There's this Woody Allen movie from 1983. It's called Zelig, and it's about a little man who so wants to belong that he takes on the physical characteristics of the people around him. When Zelig goes to Chinatown, he becomes Asian. When he enters a room full of doctors, he becomes a physician. When he stands next to Babe Ruth, he blows up like a puffer fish.
Dan Auerbach is 25. He's white, sings and plays the guitar. Pat Carney is 24. He plays drums. Together they're The Black Keys, an electrified, blues-farmed garage duo from Akron, Ohio that has received near universal praise for not sounding like two white guys in their 20s from Akron, Ohio.
And while Dan Auerbach is still young, still white and still from Akron, he's somehow managed to transform himself into a purveyor of fuzzed-out, fatback guitar licks so pure they're rarely heard outside the corridor that runs north to Chicago from the genesis of the American blues river, the Mississippi Delta.
So what would The Black Keys frontman think of this particular analogy?
“I love pretty much every early Woody Allen movie,” Auerbach says. “Every early Woody Allen movie is my favorite movie.”
Which, of course, raises the question, How does a kid from Akron know about Woody Allen movies filmed while he was a mere toddler?
“My dad's a Jew from New Jersey.”
Well, that at least explains that.
And nothing against Akron. Chrissie Hynde's from Akron. Devo's from Akron. The Cramps' Lux Interior and Poison Ivy Rorschach lived in Akron just before moving on to New York City. But it's not the kind of place one expects to hear the tongue-thick strains of Delta blues-influenced rock and roll. At least not that kind of music delivered with this level of seemingly innate conviction.
No, more often than not Akron's thrown onto the figurative trash heap of artless American communities. In the world of lost and found, Akron belongs in the former (The University of Akron's sports teams are known as the Zips), as its primary claim to fame-a once thriving rubber industry-picked up and left town long ago.
Earlier this year, after two self-produced stints, 2002's The Big Come Up and 2003's thickfreakness, recorded in Carney's basement, The Keys moved to an abandoned Akron rubber factory-the old General Tire building, to be exact-to record their third album, the just-released and appropriately titled Rubber Factory.
“We rented out a room on the second floor,” Auerbach says. “They put us in the corner of the building where we're pretty much all by ourselves, so we could make enough noise. As much noise as we wanted.”
Was the choice symbolic? A kind of shout out to hometown memories?
“We were running out of time and we couldn't find a place, honestly,” Auerbach says. “It's not the most ideal place to have a recording setup. At all. But it's just what we used.”
While the well-received thickfreakness took all of 14 hours to record, Rubber Factory consumed nearly two months. But the sound (for which Carney takes production credit) is no less immediate, no less authentic.
But back to that Woody Allen mockumentary.
At one point in the film, the narrator remarks that “As a boy, Leonard Zelig is frequently bullied by anti-Semites. His parents, who never take his part and blame him for everything, side with the anti-Semites.”
Auerbach, however, has never lacked for encouragement.
“I got introduced to this kind of music through my dad (an antiques dealer) and through my mom's family,” he says. “They introduced me to a lot of blues stuff and country music and bluegrass. My mom was a piano teacher when I was growing up, but I didn't take advantage of that. But her whole family, they play music when we get together. That was a huge influence on me.
“When I wanted something musical, [my parents] would always get it for me. If I wanted a $200 pair of shoes they wouldn't, but they were always really positive about music and me playing. So if it was something I could justify needing, they would help me out.
So much so that when Auerbach was 18 and ready to search out his musical hero and see the Delta firsthand, his father joined him on the pilgrimage.
“I wanted to just watch Junior Kimbrough,” Auerbach says. “I didn't even actually care if I saw him play. I just wanted to shake his hand, you know what I mean? Because his records are pretty much all I listened to for about a year there before I went down. I didn't get to see him, but his music always has meant more to me than anybody else's.
“It's like perfection. He was just so pure. [Other musicians] always kind of done something dumb or, you know, went somewhere and recorded some record to try to change their sound and it's come out stupid. But Junior Kimbrough has always sounded like himself and his music was always amazing.”
At movie's end, of course, Leonard Zelig discovers that it's best to be oneself, and changes once again, this time from human chameleon to just plain human. It's a lesson that young, white, Midwestern guitarist Dan Auerbach seems to have learned at an early age. Whether it confuses listeners or not.
The Black Keys play with The Cuts at Brick by Brick on Sept. 11. 619-275-LIVE.