The boy with The Thorn in his side

On the record with Jesse Gallagher and Biff Rose
By JONATHAN DONALDSON  |  November 23, 2010

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ROSE BOWL Recalls Jesse Gallagher of his summer with Biff Rose, “I’d wake up in the morning and he would have made coffee and already written 10 pages of lyrics.”

This could be a fairy tale. In 1968, a New Orleans songwriter named Biff Rose recorded an album called The Thorn in Mrs. Rose's Side. Part Uncle Remus, part Cheshire Cat, and part musicologist, Rose was a fresh voice — and not one to leave a bland impression. The album was full of grand Hollywood strings, rollicking piano, and Rose's own sprightly and romantic singing, yet in subsequent years it all but disappeared. Today, tracks like "Fill Your Heart" (famously covered by Bowie on 1971's Hunky Dory) remind us that Rose's best work should have been remembered alongside other touchstones of American wit and ingenuity from 1968, such as Harry Nilsson's Aerial Ballet, Van Dyke Parks's Song Cycle, or even Randy Newman's homonymous debut.

Fast-forward a few decades to 2009: Rose was busy living out the rest of his life in relative obscurity when Apollo Sunshine's Jesse Gallagher brought him up from New Orleans for a gig. The two hit it off so well that, a year later, Gallagher had Rose up to Cambridge to record a new album in his kitchen studio. "He slept on my couch for months," says Gallagher, who started off as a simple admirer of Rose's conversational ease and no-limits approach to music before becoming his own hero's musical director. All summer, the 73-year-old Rose lived in his new-found producer's third-floor walk-up, writing and recording The Thorn 2 — the "sequel" to the album Rose recorded back when he was not much older than Gallagher himself.

"I'd wake up in the morning," says Gallagher, "and he would have made coffee and already written 10 pages of lyrics. It was so inspiring." The inspiration was mutual. Gallagher's freewheeling lifestyle reminded Rose more than a bit of the younger man he used to be, and some of The Thorn 2's songs (such as "Sue Bell Blues" and "Tanya from España") were written about Gallagher himself. "I'm kind of excited about it," says Gallagher. "We connect on so many different levels."

Rose recalls the sessions with boyish excitement. "We called it kitchen-synch recordings: 'We go down in synch!'," he says, laughing over the phone from New Orleans. Rose started out as a comedian, and he hasn't lost his touch. "We'd be recording and sweating. We had to turn on the fan so we could try to keep out the street traffic. And boy, those damn fire engines coming out of that firehouse on Inman Square across from 1369, that's part of the album. You can hear 'em in the background. People think it's the horn section."

A cherubic raconteur, Rose is like a walking mimeograph, recounting tales of love, adventure, and bad taste to his audience. But for someone who likes to squish together issues of language, race, religion, and sex with the Great American Songbook, reaching that audience can be tricky. On "Mama's Boy," he sings of Michelle Obama, "I'd like to make her part of my 'fine ass' committee!" Maybe you can hear Redd Foxx singing that one, but probably not this one from "Harvard National Blues," where Rose throws a race- and religion-filled Molotov cocktail in your face: "Sarah said, 'Oh Abraham, go knock up Hagar. I need a big Niggar to pick some cotton bales. I need some summer frocks. These bearskins are killing me — I'm shrewder than a fox.' "

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