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.
APRIL 4 JUBILEE SAINT — DOROTHEA DIX
Advocate of humane treatment for so-called “mentally ill.”
APRIL 4 festivals:
* Ancient Rome: FESTIVAL OF THE MAGNA MATER OF PHRYGIA, a reliquary embodied in a small meteorite. An ecstatic procession with the magna mater in a chariot drawn by lions, castrated priests leaping and dancing and gashing themselves to a din of flutes, cymbals and drums.
ON THIS DATE
1802 — Mental health reformer, activist Dorothea Dix born, Hampden, Maine.
1900 — Prince of Wales, in Belgium, escapes anarchist assassination attempt.
1914 — French writer Marguerite Duras born, near Saigon, French Indochina.
1915 — Blues guitarist Muddy Waters born, Issaquena County, Mississippi.
1. Whatever generation it is now of the St. Marks Poetry Project New York School is beyond us, we stopped counting as soon as we saw Anselm Berrigan running the joint, remembering him as a kid banging around the folding chairs at the Project really not that long ago. Time flies in real time and in poet time and the last decade of young poets around that scene has been consistently engaging, though maybe exuding a transitional character that left us waiting for some kind of sick throw down. A recent publication that kind of comes very close to this is Mum Halo by New York City poet John Coletti, published by Rust Buckle Books. Coletti’s a pal of the true hearts writing, ruminating and starving around the historical churchyard on 2nd Ave and 9th street but keeps a slow and low profile. So when Anselm handed us this book we were curious, and when ripping through its pages we were left both stoned-brained and speed-slapped. Here is writing that takes the economy of word-mythos line play and evokes it with charm, humor and street sophistication. Check this out:
Because you’re patient
helping world being
less injured in it
pull up skirt hard inside
burnt my finger
putting you out
Killer, here’s another:
Like to complicate my life no I don’t
sleep all day full pail &
feather your hair grinding sea
for Texas decades, sure
I might be a fuck-up awesome fuck-up
2. The recent Jack Rose release party in Philly felt pretty cathartic for a bunch of the people who attended and it also kinda highlighted the wide breadth of style-glumph that is currently heralded as volk.
There is, of course, Jack’s own new album, Luck in the Valley (Thrill Jockey), which is a magnificent precis of his career, ranging from long raga fantasias to clackety neo-rags and stomps with Harmonica Dan, D. Charles Speer and other fellow travelers. The beauty and ease of his playing is something we will hold as a treasured memory as long as we live.
Jack’s long-time riding partner Glenn Jones also has a brilliant new album called Barbecue Bob in Fishtown (Strange Attractors Audio House), which is his best blast yet. Soloing on both guitar and banjo, Glenn’s playing has a precision and formal mastery that is jaw-dropping and so wide-ranging it’s incredible. And it’s definitely worth getting the LP version, since there’s a visual tribute contained to Muddy Waters’ Electric Mud album that is sure to crack up any knowledgeable collectors out there. I just hope he gets around to recording the Stockhausen music box pieces he’s been ruminating on for last decade or two. That would be a total gas.
One of the obsessive fanboy strands we’ve shared with Glenn over the years is the immortal Michael Hurley, and he has a smoking new LP as well. Ida Con Snock (Gnomonsong) was recorded over the course of a few years and features a mic of new & old material (as has been Hurley’s wont for a good long while.) What’s different and extremely special here is that he’s backed by the young Brooklyn folk-rock band, Ida, and also the great Tara Jane O’Neil. The gang really provides Hurley with the best backing band he’s had since Have Moicy! They usually hang back, only moving forward when it’s really appropriate, and the results are solid and as satisfying as a spliff, a jug and a warm fireplace. Hurley has the capacity to sound timeless, and he’s in rare form here, doing songs as transcendent as “Wildegeeses” and as boy howdy as “Ragg Mopp.” A massive favorite for all seasons.
Which reminds me of a show we put on in 2002 or so, where Hurley was backed on some numbers by the Philly band, Espers. That was a corker, as is Espers’ new LP, III (Drag City). Someone from the band told me they felt like this album was a holding-pattern in comparison to earlier work, but we sure don’t hear it. The CD has been stuck in the car stereo a lot lately, and the blend of Anglo-style female vocals (this time more like Celia Humpries—from the Trees—and Sandy Denny) and the male ones (which remind us of nothing so much the actually great—we swear—soft-rock of Mark-Almond and Sweet Thursday) is so fine. And the whole thing is laced with shots of guitar so goddamn psych you’ll swear they’re Japanese. But they aren’t. They’re just great.
