Jim White – A long, strange trip-folk into light
Thinking back, it seems the day Jim White got saved was really the beginning of everything. White would later embark in earnest on a life that was complicated, circuitous and frequently unpleasant. He would be a cab driver, a fashion model, an independent filmmaker, and the creator of two celebrated but little-heard albums, 1997’s Wrong-Eyed Jesus and the just-released No Such Place.
But this was how it started out.
Raised in the Florida Panhandle, White felt pent-up inside with no outlet for his restlessness after he finished school. He fell in with a bad crowd of Christians. In Pensacola, Jesus and drugs were about the only recreation, and White had done his share of drugs already. This was back in the mid-’70s, or maybe it was the late ’70s, he doesn’t remember.
Back then, many born-agains were hippies who wore sandals and looked like James Taylor. This proved enough of an inducement that White found himself at church one day. He remembers it like this: “I was lost, and when you see a trail, you follow it. The preacher said, ‘With every knee bowed and every eye closed, Jesus is calling! Accept him!’ I found myself at the altar. They laid their hands on my forehead. There was something weirdly carnal about it. And I thought, well, everyone is passing out, so I better pass out, so I did. And there was lots of hugging.”
White was, by his own accounting, a fairly subdued born-again. He didn’t speak in tongues or perform healings or thump a Bible on the back of a pickup truck. It was always the ones who were tightly wound who screamed and wept the most, he says, and that was never him. Christianity, which he now regards “with an intellectual affection,” is a vital and recurring theme in White’s music, absorbed alongside a deep love of early 20th-century back-porch country and the gothic, swampy Southern mysticism of Flannery O’Connor.
Jesus, as one might expect, is a familiar figure in White’s lyrics, as are dogs and movie stars, for reasons that are less immediately obvious. Suffice to say, White makes the sort of records Billy Bob Thornton (if he hadn’t gone so strange all of a sudden) might make, if he had both found and lost Jesus, and listened to a lot of Vic Chesnutt in between. To make records like Wrong-Eyed Jesus, which comes with its own short story in the liner notes, is a virtual invitation to cult adoration and subsistence living, and Jim White is on familiar terms with both.
White spent ten years as a Pentecostal before fleeing to New York City, where his sister (“She always rescues me — can you put that in your story?”) suggested he come to try his luck at modeling. “I had never thought of myself that way before,” says White, who was in his twenties at the time. “On the way home from my first modeling agency interview, I saw my reflection in the window of the bus and just burst out laughing.”
He worked the lucrative minor-league modeling circuit in Europe for a while. Models who couldn’t get arrested in America, like White, could make an easy $1,000 a day overseas, and there was as much work as you wanted. The advent of junkie chic eventually put an end to his career, and he had a few nervous breakdowns along the way, but he otherwise remembers being a model as not a bad gig.
His modeling days over, White’s sister thought he might try NYU film school. “Where’s that?” he asked. He applied anyway, and — owing to the strange combination of nerve and blind luck that has characterized his life thus far — was accepted.
White had vague thoughts of becoming a filmmaker, though he almost dropped out of school upon learning his class schedule conflicted with afternoon reruns of “Hawaii Five-O”. White’s love of pop culture — which hasn’t made its way into his music to any great effect — is nevertheless abiding and deep. His affection for Rosie O’Donnell (“Leave her alone! She does good things!”) is profound, as is his loathing for Judge Judy. He has a theory about Gwyneth Paltrow and the duality of the universe.
Or he’ll say, “I lived alone most of my life, and I would sit there and think, ‘How did I get here?'” Tell him everybody probably thinks that at some point or another, and he’ll say, “Really? Even Marla Maples? Come on, now!”
White began to direct much of his considerable energies into film. He started driving a cab to help finance an indie movie he was making. He would work for 40 days to make money to continue filming, shoot for 40 days or until the money ran out, then start all over again.
At 18, White broke his leg and was stuck at home with a guitar, so he plucked out the first chords of “Stairway To Heaven”. He kept at it when the leg healed. Up until, working at a chaise lounge factory one day, “I got my hand caught in an electric saw, and I couldn’t play guitar for a year,” he recalls. “I had pins sticking out of my fingers and everything. For ten years, my outlet was music, and all of sudden that was taken away from me.”