Tim Rose: Interview by Ian Johnston

 (Ian Johnston is the author of Bad Seed, the biography of Nick Cave)

Photo: Tim & me

On his 1986 EP Your Funeral... My Trial, Nick Cave paid tribute to the sixties singer/songwriter Tim Rose by covering his remorseful murder ballad, Long Time Man. Earlier the same year, Cave included Hey Joe on his covers album Kicking Against the Pricks. The Bad Seeds' arrangement carried echoes of Tim Rose's adaptation of the old blues standard. Late last year, Cave appeared on stage with Rose at the Half Moon in Putney and sang Long Time Man and Hey Joe with him.

Rose was born in 1940. After leaving school, he worked in a number of dead-end jobs, playing in several groups, before enlisting in the U.S. Air Force. Having resigned his commission, Rose studied at Washington University, where he met 'Mama' Cass Elliot. Rose, Mama Cass and James Hendricks formed the Big Three in the early 60s and they recorded two albums before splitting in 1963/4. Rose went on to play in the Greenwich Village gig circuit in New York City, before signing to CBS in 1966. Other labels had expressed an interest in the singer but had found his raw emotive voice difficult to categorise, either as folk or pop.

His 1967 debut album for CBS, Morning Dew, is quite simply a timeless masterpiece, a powerful collection of songs, including Long Time Man and Hey Joe, delivered with grit, passion and guts. Morning Dew was reissued on CD by Demon Records/Edsel Records in 1988 (EDCD 267). Buy a copy and search for his second CBS album Through Rose Coloured Glasses and his 1970 Capitol LP Love, A Kind of Hate Story on vinyl.

At present it appears likely that Cave will collaborate further with Rose. helping create a group for a new Tim Rose album. Rose discusses this project, his admiration for Cave's work and his own approach to songwriting in the following interview, conducted in Earls Court, London, 22 March 1997.

How did you hear Nick's cover version of your song?

There is a film being put together about me by a Dutch production company. At the beginning of last year, one of the producers sent me a copy of Nick doing Long Time Man and Hey Joe. That's the first time I heard about him. The producers then contacted Nick through his management here in London. Through that, Nick sent them a very nice hand-written letter about me and how I influenced his early music and so forth. They sent me a copy of this letter. That's how I heard about Nick. I hadn't heard about him in New York. I think his new album (The Boatman's Call) is brilliant; it's beautiful. It was when I came over to England in the middle of last year that I realised what a phenomenon he was in Europe. I mean, the opening line of that song . . . who could write a line like that and sing it? "I don't believe in an interventionist God." If a lyricist sat down with me and said, "This is the first line" I'd say, "Right, how do you make that musical?" But he did; he did. And the video that goes along with it . . . black and white, very low key: brilliant video. It's very dark, but touching at the same time. there is real humanity there.

Do you remember writing Long Time Man?

Well, the title is a Southern expression. That's what the Southern chain gangs used to call a guy who was there for life. The rest of the song is more or less derivative of my Southern roots. I'm from the South. I didn't actually kill anyone, by the way. It's not based on personal experience, although a lot of people think it is. The town in the song, Jacksonville, strangely enough, I've been to. There was a song, Are You Lonely for Me, Baby by Freddie Jackson that was out during the mid-sixties and the opening line was "It's the last train to Jacksonville." That had such a nice ring to it. When I wrote the song I was living in New York. I had just finished touring with this little group I'd put together called The Fawns, before I signed to CBS. The hotel I was living in was kind of a showbiz hotel: Eric Burdon was living there; cheap but nice, if you know what I mean. I sat on my bed and I wrote the song. The night before, I'd been out with some girl who had been in an Andy Warhol movie. She was a strange woman. So, I had a coffee and the line "I was down in Jacksonville one cold winter night" just came and the song grew from there.

So the song is just a straight murder ballad?

Yeah. Not to be simplistic, but when I write anything, I don't think of it as a metaphor or anything like that. I have always written two types of songs: about a specific event - I guess you could read a lot of symbolism into that - and generic songs about feelings or emotions. I find those a little hard to write about - emotion songs. Nick's new album is all love ballads and I know how hard it is to write like that. It's easier to write a "I love you but I'm gonna kill you anyway" song, for me anyway, because you can get a handle on it.

