SA5: The Philadelphia Issue

There is a certain personality, musical or otherwise, that seems to make place and time bend to their will. These kinds of people appear to define the space they live in, anthropomorphizing neighborhoods or cities or nations in a way that defies you to believe that they weren't born and raised there. Philadelphia has had a lot of these presences within its musical history: George Crumb, Sun Ra, John Coltrane, just to pick the low-hanging fruit. All of these people continue to have, in their continued existence as historical musical figures, a tethered existence to Philadelphia or, rather, the strength of their spirit has attached the city to their memory. Jack Rose was this strong. All it takes is to meet someone that knew him, or to listen to his guitar playing on Kensington Blues, to know that there was a gravity to the man that held whatever was near him in a consistent orbit around his musical and personal world. Even though he was raised in Virginia, there seems to have been something very Philadelphia about him, or maybe he just made every place he lived embrace his forcefulness. Jack Rose passed away just shy of his 39th birthday on December 5, 2009. In any issue of Sound American, a lot of decisions have to be made regarding what is included and what is shelved for future discussion. Any publication on the topic of Philadelphia music, however, would be remiss without talking about Jack's presence and music, how it still affects the musical climate of the city, and how much his presence is still missed by his peers and friends. Fellow guitarist and Philadelphia transplant, Chris Forsyth, has put together a living and personal remembrance of an uncompromising, fierce, and true Philadelphian.

Jack Rose is Real!

