The bar scene at Ohio University, where I was finishing up my freshman year this time 10 years ago, is a heavy-handed metaphor. Along the main drag, Court Street, are a few dozen establishments wherein coeds in search of bed buddies show off the binge drinking skills they honed in the dorms. For lack of a better word, this is the “mainstream” of student nightlife. A series of east-west avenues intersect with Court, and it’s along these blocks — off the beaten path, sort of — that you’ll find the grizzled townie bar, the brewpub with the jam bands, the biker bar, the old-school college town record store, the locally sourced vegan-friendly co-op and the coffee shop with the social justice motif (“Caffeine with a conscience,” goes the slogan). Students who self-identify as “alternative” or “indie” or “punk” or “hippie” typically end up hanging out at these joints, so of course that’s also more or less where the music scene lives.
Because Athens is a rural college town of about 23,000 (the population doubles when the students are in town), there’s typically only room for one business in a given niche, sometimes zero. But the ecosystem does support one honest-to-god rock ’n’ roll bar, a dark, musty, two-story dive called The Union. All sorts of bands haul their equipment up that gargantuan staircase to play for an audience buzzing on insanely cheap beer on a stage with a wooden support beam front and center. The lifeblood of the place, though — the music that proliferates among the regulars and the students who stick around after they graduate — is raw, ragged, raunchy, retro rock ’n’ roll. The Union’s signature event is an annual three-night blitzkrieg called Blackoutfest usually headlined by rabid garage punks like the Dirtbombs, Lost Sounds, and Demolition Doll Rods. Those sorts of acts stop by all year round on their way through a circuit of similar venues across the country and around the globe, a network of dive bars, punk houses, and record shops that constitute the retro-fetishizing punk rock underground. In that world, 7-inches are the currency, elemental power is prized as music’s supreme virtue, leather jackets never go out of style, and mythic characters from Robert Johnson to Jerry Lee Lewis to Jay Reatard are venerated as saints. It’s an insular scene, but occasionally it launches an export into the world at large.
None of them soared higher than the White Stripes. As I was told innumerable times after arriving at OU, Jack and Meg played the Union during the formative era before 2001’s White Blood Cells made them headliners in the U.K.-sponsored, U.S.-approved “return of the rock” movement. But by the time Elephant stomped out of the gate on April Fools Day 2003, they were opening for the Rolling Stones and scoring five stars out of five in Rolling Stone, heirs apparent to the garage rock throne. Jack, a living parody of rockist virtues, became their de facto ambassador. In interviews, he rejected hip-hop, techno, and even (gasp!) Motown; in the studio and on stage, he mashed up blues and punk, the twin pillars of emotive, guitar-slinging so-called authenticity. The Stripes’ sound had been an underground trend for some time, dating at least to Sympathy For The Record Industry precursors the Gibson Bros. in the ’80s — they even had an amateurish female drummer! — and widely adored in the form of Gibson offshoot Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the ’90s. But those bands didn’t have the color scheme (an unwavering red, white, and black palette) or the colorful backstory (ex-spouses posing as brother and sister) that helped make Jack and Meg media darlings and instant rock royalty.
Elephant was to be their coronation, their “Welcome to the canon!” party. In keeping with that, the record read less like the breathless excitement of genius at work than a thesis on quote-unquote real rock history from a star pupil — recorded, of course, on ancient analog equipment. It’s telling that Elephant is the album that kicked off the Stripes’ Grammy streak. The first three Stripes records oozed with raw power, reclaiming the raucous, hedonistic Detroit proto-punk of MC5 and the Stooges and reframing it through the lens of Jack’s blues and country heroes. On Elephant, that feral sound is tamed ever so slightly, the way you’d expect from a major label debut. Compounding the nagging sense of underachievement was a handful of songs that appeared to be rewrites of White Blood Cells tracks: “There’s No Home For You Here” was “Dead Leaves And The Dirty Ground” with a Freddie Mercury choir; “I Want To Be The Boy To Warm Your Mother’s Heart” reeked of “I’m Finding It Harder To Be A Gentleman”; “You’ve Got Her In Your Pocket” repurposed the McCartney-gone-twee sing-song of “We’re Going To Be Friends” to lesser effect.
That said, Elephant wasn’t all studious replication of this band’s history and rock history at large. It was no White Blood Cells — hell, it was no Icky Thump — but it was still very much a White Stripes album, which means it came littered with blasts of unmistakable White Stripes inspiration. “The Hardest Button To Button” is impossibly simple, but nobody else could have written it, and it continues to kick ass in Jack White live sets to this day. The Burt Bacharach tune “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself,” though it indulges those retro-maniacal tendencies, is another astonishing example of the mileage Jack got out of howling through classic covers. “Ball And Biscuit” is the kind of stretched-out, straight-ahead blues rocker that exemplifies everything glorious about classic rock when limited to a quantity of one and becomes everything tedious about the genre at a quantity of two or more; good thing there’s only one here. “Black Math” crushes, as does the satisfyingly weird “Little Acorns”; years removed from my last listen, I could have sworn the intro was a Spotify ad. And Meg’s two turns on the mic are frigid gold, both the minimal ballad “In The Cold, Cold Night” and her disgusted responses to Jack and Holly Golightly on wink-winking, borderline obnoxious closer “Well It’s True That We Love One Another.”
