Jim of all trades

Singer-songwriter Jim White's life has a made-up quality about it. Among the reasons is his colorful way with descriptions; his anecdotes are sprinkled with metaphors and literary allusions softened by self-deprecating humor that suggests William Faulkner after his first joint. And then there are the tales themselves: admirably curious sketches about surfing, modeling, and workshop accidents whose rich detail makes them seem like either the product of a hyperactive imagination or the God's honest truth. As such, they have a lot in common with Wrong-Eyed Jesus, White's winningly daft, deeply Southern debut CD for David Byrne's Luaka Bop imprint. On it, White spins twisted yarns that take place in a land beyond ordinariness, starring characters who are just as strange and fascinating as, well, Jim White.

Take, for instance, the protagonist of "When Jesus Gets a Brand New Name." The tune lopes along on a Kurt Weillian melody whose arrangement recalls the middle-period work of Tom Waits (longtime Waits sideman Ralph Carney contributes clarinet, trombone, saxophone, and "hollering"). As for the words, which White delivers in a hayseed-noir drawl, they wrap both arms around surrealism; a typical couplet is, "These crickets chirping in my ear are about to drive me smack insane/I don't know quite who put 'em there." And while themes of escape and pursuit and misunderstanding eventually emerge, the song keeps its distance from narrative logic. At first, even White was confused by it.

"I never know what I'm writing about when I'm writing these songs," he says. "But afterward, when I was watching The 700 Club and the lady with the big eyelashes who cries a lot--Pink Lady--I realized that it was about Jesus, and how he was trying to get free of all the people who have stolen his name. I figured the only way he could do that was by getting a new name. And then I started picturing a fugitive Jesus, and how the people from The 700 Club were searching for him with dogs. The whole idea of Jesus on the run from all those uptight white people in silk suits who seem to know God so much better than anyone else--that really appealed to me."

White doesn't see this concept as blasphemous. "What I'm doing is, I'm turning over the money-changers' tables in the temple," he says. But he's not surprised that some religious zealots of his acquaintance have taken exception to the track, as well as to other tunes on Wrong-Eyed Jesus. After all, "Book of Angels," "Still Waters," "The Road That Leads to Heaven," and other numbers on the disc are chockablock with fundamentalist Christian iconography that White serves up on wry. He has a tendency to see churchly matters as simultaneously wonderful and weird, and even though he pairs such observations with fervently eclectic music that mingles folk, country, and avant-garde esoterica to bracing effect, the resulting composite hardly glows with reverence.

Nonetheless, White insists, "I'm not trying to be sacrilegious. If I was, it would mean that I was trying to coax a response out of other people, and I'm not trying to do that. What I'm trying to do is to go into the shadows of my own mind and look around with a flashlight to find what all those things that are bumping around in there at night are called."

His brain is a very crowded place; he has more entertaining stories about his life than does the average octogenarian. According to his version of the Jim White saga, he was born in San Diego, but he grew up primarily in Pensacola, Florida, circa the 1960s. The family was not especially musical; his beloved older sister, KT, liked to listen to the Beatles and Bob Dylan, but his father was a military man who didn't have time for pop tunes. So White looked elsewhere for thrills and found plenty in the Pentecostal faith practiced by many of his neighbors.

"What I liked about it was, well, these were very uptight people," he explains. "But you'd get them in church, and they'd start speaking in tongues, and suddenly it was like some wild animal had been unloosed from inside of them. And since I had that wild animal inside of me, and I had no way to get it out, it seemed right. It was this dichotomy between everything being kept inside and then being released--almost like a sexual, spiritual charge."

Young Jim sought stimuli from other sources as well, including illicit substances. "I jumped into the drug culture with both feet," he says. But the primary love of his youth was surfing. "When I was 14, I started doing it," he recalls, "and I was so bad that my friends literally took me aside and said, 'You're never going to be any good at this. You should quit.' But I didn't. I went and surfed a lot by myself--I was a loner, I guess. And when I was 16, I sort of came out of nowhere. I entered a contest here along the Gulf of Mexico, and I won the beginners' division, and then I won the intermediate division, and then I won the advanced division. I beat everybody in town, which made everybody scratch their heads. They didn't know how I could do that, because I'd been so bad two years before."