After bringing my car to a halt, switching off the lights and the windscreen wipers, I took out my phone to look at the text message I had received while driving. A friend had written to tell me that Jack Rose had passed away the day before, at home in Philadelphia.
My wife, who would also consider herself a friend of Jack’s, was sitting beside me. I was paralysed and choked; she knew immediately that something was wrong. I shuffled in my seat, twisted and wriggled, trying my best to forestall the moment, as if at any second a further message might arrive saying he’d decided to come back. That I wouldn’t have to tell her and it wouldn’t be real.
This is the first time I have lost a friend. It’s the first time I have lost anyone as an adult, and it’s a friend who was far too young. Jack was thirty eight. One hundred years ago, a time that seems more suited to Mr Rose than this one, it would have been considered unseemly to write about one’s own reactions to Death with a capital D at the passing of a man. So with that in mind I’m intending to share a few stories and keep the useless shit to a minimum.
How Jack and I made a bond, and why I will miss him as a man and a musician.
Just over three years ago I got bored of travelling the four hours to Bristol or the six hours to London to catch a live performance by a band whose music moved me. So I started emailing musicians via myspace, asking them if they’d like to come play a show down in Cornwall. I told them it was out of the way, but that it was worth the sidetracking. Jack Rose was one of the first to respond. Without being particularly wordy he conveyed his enthusiasm and put me on to his booking agent in the UK, another connection that I owe him thanks for.
So in May 2007 I met Jack off a train. I got a warm greeting from a giant, but only after he had lit that post-travel cigarette, a sight which is likely familiar to anyone who knew him. He was carrying two guitars and a suitcase. I was nervous. At the time I still had trouble seeing a human on the other side of music that resonated with my soul. That’s a barrier that Jack helped ease me through. He knew how to take a compliment and wasn’t one for false modesty, but he didn’t walk the ground as anything other than a regular bloke, albeit an eccentric one.
At the time we lived in a cramped one bedroom terraced house on a narrow street. We had given Jack our bedroom and intended to spend the two nights on a fold out bed downstairs, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Over the course of three days and two nights Jack played two unamplified shows to packed-out crowds of 40 in a local record shop and a café. I hardly knew how to put on a show. I didn’t know how to advertise. I barely put 10 posters up but somehow 80 people appeared and more besides missed out. People read it with disbelief in The Wire live listings, others heard it on the grape vine. Many came to both shows.
On that night I met people from up to an hours drive away who share my love and passion for certain music. Since those nights these same people, aged 18 to 70, have come to pretty much every show we have promoted. So Jack is also to thank for being the catalyst in a community that came together over his music and has been coming together ever since. On the first night he was jolly, almost talkative.
Fuck it, let’s have some music. It was a three hour session of weeping and laughing and drinking to his records that got me through it on Saturday night, so here’s a video someone took on that night back in 2007.
On the second night he was gruff, almost agitated. It seemed like something was boiling, but the music was as captivating as ever. Afterwards we went to a pub with a handful of people from the show; you could safely say that Jack enjoyed Cornish ale. He told one person that Godspeed You Black Emperor had ripped off his old band Pelt, he talked to people about classic rock and swapped a Kensington Blues CD for a cartoon that someone had drawn for him.
There are a handful of other memories that stand out. When it came time to pay him for his work I laid the notes out on the table. Jack burst through any and all awkwardness, shook his head, and proceeded to show me how to wrap the fifth twenty around the four for the easy handling of hundreds. He told me to do it like that in future and I have ever since. It was another small gesture that meant something to him, something that could be done properly, a source of satisfaction. Like cooking a certain meal to perfection, or mastering a new flick and hammer on the bottom string… but he didn’t make me feel like an idiot, he just showed me.
