Wednesday, May 13, 2009

From a White Stripes Book Proposal That *Almost* Got Accepted...

Below is my just-missed-it proposal for Continuum's 33 1/3rd series. Out of 527 proposals, I made it to the final 27 and they ended up selecting only 10 titles. If anyone runs a publishing company and is looking to hand out a royalty advance, I'm listening.





No other band from the turn of the century has been more mythologized or misunderstood than the White Stripes. The red and white-clad duo from Detroit was thrust to the forefront of the nascent "garage rock" revival of 2001 with the likes of such bands as the Strokes, the Hives and the Vines. In the name of a "return to rock" the White Stripes right-place-at-the-right-time 3rd album White Blood Cells was critically acclaimed the world over and introduced the band to an overly receptive international audience that would only grow exponentially in the years to come.

The Michel Gondry Lego-fied clip for "Fell in Love with a Girl", John Peel's exulting praise on the BBC and the subsequent blistering live sessions recorded at Maida Vale, the band's turning down of a cover shoot for almighty NME magazine (only to have a live shot used without their approval)…these are just a myriad of the well-tread, good copy stories that are frequently and without thought repeated ad nauseam in the telling of the tale explaining the success of White Blood Cells.

To that I say, you've not even scratched the surface.

What really gets me excited is that there's so much more about White Blood Cells that's never been told, never been dug up and exposed to the ripe air of peering eyes and inquisitive minds. Information (hardcore facts…pure provable FACTS) that only add a complex back-story to the narrative being told by the lyrics and melodies we're all familiar with. Stories about its creation (the band crashing on the couches and floor of a cluttered Memphis apartment during recording), the touring (a near-riot in Missoula, $15,000 cash locked in a hotel safe in LA with no way to retrieve it) and the drama (being kicked out of the actual Hotel Yorba by a hammer-wielding employee while trying to shoot a music video there) are all, whether you're familiar with the band or not, intriguing to the point of enjoyment regardless and unattached to one's opinions on the actual music.

I'm amazed no one ever brings up the fact that HALF the songs on this album originated in various musical outfits Jack White inhabited through the late-Nineties in Detroit, mutating and adapting with each different group that tackled them. Whether it was as a sideman in Two Star Tabernacle, a country-gospel-rock band (think the Gun Club meets Hank Williams' "Luke the Drifter") that debuted the album's first single "Hotel Yorba" and stellar "Now Mary" a good four years before they'd ever see release - OR - his very own take on Dylan with the Band (Jack White and the Bricks) that debuted "I Can't Wait" and "Offend in Every Way" in their brief, six-show existence in Detroit in the summer months of 1999.

And no one even seems to know that a song like "I Can Learn" had been performed at the White Stripes' first live performance in 1997 or that "Dead Leaves…" had been kicking around in their arsenal since 1998. In short, I hope to portray how White Blood Cells is the brilliant fusion of the musical detritus that'd been collecting in Jack White's brain for years equally coupled with his ever-expanding and expressive brand new compositions.

People gloss over the fact that such White Stripes touchstones as cover songs, guest musicians, blues music and guitar solos are all literally non-existent on this album. This may seem small, petty or insignificant, but when only one other White Stripes album is lacking only ONE of these components (Get Behind Me Satan has no covers), it makes it all the bit more peculiar and intriguing. White Blood Cells, while being most people's introduction to the band, is seemingly the least "White Stripes" White Stripes album.

And no one outside a small circle of those closest to the band are even aware of the absolute legal shit-storm that resulted with their record label, Sympathy for the Record Industry, upon the severe non-payment of royalties on sales for and the band's resultant leap to major labels XL and V2.

I've interviewed both Jack White solo (for an in-depth feature in Plan B magazine in 2003) and the band together (as part of an upcoming, feature-length documentary) as well as having penned the track-by-track liner-notes to their Under Blackpool Lights concert DVD. I have an established rapport with both band members that already has them committed to speak with me at great length about anything and everything in regards to White Blood Cells and the surrounding hysteria.

