The Pulse of RVA: Conversations with River City Artists

Spotlight: Barry Bless. Part 2 (See post below for Part 1

Barry Bless

I have mostly known Barry Bless as an attendee and fan of his musical endeavors: The Professor and the Madwoman, The Gourd Orchestra, The Happy Lucky Combo, The Ululating Mummies, and The Breakfast Cabaret.Barry emanates an aura that implies there’s a depth to this person that I bet is fascinating. Boy, was I right! A quote from our conversations that is particularly relevant: “There’s something called the oral tradition. Engaging in conversation is a way to strengthen this oral tradition. It’s an important part of anyone’s social life, and anyone’s intellectual life. Reading is fine, but, for me, if you can’t put it into dialogue, or a conversation with other people, it’s not as rich, it’s not as deep, it’s not as meaningful. It’s not as usable. It’s not as musical.”

Barry and I sit in the colorful, whimsical house where he has lived since 1972. His mother bought the house with the intention of making it a group home for elderly people. She asked Barry if he and artist friends would like to move in until that point. She died before realizing her dream.  Barry, 66, says it might yet happen. 

Barry has shared the home with over one hundred and twenty people throughout the years.  He is currently living there with his wife Jennifer and his daughter Odessa. Barry has three additional daughters: Emma, Jenna and Isadora.

I say, “You are such an intellect. Did you like school?”

“Ha! My wife kids me, that I’m a pseudo-intellectual. I say, ‘No I’m a semi-intellectual.’ I’m an amateur intellectual. Amateur, meaning ‘for the love of’. I’m a proud amateur.” 

“I have a high school diploma, barely. I took off Monday and Fridays for long weekends. And as needed, my parents would write a note. I loved to go to school just to argue and discuss things. Busing had just happened in tenth or eleventh grade. Suddenly, all these black kids were coming into school, and I was making friends with a whole new group of people. We had what we called a human relations club, where we got together and discussed issues of race. And that was an exciting time. Suddenly, we had black teachers when we didn’t have black teachers before.”

I ask Barry how people responded to that.

“TJ was the premier public high school for years and years. An upper middle class family would say, should we send our kids to private school or to TJ, they’re both really good schools. College bound kids went to TJ. Suddenly the school transformed. Kids from public housing were attending the school. My counselor told me, we had a close relationship, that any chance the principal had to expel a kid from public housing; he would do it just to get rid of the kid. My counselor was pissed.”

“There was one incident in eleventh grade with a history teacher. She taught American history. She was from a blue blood family. She’d been the wife of a Virginia Attorney General. One story she often told was about spending an hour with the Queen back in the fifties, or something. But, she was racist. I remember she would call the Native Americans savages. At one point, there was a picture of a man in a book, and she said ‘That is the ugliest white man I’ve ever seen.’ ”

“I would challenge her. The next year, senior year, I’m in a sociology class, and she walks into the class, and she catches my eye. She stops in front of the class. She looks at the sociology teacher, and she says, “Watch out for him”. So that’s why I went to school, to argue.”

“Another conversation that happened back then was with a Black sociology teacher. We had these free for all conversations about race and class. At one point, I talked about cultural differences between my black friends and my white friends. The teacher gets up. He says, ‘Oh, Barry thinks his black friends listen to James Brown, while all his white friends are listening to Bach.’ And then my black friends came to my defense.”

“There was this desert time, beginning I don’t know, late 70’s, early 80’s where people didn’t talk much about race or class. They didn’t talk about radical social change. There was a long period of that. I’m glad we’re back to discussing it.”

“The prize for people like me is to build a broad coalition of working class people of color. And pink is a color! I’ve seen the Democratic Party alienate working class pink folks, I was on a so called progressive democratic site the other day, and they were making fun of the way people spell. Basically, it’s this whole thing that these Trump supporters are ignorant, they’re losing their teeth, they, you know, it’s all the stereotypes about country folks, rednecks, hillbillies.”

“My daughters all have an interest in politics. Isadora and her twin sister, Odessa went to London to study ballet. My wife Jennifer went with them. They say, ‘What can we bring you back?’  I said, ‘I want you to go on the Marx tour.’ Because Marx did most of his writing in London, and his grave is in London. They said, ‘okay’.”

“They did the tour, and it really stuck with them. My wife, not as radical as I, lit a candle for me and placed it on his grave. The movement is much bigger than Marx. I’ve always liked Christopher Higgins description of Marx as a “necessary man”. Marx had what I would call a concentrated intellect. Most concentrated intellects get co-opted and bought off by wealth. They become Sophists and spin doctors, that’s where the money is. I find when people hear Marx, or Marxism they think of a very strict doctrine. I find more diversity of thought in people who are familiar with Marx than I do with people who haven’t been introduced to Marx. He was a wild thinker. You asked about free jazz earlier.”

“Marx wrote a letter to Abraham Lincoln letting him know that the London organization in which he was an officer, was in support of the Civil War, and explaining the reasons why they were supportive. He saw enslaved Africans and black Americans as being in the vanguard of the world revolution. He studied what was going on in China and India. Engels – they were a cotton family – they owned cotton mills. They were German, but the big cotton industry was in England. He moved to Manchester where cotton from Virginia was being processed. Engels, through his father’s business, had access to all this information about trade and the cotton industry. They were called the blue books, which are these accounting books. The cotton industry was global. Engels was brilliant, a hard worker, and a great intellect. Engels and Marx created a partnership. Engels was constantly giving Marx information about the cotton industry and the world economy. Marx was writing about what he saw as the global economy at the time.”

I say, “Do you read a lot?”

