The cover of Biff Rose’s first LP
Listen – Biff Rose – What’s Gnawing at Me – MP3
I hope the new week finds you well and filled with the optimism for the future.
No really, I do hope you’re well, but unless you’re heavily narcotized and/or independently wealthy, I don’t suspect you’re filled with anything more enlightened than dread.
However, I have just the antidote – however temporary – for such negativity, a fitting prescription for everything from mild suspicion to full blown paranoia.
His name is Biff Rose.
“Wha?” you say, wondering how anyone with the name Biff was doing anything aside from playing football and doing kegstands.
Well, my friends, nothing makes me happier than digging newly discovered (for me anyway) music, especially when that music is mind-blowing (if only in a mellow, arty way).
Such is the music of Biff Rose.
In truth, I think when I picked up this 45 – at the end of the day when I was too tired and in too much of a hurry to undo the portable – I think I may have actually thought I was buying a ‘TIM Rose’ 45 (or a cover of the Sweet Thursday song ‘Molly’, the title of this 45s flip side). When I got home and gave it one of those five-second cursory examinations under the stylus, it didn’t grab me much, so onto the stack it went, where it lay in wait, like a panther on a rock, waiting for my ears to saunter by so that it might pounce.
I’m not sure if I knew anything about Biff Rose before I fell in love with this 45 (and the remarkable album from which it came), other than that he had written (with Paul Williams) ‘Fill Your Heart’ which a certain David Bowie recorded on his ‘Hunky Dory’ album. The tune had also been recorded by none other than Tiny Tim, and it appears on the flip side of ‘Tip Toe Thru the Tulips’.
That said, once I got a hold of his debut album ‘The Thorn In Mrs Rose’s Side’, it hardly left my headphones for the better part of a week.
Rose got his start as a banjo toting stand up comedian, and eventually (thankfully) took up the piano, which became the main delivery device for his words and music.
He had a unique sensibility, which combined Tin Pan Alley pop, singer songwriter-isms and a twisted sense of humor (and wordplay), all wrapped up in a bittersweet romanticism. His music has the kind of sound that – at least at the beginning – demands the full attention of the listener, but when you really start to get it, you can’t get it out of your head.
Rose made music that would suggest a much less cynical Randy Newman, or at least one with a taste for vaudeville crossed with a more optimistic Fred Neil.
The tune I bring you today, ‘What’s Gnawing at Me’ is a perfect example of why ‘The Thorn In Mrs Rose’s Side’ is such a lost classic. It combines a sweet melody, filled with subtle hooks, all wrapped around Rose’s wonderful, introspective lyrics.
What I find especially interesting – and to dig this fully you need to have copies of both Rose’s LP and Bowie’s ‘Hunky Dory’ – is how much of an influence Rose had on Bowie at that point. It extended beyond the cover of ‘Fill Your Heart’, with Bowie really taking Rose’s sound to heart. I wouldn’t suggest that this was anything more than a passing infatuation, since Bowie changed styles like some people change their socks, but it’s impossible to hear both these records without making note of the influence one had upon the other.
Sadly, after his first LP – on which his songs had the benefit of lush arrangements – his later work is every bit as quirky (and more), but not nearly as accessible. Rose continued to record (though after a few albums they were mainly self recorded/released) and perform, as well as working as a visual artist and somewhat controversial performance artist.
‘The Thorn In Mrs. Rose’s Side’ and his second LP ‘Children of Light’ (both released in 1968) have been reissued together on a single CD, which I recommend highly.
I hope you dig the music, and I’ll be back later in the week with something groovy.