But when we talk about the legacy of Elephant, we’re really talking about the legacy of “Seven Nation Army.” Holy hell, what a riff! What an opening number! This song was everything the White Stripes strived to be — raw, rudimentary, explosive, infectious and couched in skewed instant-classic iconography. (“I’m going to Wichita!”) It was pretty much guaranteed to go down as one of the greatest rock songs of all time, but who saw it coming back for a second life as one of the greatest stadium chants of all time? Seemingly everywhere sports are played, the iconic seven-note riff pops up on the P.A., or in brass blasts from the marching band, or as a rousing chant from a gang of fans. In my own city alone, they play it before every kickoff at Ohio State football games, and the Columbus Crew supporters section cheers soccer players’ names to the tune. And why wouldn’t they? It’s timeless. The first time I heard it, I could have sworn White jacked it from some decades-old classic, but he didn’t. It’s just that good.
You know who else wrote riffs like that? The Exploding Hearts. The same day V2 unveiled Elephant in all its candy-cane-colored swagger, Dirtnap Records unleashed Guitar Romantic, a neon pink and yellow burst of power-pop perfection. Geographically, the Exploding Hearts’ Oregon home base was thousands of miles from the Detroit garage rock revival that birthed the White Stripes, but spiritually the bands were practically next-door neighbors. The Hearts’ reverence for the good old days shined through in their every gesture, from their pointed embrace of the Buzzcocks/Undertones/Only Ones school of pop-punk songwriting to their Fonz/Ramones ’50s-via-’70s throwback wardrobe to the self-destructive drunken antics they described in their Pitchfork interview, wherein they also ridiculed Justin Timberlake for wearing an MC5 shirt. (“What the fuck did he ever do? Put on headphones and dance like a fucking leprechaun.”)
Such a “hopelessly backwards-looking” posture can render an album unlistenable, as Stylus explained in a negative review of Guitar Romantic scarred by one too many “The _____s” bands. But the antidote for that particular ailment is sterling songs executed with unimaginable vitality, and every song on this album was a walk-off home run followed by a raging kegger. Are there chord progressions more invigorating than the one that kicks off “Modern Kicks”? Do riffs come more combustible than the notes that introduce “I’m A Pretender”? Can a pre-chorus arch any higher than the one from “Thorns and Roses” does? (And whose spirit can help but follow?) That’s just the first three tracks; we haven’t even touched on the Dinosaur-cum-Buzzcocks hot rod that is “Still Crazy,” or the blown-out Moondog matinee of “Throwaway Style,” or the finger-snapping supremacy of “Sleeping Aides and Razorblades.” This band had tapped into a powerful sweet spot, and in doing so they made a record that stands toe to toe with their heroes.
I’d like to think the Exploding Hearts, like the White Stripes, would have made their mark beyond the garage rock underground. At the very least, they would have toured beyond the West Coast, maybe even made it far enough eastward to play the Union. Online buzz was building, and a high-profile record deal was looming (with Lookout Records, says AllMusic). But they never had the chance to realize any of that. On July 20, 2003, just 110 days after Guitar Romantic’s release, three out of four band members died when their van swerved off the highway on the way back from a show at San Francisco’s Bottom Of The Hill. Rock ’n’ roll tragedies don’t get much worse than that.
Theirs would be no Sublime story. Guitar Romantic remains one of the cultiest of cult favorites, just like in its heyday. Those who know it love it, but it’s not that well-known outside places like the Union or the people who frequented indie rock websites in 2003. That fate seems preordained, van crash or no van crash; from a human perspective, the premature deaths of Matt Fitzgerald, Jeremy Gage, and Adam Cox were catastrophic, but in terms of legacy, I’m not sure the Exploding Hearts’ destiny would have been that much different had they lived on. It’s not likely they would have made an album as ebullient as Guitar Romantic again — that LP’s a lightning strike if there ever was one — but even if they did, it’s almost impossible to conceive of a present where they wield Jack White-level influence. There was no clearly defined persona driving the band, nor a distinct identity in the style to set it apart. It’s immensely likeable music, yet there are dozens of bands like theirs barely scraping by on tour. I can’t tell you how many similar groups tour through my town to perform for a minuscule audience. There is a sense of “been there, done that” with bands that so slavishly devote themselves to classic tropes, even bands that do it as vibrantly as the Exploding Hearts.
On the other hand, imagine for a moment that the White Stripes were the ones who died young. Their faces would adorn T-shirts alongside Cobain, Hendrix and Lennon. Their albums and singles would climb near the top of critics’ all-time best-of lists. They would be revered as genuine rock stars at a time when rock stars are all but extinct. Basically, it wouldn’t be all that different from what happened with Jack and Meg alive and well, give or take a tribute album. And that makes sense. Whereas the Exploding Hearts were about personality vanishing into a familiar archetype, the White Stripes were about shaping familiar archetypes in their own outsized image. One approach is superior in terms of taking over the world, but both have their virtues, as evidenced by the fraternal twin records that made 10 years ago today so monumental where garage rock is concerned.