HERE STANDS Tim Barry wearing camouflage coveralls to fight the chill in his shed. He's drinking Miller Lite, because that's how a drinking diabetic makes do.
Winter has been harsh and the kerosene heater in the shed behind his girlfriend's house, which Barry rehabilitated into a home two years ago, is busted.
The shed balances Barry's queasy relationship with fame. Since the early '90s, he's fronted the speed 'n' scream punk rock band Avail, one of Richmond's best-known musical exports. He relishes the life experience it's afforded him, but he isn't always as comfortable with the attention.
When fans recognize him in the grocery store he calls it getting “rockegnized.” Worse yet are people whose names he can't remember — he doesn't want to come off as thinking he's too cool for them. Somewhere between Kurt Cobain's fatal spotlight allergy and Johnny Cash's man in black — standing tall and alone on behalf of the least and the left out, but always before a crowd — Barry strikes a peculiar balance. He's a hermit with a publicist.
Barry released his fourth solo album, “28th and Stonewall,” three weeks ago, on Jan. 26. On track seven a 10-piece brass band accompanies him. This is about as far as you can get from Avail.
Many of Tim Barry's songs chronicle life in Richmond. Download MP3s of Barry's “Prosser's Gabriel” at the end of the article.The height of the band's activity coincided with Richmond's Fist City days in the mid-‘90s, when the clubs on Grace Street were hardcore Meccas in the East Coast scene, in large measure because of Avail's popularity. Between 1992 and 2002, the group released six studio records and three live recordings. It toured Europe 10 times and played shows in Australia, Brazil and Japan. Sometimes it performed in bars with just a handful of fans; sometimes it blasted stadium shows with audiences of 20,000 people.
Tom Breihan saw Avail for the first time 15 years ago and still regards it as the best show he's ever seen. Now a staff writer for the influential music magazine “Pitchfork,” he says “if you cared about punk rock and hardcore you pretty much regarded this band with a religious sense of awe.” Their music mixed “classic swampy southern rock and scream in your face hardcore. It made intuitive sense at every moment. And live they were just a supernatural force.”
Wherever members were, they took Richmond.
An image of the train trestle crossing the James River between the Nickel Bridge and Powhite Parkway is tattooed on Barry's arm. Many of Avail's songs chronicle life in the city. “Avail never flew a banner about anything except Richmond,” says bandmate Beau Butler.
He's a historian of a particularly Richmond way of life — not one most people live, but one that's distinctly Richmond. Although Barry, 39, lives as far off the grid as he can, his solo music examines many of the city's core mainstream institutions as well.
His songs touch on the ballet, the city budget and how to memorialize Gabriel, the enslaved blacksmith who led a defeated slave uprising in 1800 — a current hot topic in civic circles. Barry's stories, because of their volume, and because of the volume of people who have absorbed them, have a better than average shot at lasting, to be a part of city history in a city that loves history.
Barry has faced his own stories too. Since his first solo release in 2005, “Laurel St. Demo,” a series of losses soap-operatic in their proximity and devastation have touched his life. Some of them were public horrors that sent the entire city into mourning; others were most intensely felt by the close-knit subculture of which he serves as godfather.
At first, Barry was terrified of performing alone and unplugged. To acclimate himself into his new role, he embarked on a low-key European tour and released his first solo CD on a small German label.WELL-ORDERED bookshelves run along the back wall of the shed. Barry has stocked them with counter-culture literature and a row of thick, black, hardbound journals that he's meticulously kept through the years. Unlike most journals, these are semi-public records. In them he's pasted photographs and show fliers, set lists, an e-mail from a fan stationed in Iraq and logged his own reflections on the times.
There are pictures of people who have his lyrics tattooed into their skin. “Ride fast, live slow,” is a popular choice. He's always welcomed people to paw through the journals, says A.C. Thompson, a close friend who writes the liner notes for Avail and all of Barry's solo work.
Thompson has lived and toured with Barry, making him a good choice for the task, but he's further qualified. He's a decorated investigative reporter whose most recent work on homicides in the days following Hurricane Katrina has launched an FBI probe.