“I like ideas. I read. I’m a slow reader. I prefer conversation.”

“A friend of mine went away to college. I didn’t go to college. He said, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, I’m reading Plato right now. He said, ‘Oh, you probably shouldn’t do that without a professor. You might misunderstand Plato.’ I never fell prey to that logic.”

“My father used to say, ‘Reading weakens the mind!’ He’d say Two of the greatest people in the world never wrote anything down; Jesus and Socrates.’ “

I think my father may have had a reading disability.

“Once I met my father’s high school teacher. She was in her nineties. She looked me in the eyes and she said, ‘Barry, you know how people learn? Like this. Like you and me right now, looking in each other in the eyes and having this conversation.’ That’s what I was taught all my life. There’s something called the oral tradition. Engaging in conversation is a way to strengthen this oral tradition. It’s an important part of anyone’s social life, and anyone’s intellectual life. Reading is fine, but, for me, if you can’t put it into a dialogue, or a conversation with other people, it’s not as rich, it’s not as deep, it’s not as meaningful. It’s not as usable. It’s not as musical.”

“If reading, is a lower form of conversation, then recorded music is a lower form of live music. I try to carry on the oral tradition.”

If you go to Crossroads Coffee (where Barry regularly performs) there’s a sign that says, “Keeping The Oral Tradition Alive through Social Intercourse”. 

“I wrote that.” Barry laughs.

“When Will first opened that shop I said ‘I’ve got your bylineThis has got to be it.’ The owner painted the byline on the building in the fan district. A guy from the City comes in, and he says, ‘Some of us are concerned about what you’ve written on the building.’ Will says, ‘I don’t know where your mind is, but among my friends the oral tradition is conversation and social intercourse is socializing.’ So the guy backed off.”

I ask Barry to talk about how he got interested in playing accordion. 

“I was in my thirties. I had been playing piano. I backed off from playing music publicly. There was a band, Mandala – we all lived in this house together. We had a steady gig at JW Rails, a bar that was located in the fan.  When that band broke up, it was around the same time that the Richmond Artists Workshop started. I became more interested, as this conversation has demonstrated, in politics. I got really involved in political issues. I had a grand piano here, and I continued to bang away on the piano. Right, and I’ve always just played. It’s always been a part of my life.”

“I started to get interested in playing with other people again. I didn’t leave the jazz world behind, but I became more interested in world music. I listened to more and more recordings of music from everywhere. And the accordion is everywhere. The reason is because European sailors, soldiers and missionaries took it with them as they colonized the world”. 

“Then you had this phenomenon where the colonizers picked up the instrument and used it to make their own music. There is all this really interesting music all over the world where people approached the accordion in different ways.” 

“Then you had all the different kinds of accordions. For instance, the bandoneon came from Germany to Argentina, and in the rest of Germany and the rest of Europe, people stopped playing the bandoneon. It was like the Galapagos Islands, right? This accordion had made it to Argentina, and it never changed.  Tango was written and all of the music was done on the bandoneon, whereas the Germans think it’s really awkward. They want to get rid of it and make other kinds of accordions.” 

“I saw a button accordion at a thrift store button. Fifty bucks. I bought it and started playing it. Then I got together with Danny Finney in his kitchen. I still have it and play it.” (Danny Finney played saxophone with the Ululating Mummies.)

“A lot of people moved into Oregon Hill in the seventies. There was a migration of artists from Northern Virginia to Richmond because rent was cheap. I moved to Oregon Hill in seventy-two. My house cost thirty-five dollars a month.”

“Later a health food coop started there. A lot of people living in Oregon Hill were interested in politics. The people moving to Oregon Hill were interested in various forms of anarchism and decentralized communities. A lot of cultural and political activity was going on in Oregon Hill. Largely informed by low rent. People were not pursuing careers that make money. They were pursuing art and political activism in an affordable way.”

“I started playing with Danny. We worked through songs. Danny said he’s going to organize a benefit for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua for medical supplies. There was the war and the United States was trying to overthrow the Sandinistas. We did a fundraiser with a bunch of different people. We put together a band with John Hunter, Coby Batty, Danny and myself.  Ram Bhagat sat in with us. We did a few songs for that. We did another concert after that. We were so well received we said, well, let’s just keep on with this Ululating Mummies thing.”  

I ask Barry how the name of the band came to be.

“I had an album. I still have it. It’s from Panama. Indigenous musicians on the album performed their version of mummery. Instead of calling themselves ‘mummers’, like in Britain, they called themselves ‘mummies’. 

“You have the mummers parade now in Philadelphia. There’s this tradition of mummering, which is performing on the street, this kind of multimedia thing where you have costumes and theater and music, all together. Street performers. The Mummies were a lot like that.  Danny does costuming and visual art and sculptures. I liked the whole idea of being part of a group that was doing performance art, doing costumes, doing staging, doing music and with some political message. Anyway, back to the album. Instead of declaring that they are the mummers, they declared, ‘We are the mummiesWe are the mummies, and we’ve come here to entertain!’ I thought, yes. Yes! The Mummies. That’s it. But, it’s got to be the Screaming Mummies, or the Wailing Mummies. There’s got to be some kind of sound.”

“I’m listening to the radio. My Word. Do you remember My Word? It was these mostly English dudes that are doing word plays and definitions. You’re given a word, and one person has the real meaning and the others have fake meanings, and you have to guess which one is real. The word was “ululating”; to howl or wail. And I thought, that’s it, the Ululating Mummies!”

I say, “You mentioned that the cold war influenced your music.”

My friend Stephanie Ycaza got me thinking about that because she was working on cold war influences on music as part of her doctorate.

