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."

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.

"I walked in, and there was David Byrne shaking my hand, and my mouth fell open," he says. "I didn't know what they wanted to talk to me about. After it was over, I went home and called the girl who was helping me and said, 'They kept mentioning something about an album. What do you think they mean?' Then we had more meetings, and they would be like, 'Don't you think a slide would fit in good here?' and 'Have you ever listened to this band?' And I would be looking at them like they were out of their minds. At first I thought it was a practical joke, but it involved a little too much machinery for that."

The release of Wrong-Eyed Jesus and an international tour opening for Byrne finally convinced White that the folks at Luaka Bop weren't trying to put one over on him. But he still isn't certain that he was born to be a performer. His album has received impressive reviews, and he's working hard to pen songs for a follow-up that he hopes will be even more intriguing. But, he says, "I don't believe for a minute in the reality of this. I laugh at it just like I laughed at being a model. It's crazy. It's like I imagined the whole thing.

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Michael Roberts
Contact: Michael Roberts