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.
Dating Tips for Touring Bands LP
(Hot Cars Warp) BUY BUY BUY BUY
“First full-length spoken word LP by Arthur Magazine Senior Writer and “Bull Tongue” co-columnist, jazz editor, author, poet, record label mogul, and footnote pioneer Byron Coley. Segments of underground cultural history done in verse constitute the A-side, with subjects both heroic and villainous. The flip consists of an abridged chapter from Coley’s upcoming novel, Dominoes. Silk-screened cover with artwork by Savage Pencil.”
If it were possible to convict a group of people for delaying something, or failing to act on a necessary impulse, then I’d like to indict whoever I could get away with blaming, and charge them all (myself included) with multiple felony counts – just because we’ve never seen or heard a full-length transmission by wax dedicated to a man who has probably scraped at least a nickel-sized piece of skin off your body through the years – and you may not even had felt it when it happened or recognized the scar as evidence of his presence in your life. But many have recognized these scars, from near and from afar, and have worn them proudly for quite some time.
Sun City Girls: God, How They Sucked, 1981-2007 by Byron Coley
The Sun City Girls were one of the great bands of my lifetime. Now they’re gone and the world is both meaner for their passing and richer for their having been here. Their official end occurred on February 19, 2007. That was the day Charlie Gocher, the band’s drummer, succumbed to forces greater than his own—a concept almost unfathomable, but true nonetheless.
For 25 years, the Sun City Girls were a trio of exquisitely hermetic design. Charlie Gocher, Alan Bishop and Rick Bishop created a wildly bizarre universe in which almost anything seemed possible. It was always difficult with these guys to understand where truth ended and fiction began, but it didn’t seem to really matter. Like the LSD street-talkers of my youth, conversations with the band (in whole or in part) tended to obliterate many of the culturally-drawn distinctions that usually seem important. They were able to bend time and space to their own evil intent, which, luckily for all of us, was really not evil at all.
The Girls dropped many delightful and smelly bucketfuls of recordings over the years. Singles, videos, CDs, cassettes and LPs. These ranged from the virtually unlistenable—arch sets of covers played with enough irony to give you a soft-on for a year—to albums like Torch of the Mystics, which floated into the spaces between your atoms, instantly bonding with every available surface.
Never the touringest of bands, the Girls nonetheless remain most burned into my memory for their live shows. The earliest ones were mysto-shroud post-core jamborees of the most frenzied nature imaginable. Later ones blended shtick and strangeness and playing so brilliantly precise it was devastating. There was Charlie, assaulting his drums like a myth-gorilla trapped inside a VW bug. There was Alan, moving between jazzbo-centric bass pops and the corrosive performance art characters with which he amused himself. There was Rick, just kind of taking it all in and regurgitating splanges of guitar noise as delicate or vicious as you could imagine. Together they seemed unstoppable.
One of the last times I saw them was a two-night stand they did at the 2004 Suoni Per Il Popolo Festival. My friend Benoit had never seen them before, but he knew he was in for a treat. I explained we should be prepared to heckle the Girls with all the means at our disposal, since they thrived on intense audience interaction, no matter how negative. He was leery, but game. The first night we screamed our heads off, drawing incredible barbs from Alan’s Uncle Jim doppelganger and getting more than a few rises out of Rick when we began insulting him for being a rare book dealer. So successful was this approach, Benoit was invited onto the stage the next night to give Alan a tutorial in Quebecker cussing. It was an exquisite evening, although Charlie was clearly not feeling well before the show. He explained it as being some variation of a flu, combined with his “advanced age,” but I guess it was a little more complicated than that. Still, he played with a ferocious lop-sided intensity that belied any physical diminishment.
Live shows went back to being a rarity. They played but a single festival set in each of the last three years. There started to be sniping in some quarters regarding the band’s purported heisting of ethnic music traditions, but when I saw them the last time (at ATP in December, 2006), we had a good laugh about the idea of them as cultural imperialists. Their travels around the world had always been journeys of wide-eyed discovery. The souvenirs they bore home from these trips (whether internal or external) were things they were driven to share. Like maniacs. Which they were. To say they didn’t enrich our knowledge of different cultural traditions (particularly those of Southeast Asia), misses more than a few available boats. They were nothing if not the American underground’s cultural ambassadors to the world.
