“Outer-space alternative country” musician Jim White wrote an essay titled “Superwhite” about how stumbling across David Byrne’s music enlightened him when he was a struggling musician, and then years later, how Byrne discovered White and his music…which led to a record deal with Byrne’s Luaka Bop label. His story of bizarre twists was awarded a 2014 Pushcart Prize.
I’ve been listening to White’s music for years, but his incredibly honest essay has deepened my respect for him.
The story begins when Jim White was living in Amsterdam, and happened to walk past a nightclub window and saw a video of The Talking Heads. He describes what he saw as:
…a palsied young man struggling through a series of disembodied, dyskinetic posturings. I ventured within earshot and, from what I could gather, this strange person was singing something about burning down a house. At that time I was truly lost, displaced in every way—physically, spiritually, psychologically, culturally….
Yet he was overwhelmed by a strange sense of comfort:
So imagine my surprise when, as I stood there watching this video, the clatter momentarily abated. I felt a shadow of peace pass over me, followed by a surge of kinship with that weirdo singing about burning down his house. The notion of kinship was, at that moment of my spiral into self, so profoundly welcome that I burst into tears.
White describes how he continued to struggle, trying to find a sense of purpose. When living in New York, he bought a second-hand white suit and was often mistaken for Byrne. Then, working as a cab driver, he actually saw Byrne. Of course, when White called out to him, Byrne ran, fearing he was stalked.
Years later, White fell into a bad funk and moved down south when an old schoolmate flew out to see him. He was captivated by White’s songwriting and convinced him to make a tape. Jim calls the tape
a miserable recording done in my kitchen with a Radio Shack microphone that I’d picked up at a yard sale for a buck. There were no drums, no bass, no keyboards—no players other than myself. The recording was done in mono, and something was broken inside the machine so that sound only came out of one speaker. You could hear my Puerto Rican neighbors arguing in the background.
It doesn’t matter how bad it was. His friend passed it on a friend who passed it on to a friend in the music business, and, miraculously, the tape ended up in the hands of none other than David Byrne.
What followed was a recording contract with Luaka Bop Records and some extraordinary music. Jim White has released several records, including Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, Drill a Hole in that Substrate and Tell Me What You See, Transnormal Skiperoo, No Such Place, and, most recently, Where It Hits You.
White is a gifted storyteller. His songs weave a dark narrative about sin and salvation and the “dirty old South,” while he whispers “beautiful secrets into the drainpipes at night/ for the old folks while they’re sleeping/ something to help them with their dreams.” Some of his lyrics are so profound they make me cry.
One of my favorite songs is the haunting, hypnotic “Book of Angels.” I hope you enjoy it, and take the time to read “Superwhite.” You may not fall in love with him, as I have, but you will be entertained.