The Swarm

December 14, 2009

A Moving Tribute to American Guitarist Jack Rose...

Rob V



I had the vast pleasure of meeting Jack Rose for the first time in Richmond, Virginia in September 1995. I was there to visit Mike Gangloff, founder and member of Pelt, an astounding, then under-rated band that Jack had been playing with for I believe under a year, along with their newest member Pat Best. All three were Good People, but Jack was a bit of an enigma when we first shook hands.

Jack was a little wary, as southerners often are, of a New Yorker coming to visit, but when I pulled up in my car, which I was living out of while traveling the U.S. for a year, I was playing a tape of the then hard-to-find Dead C classic “Harsh 70’s Reality” 2xLP. I was instantly accepted into Jack’s world, and the first hour of quiet suspicion lead to an afternoon, evening and night drinking whiskey, smoking and playing records and tapes of bands we both loved.

I gave copies of Dead C and other New Zealand bands to Jack to hunt down later (he was never a music pirate, but that goes without saying) while he turned me on to bands I’ve never heard of, the most important being Charalambides, the then three-piece of Tom & Christina Carter and Jason Bill, not as a suggestion, but as a strict, forceful order (with much finger wagging) that I seek them out when I made way to Houston, TX in my travels. I arrived a few weeks after they quit their weekly gig at some bar/club/cafĂ© but I later got to meet them and consider them good friends to this day. It was Tom Carter who called today to tell me the bad news; thanks to Tom for not letting me find out by reading it somewhere.

The reason I bother explaining the above is that many people found Jack to be “stand-offish” or “hard to deal with”, because they confused the combination of his shyness, his extreme self-criticism about his own music, his sudden sarcastic wisecracks, and his quiet/gregarious dual nature. Jack could sit silently for hours listening to music or letting people he didn’t find interesting talk away (although too polite to leave or say something) or could be one of the most knowledgeable, talkative, outright Music Fanatics… nay, Freaks, with a capital “F”, that I’ve had the pleasure to know.

Being an overly talkative music slut myself, it’s always wonderful to meet a kindred spirit, but with Jack it was something more – he was even more enthusiastic than I, and to my surprise, one of the 3–4 people I call friends who knew far, far more about the music we both loved than I. So my visit to Richmond sparked a long-lasting, wonderful friendship, one of the few where I felt I always received far more than I could possibly give. The kind of friendship that should be too rare to end.

Back then, Jack didn’t want to talk about his “blues roots” – rumor was he that he was a young blues prodigy who gave it all up before letting himself turn into a self-centered wanker like John Mayer or Fat White Guys who think they know The Blues. He was completely into the “new” Pelt, which started as the best “back when they were good” Sonic Youth styled band, that then became something completely new and different, with all the members bringing every possible sonic reference, style, and talent to the table, to create music well-grounded with many roots, yet completely utterly unique, that will someday be recognized as far, far more important and interesting than most any music made in the 1990’s.

A disclaimer: I had the pleasure of touring, and even playing a tiny bit, with Pelt in 1998 during one of their several high-points, and their “Rob’s Choice” CD was compiled and mastered by me. And poorly named for me as well. So all I say is highly biased. But why not? Jack had strong biases, and the world was a better place for it.

Jack and I traded some tapes and kept in touch until Pelt made the mistake of doing their one and only West Coast tour, although playing at Terrastock that year (1998) made it necessary. Their set at that year’s festival is, and rightly so, considered one of the best, if not the best set of that year – played in an S.F. warehouse room of people sitting and just letting the brilliance of Pelt take them over and overtake them.

At that time, Jack was alternating between electric guitar and a tambura, which he did brilliantly, but did not showcase his brilliance: Pelt were a band of some of the best American musicians alive today, not a “Rock Star w/band” like the world of Top 40. The audience stood only for a long, necessary ovation at the end. It was beautiful, and I hope to share the many photos I took; a number of them were used for artwork on several Pelt CDs.

It was on that tour that I got to see “grumpy Jack”, another aspect of his personality that could be off-putting, but knowing him, was part of his charm. And unlike some very temperamental artists, Jack’s “grump” came out only for good reason and went away as soon as things were resolved. Anyone who could accept a little criticism or needed an ego-check found this to be yet another reason to love him. He checked me when I needed to be checked, and I thank him for that, since only a true friend will step up to that hard task.