“Odessa and I were just laughing about it last night. Odessa told her friends at school, ‘My dad’s a communist.’ Which for the most part is true. But see, I grew up in a time that if people think you’re a communist, you may as well be a child molester. Careers and credibility were destroyed.  You’re foaming at the mouth. And so I say, ‘Whoa, you’re telling people at your school that I’m a communist? Why don’t you say I’m a socialist?’ She says, ‘Dad, you’re a communist.’ I say, ‘Okay. We’ll go with that.’ Isadora, had some friends come up to her and say, I’m ready to have the talk. She says, What talk is that?’ ‘The communist talk.’ Apparently, they’d been talking with their parents and that led to a discussion.”

“An important part of communism is internationalism. The creation of global community and culture that is part of a totality that includes strong local roots. Trotskyism is adamant in this regard. Trotsky left the Soviet Union in the nineteen thirties and said the revolution failed. Russia can engage in the larger global communist movement, but you can’t have communism in one country. So he left as an internationalist. Stalin had him killed in Mexico. Jennifer and I visited his compound on our honeymoon.”

“My interest in music is the emergence or the evolution of a global culture. Also, the roots of where all the influences come from that informed this global culture. You have two things happening simultaneously. You’re really interested, just like with agriculture, you’re really interested in preservation. And you’re really interested in what happens when you do hybrids and crossbreeding. Both are really important and interesting. What’s emerging is a global culture. Just like when we went to the moon, we look back and we saw that we were part of a whole. We’re becoming a whole culture as well.”

“The Cold War. This is an interesting bit of information. The CIA funded Jackson Pollock shows. Jackson Pollock was your stereotypical rugged individual, non-conformist, male. They toured his work around Europe with other abstract expressionists. In Europe there was a collectivist art tradition – dada, the surrealists – they were emphasizing the collective aspects of art. US propagandists wanted to feature the United States as the place where these creative, almost exclusively male, rugged individualists, we’re transforming the world.”

“As soon as the war was won against Fascism the Allies, particularly the Atlantic Alliance, tried to suppress and undermine all the communist parties in Europe. It was particularly violent in Greece.”

“The Cold War had a cultural aspect, as well. Both the Soviet Union and the United States were trying to win hearts and minds.”

I ask Barry if he experimented with drugs.

“Oh yeah. My daughter is fascinated with psychedelics. She hasn’t taken them. I pulled out my bible for her, Alan Watt’s Joyous Cosmology. It’s well worn.”

I say, “I haven’t read that book. I read Carlos Castaneda. Are you familiar with him?”

“I read a Separate Reality. I found it really inspiring. I’ve read critiques of it, that it’s fiction and cultural appropriation. Introducing, again, a popular Western idea of the lone individual, while those Native communities were organizing to fight cultural and economic colonialism. That doesn’t even make it in the book. Still, I got a lot out of the book. We do have separate realities.”

“I was reading three books simultaneously. Have you heard of Primal Scream?”

“No, I haven’t.”

“It was this psychotherapy that believed that birth is a traumatic experience often followed by a number of other traumatic experiences. You can actually deepen your memory to remember them and liberate yourself by screaming. I think for an adolescent just the idea, that if I can just scream I could loosen up and release all this tension, all this anxiety. That would be an enlightenment all in itself. I was also hearing the primal screams coming from the horn of Pharaoh Sanders and others.”

“I was also reading None Dare Call It Conspiracy, which was a right wing conspiracy book that you would get at the right wing bookstore here in town. The John Birch society had bookstores back then. I understood at the time that it was right wing, but at the same time, he was talking a lot about these global organizations, which I understood were capitalist organizations, but he thought they were communist organizations, I don’t know why. Like, the Council on Foreign Relations, and these big organizations that the ruling class use to kind of work in sync. Even though they’re often at each other’s throats in the marketplace, they still have common class interests.” 

“Yeah, so Separate Reality, Primal Scream, and None Dare Call It Conspiracy made for interesting cross reading.”

I ask Barry when he first took psychedelics.

“I was fifteen. Remember the story I told you about hitchhiking to a rock festival in Florida?  I still have the sketchbook and the notebook from my first LSD experience, because it was important to me. We arrived that night at the festival. It was dark. There’s people selling various kinds of LSD. Yellow Sunshine. Purple Haze. Two Dollars. Five Dollars. I forget what we took, but it was quite an experience.”

“Did you hallucinate?”

“I’ve never hallucinated on LSD where I confused anhallucination with reality. You’re transcending. You’re looking at what’s there with transcendent eyes. A tree would become a woman. But it was still that tree. Like an object had multiple layers of meaning, and multiple layers of association.” 

When I’m listening to people who are cocksure about their opinions, I think to myself, ‘You didn’t take enough LSD’.

“One thing that I was able to take away from it was how subjective all of our experiences are. And again, that ties to a separate reality. The whole experience of a highly subjective experience, where reality becomes…you construct a reality in your daily life that you’re comfortable with, and it becomes habitual. You perceive things habitually. Then you have this experience where suddenly all your habitual perceptions fall apart. You realize how subjective your reality is –  how separate your reality can be. Beyond that, we construct reality. I guess I’m an incorrigible communist. I believe we construct our realities collectively.”

Stay tuned for more…

The Pulse of RVA: Conversations with River City Artists

Spotlight: Barry Bless. Part 1 in a Series

Barry Bless

I have mostly known Barry Bless as an attendee and fan of his musical endeavors: The Professor and the Madwoman, The Gourd Orchestra, The Happy Lucky Combo, The Ululating Mummies, and The Breakfast Cabaret.

