Bill Rosen, A Friend of Mine
The sounds of “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” come streaming from everywhere this time of year. It’s my favorite Christmas song and in all of its Spectorian grandeur, it’s the gift that keeps on giving. Christmas never sounded so transcendent or bigger ever since.
Somewhere in my basement is a cassette and a different version of that song. It was made by my friend Bill Rosen or “Billy” as many of his friends knew him. He played every instrument as was part of holiday tradition. Each Christmas he would pick a new song to record and send to his friends. And in this version you can hear his voice lift from out of the wall of sound he created in the New Jersey apartment in which he lived in for many years.
With the incredible loss of so many talented artists, 2016 was a year we’d like to put behind us. You won’t see Bill Rosen’s name on any year-end lists but his tragic murder has friends who knew him struggling to make sense of the loss of someone so talented, inventive and inspirational taken away from us.
By the time I met Bill Rosen, he’s put his musical dream on hold. He’d been an aspiring musician and songwriter who headed for the lights of Los Angeles. He’d worked the circuit, been an engineer, eventually heading back east to write another chapter in his life–still always writing and pulling out a demo of his latest melody. I first heard about him from my boss at my day job at the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. Bill had been working the soundboard at a conference and became interested in what was being presented. He sent a passionate letter about his desire to work in the organization. “So,” our president, a former Chief Staff of the Air Force said about my boss’ hunch, “you have three choices and you want to go with the person who has no experience?” It sounded to me like something out of a Seinfeld episode but it was Bill re-inventing himself and giving us a lesson in the process. It was one of the many things I’d learn from him over the years.
Bill got hired and applied the same creative verve he had with music, producing a radio show about issues for people with disabilities, creating excitement with sponsors at conferences and helping advertisers increase their reach. But there was another dimension that always came calling. One day while stuck on a bus in New York City, he looked out and saw Loudon Wainwright carrying his guitar case, trying to hail a taxi in the pouring rain. Those moments spoke to Bill in a revelatory way, who saw it as a metaphor for the greater struggles of life and art or perhaps a reflection of what his life might have become. He turned what spoke to him into an article that was accepted by a literary magazine. I only wish I still had a copy so I could share the details I read many years ago.
And then there was the time on the way back from Los Angeles, he drove through Mississippi. He turned to his travelling companion and said, “Isn’t this where Steve Forbert grew up?” How neat, he thought, would it be to visit the birthplace of the singer he revered? They looked up the Forbert’s in the phone book and made a call. Mrs. Forbert answered and was asked if it might be okay to drop in and see Stevie’s bedroom and where he grew up.
Mrs. Forbert seemed taken aback by the request but was ready to oblige before adding, “I need to talk to the Colonel.” The Colonel was the retired Air Force officer who was Stevie’s father.
“I’ve got Billy Rosen on the line. He’s from New York City and would like to come over and see Stevie’s bedroom,” she said loud enough for Bill to hear. The Colonel gave the go ahead. “Well I guess so,” she said when came back on the phone. A few minutes later Billy sat in the Forberts’ living room eating cookies and hearing tales of the singer’s youth.
A few years later he went to see Forbert play at the Bottom Line and approached him backstage. “Did your mother ever tell you about the time you had a visitor to your house?” Forbert just stared and didn’t say a word. Billy guessed Forbert thought he was crazy.
But whether Bill or Billy, he never took himself or life too seriously. There was humour to be had underlying every situation. Perhaps it was just a mask of someone who wore it like a defensive shield from others getting too close. I liked being around Bill as a kind of antidote for my serious nature. Bill was a contrarian and always telling us to stop and smile in the moment. He’d have his camera handy and several of the photographs he took of New York after a power blackout and the post 9-11 skyline would be displayed publicly on large billboards.
This week my colleagues bid me farewell as I left to change jobs in the nonprofit world. I was gifted an oversized hardcover book about the Rolling Stones that detailed every track they ever recorded. As I opened it, I saw Bill’s smile as I flashed back to another farewell he had orchestrated for me all those years ago in New York, stacking every Rolling Stones CD on a conference room table for me to hold.
None of us who knew Bill got a Christmas song this year and won’t again. Instead we’ll rely on memories and stories to share. Like the time he and I shared a close encounter with Bob Dylan. We were coming out of a venue in Maryland and came upon a crowd that was waiting for him to pass by to get to his bus. Instinctively we waited. Within a few minutes Dylan came out and signed a few autographs before he walked away. Bill put his ticket out and was among the handful Dylan signed. A few moments later someone handed Bill a sharpie.
“Don’t give it to me,” he said having observed Dylan pulling it from his own pocket. “It’s Bob’s.”
Bill took command of the situation.
“Hey Bob,” he shouted nonchalantly Zimmy’s way. “You forgot your pen.”
Dylan was startled and turned around slowly like a deer in headlights. His cheekbones were raised and there was a sneer in his quizzical look. His face looked pale, like aged white Rolling Thunder Revue shade. In slow motion Dylan stretched out his hand and Bill pointed to the pen. The pen was exchanged and made its way to its rightful owner.
There was a slight intimidation as the singer turned to us. After all this was Dylan, the guy that John Lennon feared crossing lest he write something damning.
But Bill was unfazed. He might have been Dylan but Bill acted like he was just another guy from the neighborhood.
Besides, Bill had already seen Loudon walking in the rain. Loudon, walking in the rain while the secrets of life came to Bill so he could share them with the rest of us.