It hasn’t been long since Charlie died. Alan and Rick must still have a lot to figure out. Their varietal solo works will undoubtedly continue in all their glory, and one assumes there are oceans of unreleased material to be pumped into the cosmos. But I will miss knowing the Sun City Girls co-exist with me on this planet. They were a funny and generous group of individuals, committed to a lot of truly worthwhile things, not the least of which was a cruel and cutting humor, beautifully suited to the times in which we live.
But Charlie is no more. And the Sun City Girls are no more. And that’s just something we’ll have to live with.
Originally published in Arthur No. 18 (Sept. 2005)…
No Sleep Till Beirut ALAN BISHOP of Sun City Girls speaks with Brandon Stosuy about terrorism, travel, clueless Americans and curating the cut-up world music collages of his Sublime Frequencies label.
Caffeine and nicotine are Alan Bishop’s self-professed main vices. “Resting is an obstacle,” he says. “My cat Napoleon taught me how to take 15-minute naps, and when I drive down the highway late at night and feel drowsy, I narrow it down to a three-second nap. When I awake, and realize I survived again, I’m energized for hours.”
Given the range and breadth of his creative output over the last two decades, Bishop’s admission that he’s a self-taught low-to-no-dozer makes a lot of sense. For years, his main occupation has been as a prolific musician and composer. Sun City Girls, a trio he formed in Sun City, Arizona in 1983 with his brother (Sir) Richard Bishop and Charles Gocher, have released 40-plus albums of startling originality: a vast catalog of world music fusion and cheeky agitprop, Eastern music and blissed-out raga. (Two classics are 1990’s Torch of the Mystics, an impressive Spaghetti-Eastern wrangling of sound, like some kind of cowpoke-infused Bombay pop; and 1996’s 330,000 Crossdressers from Beyond the Rig Veda which is, among other things, a Gamelan drone marathon.) Bishop’s also had his hand in non-SCG projects like Uncle Jim and Alvarius B: in fact, a new Uncle Jim LP Superstars of Greenwich Meantime is due out any moment on the Kentucky-based Black Velvet Fuckere label, and a new Alvarius B LP Blood Operatives of the Barium Sunset, will be out on in October on the Sun Cirty Girls’ own Abduction label, which Bishop runs.
As if that weren’t enough, in October 2003, the 45-year-old started a new label with his brother (Sir) Richard and filmmaker Hisham Mayet in a collective quest to document and distribute the music of distant cultures that so fascinates them; Sublime Frequencies, they explain, is “dedicated to acquiring and exposing obscure sights and sounds from modern and traditional urban and rural frontiers via film and video, field recordings, radio and short wave transmissions, international folk and pop music, sound anomalies.” So far, Sublime Frequencies has released nearly two dozen CDs, from Radio Phnom Pehn‘s schizophrenic Cambodian metal/jingle remixed cut-ups to the juicy pop histrionics of Molam: Thai Country Groove to the on-the-road brilliance of Streets of Lhasa, which was recorded by Zhang Jian of the Beijing-based sound collective fm3. Meanwhile, Mayet, has filmed three DVDs of live performances by unknown musical geniuses based in countries like Syria, Thailand and Niger for SF, and has finished a fourth, Niger: Magic and Ecstasy in the Sahel. The fall finds three new SF CDs, two of which focus on members of the so-called Axis of Evil, Iraq and North Korea. Per usual, the names are as colorful as the sounds collected: Choubi Choubi!-Folk and Pop Sounds from Iraq; Radio Pyongyang: Commie Funk and Agit Pop from the Hermit Kingdom; and Guitars of the Golden triangle: Folk and pop music of Myanmar (Burma) Vol. 2. Sublime Frequencies’ ragtag contributing cast also includes micro-noisemaker Robert Millis of Climax Golden Twins and Bay Area Porest/Mono Pause/Neung Phak maestro, Mark Gergis; Gergis is the second most prolific SF contributor after Bishop, and is the mind behind the aforementioned Iraqi compilation as well as I Remember Syria’s double-album cut-up of field recordings, radio excerpts, and “lost” cassette pieces.
