“Mamie needs something to smoke … fast.”
This was a text message a friend of The Spin received at roughly 3 p.m. Saturday from one of Jesco and Mamie White’s handlers. The Whites — Appalachian cult royalty hailing from the hollers of Boone County, West Virginia and best known as the subjects of a 1991 documentary The Dancing Outlaw — had just settled into a motel near the airport. They were somewhere perilously close to sobriety. Mamie had forgotten to pack her “medicine,” and was raising hell. A tinge of desperation was creeping into the frenzied missives.
So we dropped what we were doing and answered the call. The Spin’s associate grabbed a baggie of stinky weed and raced to the airport. Our companion, a longtime “Dancing Outlaw” fan, was giddy with anticipation. The Spin was, in all honesty, nervous. If you’ve seen The Dancing Outlaw or the recent follow-up screened at Tribeca last year, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia, you know that Jesco and his kin enjoy an entirely different status back in Boone County from the cult adoration they receive everywhere else. In Boone County they’re just outlaws. Good luck finding a White who isn’t A) hopelessly addicted to and/or selling prescription meds (Xanax, Oxycontin, et. al), B) in jail for violent crimes and other felonies, or C) utterly unemployable. (Usually, a combination of the three.)
Jesco himself is a sort of devil’s brew of DSM-IV diagnoses: There’s violent, potentially homicidal Jesco; there’s the gentle and affectionate Jesse; and there's Elvis. Three distinct personalities jostling for purchase in one tap-dancing badass who also happens to spout insanely insightful nuggets that have been distilled in a brain maddened by nearly a decade of dedicated gasoline and solvent huffing: “Marriage is a beautiful thing, but you get a lot of little things with it. Sure, there's love in it. There's happiness. But there's also sorrow, hatred and madness in it. And a man'll do anything under a influence of madness," White once sagely put it.
That must have been Jesse talking. Here’s Jesco recounting an encounter with his late wife Norma Jean: “And I took the butcher knife and put it up to her neck. I said, ‘If you want to live to see tomorrow, you better start fryin' them eggs a little bit better than what you a-fryin' em. I'm tarred of eatin' sloppy, slimy eggs!’”
So it was with this oath in mind that The Spin stepped into Jesco White’s motel room on a muggy afternoon. Jesco, or Jesse, sat quietly in the corner, smoking a cigarette. The nearly two decades since Outlaw had given him a paunch, long straight hair the color of iron and a white beard. The eyes, though, were the same — wide-set, intense, almost feline and rimmed in dark lashes.
Mamie, his sister, the oldest White and known as “the biggest, the meanest and the baddest,” reclined in the bed. She wore her hair in the same taut ponytail set high on her head. Her blood pressure was up and she needed something to take the edge off. She isn’t really supposed to drink alcohol anymore because of her diabetes. She was pleasant, grandmotherly, but warned that if she got high — or didn’t — she might very well fuck somebody up.
A joint was rolled, lit and passed around the small room. A young White who couldn’t have been more than 11 or 12 years old showed The Spin a tattoo on his forearm — a pair of disembodied, pendulous breasts and a bulbous ass. Then, after dragging expertly on the joint, the boy brandished a glass pipe sporting the same T 'n' A motif. Presently, the needle on The Spin’s moral compass began to, um, spin — wildly — as though we’d entered some sort of cultural Bermuda Triangle where the rule of law and morality were all relative if you happened to be a White relative. Dense drifts of pot smoke wafted out the open door.
That was The Spin’s first encounter that day with Jesco and a few of “The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.” Later that evening, as Les Honky More Tonkies pounded their way through an energetic set of power-pop infused with some filthy Southern rawk riffs, we found White reclining in a chair backstage, clutching a PBR, his tennis-shoed feet already skittering rhythmically over the wood floors. It wasn’t long before a strange man wearing what looked like a white velour track suit and a massive white furry-pimp hat invited Jesco into the cramped backstage bathroom. When The Spin saw Jesco next, Pick Up The Snake were onstage. Wish we could tell you more about them but, honestly, there’s no way in hell they could have topped the shitshow backstage. We don’t know what happened on that bathroom sink—or on the back of that toilet—but White had shed the quiet, demure Jesse. He became Elvis. Because as he wheeled around the room, his tennis shoes padding out a soft rhythm, Jesco unleashed a stream-of-consciousness rap. As much as we’d like to, The Spin couldn’t begin to sort through the rapid twang-slur slipping through his mouth, but we were nonetheless entertained.
When we peeked out from the back into Mercy Lounge, the house was packed. A projector played scenes from The Dancing Outlaw and The Wild and Wonderful Whites on a screen as the audience shouted for Jesco. He took the stage, a strange self-parody of excess and dysfunction. For any other performer, what followed would have been a disaster. The videos queued up on the projector stubbornly refused to play. Long stretches of silence punctuated bawdy tunes like Hank III’s “Straight to Hell” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long,” where Jesco continued tapping, stoned and oblivious, rapping in either nonsense-speak or with a mad savant’s profundity while the audience gawked and cheered and laughed. It was difficult for The Spin to discern whether this was exploitation, and Jesco White was a dancing monkey, or whether this product of Appalachian destitution and isolation and hopelessness and moral turpitude had become more in one drug-frenzied lifetime than the sum of the poor generations of Boone County that had been and would come.
The Spin couldn’t shake one scene from WWWWV. In it is a shot of Jesco White’s small apartment in downtown Bandytown, WV. Posted on his door on rumpled sheets of notebook paper are messages warning strangers to keep out. He said he felt imprisoned by his own fame, and he continually had to post replacement warnings. His fans, it was said, routinely stole them as souvenirs.