One of our sources of musical inspiration over the past few years has been a series of extraordinary (and extremely rare) themed compilations made by Barbara’s daughter, the photographer Jo Ractliffe. These compilations, under the general banner of Killer Country, has introduced me to a host of acts both recent and long-forgotten, all occupying an edgy territory on the fringes of the musical landscape. It was on one of these that I recently heard the voice of Tim Rose for the first time, and it was a spine-chilling experience even by general Killer Country standards.
Rose is often cited as the singer whose slow, menacing version of Hey, Joe (a song he claimed to have written) was a direct inspiration for Jimi Hendrix’ much more famous version of the same song. But, as it happens, it was Long Time Man that I heard, and which has haunted me ever since. It is a song made famous through a cover version by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds from their 1986 Your Funeral… My Trial album. It is the lament of a man sentenced to life imprisonment for fatally shooting his wife: “Yeah, they came to take me away / Said I’d be sitting here for the rest of my life / But I don’t really care - I shot my wife / And brother, I don’t even remember the reason why …” Cave’s version of the song has a swaggering, relentless feel, helped in no small measure by Blixa Bargeld’s sinuous guitar and the pounding percussion of Mick Harvey. Cave sings with the voice of a man possessed, torn between feelings of regret and latent violence.
In fact, Rose’s original version of the song had been recorded as early as 1967, but the version I heard was committed to tape very shortly before his death in 2002 (the past decade had seen him re-emerged from complete obscurity, encouraged by Cave and others.)
This later version by Rose is more regretful than Cave’s: it is the lament of a man whose demons have all but deserted him. There is no percussion, only guitar and a low drone as of distant thunder. There is a brief flicker of rage as he recalls the moment of passion that led to the fatal crime: “I heated up, I grabbed my gun / One very cold winter night down south …” Then the song suddenly becomes eerily tender, Rose’s voice dropping almost to a whisper: “She was lying in a pool right there on the kitchen floor / She looked at me and began to smile / Her gasping words: “Baby I Love you” / Then she closed those baby blue eyes …” The thing that is most palpable in Rose’s delivery of these lines is precisely the strength of this love, and it is this tenderness that makes the song so uneasily haunting.
Cave’s repetition of the line: “oh, it makes a long time man feel bad …” builds up to a crescendo of demented energy: it is an example of rock ‘n’ roll at its fieriest. Rose, by comparison, sings the lines again and again with small variations, building and releasing tension to suggest the tedium of obsession, of an endless replay of the same events: “I ain’t had no loving since I don’t know when / Ooh, it makes a long time man feel bad …” One has a sense that Cave’s obsessive might just have the energy to escape, but Rose’s is already moving away from us – one of the eeriest, most fully realised characters in song.