While band involvement is by no means anything unheard of in 33 1/3rd territory, let it be known that of the no less than seven books written about the White Stripes, neither Jack nor Meg have participated in any aspect of any of them. With their involvement it's painfully clear that this book will contain heretofore unimagined insight, musings and involvement the likes of which White Stripes fans (whether they be die-hard or casual) will salivate at the hope of. Conversely, even readers completely uninitiated to the band will simply be better informed because of it.

With their pledged participation, I've also been granted access into Jack White's personal archive of the band. From the daunting MOUNDS of press clippings (White Blood Cells was the first time the band would employ a publicist) from the era to unreleased live recordings, personal photographs and everything else imaginable, the availability of this trove will not only help to strengthen my own knowledge of the band, but it will help cut my time spent on research considerably.

Of most supreme historical importance is hours upon hours of video footage shot of the band in-studio while recording White Blood Cells. While previously only rumored to exist, the availability of said tapes will open a virtually untapped portrait of the band…that is, how they operate, interact and get along in the ever-mystifying studio setting.

As if their help were not enough, I've established strong connections with many others involved in the making of this record. David Swanson (filmographer of the sessions), Patrick Pantano (album cover photographer) Jack Yarber and Nick Ray (friends who's floor the band crashed on while recording), Chloe Walsh (the band's publicist), Ian Montone (the band's lawyer and subsequent manager) John Baker (tour manager) and no less than fifteen others.

As it stands, White Blood Cells is a quirk in the band's catalog that is deserving of deeper critical analysis and exposure. While access to the trove of above-mentioned raw information to the band is crucial, the ability to synthesize and present that information without boring, confusing or pandering to the reader will be a paramount goal of the utmost importance. It is my intention to cut through the rampant mythology and misunderstanding of everything surrounding them and this record and simply portray what a truly outstanding piece of modern musical achievement it really is.

The best way to do so is to simply let this smattering of 16 seemingly disparate songs guide the story. Each song's genesis, whether it be in 1997 with Two Star Tabernacle, the White Stripes in 2001 or whatever, will be its starting point and it will all be chronologically pieced together with the main focus being each composition's studio completion. From there, due attention will be paid to the resultant touring, press mania, video shoots, legal wrangling and surrounding hubbub that helps complete the picture of how this album (and more so this band) truly connected to its audience.

I've been following the White Stripes since 1997 and have dedicated more time, energy and manpower hours to the band than any sane person should to ANY endeavor that doesn't result in marriage or birth.

I completed three years of journalism studies at Wayne State University before leaving to tour in the Dirtbombs. Because of my journalistic training, I tend to focus on facts, anecdotes, and first-hand quotes in my writing rather than observations, stream-of-consciousness, feelings or any of that other flowery hippie bunk that behooved Lester Bangs but has severely hampered any subsequent rock writers.

Since leaving college, I've had my writing featured in publications as varied as Ugly Things, SF Weekly, Plan B, NME, Chunklet, Creem Online, the Stranger and Careless Talk Costs Lives. I also won Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 college journalism award for a tour diary I wrote about the Dirtbombs' trip to South-By-Southwest that year.

The reason I think I'm most qualified to write a book about the White Stripes is that I've always intended on doing so. From the early days sneaking into dank Detroit bars, collecting set lists and photocopied flyers off the wall on school nights all the way through worldwide tours, platinum records and TV appearances, I've stood by. Studiously keeping my own archive and mentally filing away every last bit of informational flotsam and jetsam, this band is my life.

The problem is…I've never known quite how to best frame my own personal experiences with the band in terms of writing. It's always felt too massive or too complex for me to even begin to digest or tackle.

The possibility of a 33 1/3rd book was like a beacon from heaven. I don't need to worry about or focus on the band's early years or any tabloid fodder. That's a different story for a different time. The story that I can tell is that of a band caught right on the precipice of decent indie rock notoriety teetering onto outright worldwide recognition…roughly, from the time of recording White Blood Cells in February 2001 until touring of the record ceased in October of 2002, with two triumphant gigs opening for the Rolling Stones and a performance on Saturday Night Live.

