AH, MAN: A career-spanning conversation with JACK ROSE by Brian Rademaekers (from Arthur No. 33)

As published in Arthur No. 33 (Jan 2013)

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.
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MUSIC IS NEVER WRONG: A visit with Josh Homme & John Paul Jones of Them Crooked Vultures (Oct 2009)

MUSIC IS NEVER WRONG
A visit with Them Crooked Vultures’ Josh Homme and John Paul Jones

Interview by Jay Babcock
Posted: October 15, 2009

Them Crooked Vultures is a new band comprised of guitarist-vocalist Joshua Homme (Queens of the Stone Age, Kyuss), bassist John Paul Jones (Led Zeppelin), drummer Dave Grohl (Foo Fighters, Nirvana) and guitarist Alain Johannes (Eleven), with Jones and Johannes also playing other instruments. These guys really don’t need an introduction so you won’t be getting one here. What’s interesting is what they’re doing: Vultures have spent much of this year together, writing and recording music in a Los Angeles studio, and are now touring without having officially released a note of the music they’ve recorded. No album, no single, no YouTube video, no leak, no official photos, no nothing: the only way to hear Them Crooked Vultures, really, is to see them live.

In some ways, it’s an echo of the Eric Clapton-Steve Winwood-Ginger Baker supergroup Blind Faith, who did a similar thing in 1969, touring ahead of their album’s release, selling out tours on the strength of their collective pedigree. But unlike Blind Faith, who hedged their bets by including renditions of songs from their old bands, Vultures are performing 80 or so minutes of new Vultures music every night: no Zeppelin covers, no Queens jams, no standards. As Homme says onstage on the night I first see them play, it’s a “social experiment” as much as a musical one, and to the audience’s credit, there was not a single shouted request that I could hear for something other than what the band was playing: Vultures’ blind faith is being rewarded.

Perhaps this is down to a collective solidarity with the idea of the independent musician, or a real interest in simply unfamiliar music by trusted faves—or maybe it’s because most of the songs presented on Monday night were strong on first listen, and if listener’s fatigue inevitably set in at some point due to the continued ear-pummeling, then you could just stand there and behold the wonder of 63-year-old John Paul Jones, shoulders bobbing, at the helm of his instrument, smiling with pleasure at Dave Grohl as yet another propulsive, post-“Immigrant’ Song” (or “Achilles’ Last Stand,” or…) bassline locked in with Grohl’s powerhouse thumping and a distinctively Homme guitar riff. Interestingly, Grohl’s drumkit was not on the riser usually associated with big-time rock bands, which I’m sure disappointed some Foo Fighters fans, but it had the crucial benefit of placing the musicians nearer each other, allowing them to create a more cohesive sound in the midst of so much volume; as John Paul Jones said after the show, “I can feel Dave’s kick-drum that way,” and from his smile, you know that’s as much for his benefit as the audience’s.

Smiles. The amount of smiling between the Vultures onstage, as well as the sheer caliber of playing, reminded me of Shakti, the Indian-Western supergroup led by English master guitarist John McLaughlin and Indian tabla genius Zakir Hussain that fuses classical Indian music with Western jazz. I’m not talking about laughs between songs, or witty stage banter, although with Josh Homme at the microphone you’re always going to get that, but the smiles that occur in the midst of the music: the joy that emerges spontaneously in the midst of collective creativity, usually marking some new discovery or progress, or a new threshold being crossed, or something just feeling fundamentally good. In the last two decades of loud guitar music, this kind of uncontrived on-stage joy has been far too rare—outside of Ween shows, of course, and gee wasn’t that the Deaner himself backstage with the champagne on Monday night? Anyways. Josh, who I’ve interviewed before, and who headlined the second night of ArthurBall in 2006 as half of The 5:15ers (a duo he has with longtime collaborator Chris Goss), invited me to talk with him and John Paul Jones in the band’s dressing room just prior to their set at Philadelphia’s Electric Factory on October 12, 2009. Here’s how the conversation went…

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William Burroughs on…Led Zeppelin!

Rock Magic: Jimmy Page, Led Zeppelin, And a search for the elusive Stairway to Heaven by William Burroughs, Crawdaddy Magazine, June 1975.

When I was first asked to write an article on the Led Zeppelin group, to be based on attending a concert and talking with Jimmy Page, I was not sure I could do it, not being sufficiently knowledgeable about music to attempt anything in the way of musical criticism or even evaluation. I decided simply to attend the concert and talk with Jimmy Page and let the article develop. If you consider any set of data without a preconceived viewpoint, then a viewpoint will emerge from the data.

My first impression was of the audience. As we streamed through one security line after another–a river of youth looking curiously like a single organism: one well-behaved clean-looking middle-class kid. The security guards seemed to be cool and well-trained, ushering gate-crashers out with a minimum of fuss. We were channeled smoothly into our seats in the thirteenth row. Over a relaxed dinner before the concert, a Crawdaddy companion had said he had a feeling that something bad could happen at this concert. I pointed out that it always can when you get that many people together–like bullfights where you buy a straw hat at the door to protect you from bottles and other missiles. I was displacing possible danger to a Mexican border town where the matador barely escaped with his life and several spectators were killed. It’s known as “clearing the path.”

So there we sat, I decline earplugs; I am used to loud drum and horn music from Morocco, and it always has, if skillfully performed, an exhilarating and energizing effect on me. As the performance got underway I experienced this musical exhilaration, which was all the more pleasant for being easily controlled, and I knew then that nothing bad was going to happen. This was a safe and friendly area–but at the same time highly charged. There was a palpable interchange of energy between the performers and the audience which was never frantic or jagged. The special effects were handled well and not overdone.

A few special effects are much better than too many. I can see the laser beams cutting dry ice smoke, which drew an appreciative cheer from the audience. Jimmy Page’s number with the broken guitar strings came across with a real impact, as did John Bonham’s drum solo and the lyrics delivered with unfailing vitality by Robert Plant. The performers were doing their best, and it was very good. The last number, “Stairway to Heaven”, where the audience lit matches and there was a scattering of sparklers here and there, found the audience well-behaved and joyous, creating the atmosphere of a high school Christmas play. All in all a good show; neither low nor insipid. Leaving the concert hall was like getting off a jet plane.

I summarized my impressions after the concert in a few notes to serve as a basis for my talk with Jimmy Page. “The essential ingredient for any successful rock group is energy–the ability to give out energy, to receive energy from the audience and to give it back to the audience. A rock concert is in fact a rite involving the evocation and transmutation of energy. Rock stars may be compared to priests, a theme that was treated in Peter Watkins’ film ‘Privilege’. In that film a rock star was manipulated by reactionary forces to set up a state religion; this scenario seems unlikely, I think a rock group singing political slogans would leave its audience at the door.

“The Led Zeppelin show depends heavily on volume, repetition and drums. It bears some resemblance to the trance music found in Morocco, which is magical in origin and purpose–that is, concerned with the evocation and control of spiritual forces. In Morocco, musicians are also magicians. Gnaoua music is used to drive out evil spirits. The music of Joujouka evokes the God Pan, Pan God of Panic, representing the real magical forces that sweep away the spurious. It is to be remembered that the origin of all the arts–music, painting and writing–is magical and evocative; and that magic is always used to obtain some definite result. In the Led Zeppelin concert, the result aimed at would seem to be the creation of energy in the performers and in the audience. For such magic to succeed, it must tap the sources of magical energy, and this can be dangerous.”

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