Biff Rose, |
Once upon a time, way back in the 1960s, there was a banjo-toting lad out of New Orleans named Biff Rose. Well, he moseyed up New York City way and became something of a fixture on the coffeehouse circuit for a span of years, until a certain wanderlust and the hippie movement swept him up and carried him relentlessly westward to L.A.
In this new home, he took up the piano, got himself a record contract and got discovered by those tasked with crafting the "scene." For a number of years on into the 1970s, he was an infrequent fixture on The Tonight Show and was sufficiently interesting in his art so that he caught the attention of a small but devoted coterie of fans, including David Bowie, who would give Rose his measure of enduring fame by covering his song "Fill Your Heart." Biff's own recording career would be modest, with titles on Tetragammaton and Buddah, and would fade out as the '70s continued their progress towards the 1980s.
And time passed. Rose did not disappear altogether, as he paid the freight via regular touring and occasional self-produced releases. As the personal computer and the world wide web reinvented communications, Rose rose, as it were, like a phoenix, born anew in this new technology and this new means of reaching out to a new audience. Because, make no mistake about it, Rose is a man with Something to Say. Or rather, a number of Somethings.
Pretty much forever, those tasked with describing Rose's art to the uninitiated have grappled with how best to get that job done. Not wholly a singer/composer as generally defined, and not exactly a humorist, though compared any of number of times down through the years to George Carlin, Tom Lehrer, and other social commentarians, Rose seems mostly to occupy his own niche in the universe, though his work invariably invokes the craft of others (as will be noted in my comments on E-Stir Pa-Raid).
Which brings us, in a somewhat roundabout fashion, to the work at hand. E-Stir Pa-Raid was my first exposure to Biff Rose, but led to exploration of the rest of his creative corpus, if only to give me some context in which to place this work. I noted earlier that Rose was a man with Something to Say, and this disc has confirmed that to me, though what is substantially less clear is just exactly what is going on here. On one level, it would be easy to be dismissive of the work, because it is nothing if not relentlessly self-indulgent, but yet, as Mr. Stills once observed, there is indeed something happening here, even though what it is may well be substantially less than clear. Having made that global observation, a few notes on some of the stops on this particular outing would be in order.
The opening offering, "We Don't Want Black People Being Muslims," really captures the flavor of the whole disc. Stream-of-consciousness rapping in a somewhat frenzied style, travelling the observational highway of a Bill Hicks, only with considerably less anger and coherance. "Mother of Hitler" features a weird piano-bar-from-Hell accompaniment, while in the autobigraphical "What Career," Rose seems to be channeling Frank Zappa with synth steel drums. The "Ballad of David Geffen" is a bit of lounge lizard patter driven by Biff's beef with "the business," but has a certain poetry, reminding this listener of a somewhat more kosher Lord Buckley with a personal agenda. "Sandy's Oyster" is sweet, a little ragtime ditty in which Dr. John meets Tiny Tim, with Van Dyke Parks sitting in as sideman. It should be noted that the best work on this disc is this sort of occasional side trip into sweetness; the bile of many other rants mires the other tunes in a miasma of self absorption.
Let's see here. Various other notes, which could apply to many of the tunes.........Nilsson on Darvon.........Randy Newman on steroids.........manic barmaids and Afghans.........rapping with Divinity and the Indigo Girls -- well, heck. You see the problem here. One will either be transported by this sort of thing, or they won't. Biff Rose seems to be a man who once had a pretty rose-colored view of humanity, but whose faith has somewhat curdled over time. As a bit of entertainment, there's no way that I could recommend E-Stir Pa-Raid, but as an interesting insight into the deconstruction of an artistic spirit, this is as fine a document as one might desire. If one would like a more accessable, less burned-out vision of Rose's music and commentary, his earlier work on vinyl is recommended, but if you are interested is just how time and perhaps decades of ... something, perhaps substance abuse, can work its will on a psyche, by all means, E-Stir Pa-Raid will provide meat for your feast. This Beat Poet of the Internal Landscape Trapped in a World He Never Made is definitely marching to his own xylophone. And what's the deal with George Carlin...?