By Chris Gavin
Over the past few months, The Black Keys, made up of guitarist and singer Dan Auerbach and drummer Pat Carney, and Jack White have added several recent installments to a long-standing rivalry over blues rock. Most of the jabs have come from White and have included everything from bashing the band’s sound to claiming Auerbach has not only copied White’s music, but also his lifestyle (both are record producers in Nashville for their own labels).
There’s no doubt many of White’s statements have been brash—like the time he said that without The White Stripes, The Black Keys wouldn’t even exist—but there’s more than one reason that White needs to watch what he says.
Third Man Records, White’s label, has been producing arguably some of the most exciting and innovative material rock has seen in quite some time. For the last few years the label has put out a series of 45rpm singles of covers and original material from artists both well-known and semi-popular (personal favorites are Laura Marling’s take on “Blues Run the Game” and First Aid Kit’s cover of “Universal Soldier.”) This year White also produced A Letter Home for Neil Young on a Voice-O-Graph from the 1940s. The vinyl edition of Lazaretto has many different tricks and hidden gems, like a bonus track embedded into the center label of the disc. The list goes on and on.
White’s innovative style and relentless effort to push the envelope is a good thing. It’s a wonderful thing, actually. He’s producing music of this era the old-school way. He’s creating a new standard in the industry by following the old standard. Although he rejects being referred to as the “Willy Wonka” of rock and roll by Rolling Stone, it’s very easy to apply the title. Maybe he should accept it, too. It’s a signal of admiration to a certain degree—a synonym for a magic man with a vision and an answer for everything.
Either way, his work speaks for itself, and when all eyes are on White, he has a soapbox to stand on. He’s a leading figure in the rock world, and I certainly support his business model, but as an unofficial spokesman for the craft, he should monitor himself. He’s lucky The Black Keys have been as courteous as they have in their responses.
A leaked email correspondence between White and his ex-wife Karen Elson in August 2013, while the two were in court, contained a plea from White to remove his kids out of the same class as Auerbach’s daughter. He also once again criticized the band for copying him.
Auerbach said the outburst was a surprise but didn’t return the trash talk. “I don’t know him,” he said, “so it’s extra-unexpected.”
Carney, however, elaborated on the situation. “I actually feel embarrassed for him,” he said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I don’t hold grudges, man. I really don’t. We’ve all said fucked-up shit in private, and divorce is hard.”
Carney added that he thinks personal things should remain private and pointed a finger at TMZ for focusing its work around bringing incidents like this to the public eye. To be fair, he also said White “sounds like an asshole,” according to Rolling Stone. But that’s not the point. The point is that Carney and Auerbach didn’t necessarily acknowledge White’s comments and didn’t spew out piles of choice words back at their fellow artist the way White did. It’s a matter of not returning the punch and taking the higher road—something White could learn from.
I understand White is entitled to his opinion—that this is rock and roll, and anything goes. But for White, a man of traditional values and craftsmanship, it just doesn’t seem right to bring down acts like The Black Keys or publications like Rolling Stone, which he ranted about at a Fenway Park show last month. The day after it happened, his publicists said White was only joking. If he is going to be as active as he is in defending the art of making vinyl records in a digital age, he isn’t going to win people over by hating on anyone he thinks owes him something.
White, with his prolific collection of work, has the power to persuade a music industry obsessed with producing Top 40 hits into to making music organically using modern technology and to reintroduce vinyl records and recording techniques. He has to understand: he’s not only speaking for himself, but also a lot of fans who also want music made right—made the old way.