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Music: Rose who endured a life of thorns

Tim Rose is famous for missing the boat: for writing the song that made Jimi Hendrix; for turning down one by Bob Dylan. But, writes Glyn Brown, he's by no means finished yet.

I'm in a pub in Limehouse and sitting opposite me, smoking unfiltered Gitanes with hands whose nails are long and buffed to a resonant shine is, if not a legend, then someone who has glimpsed legendary status and had it kicked away more times than you could count. Tim Rose is - and he'll hate this - the embodiment of a talent that fate (and possibly, in the Sixties, CBS) has seen fit not to reward, and that he's not angrier about it is quite a zen accomplishment.

Despite his achievements, the gravel-voiced New Yorker is remembered as the man who heard a little-known Appalachian folk song, worked it up into "Hey, Joe", then lost it to Jimi Hendrix, for whom it did the trick. But now, after years in the wilderness, Rose is in the midst of a comeback. Cagey about his age (at a guess, mid-fifties), last year he played alongside the Goth crooner Nick Cave at the Royal Albert Hall (Cave has covered a few of Rose's dark murder ballads, including "Hey, Joe" and "Long Time Man"), and there's a collaborative LP in the pipeline; he has a new LP, Haunted; and on Valentine's Day he plays London's Queen Elizabeth Hall.

The path has been long, winding and strewn with mistakes, not all of them Rose's. When he first evinced an interest in music - at 10, he was tuning his radio to Wolfman Jack, broadcasting from beyond the Mexico border; the gut-bucket blues he heard would be the strongest influence on his later work - his mother enrolled him in accordion school, "though I wanted to play accordion about as much as I wanted a sixth toe on a foot". Eventually she got him a guitar, "and when I had a real ability with it - I was in a seminary by now, training to be a priest - she bought me a beautiful Martin acoustic. Which I kept for years, until I put my fist through it one day, frustrated over a love affair, Ah, Marianne Saverson. The effort at priesthood lasted six months, till I got caught masturbating and smoking. Both of which were frowned upon in the religious life."

Shortly afterwards Rose was called up for national service and became a USAF navigator for Strategic Air Command. Also not for long. "It was during the Cold War, and I was trained to drop an atomic bomb. It was a one-way trip, you knew that. But when I got to this base and saw all the B52s and these crazy bastards who were dedicated to kill, to 'the mission' - well, I thought, this is not very musical."

At 16, he'd joined The Journeymen, with Scott McKenzie and John (Mamas and Papas) Philips; this led, after national service, to The Big Three, with Mama Cass Elliott. Who was "a misunderstood Jewish princess - Ellen Cohen was her name, she took Elliott from the poet, TS. I have not met many brighter women than Cass, who were as witty, sharp, insightful and had the talent she had. But a pain in the ass to work with."

It was during the next year, working solo, that Rose recorded "Hey, Joe". There's a story that Jimi Hendrix's manager, Chas Chandler, heard his version in a New York disco, took it to his protege back in London and said, "Here's your next single." When Hendrix refused, Chandler shrugged. "Fine - then here's your passport, go home." He didn't, and the rest is history. Did Rose meet Hendrix? "Sure. But ... I was angry at the time, and frustrated. CBS had never released my version of that song in the UK, and when I heard it I thought, that's my damn song. A writer at the time asked me what I thought of Hendrix and I said, well, he plays a very expensive guitar. Which was a snotty, shitty thing to say. The Hendrix connection has been a boon and - not. I say not, because I don't get any money for it. And because the kid was gonna make it anyway; it was just a question of what vehicle ... Of course, I knew he was brilliant. I just wished it were me."

And with some reason. Constantly on the fringes of fame, Rose filled in fallow times with a host of jobs. He demonstrated carrot-peelers in Bloomingdales; he brokered stock on Wall Street; he sang advertising jingles. "For years," he growls, breaking out a new pack of Gitanes, "I was the voice of Wrangler jeans, Pepsi Cola, Wheaties ... That was hard for a while. People would tell me they'd got a night singing at some no-name club - though very few jingle singers break out, with exceptions like Barry Manilow, Melissa Manchester - and I'd think, wait a minute, I'm the only one in this room who's had four albums released."

When on stage, however, he rubbed shoulders with some illustrious names at key moments - the way he tells it, he begins to sound like Woody Allen's Zelig. And the behaviour he observed hasn't always been the best. "I've seen a lot of people kill their talent with drugs, alcohol, shitty actions, all in the name of art. I saw it happen with Jim Morrison - I was the opening act when he pulled out his dick on stage and pissed on the audience, and they were 13-, 14-year-old girls. Now, is that noble?"

Rose has done silly things, too, but paid the price - like the time an unknown Bob Dylan offered him "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" and he turned it down as too rambling. He's still opinionated, but mellower. Dubbed the Dave Allen of the blues circuit, what he really wanted, he confides, was to be Charles Aznavour; "to sit on a stool and sing 'Je Ne Regrette Rien'".

It could happen yet.