Thompson says Barry's journals serve as a kind of punk-rock-ipedia. “It takes you through those [Avail] tour cycles and what was going on in music and art,” Thompson says. “Traveling around the world and being really intrigued by politics and art and subcultural lifestyles — and he was chronicling in those journals that interest in life, this twentysomething sense of amazement. And he's continued to cultivate that in his journals.”
Barry's shed is immaculate. To the right of the shelving sits his neatly made bed. To the left he's built a stall where he relieves himself into a bucket of sawdust below. He's nailed to the wall a framed picture of three of his best friends, Travis Conner and Ronnie Graham standing arm-in-arm with a man called Weezle, the boys' 73-year-old role model for off-the-grid communal living in Old Fort, N.C. Perhaps, surprisingly, Weezle is the only one of the three still alive.
Barry grew up in Reston, where his parents sang in the church choir. His mother played folk music at home and his father played classic rock in the car. Otherwise the family didn't go out of its way to emphasize music. But something must have stuck. Barry's older brother, James, composes avant-garde music and Caitlin, Barry's younger sister, plays violin and accompanies him on tours and on his records.
“If you cared about punk rock and hardcore, you pretty much regarded this band with a religious sense of awe,” says one critic. Avail's final lineup consisted of (clockwise from top) Tim Barry, Beau Beau Butler, Gwomper, Ed Trask and Joe Banks.Barry joined Avail in 1988, when he was a senior at South Lakes High School. He served first as the drummer and eventually took over as lead singer. The whole gang moved down to Richmond in the early '90s to a big group house on Grace Street. It seethed with the boys and their friends and people who just wandered in. Every room had a loft bed and they installed a riser to stack a second couch in the den, stadium-style, so everyone could watch movies together. They instituted a policy of public flogging with a bullwhip in the living room for those who failed to do their chores.
Although punk rock is often peanut butter to the jelly of radical politics, Butler says politics of any kind was not the point. Richmond was.
Paying such close attention to a third-tier city resonated with fans. “It kind of makes being from the middle of the country or South Carolina cool,” Butler says. “L.A., New York, D.C., Chicago — that is the minority of America and the minority of music.”
The music was loud and fast. Eventually the energy welled up and spun the boys out on tour across four continents where they aired Richmond's dirty laundry to adoring crowds. Consider the lyrics from “Scuffle Town” off the band's 1998 release “Over the James”:
There's Kepone in the river, but the river's still flowin' east
Ethyl dozed the planet
In an attempt to keep
The downtown clean
Still it's a beautiful day
And the sun is still shining over the James
Oregon Hill is at end time
VCU crept up and lit the torch
West Avenue honkeys don't forget
That trains still run north
Next year number one.
In a few short lines the song catalogs the city's famous industrial pollution problem, corporate influence, racial tension, town-vs.-gown tension, the city's homicide epidemic when, in 1994, Richmond's 160 murders made it the second deadliest city per capita, taking note of all the fight, while maintaining the beauty of the river running through the middle of the city and the song.
But the fight was always there. Avail fought skinheads in Germany and a “Maximum Rock'n'Roll” zine columnist who called Barry a racist. In Ohio once, they stopped at a dollar store and everybody bought straw cowboy hats. At the show that night, somebody shoved somebody, then somebody threw a punch. A ring of burly factory-worker types surrounded the Avail boys, straw hats on, dukes up, then the camera flashes and the image fades to sepia.
EVENTUALLY, Barry could live off the royalty checks. To keep his head on straight between tours he worked volunteer jobs with local services groups, such as the now defunct Grace House and Food Not Bombs. Through the music scene he met Ronnie Graham, a freewheeler who pulled out of dumpsters or stole most of what he owned, but would share whatever he had. Graham introduced Barry to riding trains — illegally hopping into CSX boxcars and seeing how far you could go. A transient uncle had taught Graham rail-riding etiquette.
Riding trains offered speed, solitude and breathtaking beauty. It brought Barry adventure and clarity in the down time between tours and eventually blossomed into a defining obsession. He can tell you which freight trains roll through what yard and where they're headed. Trains started showing up in the music.