Sublime Frequencies isn’t your average world music label—in place of the in-depth documentation of records on labels like Lonely Planet, Smithsonian or Hamonia Mundi are reader-baiting sentences like “the equator runs through only ten countries on earth and I bet that you cannot name them all without consulting a map” and elliptical, beatnik-style prose-rants in which the compilers relay brief anecdotes and impressions of their travels. Bishop, the Kerouac of the crew, keeps a running journal related to the project.
“I write as much as I record,” he says. “I make custom books for each trip. Most are 50-100 pages in length with collage art and photos pasted into the pages. Each book is a different size/style and I always force myself to finish one for each venture.” So far he’s assembled 40 of them, none of them have been published. The mind reels at the unseen treasures lurking within their pages.
Recently Bishop and I conversed at length via email about his current activities. I began by asking him about Crime & Dissonance, a two-disc compilation of work by famed Italian film composer Ennio Morricone slated for release on Mike Patton’s Ipecac label this fall.
Arthur: How did the Morricone project come about? What drew you to Morricone’s work in the first place? Alan Bishop: I saw The Good, The Bad and The Ugly when I was a kid on TV. The music destroyed me, just the power of it. Since then I’ve been listening, collecting and digesting all of his music. There was a feeling that if I could wear the music as a talisman, I would be indestructible. He worked in so many mediums of sound. He composes everything from romantic orchestral music to full-on speaker-thrashing noise. And along the way, he does almost every style of music that can be named. He is known for the Italian Western themes more than any other style but for those who investigate the massive output of thousands of tracks he’s either composed, co-composed, arranged, or directed, speaking about his work in generalities to educate the unfamiliar is a pointless task. For the compilation, Filippo Salvadori, who runs Runt distributing amongst other things, kept me up to date on what Morricone titles which were available to license for the CDs. It’s a true mess as Morricone has recorded for dozens of labels and licensing tracks from some of them is near impossible, so I was unable to get all the tracks I wanted and had to compromise. Still, it’s a great set. I listen to soundtrack music as music, not as a complementary appendage to the film. So as long as the music moves me, it’s a good soundtrack. Mono-thematic scores usually fail me but Morricone is one who can occasionally make a single theme interesting for the length of an entire soundtrack. La Cosa Buffo and The Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion both come to mind.
Can you trace your interest in documenting so-called “world music”? I traveled around the States a lot when I was a kid, and when I bought a car, I moved from Saginaw, Michigan to Arizona. A cousin had just bought an apartment building in Marbella, Spain and he said we were always welcome to stay for free, so I started saving my money, hustling goods at flea markets. In 1983 I sold all my Jimi Hendrix LPs to get the rest of the cash I needed to fly to Spain. I was 23. Morocco was only a boat ride from Spain and it was cheap to travel around for a few months, so I stayed as long as my money held out. The second day I was there I heard that Joujouka sound of the Raitni chanters echoing from an elusive location in the medina of Tetuan. When some kids saw me trying to find the origin of the music they brought me up some stairway to a room filled with pretty women and four musicians performing for them. It was the remnants of a wedding party and I was the only male guest. The musicians gave me some hash and started playing and I danced with the women awhile and we all sat down and had mint tea and snacks, started discussing world events with the older drummer for an hour or so. That’s the hospitality of the Arab world. No questions asked. Want some food? Drink? Dance? Music? Hashish?
What was the political climate like? The Polisario Guerilla movement was much more active back then in the Western Sahara and also in Morocco’s cities and countryside. There were checkpoints on all the highways and almost every bus I took from town to town was stopped by military personnel. One time I was on my way back to Essouira from Fes – I was in Fes for a couple of days and was carrying a passport for a guy who left it there, doing him a favor by taking it back for him. Some guy got on the bus and sat next to me in the back. About an hour later we were stopped by the military. The soldiers were checking people on the bus and when they came to the back I kept wondering if they searched me and found that I had two passports including a British one which wasn’t mine, what I’d have to explain, but they didn’t even look at me. They just grabbed the guy who sat next to me and took him off the bus and that was it. Seemed as if they knew who he was. He was escorted to their vehicle at gunpoint, and shoved in the back seat. Our bus was then allowed to leave. Polisario perhaps? A sympathizer with the Polasario? Or just a common petty thief? I’ll never know.
