Jim White – A long, strange trip-folk into light
White still wrote songs from time to time, but he figured that part of his life was gone. Through the years, “I would play my tapes for people, which were basically stuff with a lot of different genres mixed together, jazz mixed with bluegrass, stuff like that,” White recalls. “And they’d just go, ‘Ugh, this is awful.’ I always had a fragmented perspective on music. I always thought I’d be a musician by avocation, as opposed to occupation.”
Driving a cab proved both debilitating and depressing. White was poor and sick, suffering from chronic depression, although at the time he didn’t have a name for it. His sister, alarmed, rented him a beach house in which to recuperate. “I was bedridden; I thought I was an inch away from death,” White remembers. “I saw many marginal doctors, but none of them could tell me what was wrong with me. I was so depressed I could hardly think straight.”
It was a dark, bad time. “There was a curse on me,” he says. “I fell into a bad river and it was carrying me away. There were crazy, spooky things happening to me.” Just what things, White, who is amiable and sweet and will talk about just about anything, doesn’t want to say.
At the beach house, White picked up the guitar for the first time in years. Out came the sad, simple “A Perfect Day to Chase Tornadoes”, which would eventually become the centerpiece of Wrong-Eyed Jesus, and the track that would introduce White to the world.
He made a demo at the urging of a friend and sent it out halfheartedly, without even his phone number on it. The tape eventually found its way to Melanie Ciccone, the wife of Joe Henry and the manager of Daniel Lanois. She sent it on to David Byrne’s Luaka Bop imprint. Given the label’s emphasis on world music, it seemed an unlikely fit, and given White’s two-year run of bad luck, he never thought much would come of it.
“I had been through such a dark phase that when Melanie told me she had arranged a meeting with David Byrne, I thought she was an impostor,” White says. “I thought that she was gonna lure me to a hotel and stab me. I kept telling my friends, ‘This has got to be a joke, right?’ When I got to the hotel and I saw David Byrne was there, I was like, ‘Wow, this is a pretty elaborate practical joke.'”
White signed to Luaka Bop a short time later and set out to make Wrong-Eyed Jesus with a team that included Henry, Victoria Williams and Tom Waits’ longtime collaborator Ralph Carney. Jesus endured a complicated birth. The recording itself was uneventful and brief, but the editing process was elaborate — ten weeks of seventeen-hour days, with the studio people so fed up they wanted to quit.
“I was like, I’m gonna expunge these demons,” White recalls. Making Wrong-Eyed Jesus was his version of a talking cure. “I’d sit at the computer and cry while I was writing, and then I’d go outside and press my face against the fence for an hour to collect myself. At a certain point, making records becomes painful.”
However personal the record may be to White, it doesn’t necessarily feel that way. Most of the characters on Wrong-Eyed Jesus seem to hold the past at great remove. Much of the imagery is obviously apocryphal, and even White’s warmest and most intimate songs always seem to be about other people.
Filled with closely observed stories of great beauty and improbability, Wrong-Eyed Jesus is populated by blind girls, preacher men, women wielding knives, and men looking for salvation, usually in the wrong places. There’s a desperation that’s heartbreaking, an unrootedness that’s awful.
White feels his life is too overstuffed and complicated to fit into even a country song, and he may be right. By necessity, this article leaves out White’s work as a sound editor on Halloween 6 (at least, he thinks it was Halloween 6) with Donald Pleasance (at least, he thinks it was Donald Pleasance), the time he was nearly homeless and had to eat out of dumpsters, and his days on the pro surfing circuit (the last of which is a little foggy, anyway).
Sam Raimi could turn it all into a great movie, though White doesn’t necessarily appreciate that thought. When it’s your life, when it happened to you, he says, it isn’t entertainment, necessarily.