I think most famous artists will agree that the most exciting period of their careers was that precipice…when things just started to pick-up, where each day held a fresh, new and usually surreal experience that, after awhile, could (or would) easily become rote and commonplace. And that is why although I think Icky Thump is their best record, Elephant the fan-favorite and Get Behind Me Satan the most shrouded in mystery, White Blood Cells is the exciting record, the one most-deserving to be fleshed-out into a cohesive, well-informed book.

26 comments:

Anonymous said...

"The problem is…I've never known quite how to best frame my own personal experiences with the band in terms of writing. It's always felt too massive or too complex for me to even begin to digest or tackle."

At least you understand the problem. This is exactly what I started thinking halfway through this post.

Sounds great, marvelous, fantastic! But how you gonna get your mind around it in such a way to make a book out of it?

If you had a finished or even half finished/part finished draft you'd have pub houses knocking down your door.

Good luck.

jjones1193 said...

How could this not be selected? I cant believe it. I want to read more!

Laurie said...

Shit, Ben, you was robbed.
I can't help but think if you had only substituted, "Lego-esque" for "Lego-fied" the outcome may have been different.
Even talent needs luck, wishing you lots.
cheers,
Laurie

Anonymous said...

ben

listen it all reads like an obsessed phd candidates dis and no one reads them not even the phd committee. a mass audience needs a 200 page book with plenty of pics and something saucy.what bangs brought was the same fervor but let it evolve into something new expand your mind this is just rock afterall

Anonymous said...

it sounds great. Write it anyway, do the entire history, no one else could do such a good job.

I can't imagine it'd be too hard to find a publisher.

Lee said...

Ah man, I thought it'd be a shoo-in. Killer proposal. I can't imagine someone else not wanting to pick it up.

Anonymous said...

why pander for advance royalties? you know if you wrote the book, which your clearly capable of, you'd make your bank. publish it on cass? it'll get picked up elsewhere eventually.

Anonymous said...

seriously? you think icky thump is their best album? gross. even for an opinion, that just sounds wrong.

Anonymous said...

Hell Yes, that's a plan.

Publish the first edition on Cass, obviously as a limited run (with a CD of demos/early recordings (that would be amazing)), and then someone else will buy the rights to publish it worldwide and do all that getting it into shops business.

You're about the only person with the knowledge, contacts and ethusiasm to get the job done properly.

Via Cass or not you've got to write that book. It's bound to happen at some point. Look at the time and effort that went into the Hentchmen entry and that was in your spare time because you felt like it.

You should send this propasal around. There is a world of WS fans waiting for this...even if it's just for the discography you'll put in the back of the book (Even if it is just a reprint of the Record Collector article you helped out on).

Anonymous said...

Agreed. Self publishing is the better way to go. By the way, can anything ever be written about the White Stripes that doesn't include the phrase "nascent garage rock revival"? Murder that darling once and for all.

Anonymous said...

See it paid off not writing mine

Anonymous said...

icky thump is sooo not the best album.

33 1/3 said...

tone down the arrogance and you'll find your next proposal attempt better received.

Anonymous said...

Sounds like you probably have a great shot in a couple years. Meantime, think more carefully about the specifics of how you'd organize the book -- what kinds of chapter divisions you'd have, whether or not you'd do a song-by-song breakdown, etc. Instead of pleading your case or touting your qualifications quite so fervently, offer up some paragraphs that show what your style would be like when you actually write about the music. Also, don't sell yourself short ("I've never been able to figure out how to write it ..."); instead, tell them you know *exactly* how to write it and that you're ready to go.

Forget the self-publishing advice. You could do this at a real publishing house with or without Continuum. You just need to shape it into an actual book proposal that gives some overview of an actual *book* along with a timeline you think you could abide by. If you want the 33 1/3 book, go for it again next round. You're clearly the right person to write it.

Chris said...

Well, if you write it we will read it. And we are such a small portion of the larger audience.
Go for it.

And about being so overwhelmed:
K.I.S.S.
( Keep It SImple Stupid )

C-

Anonymous said...

agreed.
edit it down to half the length. be pithy, not prosy

Mae and Steven said...

It has been my opinion that the typical Michigander personality (often times modest, yet brutally honest and passionate)is often times misconstrued as arrogant. Or maybe it is just that with my own personality, I can relate to people calling you arrogant, when that can not be farther from the truth.

