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AH, MAN A career-spanning conversation with JACK ROSE, American musician, recorded just a few months before he died in 2009 By Brian Rademaekers
When I started covering music in Philadelphia in 2007, my beat—the city’s crumbling post-industrial river wards—felt like a veritable nexus of weird folk and psychedelic experimentation. The Espers clan and their compound, Fern Knight, Fursaxa, and heavy-hitters like Bardo Pond were all there, churning out a storm of beautiful, strange music that seemed in part a product of the ancient, twisted alleyways of Fishtown and Kensington.
Here, Jack Rose was the benevolent, unassuming King—a master set apart from his peers by a massive presence and an indomitable, mystical talent that elevated him from mere musician to magician. He was a dark alchemist, transforming calloused flesh, polished wood and taut steel into the intoxicating, intricate worlds of sound that were his music. Not that Jack — Jack the giant, hulking Virginian — would ever presume to wear a crown; it was just something that he brought into the room with him, disarming all with a humble warmth offset by a blunt, caustic confidence that he wielded like a knife at just the right moments. These days, most of the musicians from that scene are gone from the neighborhood, though none as gone as Jack.
When I first heard Jack’s 2005 album Kensington Blues, I was thunderstruck, lost in awe that such a masterpiece not only existed, but that it was made in my time, by a man whose elbows polished the same bar counters as mine. Listening to Jack’s recordings was great [see sidebar for a complete discography] but best of all was seeing Jack live, spreading his gospel in church halls or little clubs or living rooms and, finally, along the banks of the Delaware River for a summer concert series shortly before he died.
Watching him amble up to his chair with guitar in hand signaled the start of near-religious experience. He would hunch over the instrument, cock his head to the side and, with closed eyes, unleash wild syncopated layers of rhythms, leaving listeners rapt in a sort of devastated trance. Here was this giant bearded man suddenly becoming seamlessly enmeshed in his guitar to create these idiosyncratic spells that were at once as delicate as flowers and as forceful as hurricanes. Seeing that miracle in the flesh, there was nothing else like it in the world. For me, it was like being a jazz freak in the ’40s and living down the street from Charlie Parker.
So began a years-long obsession. I felt compelled to document this genius quietly living in our midst. And Jack obliged. It never seemed to bother him that some reporter from a little local paper was always pestering him, asking for details about a show or politely begging for an advance copy of a record. In that way, Jack betrayed the appearance of a dominating, cocksure master and revealed a man with a very big heart.
My pretext for interviewing Jack in the summer of 2009 was his forthcoming long-player on Thrill Jockey, Luck in the Valley. Jack was elated. He and his wife, Laurie, had just bought a tidy little brick rowhouse a few blocks from the city’s blasted Port Richmond waterfront. He bragged about his new car, a Honda that he loved for its efficiency in carrying his guitars from gig to gig. He raved about a pizza joint he’d found down the street, about how quiet his block was. To him, the Thrill Jockey release was the milestone he’d been awaiting, a culmination of years of hard work and mastery that meant he could finally say he was making good bread on the merit of his music.
For three hours, he let me follow him around the house, tape recorder in tow, as he smoked and poured tea and pulled LPs from his wall of records. He was a man satisfied, a musician reveling in the feeling that his art was finally about to find the place in the world that it deserved.
When Jack died a few months later, I groped through the shock, looking for some way to respond to the ugly, gaping hole that had so suddenly appeared, and decided on transcribing the whole of our conversation from that summer day on Ontario Street. That tape is presented here, and captures Jack in a bright mood at the peak of his career, ruminating on everything from his first lessons to his labor on “Kensington Blues” to the joy of landing the Thrill Jockey deal.