decemberists, or even in the old album covers of bands like the Zombies (in particular: Odyssey and Oracle), the White Stripes’ lyrics, visual aesthetic, and interview presentation represent a kind of irretrievable innocence, locked away past a certain age. Theirs is an innocent American dream, filled with dreams of who to become, and all the potential to become that person, and completely oblivious to the evils in the way that hinder such dreams. But it’s not an evil that’s obvious, like the corruption of parents who foster failed potential onto their children, or in learning about the ill-fitting and complex world of adulthood. Instead, it’s a corruption that’s completely of self-discovery, that is, events that are up to debate and discussion as to what’s more damaging to an innocent’s psyche. It’s what separates them from their contemporaries of the early 2000’s: the already-corrupt-and-indifferent Strokes, the already-corrupt-and-loving-it Hives, and the corrupt-and-damaged-goods vision of the Vines. And from any other band, what separates them is the dedication to that exact aesthetic: stuck somewhere between the early 1930’s and the early 1960’s. Even when the sound demands an explicit mix of classicist blues and proto-punk Detroit scene from the Stooges or the MC5, the White Stripes existed in a very demanding line, and this early B-side, as abstract as it is in terms of meaning, aligns them in sound and lyrics, as the perfect marriage.

As such, it’s what would follow them through to the B-side of “Hand Springs,” their contribution to the pinball-themed compilation, Hot Pinball Rock Vol. 1, before sharing a single with fellow Detroit rockers, the Dirtbombs. Building upon the fairly abstract lyrics of “Red Bowling Ball Ruth,” we’re treated to much of the same thematic imagery in “Hand Springs,” wherein  a Jack White protagonist tries in vain to save a relationship that he potentially wrecked himself.

Over an ominous drone, an intense Beefheart-style chorus riff and steady near-drone verse, and some speak-sung lyrics, Jack tells the tale of a relationship on the rocks. Yet, in flashes, we get glimpses of the entirety of adolescent fears, summed up entirely, and beautifully in the line: “I was scared to lose her / so I couldn’t help but being mean,” a factoid he would later come to regret. It’s a regret later emphasized in the song’s final line, “Well isn’t it all a big game?” But it’s a line that’s uttered, almost like an all-too-quick summary, that sounds like the song’s narrator giving up to himself something he’s known all along. But it’s all an effort to save face, given among that throbbing, constant bass line and the narrator’s effort to save the relationship — based in knowing exactly what his girl likes best and trying to be the best at bowling, or pinball, as either case may be. And, in traditional Jack White fashion, the small details follow through: the bowling ball that gets thrown to the case of the pinball machine in this song is also red, the bowling alley is called ‘The Red Door,’ and his girl likes Coke, whose  famous logo is drenched in its own unique shade of red.

If “Red Bowling Ball Ruth” establishes the general aesthetic of the White Stripes — among the images of young love, completely innocent and on the verge of its own mistakes — “Hand Springs,” despite being so rich in description and easily could be, simply, a song of itself a song devoted to lost love, is steeped in knowing that love is complicated by anger. It’s a simple message, and one that could be  delivered by any garage band of the Detroit scene. But its the White Stripes’ dedication to the old aesthetics of Americana adolescence that makes all the difference: pinball, glasses of Coke, bowling lanes (and the game of bowling as a youthful recreation — long forgotten until old age when it becomes the lone source of recreation, save golf). But perhaps the most curious of the images would be when the protagonist feels most threatened by this other guy, and seeing in his face, “white flowers, cups of coffee, and love letters.”

Consider that first word and its prevalence throughout the rest of that list: white.  Whatever the images themselves might mean, the prevalence of the color white is what’s most interesting. White flowers in, and of themselves, could be anything, but cups of coffee — despite that they could be served in anything, let’s assume they’re, like most diners in America, going to be served in white mugs — and love letters. White cups of coffee could be (along with the love letters), an inference of love that comes from nothing but curiosity and spurred by the quickness of nature among themselves — puppy love — and hurried like love itself is sped up by coffee. It’s a love as spontaneous as the next, but as equally as immature as any other. But it’s the image of the love letter that covers that: it doesn’t matter how premature this  fascination may be, the important thing is that it’s a love unwritten. It is a love full of potential, full of a promise uncommitted, and molded by innocence unguarded and oblivious.

When the White Stripes released these early B-Sides, they were merely trying to catch a break. Listening to Jack White’s Blunderbuss  now takes those very same themes (and some of the images), and you get this sense that he’s a songwriter who knows his own limitations better, and doesn’t seem as prepared to create these characters, and willing to produce a product that’s far more intimate and mature, and perhaps comes from his own voice and perspective. And in the context of the White Stripes up against Jack White’s solo efforts, fans can’t help but think of the “Little Room,” the spoken word track on White Blood Cells that worked as a metaphor for how Mr. White works on his craft. The difference isn’t that he’s in a bigger room thinking of how to get back into the little room, but that he’s in an entirely different house in an entirely different neighborhood, trying to produce the same work of art.


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