-Chris Forsyth-

I only knew Jack intimately for a little less than a year. We were acquainted over a longer period, crossing paths at shows here or there, but didn’t become friends until I moved to Philly in 2009. The first time we met, in Philly in 2005, I was involved in some late night musical debate with a couple of friends when Jack - who wasn’t involved in the conversation, but overheard and felt compelled to intervene - interrupted to call bullshit on the very premise of our discussion, denounced us as clueless, loudly told me to fuck off, and stormed out of the house. Then, not five minutes later, he quietly came back and apologized to me for the abuse, citing his deep and abiding love for John Fahey and Charley Patton for arousing his emotions on whatever the subject had been. The subject most assuredly had not been Fahey and Patton, but that’s irrelevant - Jack thought we should have been talking about them instead of whomever it was we were fussing about. I think anyone who knew Jack the man would attest to the volume, integrity, determination, intention and emotional force with which he propelled himself through the world. These qualities were present in his friendships, cooking, opinion mongering, and carrying on. And they were all clearly right there in his music. Jack didn’t play the guitar or play music. There was no game. He lived through his guitar and music. It’s almost like he had no choice. There was no hiding, no smoke and mirrors, just a direct line from his soul in the sonic world he created. I’ve heard very few guitarists with the ability to do this to such a degree. Maybe Loren Connors, a very different stylist to be sure, is the only one I’ve heard up close that I’d put in his league in that regard. Jack’s technique was incredible. He had spent countless hours hunting it down and he put it at the service of a thoroughly researched and highly developed approach to composition and performance. And Jack wrote some great songs! Personally, I couldn’t (and still can’t) get enough of his slide playing on the Weissenborn. His intonation was just flawless, reeling off microtonal runs on that lap steel that could weaken my knees. Unlike a lot of blues or psychedelic guitarists who rely on the moment to generate the emotional power of their improvisations, Jack was not sloppy or inconsistent. He killed it every time I saw him perform. Hell, he killed it every time I talked to him. Perhaps because he was a product of the underground I had the sense that, for someone of such immense talent, Jack was not as well known in Philadelphia, as perhaps he should have been. This isn’t to say that there weren’t a lot of people in Philly who knew what he did and knew precisely how important was his artistry. Jack was in fact the sun around which a lot of smaller musical planets orbited in this town. But we were a minority here, too. Loud as he was, I wouldn’t say that Jack was an attention hog. He was confident, sure - Jack definitely knew how good he was – and serious about his business, too. He commanded respect, but he was not doing it for attention. He played solo acoustic guitar music, which has never really been a sure ticket to stardom or even a thin living for anyone, now has it? But while his early records especially could be dissonant and infused with elements of drone and avant-garde abrasion, he was increasingly embracing old timey music. I suspect this is probably because he had worked so hard, and mastered it to the point that he could play that shit. And therefore he didn’t have to hide behind lazy primitivism like so many underground musicians. So, at the time that Jack passed, he seemed poised to expand his audience beyond the realm of record collecting, Sun Ra T-shirt wearing, no money having dudes and New Weird America hipsters that populated so much of the underground in the aughts. Now, many of these people were Jack’s friends so this is no diss on them. But his music was bigger than a marginal underground scene could contain. Jack’s music expresses itself powerfully and articulately, with the full authority of a rigorous and self-directed scholarship behind it. He’d logged the hours, done the research, made the choices, and when Jack picked up his guitar and made it sing for you, he was not fucking around. Jack wasn’t interested in wasting his or anyone else’s time subjecting the audience to experiments that might or might not work. Jack Rose was a keeper of rare and profound and ancient knowledge and to hear him perform was to be given the opportunity to share in his uncommon discoveries. That’s real. I must admit that I have a certain ambivalence about writing this piece. I’m reminded of a quote I read by John Martyn on the subject of Nick Drake: “He was a friend of mine, that's all I can tell you... I'm continually asked questions, and what happens is, precious memories are in danger of becoming anecdotes and I fucking don't want that to happen.” Although I could go on and on reminiscing about Jack in the right conversational setting (and I sometimes do), I too would prefer to maintain the proper precious memory to anecdote ratio. So, I thought it would be appropriate to reach out to some of the people in Philadelphia who knew Jack over a longer period of time as a friend and neighbor, in order to cast a wider net for perspectives and memories of him. As I put this piece together, it’s interesting to me to notice that a few of us started our recollections of Jack Rose with first meetings. Some people just sort of slither into your life. You can’t remember not knowing them or where they came from. Not so with Jack – when he arrived in your little wing of the cosmos, he hit like a bomb going off, and you noticed and you remembered! Thanks to these fine gentlemen for sharing their thoughts on Jack. CHRISTOPHER SMITH (bassist in Espers, Megajam Booze Band, and co-proprietor of the Paradise of Bachelors label) I met Jack on 11th Street in Philadelphia sometime in the mid 1990s. We had met before, as Jack would come through town with Pelt. I was a very young noise/drone sponge, doing all I could to find and absorb the goods. Friendships with the Un crew and my city scene had launched me into the world of Siltbreeze. That was the portal. Pelt was in there somewhere, I can’t recall exactly. Those days carried along a fair portion of malt liquor and one mind-blowing instance of revelatory discovery after another. Pelt played a show, I introduced myself to Jack and told him I dug this or that Richmond band; he made fun of me and insulted the quality of said bands. Something like that and maybe repeated several times over. A couple of years and random booze hangs later found me on 11th Street, proud of the grip of records I’d just laid over what little coin I had to acquire. Everything was records. I saw Jack. He was on a determined mission, had that lean-forward into his step that I’d come to associate with him. Hey Jack! Remember me? He did but was more interested in my records. I can’t recall what I had in the bag but he wasn’t interested and demanded I turn around and pick up some Fred Neil. I’d never heard of Fred Neil and Jack took issue with that and said I was crazy, demanded I get hip and rolled off quick. He was late for work. I went right back to the shop. No Fred on vinyl but they had a CD set and I made due. We’d spend years having him shove titans of guitar, song, and hard living down my gullet. Jack was the Challenger. I never got away with a casual notion or embrace of any iota of humanity as presented to Jack for discussion. He demanded more, better, and often a disregard of what you thought worthy. Don’t like that! It instilled a thought process and exploration of the depths, the soul and gut; every sound I heard and pizza I ate. He tuned me into and out of so much. The forced consideration brought a heart to my love of things I’d never had turned up if it wasn’t for Dr. Ragtime’s constant cycle of finger-pointing nag and celebratory buddy. The dude made me work for it. MAX MILGRAM (guitarist in Watery Love, Megajam Booze Band, and Mild Time, raconteur, and a very reasonable man) The first time I met Jack was a post-show bar hang. As the conversation shifted to various foods, I offered a lukewarm opinion of chicken pot pie. "Have you ever had chicken pot pie made south of the Mason/Dixon?" he asked angrily. "No." "Then shut the fuck up!" Whoa! Settle down! Thankfully we were able to weather such an insurmountable hurdle and become friends eventually but that auspicious meeting always cracked me up. And that was the kind of guy Jack was. Start aggressive conversations about records (he met one longtime friend by agitatedly demanding his opinion on Royal Trux's "Thank You"). Be the loudest one. Come on strong and belligerent in mild situations. And that's what his music is like. Outside of maybe Fahey's "America" what solo guitar record is as fucking LOUD as "Kensington Blues" or "I Do Play Rock and Roll" or "Black Dirt Sessions"? Sure there's moments of extreme beauty but even those are bold and self-assured and have the cockiness of a musician who spent 8 hours a day playing and honing his craft and knowing he was the shit. The scene from which Jack emerged initially was a fairly tight-knit network of like-minded musicians and friends. Also one of half-baked collaborations, over-supportiveness for garbage, over-documentation of every fart and bleep on a $10 CDR, and a general "my baby is so precious and special and unique!" level of over-indulgence. Be nice and be mild. Why would "niceness" ever be criteria for music or a musician? That Jack was a massively generous and loyal guy is beyond question. But Jack should be remembered as a person who, in a room of gushing positivity and smiling cooperation, was the one unafraid to proclaim that Sandy Bull sucked. WILLIE LANE (purveyor of dusted loner guitarisms) It's impossible to gauge the impact of Jack's physical surroundings on his approach to music. He truly loved Philadelphia, though, and that must have added fuel to his fire. Case in point: trips to the Italian market to fetch supplies for his incredible pizza probably excited him as much as any record could. But he did have a not-small group of close friends, living in Philly, who either shared or were equipped to discuss his (expansive, yet occasionally perverse) tastes in music. The man required honest, lively discourse, and he certainly got it when his pals gathered at intimate shows at Brickbat Books, Kung Fu Necktie, living rooms, galleries, or wherever a starving minstrel was allowed to pass the hat. That Philadelphia provided him with this environment is no small contribution to his work.