Lastly in this category (for now) comes Peter Stampfel‘s long-overdue Dook of the Beatniks (Pietystreet Files and Archaic Media). Stampfel, of course, as half of the original Holy Modal Rounders has a pretty legitimate claim to being the founding father of the whole psych-volk shebang, so what does he do? Why he perversely records a rock & roll album with Mark Bingham producing. And it’s great, naturally—c’mon, nobody sings a song quite as crazily as Stampfel does—and contains everything from covers of obscure Johnny Cash b-sides to Sam Shepard’s “Take a Message to Omie” (Shepard was in the Rounders for a while too) and various other great damn tunes. It’s really nice that Stampfel allowed himself to take the lead on all the vocals here (something he never did in the Bottlecaps or the Rounders) and the results are extremely uplifting. You have to go online to read the fucking liner notes (similar to one of those Adelphi Rounders albums where you had to write the label to get ’em), but they’re typically fine and worth the effort. This still ain’t the exact Stampfel album we’re waiting for—back in the ’80s Ira Kaplan tried to strong-arm Peter into doing a solo LP with just voice and fiddle, and that’s the one we’re still holding our breath about. But this one’s a riot. And the cover pic of young beat Pete is wild. But hey—what happened to that album where he was gonna record a song from each year of the 20th Century? That’s due, too. Shake a leg, mofo.
3. Some superior communal and loose-tongue drone by Your Drugs My Money, a collective of peeps from all over the usa and one copenhagenite. They wrapped their heads together a couple years back in Portland and ran tape and it is deep wind-charmed fluidity, both sweet and raw. The session exists on a split tape released by oms/b tapes with Les Aus, two freaks from Barcelona who’ve been making records etc. for a while. Death trip momma Lydia Lunch shows up to intone on a track and the earth cracks open and cream gushes.
4. As it so often does, the Christmas season brought an avalanche of books about the Velvet Underground. Well, maybe not an avalanche, but THREE. And that seems like a lot for band that lost its leader (Lou Reed) 40 years ago, But we don’t wanna complain. ‘Cause the best thing is that whenever a buncha new books come out, it means there’ll be some pics we’ve never seen before. And it’s hard to think of a band that looked as consistently cool as the Velvets. The three are all by scribes we know, and each has a take somewhat reflective of author’s personality.
A Walk on the Wild Side author Jim DeRogatis
The first and most general one is A Walk on the Wild Side by Jim DeRogatis (Voyageur Press). Jim’s best known for daily newspaper work and his serviceable bio of Lester Bangs. His chief function as a rock scribe seems to be restating consensual realities, and so it is here. I mean, the book’s text is a solid introduction, but this is an intro that’s been made many times before. The volume’s raison d’etre, one assumes, is the new visuals. And it’s true—the pics look great (even though the most surprising ones now show up elsewhere as well), but the text is somewhat bland and the stuff about later solo work doesn’t carry the same charge. Still, a worthwhile filer. The Velvet Underground: New York Art by Johan Kugelberg (Rizzoli) is an outgrowth of the art catalog he did that we wrote about a couple of years ago. New York Art is a gorgeously printed, obsessive’s guide to the explosive confluence of Warhol’s scene and the Velvets. If you want a coffee-table Velvets book, this is the one to own. The text pieces are solid (an interview with both Lou and Maureen; random pieces by Bangs and Meltzer; memoirs from Rob Norris, Sterling and others) and the illustrations are pretty mind-bending. Very over-the-top, but wildly cool. White Light/White Heat (Jaw Bone Press) by Richie Unterberger: this one goes beyond obsession. It’s a day-by-day tracking of everything known about the band and their fellow travelers. And it is exhaustive. Richie has even dug up some images that eluded DeRogo and Johan, but the meat of this book is information overload. It’s the kind of book that can keep your ass glued to the toilet for days at a time. So don’t keep your copy in the bathroom. Might be hazardous to your very own ass health! Amazing work.
5. Caldera Lakes is Eva Aguila and Brittany Gould, two Los Angeles women who are displacing the Ladies of The Canyon mantle of Joni Mitchell by taking that songbird’s searching heart and massaging it against an amplified key grinder. And it is seriously killer. With a clutch of releases on Blackest Rainbow, Deathbomb Arc and 905they have proven to be one of the most arresting and savage femme noise units creepy-crawling the planet. Their latest self-titled tape on Accidie is as great as anything they’ve done, if not the greatest. Essential mayhem.