Barry emanates an aura that implies there’s a depth to this person that I bet is fascinating. Boy, was I right!

A quote from our conversations that is particularly relevant: “There’s something called the oral tradition. Engaging in conversation is a way to strengthen this oral tradition. It’s an important part of anyone’s social life, and anyone’s intellectual life. Reading is fine, but, for me, if you can’t put it into dialogue, or a conversation with other people, it’s not as rich, it’s not as deep, it’s not as meaningful. It’s not as usable. It’s not as musical.”

Barry has mastered the oral tradition.

To watch Barry Bless play the accordion is a study in the art of blissful and meditative music making. 

You can see him around town performing from his Wandering Cabaret.

Barry and I sit in the colorful, whimsical house where he has lived since 1972. His mother bought the house with the intention of making it a group home for elderly people. She asked Barry if he and artist friends would like to move in until that point. She died before realizing her dream.  Barry, 66, says it might yet happen. 

Barry has shared the home with over one hundred and twenty people throughout the years.  He is currently living there with his wife Jennifer and his daughter Odessa. Barry has three additional daughters: Emma, Jenna and Isadora.

“My parents were wonderful people. They lost two children before me to cystic fibrosis. I was an only child. I was coddled, but I was given a long leash.” 

Barry laughs at this memory:  “I was fifteen years old. I asked my mother if I could hitchhike from Richmond to Florida to attend a rock festival. My mother told me she would discuss it with my father. They gave me permission to leave that night if I cleaned my room. My mother gave me a Mylar blanket, invented by NASA, to keep me warm. My father gave me a box of chia seeds, which he said sustained Indians on long trips. In a way those gifts characterized their personalities.”

Barry’s father, Wally Bless opened Main Street Grill in Shockoe Bottom in 1968. I ask Barry if his father cooked. 

“Oh yeah. When I was a kid he was the parent that loved to cook. He was always into food. My dad was born in a log cabin in a German-speaking community in Appalachia – in Kentucky. When he was a child, he got sick a lot. He attributed it to eating too much pork, to being too ‘acidic’. I’m not sure what the scientific reasons were but he had pneumonia a lot as a child. He started to spend a lot of attention to his diet.”

“He left the farm at age 15. As he was coming into the cosmopolitan world, Cincinnati, he discovered the health food movement. Kellogg’s and Post were part of that health food movement. Society was becoming industrialized and urbanized. The health food movement was partially a response to that. Part of it was the nostalgia, and grief, for the lost farm life.  In my fathers’ final days he was still grieving. He said to me, ‘Why did they give up the farm?’

“One thing the military found out when they started to draft people in WWII was that malnutrition was rampant all over the United States. That was part of the impetus for starting the school lunch programs. In rural areas you might imagine that they were healthier, but they weren’t getting the broad spectrum of nutrients that people in urban areas were getting. They would be existing on a whole lot of cabbage or a whole lot of this or that – but they didn’t have a lot of access because of poverty.”

“One of the ironies of the health food movement is that it considered itself a ‘back to nature’ movement. But Kellogg’s and Post were both grain oriented, unlike the Paleolithic diet. The agricultural revolution radically changed the kind of foods we were evolved to eat. We evolved as hunters and gatherers. We were eating meats and plants, and then suddenly massive amounts of grains were introduced.”

I say, “It would be interesting to see if disease took off at that point.”

“Yeah, and what kinds of disease. One thing we know is that it was necessary for the development of civilization, because grains, primarily wheat and rice, provided a reliable source of concentrated calories. You could mass-produce and concentrate calories for a city. And make beer! If you’re a hunter and gatherer, you’re spending a lot of time hunting and gathering.”

“In the Gourd Orchestra we’re always reminding people that the gourd was the first plant domesticated by humans in the late Paleolithic Era, when we were hunter gathers. That was the beginning of the agricultural revolution. When people in the 20th century were saying, or now, ‘we’ve got to get back to nature’, the nature they’re getting back to is recent in human evolution – it’s back to the farm and the agricultural diet.”

“A big part of my father’s identity was being a part of the land. Being a part of the farm. Being a farmer. You asked me if my father was a renaissance man. All farmers are renaissance men. He had to learn carpentry and animal husbandry. He had to learn about the soil and timbering and how to make lumber. He learned it from his family. I’ve seen the barn that my great-great grandfather built. My grandfather had a portable steam driven sawmill that went from farm to farm. My father as early as age 13 would lead the crew.”

“My great-great grandfather left Germany to avoid conscription into the military. They moved into a community that was Anglo Saxon. They came into this really fertile land in Kentucky. It was like the Promised Land. They started to bring all these German cabbage farmers over to this fertile land from Alsace.”

“I have a short article about the concerns the Anglo community had about the Germans bringing with them radicals and anarchists. The article is written to put the Anglos at ease. It said, ‘these are good, hard-working Germans, not trouble makers. A brewery will soon be built!’ I joke that my family is proof that radicals and anarchists did sneak over. I identify with the German radical tradition.”

“If my father was a German hillbilly my mother was a proper German middle class lady.  She was trained to play the parlor piano. She was trained to be well spoken, well educated and well dressed. She was not trained to cook. She became an excellent piano player but her parents wouldn’t allow her to attend conservatory. Her piano playing was for the parlor. Later in life it was for the church, the Senior Center and the City Jail.”

I ask Barry how his parents met. 

“They met at a Lutheran church in Cincinnati. My father moved to Cincinnati from Kentucky. My mother moved there from New York. It was largely a German town. When I was growing up I was always reminded that the United States almost became a German-speaking country. There was a vote about what would be the national language because there were so many Germans. I haven’t researched it but that’s the story.”