Riders often write on trains with grease bars, usually a personalized doodle that stays the same and a quote that changes so that people know who you are and what you're up to. “Ride fast, live slow,” was one of Graham's lines. He'd introduced the compulsive chronicler to another canvas.
About 10 years ago, after a decade of living with the band, Barry moved into a row house in Oregon Hill. His porch attracted people looking to spend an afternoon drinking cheap beer. This became a constant distraction while he tried to write songs and manage the band. Sometimes he would close the blinds and turn out the lights, hiding.
One day a pal stopped by to introduce Barry to an old friend of his who just moved back to town. Travis Conner was quiet but magnetic. They shared many interests — travel, music, art, freight trains. Conner stopped by the next day around the same time, and then the next, then the next until they grew to be inseparable. The city became a map of secret spots and they communicated their coordinates in code words. Conner joined Avail on tour as a roadie.
For the cover art on his latest album, Barry used a line drawing Conner did, a meticulous study of fade and layers, rendered with a mechanical pencil the point of which he honed with sandpaper. “Travis always does the art,” he says. He was a gifted photographer, among other things, but perhaps his most defining art was his fort building. He colonized hideaways by the river, deep in the forest, nooky little clubhouses for bonfires and beer drinking. Behind Hollywood Cemetery where kudzu blankets the hillside down to the river, he found a spot where the earth falls away from the vines leaving a hollow underneath, like the bottom of a bunk bed draped with a sheet. He hauled in bricks for sitting, a shovel to level the area out and a ladder to peer out at the river and trains going by.
They pair spent hours together drinking and thinking. Barry was beginning to build his solo identity, publicly and privately, and Conner was his primary sounding board for both. After waiting and drinking and fiddling, Barry realized he had more than enough material for a solo album.
Still, he was terrified of playing acoustic solo live, without his gang of guys. But he learned to do it by going on tour in Europe alone and quietly releasing his first efforts on a German label. During that tour in 2005, he started writing “Wait at Milano.”
In retrospect you can see the arc of Conner's decline start with this song and run through Barry's solo work. Conner made money touring as a roadie with bands and the work and camaraderie, the movement, put him in his natural element. It was difficult to be home, though, and the stillness brought on the worst kind of restlessness.
Overseas Barry had been dead lonely. He missed his posse, missed anyone who would speak to him in English. “Travis was chronically depressed,” he says, “and it was during that tour that I started to understand.” In the “Milano” lyrics, he exhorts the listener to “let that lonely feeling go,” reminds them that “ain't no roads here paved with gold, anyway.” Change speed or direction if you need to, but keep moving — a prescription for avoiding depression. In the final line of the song, he sings, “go out West or come to me.” “Westbound” is train talk for death. Looking back now, it's difficult for Barry to say just what he meant when he wrote that line.
While reworking material for a domestic release in the summer of 2005, Barry met his girlfriend, Sarah Kiesler, through some mutual friends. She taught second grade and took a job that summer as nanny to a little handful named Stella Harvey and her younger sister, Ruby. She'd met them and their parents, Bryan and Kathryn, six years earlier while working at a pre-school in the Fan. When Stella joined the pre-school, she instantly hit it off with her new teacher and ran home to christen her hermit crab “Sarah.” That Christmas in 2005, Kiesler visited the Harvey's home where Stella, the ham, had received a heap of plastic poo that she pretended to pull from her rear end to present to Kiesler again and again.
Tim Barry with two of his dogs, Emma and Lucy. He and his girlfriend, Sarah Kiesler, have also taken in the Harvey family's cat and the late Johnny Z's dog.One week later, Stella, Ruby and their parents were killed in a horrific and random homicide on New Year's Day. Kiesler adopted the lone survivor, the family's cat, Bumblebee. Bryan Harvey had been a musician, and like Barry he tried to stick to his principles, settling in Richmond rather than selling out for a megastar career. And so the next time New Year's Day rolled around, Barry took his grease bars down to the train yard and wrote a new message: Stella's Riding Easy. No one in Richmond may ever notice, but the trains carry her name across the country.
Barry's first domestic solo record came out in the winter of 2006 and he made “Wait at Milano” the last track. He called the record “Rivanna Junction” for the chunk of track at the foot of Oregon Hill where he wrote most of the songs.
