separated at birth: lord byron & jack white

White’s music was fixated on the past and on death…Byron loved to drink his claret from a skull cup and sleeping overnight on the graves of people he admired….”

 

by bill carney

 

While most people would admit that White Stripes’ singer and guitarist Jack White and English Romantic poet Lord Byron have some fairly obvious parallels, even a cursory inspection reveals disturbing, almost uncanny similarities. White is clearly a romantic (albeit lower case), and Byron a rock star fated to live in a pre-rock era.

John Gillis Jack White was born on Detroit’s southwest side in the Mexicantown neighborhood, where he eventually lived in a house he acquired from his parents. He painted the house’s interior entirely red and white to match his peppermint candy fixation.

George Gordon Lord Byron was born in London, England but spent his youth in Aberdeen, Scotland. He eventually inherited Newstead Abbey, outside Nottingham England from his family, which he allowed to crumble into dilapidated gloomy Gothic splendor to match his own view that his contemporary era was in terminal decline.

Gillis was born in 1975, one year before the American Revolution’s bi-centennial. Byron was born in 1788, one year before the bloody French revolution.

White achieved fame in part by pretending that his ex-wife, Meg White, was his sister. Byron achieved notoriety and was driven into exile from England after rumors of his incestuous relationship with his half-sister, Augusta Byron, surfaced in English society. Following the dissolution of his marriage, White continued to write songs such as “The Union Forever,” “I’m Bound to Pack It Up” and “Sister, Do You Know My Name,” about their failed relationship and a time of earlier, innocent love while his ex-wife played drums on them. Byron wrote narrative poems depicting Augusta and not so subtly extolling incestuous love, such as “The Bride of Abydos,” and “Lara,” while his sister ignored his letters and entreaties begging her to come live with him in exile.

White’s music was fixated on the past and on death, on the music of his blues heroes such as Son House, Blind Willie McTell and Blind Willie Johnson, and songs such as Red Death at 6:14, The Big Three Killed My Baby, Hello Operator, St James Infirmary, and Death Letter. Byron loved to drink his claret from a skull cup and sleeping overnight on the graves of people he admired.

Jack White rebelled while attending classes at Detroit’s Cass Tech high school by listening to blues instead of hip hop or techno. Byron rebelled against Cambridge University’s prohibition against having dogs on campus by keeping a tame bear at school.

Byron was born with a clubbed right foot and perhaps as a result became a great swimmer, renowned for vaulting into the sea with the “agility of a harlequin” and his legendary crossings of the Tagus and Hellespont . While riding through Detroit with Renee Zellweger on his 28th birthday, White was involved in an automobile accident and suffered a compound triple fracture on his left index finger. He had the surgery, where three pins were inserted, filmed and later posted it on his website. White said the surgery caused him to alter his style of fretting chords and ultimately made him a better guitar player.

Byron idolized Napoleon and Jack White was a great admirer of Bob Dylan, with both claiming to uphold the poetic spirit of their forebear.

White earned the nickname “Gentleman Jack” for his stated seemingly old-fashioned concerns about the lack of gentlemanly behavior and the death of the sweetheart. Byron’s father was known as “Mad Jack”, for his dashing but wholly reprehensible profligate confidence trickster lifestyle. He rejected modern England and its hypocritical, socially stifling mores and fell in love with antiquity, particularly Greece, where he eventually moved in order to lead a Greek army of liberation against the occupying Turks. He died in the marshy coastal town of Missolonghi in 1824, at the age of 36.

White’s writing evinced a fascination with childhood and innocence, particularly in songs such as “A Boy’s Best Friend, “We’re Going To Be Friends,” “The Air Near My Fingers,” “I Want To Be The Boy That Warms Your Mother’s Heart,” “Candy Cane Children,” “Let’s Shake Hands, ” “Hey Little Apple Blossom,” “Jumble Jumble,” “Little People,” and “Jimmy the Exploder.” Byron also evinced a fascination with children, both adolescent boys whom he was presumed to be involved in sexual relations with, and in his writings, such as “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” and “Werner.”

As a young man Byron traveled to Albania, which served as the basis for Childe Harold, where he fell in love with their exotic clothes. White traveled to Romania, which served as the setting for the filming of Cold Mountain, where he fell in love with Renee Zellwegger.

Byron looked up to strong older women like Lady Melbourne and Mme de Stael. White dedicated White Blood Cells to Loretta Lynn and later produced and played on an album of hers, claiming she was the “best singer-songwriter of the 20th century.”

The success of the White Stripes, particularly in England, opened the door for a host of other Detroit-based bands, such as the Soledad Brothers, Dirtbombs, Von Bondies, Detroit Cobras, Electric 6, Brendan Benson, Blanche, The Waxwings, and the Go, as well as a fair number of 2-piece bands such as the Black Keys and the Kills. Byron’s untimely death while assisting in the struggle for Greek independence created a host of followers throughout Europe and a cult of “Byromania” particularly among followers like Victor Hugo, Alphone de Lamartine, Heinrich Heine, Adam Mickiewicz, Alexander Pushkin, Gioachino Rossini, Hecotr Berlioz, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Charlotte Bronte, John Ruskin, Benjamin Disraeli, Oscar Wilde, and Jack White.

 

Originally published:
Issue Thirty-Three
October 2004

 


Bill Carney is a founding member and contributing editor to the late, lamented Lurch Magazine. He is also the leader of not one but two renowned New York City bands: Les Sans Culottes and Bill Carney’s Jug Addicts. In addition to his many literary and musical endeavors, he maintains membership in several secret societies and is a master when it comes to cooking with curry. More from Bill Carney can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

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