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A Real-Life Love Song


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On weekend nights that strip became a grimy Mardi Gras, given its energy by the weekly flood of college students spilling over from VCU. Hair-dyed girls and boys wandered the sidewalks and paraded down the single aisle of the Village. Squadrons of Harley-Davidsons parked at angles, watched over by burly, bearded men in leather vests. Long-haired would-be rock stars loitered on the front deck of the Jade Elephant or Mad King Ludwig's. Now and then, someone would tell of a knife fight or a bottle broken over someone's head.

Those of us who were — or who hoped to be — musicians watched all this with bemusement. We were there to play, not to be part of the street life. But gritty as it was, the street pulsed headily with life: band flyers on every telephone pole, the sound of electric guitars crashing out from every storefront.

I played one of my first Richmond shows with Bryan Harvey. Being chosen to open for Harvey and his bandmate, Johnny Hott, seemed like quite a coup for my band. Their duo, House of Freaks, had just returned from barnstorming Los Angeles, and the pair was bringing with them a record contract. It seemed like the start of something big for them and for Richmond.

Their show, to a packed house, was stunning. Harvey played guitar and bass parts on his hollow-body guitar, while Hott managed to sound like an army of Led Zeppelins. Harvey's songs often were about dark things, full of spilled blood and Southern moons, but their shows were ecstatic. They closed their set with "Instant Karma," Harvey channeling the murdered John Lennon while making the song's final words — "And we all shine on like the moon and the stars and the sun" — into a joyous hymn. We all sang with him.

Time turned. By the end of the 1980s, most of the old bars had closed, chased into oblivion by city and state fines and tight regulations on alcohol sales. Kathryn Harvey opened a little shop for vintage furniture and clothes on Grace Street, upstairs from the only store in town that sold Doc Martens shoes. Always orderly, she kept a notebook of items her customers wanted. She once wrote a note about a lamp I told her I was looking for. Six months later she found one and called me. I bought it.

In the early 1990s the Harveys moved to Church Hill, not far from my wife and me. We'd run into each other now and then at coffee shops and groceries, and we'd chat. They had a daughter they named Stella — Bryan and Kathryn shared a fondness for old Southern names. Kathryn had moved her shop to Carytown, where for a while Bryan ran a coffee bar in the back. Mostly, as far as I could tell, he leaned on the bar and talked to customers for hours at a time. That arrangement didn't last long — Kathryn, ever practical, told me she insisted he get another job because he was so easygoing about making money it drove her crazy. Eventually, she partnered with Plan 9 founder Jim Bland and created a larger World of Mirth, the coolest toy store we'd ever seen.

The music thing was continuing to slide for Bryan, and by the end of the 1990s he was learning to become a computer technician. He told me in 2000 that he hadn't written a song in three years. "Are you OK with that?" I asked. He laughed. "I'm totally OK with that," he said. At the time it seemed to me like admitting defeat. Now it feels like a small, hard-won victory.

At the birth of their second daughter, Ruby, they moved out of Church Hill to Woodland Heights, a South Richmond favorite of musicians and artists. I once asked Kathryn Harvey why. "We wanted a yard for the girls," she said. We spoke of listening to fusillades of gunshots at night in their former neighborhood, and agreed that it was better that children not hear them.

For the past few years I saw the Harveys now and again at the community swimming pool. Bryan, hair thinning, smiled and chatted. Kathryn, still slim, still graceful, sat with her feet in the wading pool and handed her two little girls the peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches she'd cut precisely into quarters.

A few days ago, just after I learned what had happened to them, I drove past their house on West 31st Street. As I stood outside, looking at the yellow police tape, a memory rose from more than 20 years ago, as perfectly preserved as a photograph. I remembered that the night I opened for House of Freaks wasn't the first time I'd seen Bryan. I'd seen him several years earlier, at George Mason University, playing with his previous band, the Dads. I'd gone expecting a power-pop new-wave band, sneering and cynical. Instead, they opened with a glorious version of "Love Train" by the O'Jays. I saw Bryan, in his 20s, onstage where he loved to be, singing with joyous abandon: "People all over the world join hands — we're on a love train, love train." I remembered the joy in that song, in that place, in that family. It all fell together for me, and I fell apart.

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