A new chapter opened, but death stayed camped out in the yard. The next spring, Johnny Z, a beloved musician, activist and art-school pal about town, died in an accident. There were concerts and fundraisers and memorial murals went up in the Fan. Kiesler's roommate had dated him so they took in Johnny Z's mutt, Bling. And so they lived with the Harveys' cat and Johnny Z's dog. Conner and Barry spent a sweltering three days that summer building a fence for Bling, and Barry began moving into the shed.
Avail was hibernating. The band couldn't seem to coalesce around a next album and Barry was occupied with his solo work. He didn't so much quit the band as announce that he'd no longer be acting manager. The circus ground to a halt. The stagnation frustrated him, but the last straw, he says, was how rude some of his bandmates were to Conner while he was working as a roadie on the last tour. It was a fork in the road.
Unburdened from his frontman responsibilities, Barry began to experiment. He had tried to write a story song for Avail, but he took on the persona of a bum he met at the train yard in Scott's Addition, and some of his more literal-minded listeners didn't understand that he was assuming a character.
On his new album songs feature first-person appearances by Iraq War amputees, hobo junkies and a brother who takes the fall when his sister shoots her abusive boyfriend. He tells the story of Gabriel, a historical short about Virginia's failed slave uprising, tapping into the local angle — the slave was hanged and buried near or under what is now a parking lot at 15th and Broad streets. The Gabriel song has proven to be the crossover hit on this album, and Barry received invitations from high-school history teachers and to a family reunion for Gabriel's descendants (the lyrics ran in the program). The songs also commemorate, in slow motion, a hanging much closer to him.
The singer trades licks with Josh Small at Richmond's Minimum Wage studio. Making music is “like therapy to me,” he says.BY FALL 2007, Conner was getting worse. He went missing for a few days in November, but resurfaced to everyone's relief. He had Chinese food on Christmas Eve with his girlfriend. He hit the trains pretty hard, tagging “Going on Ahead” under all his characters. At 5:10 p.m. on Jan. 11, 2008, Barry got a text message from Conner. “Going on ahead,” it says. “Meet you there. I love you brother.”
Barry freaked out. He rushed to Conner's apartment in the Fan, but Conner wasn't there. Of all of his favorite secret spots, there's one Barry had never been to, a place in the East End he called Fort Solitude. Barry wasn't sure he could find it, wasn't sure he could get out there in time. He called Kiesler. She finally showed up. It was getting dark. They took a guess at where the spot might be. Kiesler pulled over by a rail line near some woods. Barry told her to stay in the car and lumbered off into the forest. Sooner than he expected, he found Conner.
Later, Barry would record in his journal the following: “Travis had in his pockets his cell phone, scrap paper, with moniker quotes crossed off, a digital camera and a receipt for rope bought at Lowe's.”
Reflecting on that night, Barry later concluded that Conner had intentionally hanged himself in such a way that when Barry found him he wouldn't see his face. But these comforts came later. At that time he just screamed his friend's name. From the car, Kiesler heard “the worst sound I've ever hear in my life.”
Somehow Barry made it back to the car. Somehow they called the police. For a horrifying smear of time, the incident had to be treated as a possible homicide until the officers found the suicide note Conner left at his apartment. Then they had to go find his girlfriend, fish her out of the restaurant where she worked and tell her the news. Barry and Kiesler were hosts of a party after the funeral. Some say it was the best party for the worst possible reason.
Barry became scared of the dark, so he couldn't soothe himself with any of his forest retreats or late nights and early mornings. He decided to get out of Dodge and visit his old rail-riding friend, Graham, who was living in Asheville, N.C. — settled in for the first time. After about a month of living in Graham's basement, Barry accepted an invitation to tour manage a Richmond band, Smoke or Fire. He left Ashville and joined the band on the road.
Two days later, Graham, the man who introduced him to riding trains and gave him one of his signature lyrics, died in a bicycle accident. Barry turned around and went right back to Asheville to try to raise money for the funeral. He got the dates of Conner and Graham's deaths tattooed on the insides of his middle fingers.