One of the very few requests made through the agent was to ask that we provide a bottle of whisky, something which became a long running joke between the two of us. Not being a connoisseur myself, I tried to save money by buying a bottle of something that looked like Southern Comfort. Anyone who knows Jack is probably smiling with the knowledge of what comes next. I hadn’t noticed that the bottle was made of a hard plastic and not glass, and that the description on the back read “orange flavoured liqueur drink”.
Jack politely but definitively refused it, with no aggression whatsoever. The next time he came to stay I broke it out, still untouched. And we laughed hard. I wish I’d kept it for last month, when he visited with the Black Twig Pickers to tour that magnificent album they made this year. Jack got out of the car four weeks ago and bypassed my handshake for a huge hug. Fuck. Now it’s the tears again. He did the same in reverse when he left. I retraced those steps yesterday, I saw the car leaving in my mind’s eye. Jack cramped into the back seat, raising his hand to wave goodbye.
We’ve had a lot of musicians to stay, but only a handful of them have become my friends, and only a couple made that connection that I knew could stretch on for good. At least I hoped it would. Jack should be coming back to play next year, but he’s not. I’ve been devastated all weekend. I never met Jack’s wife, but I send her my deepest condolences. I’m glad he had been home from touring a while. I get the impression that there are hundreds of people spread across Europe and the U.S.A who are feeling the loss of something far more than a fine musician.
He was irrepressibly warm; once Jack and you were friends he took that connection seriously. Unless you asked him to go camping, or do some other “hippy shit” outdoors of course: not his first love. There was a sense of honour and duty which manifested itself as brotherly love, crude jokes and piss-taking. Jack took great delight in telling me that he had scrawled “Keith is a Fag” all over a poster advertising last years Hush Arbors album in a record shop somewhere in the South. He even showed me a photo of it on his phone.
It probably goes without saying that he loved music, but it moved him to communicate in a way that many other musicians do not. When discussing the latest Six Organs of Admittance album he announced with passion that it was the finest Six Organs record since Dark Noontide. He said it in a way that implied a deep-seated respect for his contemporaries. He also told me he was digging the new Voice of the Seven Woods album that will be released in February. He was positively excited about it, it had ignited something inside him and it was keeping him warm. It was playing with his fertile imagination, the imagination that informed his majestic playing.
There are many other stories about Jack and I don’t feel like I’ve done him justice here, but I’ve run out of steam. I hadn’t gotten around to emailing him and telling him how much I loved his forthcoming solo (but not alone) record ‘Luck in the Valley’, how glad I was to hear him continue to work with others like the Twigs and Hans Chew. How there were new shades in his work, how he’d taken some of the dust from the old time path he’d been walking these past few years and scattered it like a scent along another of his very own forging.
Everytime Jack brought out a new record I expected it would be the one I didn’t like, the one which trod too much of the same ground. But every time I found myself captivated, the preconceptions carried to dust. He was a true player and he always followed his muse.
Though there are regrets, I’m glad that he knew he would always be welcome here for reasons other than his impeccable six string playing. When I see him, I see him smiling, wearing that woollen hat. I remember him approaching people who he’d met briefly at previous shows here, like my mother and my friends, and asking them how they’d been since. It seems that although I didn’t know him that long, and didn’t see him every weekend for a beer, that the loss one feels is equivalent to the size of the hole left by the heart lost. Jack might have been a big man, but his heart was bigger still. There’s always going to be a gap in my life.
On Wednesday December 9th at 1930 GMT a friend and I are doing a Goodbye Jack show on our local FM community radio. You can listen via the internet here. We would like to invite anyone reading this to send in suggestions of non-Jack tracks to be played, perhaps ones they knew he loved, or memories, jokes and stories about Jack that you’d like to hear read. Anything at all really. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org by 1500 GMT on the 9th of December. The show will be going out live but will also be recorded, so if you’re reading this too late there should be a link in the comments below to a stream of the show.
Long live the music and memories of Jack Rose. “The King of the Six String” as the text message I received rightly declared him to be. Farewell Jack.