6. There are pretty many great jazz reissues and retrievals every year. People stumble over some crazy ass shit and we are goddamn happy when they deign to bring it to our attention. But it’s also fun to revisit old friends who’ve lingered in the shadows of our record collections for too long. So it was a sweet feeling to get a grey-area reissue of The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing, an LP that originally appeared on John Fahey’s Takoma label in 1967. Asked about it, Fahey would only say, “That was ED Denson’s idea!” But Nothing at this time was a Berkeley fixture and was known for wild alto sax improvisations as well as the huge book of writing and art he was always working on. Well, Charlie passed away a couple of years ago, and he recorded a bunch of interesting stuff that will hopefully see wide distribution one of these days, but this album is his first and it is a masterpiece of free improv—sax and percussion, unbridled from formal constrictions, allowed to weasel around like electrified rats. People have occasionally decried this LP in the same terms they use for Beefheart’s soprano playing (“that’s not playing—that’s just breathing!”), but we say “Fuck You,” to those who would quibble over such outmoded concepts. As Duke Ellington so famously said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” You are so right, Duke. And this Charlie Nothing album sounds GREAT.
7. Kryssi Battalene is a New Haven experimental angel who channels the sound of cosmic snowbirds through the physical friction of ferrous oxide tape against smoldering tapeheads. She also plays an astoundingly wicked guitar both traditionally and out of this world. We first saw her perform as a duo with Danny Moore in the amazing Heaven People, since disbanded, and she has been currently soloing every once in a while under the name Colorguard. She’s recorded a few weird cassettes handed off at gigs but thank the long red hair mystic Heath Moerland of Fag Tapes for releasing Shared Planet, a fine premier for this most awesome of wild improv enchantress.
8. Excellent to be able to screen Shout Factory‘s new, super clean DVD of the great American International teenage rock & roll spectacular, The T.A.M.I. Show. The older of us actually saw this screamfest at a movie theater when it came out in ’64, and it was amazing. The weirdest part of it may be the soundtrack, which has a persistent teen-scream huzz which (from the look of the crowd) is something that was tacked on to provide extra energy or somesuch. But the film doesn’t need it. Between the gyrations of the go-go girls (including Teri Garr and Tosi Basil back when they were part of Wallace Berman’s circle), the wild performances of the musicians (James Brown, the Stones, the Barbarians, Chuck Berry, etc.) and goofy MCing by the superb surf duo, Jan & Dean (the first group whose records I collected seriously). It is an insane blend and a testament to the heterogeneity of the early ’60s R&R experience, when the underground and commercial scenes were virtually interchangeable (apart from the creepy singers pushed by publishers and producers). This was shot at the Santa Monica Civic, and the tickets were given away free to local high schools. What a bonus fucking day that must’ve been.
9. One of the great small press poetry publishers, O Books, out of Oakland CA, issued in 1989 the first English translation of It Then, a book of poems by the late French poet Danielle Collobert. Collobert is little known outside the rabid circle of enthusiasts for her minimalist, self erasing style, but she has an intriguing history. Born in 1940, she published her first book of poems, Chant de Guerres (Song of Wars), in 1960, then hunted down every extant copy and destroyed them.
She became a political activist involved with publishing the Revolution Africaine newsletter. She published the Raymond Queneau-championed book Muerte (Murder) in 1964, traveled extensively, wrote and performed radio plays, published Il Donc (It Then) in 1976, and committed suicide in her hotel room in Paris the night before her birthday July 24, 1978. Collobert possessed a dark and romantic visage, especially evident when one notices her jacket photo with its downward gaze and the sensual sadness of her beauty. Her work astounds, moving across the page with a sonance both velvet and machine-gun like. The translation allows us to access her meaning, but the poetry here is compromised by not hearing the sound of the writer’s language. Even so, the thought process, the artistry of the trajectory, comes clear—and it is not always pretty. In fact it can be pretty frightening, detailing emotional negotiations with the poison of inhumanity as well as the living psychology of being female, indeed being REAL.