Superlatives can be lame, but Richard Bishop is one of the few post-punk guitarists who came of age in the 1980s to have achieved the incendiary prowess of a true Guitar God. Though largely unknown outside the underground, Bishop plays and improvises with an uncommon and original power. He can tantalize in a myriad of styles, he has a global jukebox in his head, he can shatter the walls of sleep and chaos, and he can turn on a dime. He loves the guitar and mocks it: he plays like an absurdist and a romantic at once. He studies the occult and travels the Third World fringe and you can hear it. He plays guitar to save himself and fails in the endeavor and you can hear it. He can scare the shit out of you sometimes, and he can make you giggle and grin.
For decades Bishop played with his brother Alan and the Charlie Gocher in the Sun City Girls, where his ferocious and inventive exploration of psych-rock, punk spew, idiot jizz, Indo-Arabic fantasias, and jazzbo abstraction was often shadowed by the madcap antics, acerbic lyrics and general air of arcane weirdness that surrounded that impossible act. Gocher passed away in February this year at the age of 54, and the Girls are no more.
But over the last half decade, Bishop has also been playing and recording solo instrumental music as Sir Richard Bishop, and the effort is really starting to flower. This year SRB released two great albums. While My Guitar Gently Bleeds features three long pieces that triangulate his essential territory as an improviser: a North African arabesque, a noisy electronic nightscape, and a modal neo-raga on the tantric tip. Polytheistic Fragments is a more accessible and varied work, featuring a dozen tunes that also stretch into Americana, gypsy rag and Lennon-McCartney charm. As always, the recordings are packaged with strange and mystic images that speak to Bishop’s longtime study of esoterica.
Earlier this fall Bishop toured with labelmate Bill Callahan. I called him while he was taking a break in Seattle.
1. The Ascension of the great Charles Gocher Jr. to the outer zones (February 19, 2007)
2. ‘Holy Mountain’ Soundtrack Debut Release–Alejandro Jodorowsky Box set (ABKCO)
3. Hayvanlar Alemi (Turkey) ‘Super’ (two-song self-released download single)
4. Porest ‘Live at Worm in Rotterdam’ (November 2007)
5. Los Siquicos Litoralenos (You Tube videos)
6. Queen Shmooquan ‘Live at Rendezvous Lounge Seattle’ (October 2007)
7. ‘Waking Up Scheherazade: Arabian Garage Psych Nuggets’ LP (Ali Baba)
8. Climax Golden Twins ‘5 Cents A Piece’ LP (Abduction)
9. Sir Richard Bishop ‘While My Guitar Violently Bleeds’ LP (Locust)
10. ‘Roots of Chicha’ CD (Barbe’s Records)
11. Vintage Pulchritude website
12. Master Musicians of Bukkake ‘Live in Portland at the Someday Lounge’ (July 2007)
13. Ennio Morricone ‘Agent 505 Todesfalle Beirut/IL Successo’ CD (GDM)
14. Michael Flower/Chris Corsano ‘The Radiant Mirror’ LP (Textile Records)
15. Factums LP (Silt Breeze)
ALAN BISHOP is a founding member of the late Sun City Girls and a partner in the sensationally great world-trotting Sublime Frequencies label, which was profiled at length by Brandon Stosuy in the still-available Arthur No. 18 (Sept 2005).
With deep regret, we must announce that Charles Gocher passed away yesterday in Seattle due to a long battle with cancer at the age of 54. He is survived by the two of us who adopted him as a brother 25 years ago and his many friends around the world. He will be missed more than most could ever know. Our thanks to everyone for their support and encouragement during the past three, very difficult years. Many of you were not aware that Charles was ill and that’s because he wanted it that way. Details of a memorial in his honor will be announced soon.