Jim of all trades

For David Byrne discovery Jim White, music wasn't his first career choice. Or his second. Or his third...

A guitar entered the picture when White was 18. He broke his leg skateboarding prior to a big surfing championship, and while he was laid up, he began fingering a six-string that had been left at his house. But strumming and songwriting remained only a hobby for quite a while. After his leg healed, White moved first to California and later to Hawaii with an eye toward earning his keep as a professional surfer. Unfortunately, he didn't win nearly enough competitions to support himself. He made ends meet for a while by working in surfboard factories, but when he was in his early 20s, he suffered a nervous breakdown that left him at loose ends. A friend subsequently offered him work assembling chaise longues, but the job didn't last long.

"I was using a dado saw; it's a circular saw that fits in a table, and you run boards through it," he recalls. "Well, I didn't like the way the wood was going through it--and me being an experimental person, I tried to pull it through instead of pushing it like they told me. And a couple minutes later, I was on my way to the emergency room."

The injury, to White's left hand, was plenty serious; it took him several years to regain something approaching full movement in four of his digits, and the fifth no longer bends. But White swears this unkind cut was the best thing that ever happened to his instrumental technique. "When I got hurt, I had only one finger that worked the way it was supposed to. So I had to transfer my ideas from chords to picking and cadences--and the music started getting better and better."

While White was in the midst of making this discovery, he was involved in yet another vocation: modeling. His sister KT, who had moved to New York City, had connections in the field, and within a few months, he was winging his way to Milan, Italy, for international shoots. But White says this accomplishment wasn't as impressive as it sounds: "Milan was sort of like the minor leagues in baseball. If you go to Milan and do well, then you can come back to America and work. But I never really broke through. I wasn't people's dream model. I was the model they got when such-and-so was booked."

The four years White spent pouting for the camera weren't a total loss, however. "I pretty much learned to read while I was there," he says. "I had the reading comprehension level of a third-grader back then; I pretty much cheated my way through high school. But when I was in Europe, I told my father that I wanted to learn to read, and he was so happy that he went straight out and bought me two books: The Fountainhead, and The Idiot by Dostoyevsky. So I tried to read them, and when I was three-quarters of the way through The Idiot, I was talking to this girl, and I said, 'I'm trying to learn how to read, but reading is extremely painful. These authors, they write about shit.' She said, 'What are you reading?' And when I told her, she just started laughing--and then she gave me a Kurt Vonnegut book. From then on, I was in heaven."

After White's high-fashion career petered out, he returned to New York and began to drift; he says he subsisted for a time as a dumpster diver. (When asked about his choicest finds, he cites a trunkful of possessions discarded by actress Morgan Fairchild, including an autographed photo stamped with her given name, Patsy McClenny, and an undamaged 12-piece set of china.) He eventually was hired to work at a restaurant, and while he was there, he decided that he wanted to go to film school. After his application to attend New York University was accepted, he left the food-service business behind and began driving a cab to finance his studies.

What precipitated this latest lifestyle change? White can only guess. "It was restlessness to an extent," he says. "But it was also that I never had a clear identity of who I was. And when you don't know who you are and someone says, 'Do this thing,' there's nothing to tell you not to, because you can't say, 'That's not me.' So when someone would say, 'Go be a cabdriver,' I'd say OK. And when someone would say, 'Go be a model,' I'd say OK, too. I laughed at that, because I certainly didn't seem like a model. But when you're searching for an identity, you have to try lots of things. And I sure have."

The film industry proved to be another temporary stop for White. He graduated from NYU after five years and got gigs doing sound design for the sixth Halloween movie and 1996's Sudden Manhattan, a little-seen indie picture helmed by Adrienne Shelly. He also raised the $50,000 it cost to make The Beautiful World, a black-and-white film he wrote and directed. But, unfortunately, the movie's odd length--56 minutes--caused most film festivals to turn it down. He was struggling with what to do about this unexpected complication when he received a call from Luaka Bop about a demo tape he had sent the company on the advice of a buddy. Shortly thereafter, he was presented with an opportunity to head down a new path--and this one, he says, was the most unexpected of all.

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