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The odd couple

Jesse Gallagher meets Biff Rose
By MATT PARISH  |  July 10, 2009

AMTRAK, HERE HE COMES: Gallagher heard Rose's "Molly" and a star was reborn. Or at least invited to the Lily Pad.

Once upon a time, when network TV ruled the land and Johnny Carson's Tonight Show made stars out of people on a regular basis, a guy named Biff Rose found his way into the spotlight. Rose was a shaggy, ornery New Orleans piano man and former comedian who played Tin Pan Alley–style ballads countered with freewheeling Lord Buckley puns. He was a regular on Carson for a couple of years (as well as hitting other shows, like TheSmothers Brothers Comedy Hour), and he released a string of beautiful cult-classic records through the '70s. David Bowie covered his "Fill Your Heart" on Hunky Dory. Then he disappeared.

Well, until now. Apollo Sunshine's Jesse Gallagher recently announced that Rose would be traveling from the Big Easy for a rare, one-night-only show this Wednesday at the cozy Lily Pad.

"It sounds weird, but having Biff come up is sort of completing this weird circuit I've been on lately," says Gallagher, whose full-time band have been letting the dust settle after last year's Shall Noise Upon (Headless Heroes), his partners settling down in Brooklyn and San Francisco. We're in his tiny apartment in Cambridge going over stacks of CD-Rs with titles scrawled in Sharpie that Rose has sent him since booking the show.

The convergence does seem fated, beginning with Rose's mopy 1968 masterpiece, "Molly."

"I first heard it at a studio in San Francisco last winter," says Gallagher. "Across the hall, all of a sudden this music started playing, coming out of the walls." The practice space belonged to the reunited noise-punk band Flipper. Gallagher had just formed a new group in Boston called the New Black Magic Rainbow Quartet, and "Molly" became the first song they played together.

Later this year, Gallagher took charge of some booking duties at the Lily Pad and decided to track Rose down. It didn't take long before he found himself poring over a Web site full of blunt music, strange prose, and new videos of Rose playing at a New Orleans coffee lounge. "I sent him an e-mail about playing and got a response from him 10 minutes later. He asked if we'd be passing a hat and if I had a couch he could sleep on."

Glancing over the guy's recent output — race-baiting cartoons like "Prince of Darkies," new songs like "Lady Hitler and the Dykes" and "Chinky Gee," and handwritten diatribes about getting kicked out of coffee shops — one might get the impression that Rose went off his rocker when we weren't looking. Gallagher assures me that he's a satirist, if not the most polished apple. "He's brilliant. But he's just a radical in general, so he sounds off on everything. He's been totally under the radar, so there's bound to be stuff people find outrageous."

When I talk to Rose, now 71, over a cellphone from his home in the Lower Garden District of New Orleans, I find a sweetly mannered voice far from the all-caps steam he maintains on the Internet. "When I got this e-mail from this guy Jesse, I said, 'This is it, man,' " he says in a whiskery Cajun accent. "That's a Biff Rose tour for you. I'm just waiting to get my Social Security check so I can go get my Amtrak tickets."

Rose, who paints faces for cash outside Saints games in the fall, walks the line in performance between gentle and barbed, weaving beatnik tangents through heartbreakers like "Molly" and "Shell of a Man." He's a fleet-fingered Broadway cherub as much as he is a less polite George Carlin with an ear for Bartók dissonance.

"Down in the Christ-haunted South, they say you can't be saved without Jesus Christ," he says. "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."

As for his performances: "I play piano and I improvise, that's it. I'll play some notes and do some one-liners. There's one song that goes, 'You make the bed and I'll put the rifle in the window,' but that says it all, so I don't need more words than that."

At the Lily Pad, Rose is asking that audience members haul in their own instruments to play between songs ("in lieu of applause"). "It's the Boston T-Mobile Party — there are a lot of celling points." (Nyuk-nyuk.)

Gallagher will be recording the entire set for underground release in the future and leading the group-participation efforts at the show. What is he looking for from Rose? "I don't really know what to expect, except that the guy's a genius. And he'll be sleeping on my couch."

"AN EVENING WITH BIFF ROSE" | Lily Pad, 1353 Cambridge St., Cambridge | July 15 at 10 pm | $10 | All ages |

Related: Apollo Sunshine open for Wu-Tang, Playlist: September 28, 2007, Download festival?, More more >
  Topics: Music Features , Jesus Christ, David Bowie, Johnny Carson,  More more >
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