In that you have some distance from your subject?

Yes, you're almost like the observer. It's a little harder to write the kind of songs Nick has done on his new album - or love ballads, you know. People say my song, Morning Dew, has symbolism, but I go back, and not to sound snotty, to what Dylan was once quoted as saying. He said, "I just write them. I don't know what they mean. They'll mean whatever you want them to mean." I pretty much agree with that. I don't even want to get into that territory, but it's flattering when people connect with your music on a whole different level that you never suspected.

Didn't you experience some difficulty with your 1966 version of Hey Joe?

Yeah. Columbia had put out the record and we were getting all kinds of feedback from the South, which, geographically, is a pretty huge area. Places like Memphis, Atlanta, San Antonio, they wouldn't play the record. A guy asked, "Why not?" and the answer was, "Because the guy is advocating murder and our listeners will kill us if we put on this song about this guy who breaks up with his woman and shoots her." I wanted to say it's only a song. Censorship was what it was. In retrospect, sitting here today, we're were going to be pace-setters. They couldn't think in those terms. I'm sure Nick's gone through similar situations, where DJs love his records but can't play them. But you can build a career based on that. There is something good to be said about being banned in Boston, you know what I mean? It's a funny thing being a writer. Nick and I have talked about this, how sometimes your audience can't draw the line between you as the person and you as the performer.

It's performance, you know. Songs are really feelings, experiences, but that doesn't mean I was participating in the activity of the song. Generally, I find that I write a lot of songs about women, specific women in my life. I've had wonderful experiences with women who have meant a whole lot to me at certain points in my life. Whereas another writer might be more general about the subject, I tend to be more specific. I think that's my country roots. I grew up listening to story songs. I take a lot in. I'm always observing people: I'm participating but observing at the same time.

Have you met Nick face to face?

Nick and I don't know each other that well. We have met and had some conversations, but that's been more about our project, rather than chewing the fat.

Are you going to make a record together?

Nick and I talked about it when he was being interviewed for my film. We were being filmed talking and I said, "Wouldn't it be fun for us to work together?" He said, "Well, I'm not really a producer." I told him that it didn't have to be that formal and that I was interested in how he felt about me as an artist and how he would approach making a record. By the end of this conversation, he was saying, "Well there are some interesting ideas here. I always thought you should sing this song..."

So we have had a number of meetings since then, back in October I think, where we have played back and forth to each other. He has played me some very interesting material from sources I have not heard of or would not have considered for me as a source. We put together about 15 tracks that I would do. He is going to get the musicians together, because he has an idea in mind of how the record should sound. Now, I'm going with this because he's got a very unique sound on his albums. The band isn't The Bad Seeds, by the way, although I think one of them is going to be there, but the guys are from other groups that he knows, The Dirty Three, Barry Adamson.

The deal was this: Nick said he wanted to put the musicians together two or three days before we record, and work with them. I said, "Fine." He said, "You don't have to be there.", meaning we'd rather you weren't there. I said, "Fine." We had this all set up and it was a go-ahead project.

A record company, not Mute, was very keen on the project and that's why I've stayed in England. We were going to record in February, but at the end of the month the label called and said that they had problems with their distributor and the project was going to have to be cancelled. However, they said that if they were still interested in June, they would talk again. In the meantime, Nick has had to promote his own record. Nick and I have talked since and hopefully we will be able to do it in the summer. It may still work, but we don't have anything signed at this point in time. I would love to do it.

* * *

Subsequent to Ian Johnston's interview:

Of course, the project never came to fruition, although Tim did record parts of the Haunted album live, as the support act to Nick Cave at the Royal Albert Hall. By 2002, Tim was less enthusiastic about Cave, talking to me about the unreliability of heroin addicts. He then went on to say that people with an addictive personality were either dependent on narcotics or alcohol. He talked about how, for example, Tim Hardin was a drug addict while Rose's folly was booze, until he managed to come off it. - BM

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