“My father was always surprised and concerned that I went through school without studying Goethe. Goethe was Germany’s great Renaissance person. He was seminal. If you read any German scholar – Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, (my trinity) – they’ve all been heavily influenced by Goethe. So my father is like, ‘My son is growing up culturally deprived.’ “ 

“When I grew up my father was a life insurance salesman. It was an interesting culture; sales culture. “How To Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie was one of the cultural touchstones. 

“My dad was active in the Toastmasters. It’s a public speaking club. My mother was in Toastmistress’. A lot of sales people, business people and political leaders joined Toastmasters where they learned how to give speeches, presentations. When I was growing up, my father started the junior Toastmasters club, the Gavel Club, at the Jewish Center.  So I was brought up doing public speaking, and debating and thinking on my feet and being put in really awkward situations.”

“I remember when my dad died, and people just start pouring over to the house. One person remarked that he was able to take his sales skills and transfer them to the civil rights movement. ‘How to win friends and influence racists!’ “

“Insurance became more and more a part of big business finance. When I was growing up, he talked about the Lutheran brotherhood, a non-profit beneficial aid society. Whenever anyone was in need, they would take from that pool and help that person. Basically, what he was saying is that insurance is socialism.” 

“At some point he realized that’s not what the insurance industry had become. He found himself in a business that didn’t jive with his values. And at this point, so we’re talking about 68 or 69, we looked for other options. We considered a Baskin-Robins franchise, a foster home and settled on the Main St Grill.”

My mother led the way. She was an amazing woman. It’s easy to talk about my dad because he was more colorful and had a bigger public profile but my mom made things happen.”

I ask if Barry’s mother worked.

“She was a church secretary.  For many years, she worked for Presbyterian churches when I was growing up, then she worked for the Unitarian Church and then the State Penitentiary.”

“During the late sixties I came home from the Lutheran church. I was just starting to get confirmed. The minister came in to our first confirmation class. He said, ‘You’re going to hear a lot of things in the world, and I want you to know that what I’m going to tell you and what you learn here is the truth. It’s the absolute truth.’ Which I guess is some people’s definition of faith.”

“So I went home. I was deeply offended partly because I knew the story of Martin Luther. He wasn’t going to accept the dogma of the Catholic Church. That was part of the story. Part of the narrative I grew up with. So how could this guy come in and say this was the Absolute Truth. Of course, with Martin Luther – the history is a little more complicated than that. At that point my mom and I left the church.”

“After my grandmother died – she lived with us for six years of my life – she was religious to the point of being a fundamentalist. After she suddenly died, my mom went a little nuts. And suddenly, we had to pray at dinner every night. My mom had this little box of cards with prayers on them. It all seemed so artificial.”

“Around that time, I started having doubts about the existence of God. I’d do this exercise where I had to try to convince myself that there’s a God. And for a fleeting second, I’d believe in God, and then it would go away.”

“I said, ‘Mom, I’m not sure I believe in God.’ She swiveled around in her chair, looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Barry, I don’t know if I believe either.’ I was so relieved. She went on to become a pretty radical atheist.”

I ask Barry how old he was when he told his mother he didn’t believe in God.

“Somewhere around nine, ten or eleven.”

I say, “That’s progressive for that age.”

“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know. I was tortured. My dad stayed in the church. He loved arguing and talking to people. And when people would ask do you believe in God, he said, ‘I don’t have to, I’m in it, it’s all around me.’

“So his was just kind of an existential approach, like Popeye, “I am what I am, that’s all that I am.” And “What is, is what it is.” So he didn’t feel a need to possess knowledge. He just wanted to swim around in this pool of existence, awash in humanity.”

“And for my mom, partly because I think, I don’t know if she would have articulated it this way, but it was part of rebellion against patriarchy. To rebel against this patriarchy. So her atheism packed a punch. She was pissed off.”

“She started the local chapter of The American Atheist Society and a group called the Atheist Corner at the Unitarian Church.  I remember when they started; they invited one of the major ministers in town from a Baptist Church. He came to talk to the group. There were questions like; ‘Was God a man or woman?’ and the minister said definitely God is a man.  One of the people in the group said, ‘Well, we’re mostly agnostic here. Thanks for being open minded.’ My mom stood up and she says, ‘I’m no agnostic.  When I listen to you talking about the Bible, I may as well be listening to somebody from Mars. What you’re saying makes absolutely no sense.’ She was a warrior.”

“I started hanging out at the Jewish Center. All of my friends were Jewish. I had an affinity, and my family had an affinity for Jewish people, for whatever reason. I think retrospectively, one of the reasons is, many of them were German, or Central European. There’s a cultural difference between Anglos and central Europeans. Part of it was that – the Jews that I knew in town were more similar to Germans and Central Europeans than the Anglos. I know that sounds strange given the history of German fascism.”

“At some point, I made a list of what it was that attracted me to Jewish culture. I decided it was a developed world view, a sense of social justice, intellectual rigor, and a sense of humor.”

“As I have matured, I’ve realized that these things are not unique to Jews. But it distinguished the Jews around me from the WASPs around me.”

“Simply put, given my choices, Jewish people were more friendly and more interesting.” 

I mention that my sister converted to Judaism. She likes that there is no original sin.

“Have you ever read Freud’s take on that? He believed one of the roots of anti-Semitism is that Jews wrong doings exist in the ethical world. Their sins are not original. Christians on the other hand live in a constant cycle of sin and absolution, like children. So Jews remind Christians the painful truth that living with guilt is part of being human, a mature human.”