Jack: “Man, it’s fucking hot and dry here (east Texas rest stop.)”

Me: “Dude, you should feel what it’s like at Burning Man…”

Jack: “Will you shut the fuck up about Burning Man? It sounds stupid, I’m not going, and I don’t need to keep hearing about how it’s ‘more this’ and ‘more that’ already”.

Me: ”[gulp] Sorry. Yeah, I’ve been blathering about it. I’ll drop it. Thanks.”

It was about two years later, as I poorly recall, that he rang me up, asking me if I could help him with booking a solo tour in the Pacific Northwest – he’d returned to acoustic guitar and decided to follow the footsteps of his heroes, Robbie Basho (who he sent me records of that blew my mind), John Fahey (a Northwest Hero still mostly unknown outside Music Geek and European circles, much like jazz) and Peter Walker (who everyone thought was dead, much to Peter’s happiness.) I was more than willing, and made sure he knew my home was his.

And so over the years, Jack managed to make the West Coast at least three, maybe four times. He was the Perfect Guest for me: I’d leave the door unlocked so he could just show up and come in, and every time was the same:

He’d bellow loudly, being a big Grizzly of a man, that he’d arrived and was going to “take a fucking shower”. I’d yell back that towels were already out, and he’d head for the bathroom, only to stop, and head back to the ‘fridge for a “beer after driving a long time”.

Fortunately I lucked out on his first visit and picked a beer he fell in love with. He’d swig it down in under a minute, often while headed for the shower, once while taking one, and we both understood that the time for “hello” and “catching up” came after that. As someone who likes my friends to feel at home in my house, I can’t think of anyone who did it better, and by just being himself, made me feel good the moment he’d arrive.

His gigs in Portland were always sparsely attended, but having lived here for so long, at least I could assure him the audience was full of people I knew to be the kind who were very picky about who they would take time out to see him play live.

I always offered to record his gigs but he was, sadly, not in the habit of recording most any gigs; a reaction to Pelt’s “record everything” approach (both takes totally valid, I believe.) I would do my best to help with sound to make sure his brilliance came across, and was delighted that an insanely limited CD-R release was titled “Portland, OR” with the old “Hung Far Low” coaster on the cover (don’t bother looking, all 12 copies are accounted for.) For me, it was as great an honor as Pelt’s “Rob’s Choice” but with the brilliance of not including me in particular (I loathe cameras and spotlights.) That he always included an extra “hang-over day” after playing Portland does both me and my city proud.

He was very strict about showing up insanely early to gigs, and trying hard to sound check in a town full of flakes, lousy sound-persons, and being the West Coast, always slow and late (which drove him insane). Still, we still had plenty of time to go record shopping, and after it opened, visit his claimed favorite music shop, Mississippi Records, a place that was like a crack house to us both, although having a mortgage, I was forced to show far more restraint… despite him sticking a record (never a CD!) in my face every minute and asking if I had it, and if not, that I should, “dammit!” And despite his outward gruffness, we never left that store without him handing me one of those records that I passed on buying. Jack didn’t just give his own music, but also the foundations already laid, upon which he stood. Few musicians I’ve met do that.

He even had a favorite Portland pizza joint which was a long but good walk from my house, that impressed him because he had worked making pizza, including the skill to do it at home, and was, like his music, extremely, fanatically picky about proper pizza, his food, his drink, his music, and his personal life. Again, off-putting to some, but to me, the reason to live and not settle for a McLife, as he never did.

My last, best, and most sad experience spending time with Jack was when he was touring with Peter Walker (yes, I thought Mr. Walker was dead too) and getting the honor of having them stay three-plus days. Meeting Peter was an honor; finding him to be a kind, gentle, easy-going Woodstock, NY local (a fellow escapee from New York City) was even better.

Most fortunate was having the luck of their arrival happening after Jack was past his total adoration of Peter and into a “kindred spirit” relationship that made the visit full of delight and wonder for every single second – I honestly had to sleep most of day after they left. The “sad” part of the experience was the shite product that is Sony’s MiniDisc and their recorders. I had turned Jack on to Absinthe two visits prior, and so it had become an expected, de facto plan to spend an evening, before or after a gig (never before or during) enjoying Absinthe’s wonders, which Jack took to even more than myself; once again, showing he just had a much deeper understanding of things of this world than I had ever thought humanly possible.