It – flows – it bangs itself – slammed into walls – it picks itself up – stamps feet – it doesn’t go far – four steps to the left – new wall – it extends its arms – leans – leans hard – rubs its head – again – harder – forehead – there – the forehead – hurts – rubs harder – becomes inflamed – not the forehead – from within – cries
good start for the pain – head between arms – forehead against wall – and rubbing – skin breaks open a little – not enough – ooh the pain – there it is – feet kicking the wall down low – go on – with the toes – striking hard – thrashing – nothing to be done – doesn’t subside – never will subside – the rage – the pain – cries – hits with flat hands – dull noise – a cry – here a cry – no gasp – a little above a gasp – in shrillness – here it comes – collects at the back of the throat – what’s going to come out – still below the pain – not enough
sobs shaken – saliva at lips’ edge – bitter taste – slides a little towards the corner – nose smashing – lips – the lips twisted sideways – pulled back to the gums – moistening the wall – eyes closed – stomach and chest flattened – unsticks – comes back harder – sharp impact of shoulders – unsticks – comes back again with elbows with knees – bangs fists – fists’ backs – to the bone – starts over – skin reddens – rips at last – it falls – doubled up – dragging arms stretched along the wall – kept vertical by ends of fingernails – it collapses – impact of back – head rings on wooden floor – it pushes up onto its elbow – drags along the wall – reaches hung-up coat – hangs onto – hoists itself – buries its head in the wool – grabs the arms – holds the end of the sleeves tight – overlaps them around neck – expecting softness – but no – squeezes hard – chokes – coughs into tears – chokes – lets go – hangs onto cloth – pulls hard to rip – rips with all its strength – tears pieces with its teeth – spits – chokes – arms fall back down – sinks down – slips onto the ground
a body there – practicing pain – as if it hadn’t had enough of this suffering – at each moment – in floods – in vast wave – trying pathetically to practice it
body striking – disfiguring its limbs with the too full pain – which body sudden empty – which violence against – about empty – pain congealed at last – wanting to reach it to set it once and for all – to keep it there motionless – or set it down in front of it – itself – to make it really visible – in its infinitely numerous images – unceasingly
a body there – no – that body there – the one banging its face against the wall – maybe – no
walls fictive also – unnecessary walls – no – only to see from the place of the present invisible – here – facing the stripped body – arms motionless yet sweeping around in space without meeting anything to lean on – temporary connection – just for an instant – to slow the breathing down – slow down the beating – to quiet down – this body seeking the place – the hollow in which to melt back down again – heat ruptured – and cold of the world around – its place or position unsure to inscribe against the lack – the shocks of the day
10. So many boss records floating through here, really have to just randomize & roll. Talk Normal‘s debut full-length, Sugarland (Rare Book Room) is a blazing extension of their earlier EPs. Their basic heft (UK ’78 DIY/No Wave squall) remains in places, but it is swamped by a new, venomous psychedelic thrust mixed with a post-scum instrumental chiming that is ridiculously effective. And their Roxy Music cover is as perfectly imagined as anything you’ve ever heard.
Then there’s the new album by Pete Nolan’s main non-Magik Markers project, Spectre Folk. Their second LP is called Compass, Blanket, Lantern, Mojo (Arbitrary Signs), which I suppose are the four main points on Pete’s aesthetic compass. Less massed and grueling than the Markers, this band’s sound is far more ramblesome and loosely psychedelic. Largely instrumental and as low-key as it is wasted, the LP wiggles beautifully from the instant it hits yr veins.
One of last year’s most profoundly underrated LPs was definitely Bats in the Dead Trees Parts I-IV (Lost Treasure of the Underworld) by Columbus, Ohio’s Cheater Slicks. This superb band—once based in Boston—has been churning brilliantly for a couple of decades now, and has created some of the world’s most tasty garage raunch in the process. Here they take the challenge and drop structure for an album’s worth of howling free-rock improv, and it sounds so fucking perfect, I just hope a whole lot of garage dudes/dudettes decide now’s the time to put up their own dukes and just LET ONE FLY. Would make for a lotta totally ginchy listening! Thank you, Cheater Slicks.
One band that was born in the land that form forgot was Detroit’s Destroy All Monsters. And luckily for us, Cary Loren has whipped out some expanded jams first presented in edited form in the 1974-1976 3CD box, and smeared them across a glorious slab of vinyl called Double Sextet (The End Is Here/Compound Annex). Yow. Only 500 pressed of this 33-minute chunk of free-form savagery, recorded in 1975, and it’s an instant classic.
Also instantaneous is the garage-vom-darkness of the long-lost LP by Michael & the Mumbles (De Stijl), a ’66 midwest session led by the teenaged Michael Yonkers. The band’s sound contains elements of frat-romp, folk-rock and pure-garage-fuzz, but the blend is definitely tentative and the sound quality is on a par with Justice albums of the era. Very cool, but only essential if you’re already a head. Which we are. But was this actually released at the time? We’d never even heard rumors of its existence. What the fuh?
Last brain-fugger this time out will have to be Major Stars‘ Return to Form (Drag City). We think it’s their second for the label, but our Drag City service is too spotty to be certain (hint hint). Regardless, we have loved this band’s core (Wayne, Kate and Tom) through decades and every combo mutation they’ve fronted. The Major Stars express more explosive improv gush here than they’ve done on some other LPs (they sometimes feel more like a live band than a studio one, which’s the opposite of some of their precursors), but the balance—as always—in the Major Stars rests on the balance of the instrumental frontline’s grotesque sonic overload and the massed rock-drive of the other players & singers. Sounds fucking incredible this time out (yin/yang energy up the ass), and the cover art by Bill Nace is as beautiful as a foot.
Alright. Gotta get this posted.
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