“One of my father’s favorite stories was about being invited to hang out with some Rabbi’s at one of their homes. He felt so honored and respected. A German hillbilly with a high school education hanging out with these learned men! My father was a kid in an intellectual candy shop. Something that had interested my father was what does ‘spirit’ and ‘spiritual’ mean? So he asked them. He said that after they ran through multiple languages they turned to him and said ‘breath’. This was a revelation for my father and something he talked about in his final days.”

“My social life from ages twelve to fourteen was immersed in the Jewish community. I wrote a song for the cantor of Temple Beth El a few years ago. It’s written in what in Klezmer music is called a Turkish or Oriental scale.” 

“I’d go to temple and listen to the cantor chant. And he’s chanting in Middle Eastern modes. I mean, they’re not Arabic, but they’re a similar.”

The cantor, Cantor Okun, he was as wide as he was tall. And he would start chanting and swaying. And I’d get chills up and down. That had a big influence on my music. I kept looking for and finding that same soulfulness in Black music and Arabic music. I kept seeking it out, like, what kind of music has that level of depth, that deep sense of homesickness and longing.”

I ask Barry to name some of the music.

“Greek music, the blues, jazz…  but, you know, modal jazz where the emphasis is not just on all these chord changes. Bebop was virtuosity. I love bebop. It was doing all these gymnastics with all these chord changes. And then suddenly, then you say, well, maybe we can reach deeper levels of feeling. So, you get Kind of Blue and Coltrane’s movement into modal music.”

I ask Barry if he likes free jazz.

“Yeah. It’s not all that I like, but I listen to free jazz. Cecil Taylor. Sun Ra.”

I say, “Ornette?”

“Ornette. I don’t think Ornette as free jazz, but yes, he helped free us from the tyranny of chord structures and European harmony.

I ask Barry if he likes classical music.

“I love classical. Baroque. It would be tough, but if I had one thing to listen to on a desert island, it would be Bach.”

I ask Barry to talk more about the Main Street Grill. 

“My mom was looking for things maybe my dad could do after leaving insurance sales.  I remember we went down to Shockoe Bottom. We’re talking 1968 or 1969. My dad’s really involved in the Black Liberation Movement, slash, Civil Rights Movement. 

I ask, “How big was that movement in Richmond?”

“Huge. The main organization my father was involved with was The Richmond Council on Human Relations. He was very active. There were lots of organizations. It was the sixties. Every black church was the Center for political activity. Richmond, like everywhere in the United States, had a huge civil rights movement.”

“My father headed up the committee that brought Stokely Carmichael, aka Kwame Ture, to town.”

“I prefer the term Black Liberation Movement, because Civil Rights focuses on the rights of the individual. It can be the ultimate divide and conquer.” 

“Black liberation, just like we’re having a discussion about reparations today, looks at things systemically, and historically. Slavery and what has followed is systemic, institutionalized. That’s why I prefer the term Black Liberation Movement, to Civil Rights Movement, because it’s easy to reduce the complexities of what happens in a society to individual rights. Civil rights, individual rights can become abstractions that don’t address the underlying racial and class coalitions and systems of power.” 

“Back to the restaurant. My parents and I go to Shockoe Bottom. A lot of people are leaving the city. It’s flight of the whites. My family said, ‘No, we’re gonna move more deeply into this’. Shockoe Bottom was perfect. We go there one evening, to check out this working class restaurant, owned and run by white people. Across the street you had the railroad YMCA where a lot of indigent people were coming through. You had the farmer’s market. A lot of working class poor, domestic workers, day workers, mostly black. Six nip joints on that block. A Muslim butcher. Jewish-owned pawn shop.”

“We go into the restaurant. It’s pretty bleak. This waitress comes up. She finds out we’re interested in buying it. She comes over and whispers that we shouldn’t buy because there’s “too many N-word around here”.  We looked at each other as if to say, ‘Sold’. Dad set up shop.”

I asked if his father created a menu.

“We inherited the menu. It had an old steam table for lunch. We kept all of the stuff. A lot of it was cool, Indigenous, meaning old Southern fare; smoked sausage, salt herring, shad roe, bologna burgers.”

“My dad introduced natural foods. He would talk to people about healthy food. Part of the mission he was on was to get the working class to eat healthy. And the restaurant was right on the farmers market that supplied the city with produce. So he had his connection to the farm. My Dad would grind his own grits and serve fresh-ground grits. We had a soda machine, but it was also a beer joint. I could go on and on about what the restaurant offered me in terms of a cultural education. It was a mostly black working-class restaurant during the morning and afternoon. There was a Bowery vibe too. Eventually, my friend Pippin and I opened it in the evenings. Part of the problem was no one wanted to go to that part of town after dark.”

“Next door was a gambling joint and a nip joint. Organized crime. The elderly white man that ran it was found bludgeoned to death. A large young Black man, over six feet tall, took it over and ran it. This man, who we were friends with, comes in the restaurant one evening and stands in the door. He has a sawed-off shotgun. He looks at everybody and he says, ‘No, not here’ and he walks out of the door. That’s what we were up against at night in terms of getting people to come to Shockoe Bottom.”

“There was a lot of political activity at Main Street Grill. My father described it as a forum, where anyone could come and talk about anything.”   

“I know this story second hand from Steve Fishman. Some of my friends were standing in front of the Main Street Grill, and students from the West End would come to Shockoe Bottom just because they were fascinated. Don Michellitti was a big, burly, Russian looking guy. He was of Russian descent. The students were saying, ‘We hear this place is so radical, they don’t even let Democrats in here.’ Don had been carving these heads from apples, and letting them shrivel up. They looked like shrunken heads. He pulled one out of his pocket. He got real serious and says, ‘This is the last Democrat that tried to step foot in Main Street Grill.’

