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Conan O'Brien on White Stripes

One night in the late 1990s, Conan O’Brien was hanging out in a Detroit bowling alley after shooting a remote segment with Ted Nugent (”I rode around in the woods with him, we had a guitar duel and then fired guns,” he recalls). “I have this vague memory of these really cool kids coming over and hanging out with us,” he says. “I knew nothing about them or what they did.”

A few years later, O’Brien learned he had met Jack and Meg White that day when he popped into a Saturday Night Live rehearsal to check out the White Stripes as a fan. He reconnected with the duo and kicked off a relationship that would become one of the most fruitful in late-night TV. The White Stripes will cap a big chapter of that history tonight when they appear on the last-ever episode of Late Night With Conan O’Brien before the host relocates to Los Angeles to take over The Tonight Show.

The Late Night gig will be the White Stripes’ first live performance since the duo canceled a tour in September 2007. So how exactly did O’Brien convince them to play the show? “It’s a cash payment,” he tells Rolling Stone. “It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally in show business you get exactly what you want. It’s the inverse of the Rolling Stones song.”

In April 2003, the White Stripes performed a four-night residency on Late Night that included their moving “Jolene” cover. “They altered the DNA of our show for a week, which was really fun,” O’Brien says. In 2005, a warped O’Brien appeared in the Michel Gondry-directed video for “The Denial Twist.” Two years later, the duo rocked two songs – “Icky Thump” and “Effect and Cause” – during a single episode of Conan’s show.

David Letterman had a special fondness for frequent guest Warren Zevon (he recently spoke about their friendship in Rolling Stone), and is a big fan of the Foo Fighters, who played his comeback show following open-heart surgery at his request. But there’s something unique about how O’Brien – who’s become known for hosting a wide range of excellent music on his show – relates to the White Stripes. “Musically they’re beyond the pale, but there’s something else they have that fits,” he explains. “They’re very creative, and they’re very committed to altered reality. Our show has always existed in sort of a little bit of an alternate universe – we have puppets and bears and wizards standing up in the audience.”

Similarly, the Stripes’ fascination with simplicity and a childlike naiveté suits the Late Night aesthetic. “I’m a Peter Pan, I don’t grow,” O’Brien jokes. “There has always been a childlike silliness to our show, and I’d like to think there’s been a silly sweetness to our show. There’s a sweetness to the White Stripes – there’s the hard rock but there’s this sweetness that I think resonates a little bit with our show and it’s always been a good fit.” The band’s “We’re Going to Be Friends” remains one of O’Brien’s favorites, and he says he sometimes breaks into the song on guitar during tense rehearsals: “It’s in G. G and D are my favorite chords.”

As far as O’Brien’s plans for the music on The Tonight Show go, “I want to reunite Men Without Hats,” he says. “And then onward. I want to continue the relationships that we had, but our show needs to grow and change. Without sounding corny, we need to travel on this road and meet other people, but I don’t want to lose anybody along the way. So I will be desperately trying to coax them out to Los Angeles.” And should he decide to shoot a segment from the Sunset Strip, “I’m doing crunches right now so I can wear the leather vest with nothing underneath it.”

But before that, he’ll say his last goodnight in New York City with Jack and Meg by his side. “From the bowling alley to the week they were on the air to the video to the countless appearances, it’s been a bit of a happening, to use a Sixties term,” he says, “and I dig it.”

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