Tim Barry: “Tacoma”
The night after a Chicago performance from singer/songwriter Tim Barry, a man in a local drinking establishment learns that he missed the show. “I wish I would have known Tim was in town,” he tells his friend. “Sometimes I go home after work and watch his old videos on YouTube to make myself feel better about the world.” This isn’t a teenager talking. It’s a grown man, roughly 40 years old.
On tour to celebrate the release of his fourth solo album, 28th & Stonewall (Suburban Home), Barry seems to have an uplifting effect on everyone who meets him, projecting a natural, confident charisma that brings out the best in those around him. Even the opening band from the previous night — Roanoke, Virginia swamp-country quintet Red Clay River — drove 168 miles out of its way to give Barry and his dog, Emma, a lift to the venue when his van broke down.
Speaking with Barry, or listening to his onstage banter, one gets the sense that maybe life isn’t so complicated, and that the answers to life’s toughest questions are right in front of us if we just open our eyes. “I don’t understand…all of these motherfuckers who complain about their life, and then they go back to work,” he says.
Barry is best known as the vocalist for melodic hardcore-punk band Avail, a staple of Lookout! Records throughout the 1990s. With Barry at the helm, Avail’s heartfelt, spirited songs made the members into heroes to disenfranchised youth in hardcore scenes around the world.
“I want things to be right — to acknowledge the ills around us and praise the beauty of change.”
In 2006, Barry released his first solo release, Laurel Street Demo 2005. The music changed from charged punk rock with pop leanings to stripped-down country-folk ballads, but Barry’s sincerity and humility continued to stand out among his peers in the often plastic-feeling world of the entertainment industry.
“I don’t care about how songs were written, or how much money you make,” he says. “It’s just all fucking boring, that some people base their ego off of minimal accomplishments of art, or filmmaking, or ballet dancing.”
Despite his dedication to his songwriting, and what many would consider a successful music career by underground standards, Barry remains ambivalent about the true value of art and music in society. “Is it meaningless?” he asks. “I think some people are born to do stuff. I might be too black and white for philosophy.”
Barry is in an admittedly unique position. Still based in Virginia, Barry chooses to live off the grid but is as likely to take off from his humble abode to tour Australia or Europe in support of his latest record as he is to go on an adventure via freight train (a favorite pastime).
“I live in a shed with a compost bucket and no running water,” he says. “I’ve never been happier. I don’t need a lot. As long as my niece and my sister are well taken care of, I’m happy.”
His tremendous work ethic and thirst for knowledge can be seen beyond his extensive music catalog and exhaustive tour schedule. He’s maintained a long-running seasonal gig as a jack-of-all-trades for the Richmond Ballet during the company’s annual run of The Nutcracker. Lately, in what spare time he does have, he’s been teaching himself law and economics. The mix has benefited him creatively. By his account, the songs just pour out.
“Prosser’s Gabriel,” off of 28th & Stonewall, is a prime example. “The song ‘Prosser’s Gabriel’—I didn’t really write it,” Barry says. “It just showed up. It’s about the city I live in and the ultimate neglect of the people in power to the people that make up the town.” The song was written in tribute to Gabriel Prosser, a literate slave from Richmond, Virginia who was set to lead the country’s first major slave uprising.
When news of the revolt was leaked, Gabriel was hanged along with 26 of his co-conspirators, and the ensuing paranoia led to the first of what would become Jim Crow laws. Gabriel’s body is most likely in a slave burial ground that today is covered by a parking lot along Richmond’s Monument Avenue, which is lined with statues commemorating Confederate leaders such as Jefferson Davis and Stonewall Jackson.
Barry, along with many in his community, considers this erroneous city planning negligent at best, a grave injustice at worst. “There is a Bojangles monument in one of the black neighborhoods,” he says, “but there’s nothing for the people whose backs and arms and legs were ultimately used to make those people filthy fucking rich — blacks, indentured whites, poor people, etc. I challenge people in 2009, ‘Whitey,’ just like me. How would you feel if your family member was buried below a parking lot?”
Barry turned his feelings into a song that shed light on the controversial subject. “I kept wondering if people knew the name Gabriel Prosser,” he says. He soon performed “Prosser’s Gabriel” on a local public radio station, and he was honored when Gabriel’s descendants contacted Barry and used the song and lyrics in their annual commemoration of the uprising.
“The question is: Where do we go from there? I give it a 1–2-year cap. If there isn’t a monument where Gabriel was buried, I’m going to hire a sculpture and I’m going to get a film crew, and alert the media and cement that motherfucker into the ground.” He says earnestly, “I want things to be right — to acknowledge the ills around us and praise the beauty of change.”
Though “Prosser’s Gabriel” is based in local politics and history, like many of Barry’s songs, it has a universal message. “It’s relevant to the secret histories everywhere we live,” he says. Barry points to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History school of thought, which takes a look at historical events from a point of view different than the mainstream high-school-textbook accounts.
“That’s where great stories and films and music comes from, flipping the perspective,” he says. “Step into someone else’s shoes; it makes it more interesting. I’m a firm believer in what Woodie Guthrie says: ‘You look around; there’s plenty to write about.’” Along with the positive reception he got from Gabriel’s descendants, Barry received E-mails from listeners from different parts of the world who were prompted to do research on their communities and found out some interesting facts in the process.
Barry maintains this observational, open-minded outlook wherever he goes. He describes a recent trip around the Northeast, which he (uncharacteristically) began by Amtrak.
“There’s nothing better than sitting in the dining car listening to these big swinging dicks from the financial world talking about how to manipulate their coworkers, then being in Williamsburg with guys with ironic mustaches and women with the most incredible bodies you’ve ever seen,” he says.
“Then taking the Chinatown bus down to Philly, ending up in a scummy neighborhood, and finally riding a freight train to Richmond. By the time I got there, I looked like a homeless person, and when I got off the train, no one will talk to me because they think I’m going to ask them for something. From start to finish, the trip is a mind fuck.”
No matter how far he travels, though, Barry’s heart remains in Richmond, and his mind is set on improving the world around him. “It goes back to ‘Prosser’s Gabriel’ — the way people treat one another,” he says. “It became a thought, and for me, it came out in a song.”