 “After my mother died my father traveled a lot. He traveled to China, the Soviet Union, Cuba… That’s a whole other thing, the US China People’s Friendship Association – my dad started the chapter here in Richmond, when there was a big push to normalize relations with China. My dad was one of the first people to go to China after it opened up. The local chapter was very active. A story for another time…”

“Going back, buses would leave from Main Street Grill and go to marches in DC. One of the earliest marches I went on was the Poor People’s March. Martin Luther King was organizing it, right before he was assassinated. There’s always been conjecture. He was assassinated in Memphis. There was a labor dispute. Martin Luther King was openly espousing socialist ideals. He was openly trying to organize poor black and white people across racial lines around issues of poverty. It’s then he gets shot.”

“The Poor People’s March (1968) was addressing poverty. I don’t remember any speeches. I remember experiencing the whole event. Resurrection City was tents and shacks built on the mall until the United States addressed the issue of poverty. The way I remember it, and I’d have to go back and check my history, is that King was assassinated before the march.”

I ask Barry about the national reaction to King’s assassination. Was there an overall sense of utter tragedy?

Barry tears up. He says, “Yeah.” We take a break.

I ask Barry if there was a gathering in DC after King’s assassination.

“The night he was assassinated my father and I went to the Byrd Park spring to get spring water. The town was completely silent. My father was connected with movement organizers. Everyone is wondering what’s going to happen. Why did we go get spring water that night? I think my dad wanted us to get out into the city, and just feel the city that night. We sat down by the spring. I think a lot of people stayed home because they were afraid. The city was unusually quite. Like when there’s a big snow. We’re wondering if it’s the calm before the storm. Instead of people running errands around the city, the city as a whole was experiencing this momentous, historic event. But, there were no riots.”

“When I was fourteen, I’d get up every morning and go to the prison and demonstrate in support of the prison strike. In the afternoon there were meetings. Later in life, I got to meet a prisoner and he told me he wanted to thank me for marching in support of the strike. I say that just as another way to emphasize how deeply I was involved in Richmond’s radical community as I was growing up.”

“I grew up thinking there’s going to be truly radical change. Even under Obama, wealth disparity has increased. Income and wealth. The wealthy have steadily become more powerful over the past thirty years. The very nature of capitalism is to concentrate wealth.”

“When King was killed, I lost a lot of hope. King was an important leader. He wasn’t just fighting for civil rights.  He started speaking against capitalism and imperialism. He was evolving into a leader that was a threat to the economic system. Then Reagan got elected and my hope diminished more.”

“The problem with capitalism is that it’s unsustainable.”

 “Most people that I know that are radical, got to that point from their life experiences and getting deeply involved in some issue. For politics to get stuck in opinion, unrelated to collective action, is toxic.”

Barry brings up the avant-garde jazz artist Cecil Taylor.

“He played at the Smithsonian Institute in 1973.  They had a lecture demonstration, and then a concert in the evening

“Cecil Taylor did most of the talking at the lecture. All he wanted to talk about was culture, politics, black liberation movement, and all these things that had meaning for him. And people were getting antsy. Because they’re expecting an entertainer, a musician, to talk about his music.  And, at one point, somebody raised their hand and they were saying ‘why don’t you play us a tune?’ He got pissed, and said ‘what I’m talking about influences my music.’ 

“It made me think: here we are talking about politics, you know? It wouldn’t make much sense if I spoke Chinese while you were speaking English, right? And it’s similar, this is not an exact analogy, but it’s similar with music. There’s a lot of connection to language in there, and we’re not talking about a separate world. But again, just in conversation, just us talking about politics is much like music. If I was talking to you about music, it would be once removed, if that makes any sense at all. The two of us having a dialogue is a lot like music. The important thing is the collaborative creative process.”

I say, “Is it like show don’t tell?”

“Yes. We have common interests in what’s going on in the world today. So we’re sitting here conversing. That’s a lot like music. Especially when you consider the rhythm and cadence of language”

Stay tuned for part 2…

Jeff Bunn interview

My husband has played bass with a number of local bands ranging from rock n’ roll to eclectic world music. We know a lot of musicians, and therefore, I know how talented and interesting these musical humans are.  Interviewing the musicians has been an incredibly interesting project.

Richmond has been the launching point for a huge number of musicians and bands that have been really successful: GWAR, NO BS Brass Band, Always August, Avail, Plunky and Oneness, Mad Skillz, Bio Ritmo, Susan Greenbaum, The Good Guys, Rebby Sharp, Pippin Barnett, Reggie Pace and so many others. Richmond is a creative hotbed of artists. Virginia Commonwealth University is certainly a big player in the artistic scene. They have a world-class music and fine arts program. But, I think Richmond is authentically creative in a grassroots way. RVA is a great music town! Up there with Austin!  

My first interview is Jeff Bunn, bass player for The Brides of Funkenstein, Parliament Funkadelic and Parlet 

 

“P-Funk is an old and fluid organization. It’s almost like a revolving door, you know?”

“I came out with the Bride of Funkenstein. Bootsy (Collins) did the record and I replaced him on the tour. That was a dream come true.”

I ask Jeff if he ever hung out with Bootsy.

“Not so much. The last time I was out with George Clinton, we were at the Apollo. We got together. It’s funny. When you’re in the family it’s like you don’t really need to be talking to each other a lot. Whenever we’re together we’re great because each of us is like okay, it’s great to see you. See you later.”