The former leader of Avail recorded his most recent solo album, “28th and Stonewall,” at Minimum Wage studio with longtime collaborator and co-producer Lance Koehler.“Manchester,” Barry's second solo album, came out in November 2008. He has a song for Graham and one for Conner. “That fucking album is the most revealing album I have and it's necessary because I was grieving and confused and needed it,” Barry says.
The grief creeps into his stage presence. At a show that summer at a packed Empire Bar and Grill on Broad Street, he began to play the song for Conner. “Maybe I shouldn't play this song,” he said, and hesitated. “Fuck you all, this is like therapy for me.” The audience sang along, and by the end many of them were in tears.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago he would have said, ‘Fight the power,'” Thompson says of Barry. “Now there's this profound understanding that we only get one shot, that we have to love one another, that we have to be compassionate. And how you behave while you're here and how you treat people is incredibly important.”
Barry's attitude may have changed, but physically he wasn't so hot. In 2008, touring for the “Manchester” record, he played 54 shows in 58 days, a grueling schedule. He had cramps, had to urinate all the time. His body would go numb, he lost 20 pounds. Kiesler walked into a South Carolina club to meet up with him at the end of the trip and didn't recognize her boyfriend. “I had my peoples die,” he said. “Death was following them, maybe it's following me now too.”
The day after Barry got back to the shed, he collapsed on the floor. When he came to, he drove himself to St. Mary's Hospital where the doctors told him he was days from death. He had developed Type I diabetes, the form usually found in children. The great historian's personal history very nearly ended there.
He plotted a methodical recovery, adjusted his diet and stuck to Miller Lite. He learned how to manage his insulin at home, then on tour, then on trains. He wrote his new album, “28th and Stonewall,” in three weeks. The track with the brass band sticks out. The song is called “Will Travel,” the name Conner gave to a run of self-published photography zines. Between the wailing trombone solos and twinkling high-hats of a New Orleans-style jazz funeral, Barry has published a posthumous edition of his friend's journal in song, describing images of a freight-train hopper's heaven. “I know a train yard that ain't got no bull,” he sings. “Where the car knockers serve you three hot meals, send you off with cigarettes, weed and booze.”
During their last conversation, Conner and Barry talked about how when you have an unstructured day-to-day, when you live first and work last, you run the risk of burning out. The trick, they decided, was to love three things, so that you can stay motivated.
Barry really has one love though: his furious need to document. His longtime journaling, his topical quotes on trains, his references to Richmond civic issues in his song writing — it's all part of one core project. Through this string of tragedies, it's turned into a new skill: He learned how to build monuments. He sent Stella Harvey's name criss-crossing the country. He prints thousands of copies of Conner's art on his record jackets. He writes the revolutionary Gabriel an epitaph to music that everyone can learn. And in erecting these memorials, he took his own advice and helped himself through the grief.
Tim Barry's journals serve as a kind of punk-rock-ipedia, informed by politics, art and subcultural lifestyles.This archive fever has gotten only worse lately. A recent music video on Barry's Web site, at timbarryrva.com, strings together shots he took of himself on a freight train with a flip-cam. In case the diabetes and the touring get too rough for him, Barry's surveying new creative frontiers. Perhaps a book he'll call “Hyperbole” about his road stories and true-life adventures so wild people might think they're tall tales. Maybe a concept album-rock opera about Lil' Trooper and Rebel Tony, two freight riders whose saga he's followed in the writing on train walls for years.
In a journal entry from right before Conner's death, Barry copied a quote from the Vietnam War-novelist Tim O'Brien: “Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”
It's an idea that harmonizes with Barry's core philosophy that it's incumbent upon us to find ways to make real the idea that every day might be our last. That you will die. That everyone you know will die. That memory will be erased but the stories, the shared narrative arcs that are durable enough to crowd surf into the future, will remain.
Perhaps the surest sign that all this tragedy hasn't taken the fight out of Barry comes in an e-mail dispatch while on a solo Canadian tour earlier this month. “Just out of the hospital — Canada style,” writes Barry, the survivor. “12 to 8am in e-room. Broke my hand on some dude's head last nite … onstage. Not sure how I will play. Show's sold out. Yay.”