Biff Rose Comes to Boston (Phoenix, 7.10.09)

Posted on July 17, 2009


For those of you who may not know (it should add up to a lot of you), Biff Rose was a vagabond songwriter who enjoyed a decent amount of fame throughout the late ’60s and early ’70s thanks to some virtuoso piano playing, some heartbreaking songs with chord changes that just curled over each other in all kinds of inventive ways, and a totally goofball sense of humor somewhere between George Carlin, Lord Buckley, and the uncle you had that loved to flick your ears and give you painful Dutch rubs. He did a show at the piano that goes back to ’50s lounge acts, ’60s folk singers and vaudeville — 30% music, 70% riffing on one-liners and puns.

The facts you’ll always find are that Bowie covered his “Buzz the Fuzz” regularly at live shows and did a version of his “Fill Your Heart” on Hunky Dory. He had a year-long stint on The Tonight Show and popped up on The Smothers Brothers a lot. Michael Nesmith produced a record of his called Roast Beef. When he felt like his name was big enough, he bought a VW bus and hit the road for seven years. Then his light just kind of flickered out.

Well, Apollo Sunshine’s Jesse Gallagher dug him up one day and somehow got him to come up to the Lily Pad in Boston for a show. Gallagher had just gotten turned on to Rose after randomly hearing “Molly,” maybe Rose’s greatest song, blasting out of Flipper’s practice space of all places (yeah, that Flipper). It turns out, Rose has been working all along, just in a more under-the-radar manner. Maybe it’s better off that way — the guy’s been getting more and more off the wall, invoking Hitler’s birthday whenever he can, flaunting various phonetic spellings of “nigger” in a stubborn free speech crusade, and gunning for this girl at a New Orleans cafe who stopped giving him free coffee.

Talking to him for the article ended up being a sort of dizzying experience that left me feeling like the guy was intent on throwing up a dust storm of blatantly un-PC material to either a) get some attention, b) blow off steam, or in an incredible mastermind scenario, c) constructing a web of absurdity to prove everyone’s defensive stances to be meaningless. I’m no head shrink and it would be totally useless to come to any conclusions about anything from my limited exposure to the situation, but I did like this quote from Rose:

“The Chinese saying goes, ‘Hurt the paper.’ So I take aim at the paper with my writing. Down in the Christ-haunted South, they say you can’t be saved without Jesus Christ. But every 20 years someone goes into a Shoney’s and shoots 24 people anyway. I think a little bloodletting, a little at a time — that’s excellent.”

Anyway, I saw Rose play finally at the Lily Pad, and his performance was incredible. There were plenty of awkward moments — yeah, he brought up the coffee girl and explained how much easier it was to kill someone with a Bible than the Koran — but his skill with the piano is something to behold, and the man has a genuine love for the deep, dark musical history of his hometown, New Orleans, and the vast reaches of its musical past, from “pterodactyls in the swamp” to “the little Mozart bird music that came from Germany.” To paraphrase a friend, it’s hard to dismiss a character as irascible and weird as Rose, no matter what his faults are, when there are so few of them left anymore.

Link to article at Phoenix here.