By Shevaun Gray
I… don’t really enjoy live music.
This is probably the wrong place to admit that. But mostly, when I’m at a show (looking at you, General Admission) I feel like that Portlandia sketch. I’m ready to go home. However, this regrettable truth makes my experience of seeing The White Stripes at Radio City Music Hall that much more special. Set your Discman to anti-shock, my friend- we’re going back to 2002…
I was 16 years old and had spent the summer before my senior year of high school falling in love with The White Stripes the way most normal girls that age fall in love with, I don’t know… actual people. Like most of America, my entry point was through the single “Fell In Love With a Girl”. A windfall of back catalog riches awaited me at Sam Goody when I discovered this was actually their third album. The red! The white! The black! Are they related? Are they married? Oh, those halcyon days.
If you’re lucky, you have a big sister. If you’re even luckier, that big sister buys you a ticket to a double-bill rock show with her and her friends (thanks, Shea!). Such were my circumstances the night I piled into a car with The Best Big Sis and her two friends and headed twelve miles west to New York City.
::cue Bright Lights, Big City montage::
::cue doubly long montage of finding parking::
This was my second time at Radio City Music Hall (shout out to The Easter Spectacular!) but the tone was decidedly different, and altogether wonderful. The White Stripes were co-headlining with The Strokes and the whole venue was humming with this anticipatory energy. At the time, The Strokes were cresting on the success of Is This It, with the White Stripes coming up strong from behind with White Blood Cells. The show was A Big Deal. And we arrived late. After getting through security we were climbing the stairs to our seats when we heard the call-and-answer opening of I Think I Smell a Rat. “They started without us!” my sister’s friend Denise shrieked as we sprinted up the remaining stairs.
Two things really struck me while watching the duo tear through their set list: Jack is the most effortless guitar player on planet earth and Meg doesn’t really seem to care about anything that’s happening. Seriously, she doesn’t look at or play to the audience at all. But she doesn’t really play to Jack either. Her body is playing the drums, but her face is either downcast or looking back, totally unmoved by the sea of screaming fans in front of her. Over-earnest performing always makes me uncomfortable (see: every singing competition ever) so her seeming disinterest was- strangely- really exciting to me! And for The White Stripes it’s a dynamic that works because Jack is all over the stage, switching guitars and engaging with the audience.
Like the pigeon lady of Home Alone 2 in her Carnegie Hall attic, I peer down at the stage thoroughly rapt with the pair. Toward the end of their set (during ‘Canon’, I think?) as the song reaches a fever pitch, Jack strides up to Meg, steps up onto her kick drum and the two play furiously at one another until they both basically collapse. I was floored. For one that’s like, really not good to do to a drum but also the sheer force of their connection blows away all the fanfare and razzle-dazzle of any show I’d seen prior– or since.
They swiftly exit the stage so their co-headliner can set up (also probably because Meg wasn’t about to stay a second more than necessary). As soon as The Strokes start playing, I go into panic mode. I didn’t want to watch The Strokes or hear The Strokes. I wasn’t ready for The White Stripes to be over. Like a really good last bite, I wanted to hold onto that flavor as long as could- not wash it away with Julian Casablancas. Ugh. Fortunately Jack emerged once more to play the finale: “New York City Cops”.
My aforementioned distaste for most live music stands, but believe that when The White Stripes broke up in 2010, stating specifically that they’ll never play together again I immediately mourned all the shows I would not be going to. I had only seen them once more after the Radio City show and will never forgive myself for not seeing them more. Solid musicians with stage presence as magnetic as it is confounding are tough to come by. But we’ll always have 2002.