December 8th, 2005


Adding acid to oompah

"Happiness is happening, the dragons have been bled". I've known the song "Fill Your Heart" since I was a kid, and sung along with it gleefully (David Bowie's "Hunky Dory" is my favourite singalong album) without really stopping to think who wrote it. I vaguely knew it was a cover version, and that Bowie was singing it with half his tongue in his cheek. I vaguely assumed its composer was some acid-fried freak who'd sung it sincerely. Then last week someone told me that another Bowie song, "Buzz The Fuzz"—which I thought sounded like Belle and Sebastian's "Sukie in the Graveyard"—was also a Biff Rose cover. (You can hear both Bowie covers, performed live, here, scroll down.)

So I went to the Barnes and Noble site and listened to all the soundclips of Biff Rose's 1968 and 1969 albums "Thorn in Mrs Rose Side" and "Children of Light", and damn it, this sounds like an essential artist, some combination of David Ackles, Tom Lehrer, Dory Previn, Jonathan Richman, Randy Newman, even Sondheim, with moments of McDermott and Ragni's satirical hippy opera "Hair". There are even echoes of electronic eccentric Bruce Haack, since Van Dyke Parks can be heard on some of these songs playing (very early) Moog synthesiser. And of course figures like Neil Young (minus the cloying sincerity) and Tiny Tim are in there too (it was Tiny Tim who first covered "Fill Your Heart", even before its author released it himself).

"A vaudeville entertainer reincarnated as a spacy hippie" is how All Music Guide describes Rose, "with an arch and whimsical tone that both reflected and mocked the counterculture. When he sang about flowery love and idyllic free living, there were sarcastic and ironic undercurrents that made him hard to take seriously; at the same time, the words were too far out for him to get accepted by Broadway or the easy-listening pop market." Rose could almost be Adam Green's hippy grandad. He's so uncool he's cool, hip yet square, a balladeer of oddly infectious positivity, a kind of Sergeant Pepper figure, adding acid to oompah. On songs like "Communist Sympathizer" and "Ballad of Cliches" he's almost Tom Lehrer, but on the gorgeous-sounding "Gentle People", "The Stars", "Paradise Almost Lost", "Ain't No Great Day", "Children of Light" and "Sun in Moon" he couldn't be anybody but himself.

"It's a Santa Claus world where everyone dines on gluttonous steaks and champagnes and wines", goes "American Waltz", a kind of deranged Gilbert O'Sullivan lurch in 3/4 time. People, I must have this album immediately, by fair means or foul! Does anybody out there have it? Fill your heart with love today! (I'm momasu at gmail.) I'd order it online, but something tells me that my own record (currently dallying with absurdist torch, in songs with titles like "Nervous Heartbeat") must collide with this one immediately.

I really ought to buy it, though, and give Biff some royalties. Rose is still around, a charming, lecherous, damaged old man who drags wheeled pianos around the streets of New Orleans and plays for the black kids. He was apparently displaced from his home by Hurricane Katrina, and made a rap about it. He makes a better loopy hippy balladeer than a rapper, that's for sure... but what on earth is The Ballad of Max's Kansas City about? And what's this about a "an inter-racial sex manual for twelve year olds" called "A Tablespoon Of Sperm"?