He’d talked it up to Mr. Walker before the visit, and so after their gig (attendance 60, but people paying attention, maybe a dozen) we got back to my place, unloaded and Jack, who could be as quiet, polite, and shy as he was out-going, gruff, and sometimes scary, asked quietly & politely if we might try some as Peter never had. Of course, I’d never pass an opportunity to bring out my best and do a “vertical tasting” of 8 styles of my stock (Absinthe is style of medicinal liquor; think of bourbon, not a name brand) and share them with Good People.

I purposefully held back on two rounds knowing I was where my headspace should be amongst two geniuses, so I could appreciate their interaction, which lead to an impromptu session of Jack and Peter trading licks and songs back and forth as well as playing together. They were so engaged, these lovers and artisans of music, that I was able to sneak away to get a PZM mic and a MiniDisc recorder. Sadly, that night’s jam session, that went well into the wee hours of the morn, produced no recording, as the MD died in that physical way they do – I even paid for a “recovery” but was refunded when it couldn’t be done.

Still, I would not trade that precious night and their playing, talking, sharing tricks and tips and showing each other licks – Jack’s deep blues knowledge and finger-picking skills against Peter’s several years of studying Flamenco guitar in Spain for several winters – I’ve had few nights like that in my life. It went on and on, and I do not recall speaking a single word. I learned more about guitar-playing that night than all the years I’ve poorly played.

So when I got an email today (Mon 7 Dec 2009) from Tom Carter saying he was really having a bad day, I wrote back, assuming it was NYC finally weighing in on him, and talking up the coincidence that I had put writing him on my “to do list”. So I was delighted when the phone rang, until he shared the bad news, which I knew long before he said it, given his tone of voice, and the email that included a lot of talk about Jack – who I was expecting to tour once his upcoming Thrill Jockey LPs were released and was excited to get to hang with again.

So only a few hours of trying not to think about it, I write this in lieu of working, because I just cannot bottle up the painful sadness of knowing I will never get to spend time with Jack again. Friends move away; get married and disappear from social life; move to other countries, etc. But death is death: the true definition of finality.

Having written this much, I find myself in tears and wanting to finish it, although I know it’s a piss-poor job of expressing just what a terrible loss it is, for myself, for his wife and friends, and for the music world, that Jack passed at only 38 years old.

What’s left to say?

Jack will never finish the last half-rack of his fave beer (no longer made) that I’d cellared for him; I’ll not again be gifted with an LP I’ve never heard of that would change my concepts about music; there will never finally be a Jack Rose show in Portland at a good club/bar with myself or someone competent doing the sound so that it didn’t piss him off… the list goes on.

The Thrill Jockey LPs were going to launch him, I have no doubt, given how hard and long he worked on the new music and what a great label it is, into the kind of semi-fame that Fahey and others of the odd-edgy-avant folk music scene had achieved, and none too soon in my opinion.

I realize his death will probably bring him that status, but I am sorry – too little, too late. Mr. Jack Rose was a fine man, a good husband, someone who’d been through the trials of life and came out of them with a passion which he poured directly, unfiltered & full-proof, into his music and art, but to me, having him crashing and stomping into my house – tired, dirty, thirsty, but feeling he was at home, only makes the loss hurt that much more.

Artists of Jack’s caliber are almost always intolerable assholes, or worse. Jack might have seemed that way on the surface, but those of us fortunate and lucky enough to get to know him will always appreciate that he broke that axiom: you can be a truly, fantastically talented artist and a regular, down-to-earth human being at the same time. I think that “blue-collar working man” vibe shows in his music if you look for it, and makes it even better when you find it.

The only thing I can say now is that when they said “only the good die young,” I realize now as I grow older that it means, more often than not, that “being good at something” is probably what “good” was meant to mean, not “church-going” or “alms-giving”. But two days before I wrote this – the current world of music, which frankly I believe to be in a very bad slump, has lost one of the few who was burning a bright and colorful torch that gave those who knew his work a reason to look forward to the future.

Much love, Jack. I hope your gig with Heaven’s Chorus is a good one. And if you’re headed the other way, can you book me a room? We still have so much to talk (over each other) about: so many records, so many musicians, so many, many things. That first drink is on me.


Writer Rob V. can be reached at robvaughn [at] gmail.com



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