As a life long resident of Michigan I read no arrogance in your proposal. You were truthful (simply put YOU are the best person to write the book, who else has such access to everyone in the band and has such a hands on knowledge? No one. End of story.)

You are an honest reviewer, and an honest fan or rock and roll. Point blank. If you were to write this book you would have complete access to the band, complete access to those around during their rise to success and your book would be honest and be ripe with your own personal sense of humor and even more importantly, it would show your love of rock and roll and ultimately your love of the White Stripes and why this album is so important.

33 1/3 needs to get over what ever issues they have and realize that you are not bragging, but merely stating the truth.

I hope you find a publisher that will give you the advance you need to write the book.

Since 33 1/3 (or someone pretending to be them with an ax to grind) seems to be reading these comments, can we give a brother a break?

Anonymous said...

ditto that!

sarah said...

i'm frantically thinking of how to get this book made...

sell in limited edition zine-style volumes on the stripe's site?

best of luck, keep us posted... xo s

Edward Whitelock said...

Ben,

This is a very fine proposal. I can see why it made it so deep (my own on X's "More Fun in the New World" got cut on the last step to the final 27). I think one commenter above gives you good advice regarding presenting a stronger organizational plan for the book: that might have been the tipping point against you, a concern on the publisher's part that "Hey, is this guy going to be able to wrangle all this cool shit together?" That seed of doubt could have been the difference.

If you're still looking for a publisher for this project, as opposed to waiting for the next 33.3 open call, you might check out the PopMatters book series (popmatters.com). They have paired up with Soft Skull / Counterpoint Press on an imprint dedicated to thoughtful treatment of an assortment of elements in popular culture. They just published my book, "Apocalypse Jukebox," in March and I've been very happy with both their production and promotional support. Worth a look, either through the imprint or going straight to Soft Skull.

Loved the DirtBombs, by the way.
Regards,
Ed

Anonymous said...

comments like this go beyond the realm of appropriate touting, and become arrogance:

Because of my journalistic training, I tend to focus on facts, anecdotes, and first-hand quotes in my writing rather than observations, stream-of-consciousness, feelings or any of that other flowery hippie bunk that behooved Lester Bangs but has severely hampered any subsequent rock writers.

we're talking about two different, but both legit, styles of journalism and writing. which is better is a matter of opinion and preference. to essentially be stating "i rule, they drool" so matter of factly comes off as arrogant, and leaves a bad taste in the readers mouth.

Anonymous said...

You made it to the point where I think outside concerns about what books would sell in a tough market took precedence over the quality of your proposal. So I think the people who are offering you advice are probably off base... this was basically a successful proposal, and Continuum had to cut down the list of accepted books massively at the last minute for economic reasons.

Thank you for putting this up, I got eliminated in the first go round and reading your proposal helps me understand why. In particular, access to the band and tapes of them in the studio is huge and makes my wanna-be proposal come across as a bit sad.

I agree with the people that say write it anyway. Life is short, you have a unique chance here with that access... write it and you will certainly be able to do something with it.

Thanks again for having the balls to put it up.

daniel lioneye said...

This would be perfect to publish with Thirdman. You could even have a reading and signing at the new headquarters in Nashvile.

Rob said...

i had the opprotunity to meet some of the "brass" behind 33 1/3 at a popular music confrence a while back. i was quite off-put. but i guess that's the academic way...look down on everyone so you can pretend they are looking up at you.

start up your own series if you have to. we need to read this.

rob
niagara falls

Anonymous said...

with all of the swanson footage of the recording sessions available, along with the promised compliance of the band, this could actually be a really nice documentary.

Anonymous said...

You write well, no surprise there, entertaining too--arrogance be damned--however your biggest omission here--aside from the proposal itself being overly long (however comprehensive--is that you fail to disclose how it is you've actually gained the key to the city here... And as I understand it, you're on the band's payroll and as well, a direct blood relative of Mr. White's... all of which would shoot your credibility in the foot. Don't you think? Full disclosure up front and self-publish... it'll get picked up regardless of the conflict. Your talent and access will save the day just the same.