“Yeah, but it’s interesting. With the guys I get to be to be the kid. You know, it’s like I’m still young.”

I say, “You were young when you played with P-Funk, right?”

“Yeah, I was seventeen.”

I ask him when he moved to Richmond.

“Nineties. My wife’s mother was ill. We were commuting back and forth. We decided to move here to be closer to my mother in-law.”

Jeff currently lives in Richmond. He was born and raised in Baltimore.

“I tend to be an open book about everything. And not have any particular agenda. And what I’ve learned is – I learned it from George (Clinton) – he’s going to always call it back to himself, and the music and the project, right?”

“It’s interesting being at this age, and learning so many different things about the business, which is a pain in the butt. But I’ve rediscovered my love of music, which is just so joyous. But the music business. Should I use the word weaponized? You know, I was listening to some NPR this morning. They were doing mostly Latino Mexican music. They were talking to this one band, and the first thing that jumped out at me was longevity. They got together as a band twenty-four years ago out of Mexico. And you just don’t hear of that anymore in the music industry.”

“My first question comes across Facebook. What was the first concert you ever saw? That made me think about it. I was on my dad’s shoulders, it was late at night. He took me to this club. We’re in this club and it’s nothing but joy. In the back of the room is a band. The club says to my father, “you can’t bring that baby in here. I remember the vibe, the spirit of the moment. It was just love. It was pure, pure joy.”

“Later, I asked my father who the band was. He said it was Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.”

“My parents were really powerful, powerful people. My father had issues. He was an alcoholic. Let me tell you about this guy. He ran away from home when he was fifteen to go into the Korean War. So that tells you what was going on at home. As a consequence, he was an alcoholic. Alcoholics are abusive. But he was a hell of a guy. I mean, he was self-employed as an electrician, and had his own TV repair shop and took care of two families. He never missed a birthday. Never missed a holiday. I give him his props.”

“I think back to the seventies and eighties. We used to make copies of cassettes. And each time you make a copy, it became worse. I think that’s how we are as a species. I think we become weaker, and just more corrupt through each generation. The things my dad withstood, I was like dude…”

“The guy that hired me to play for my church. Craig Matthew, this guy’s out of Detroit and the absolute cream of the crop minister of music. He and I were talking one day, and he said, ‘JB I tried to cut my grass the other day and I couldn’t finish it.’ He was saying he started to think about the generation that came up before him and what they were able to endure.”

“Like James Brown. You know, these guys, George Clinton. You know, those guys are on a different level. I mean, robust is not even a word to describe it. The last time I was out with George in 2010 with Funkadelic I had two goals. It was so physically taxing. It was hard in the no rules. George called up, hey, you’re going to be going out this weekend, right? Well, you may not know when, how or where you’re going. No idea when you’re going to return. So you’re sitting at home waiting for travel information. And then next thing you know, somebody’s at the front door to pick you up – c‘mon we’re going to Australia.”

“We went to Australia. We leave out of Newark, New Jersey. There’s a problem with the plane. It won’t start. So now we’re all scared, do we get off the plane? No. They’re going to fix the plane and we going to take it to Australia. We go to LA and we’ve missed the connection.  The next day we’re playing on the west coast of Australia. Now we’re playing catch up. By the time we get to Australia, which is a seventeen hour flight, we’ve got to fly another three, four more hours to the west coast, and play that night. So that’s how that tour started. When we get back to the states and get back to Newark I’m thinking great, we’re done. I’m going home to see my kid. Oh no I’m not. I’m going to San Antonio, Texas to play South by Southwest. Get in the back of van. Not a tour bus. That’s what we got in from Newark to Texas after twenty-four hours of flying. That’s just one example. And it’s nothing for these guys. They’ve been doing this for thirty years.”

“They call me and ask me to do a gig in Tennessee. They fly me to Knoxville and I’m thinking this is pretty sexy – fly me out and fly me home.  So they pick me up at the airport, go straight to the venue, do a quick sound check. Do the show. I’m going back to the room to go back home. Nooooo. Get on the bus. You’re going to Denver.”

I say, “How did you feel about that?”

“It doesn’t matter how I felt about it. This is the job. It’s a mafia thing. This is the business we’re in.”

I ask Jeff what it’s like hanging out with George Clinton.

“George and I go back to when I was a kid. Seventeen. I knew George in the heyday. I’ve known George in the hard days. The nineties. He’s been over to my house. Our relationship has grown and changed. My thing has always been relationships, regardless of what the business is doing and we may fight, we may not like whatever. But, I’m still going to maintain a healthy loving relationship with you. Right now, there’s a lot of angst within the situation. People feel like they got slighted.”

“It’s the problem with George Clinton and the music business at large. This is where I get into conversations with my Funkadelic family. They say George ripped me off for this and that. And they say they hate George. I say I can hate him too but if it wasn’t for George I wouldn’t have you.”

“There are quite a few tunes that I have contributed musically to that I haven’t received the credit rights. He doesn’t legally have to give me writer’s credit. This is a work for hire. It’s a legal clause in the copyright law. I don’t think it’s fair. My personal perception is because I grew up in a time when people wrote lyrics and music and both of you got credit. My perception is I should get credit for writing the music even though it’s not pen and paper. Hopefully, some things will get fixed before I die.”

I ask what songs.

“Freak of the Week. Mother May I. I’m Holding You Responsible. Michelle.”

I mention how much I love Freak of the Week.  I ask Jeff how he got hooked up with Funkadelic.

He tells me a fellow musician in Baltimore hooked him up with the band in nineteen seventy-eight. “Two years with Funkadelic. Things are crazy. I join the air force. I was going to do thirty years. God had other plans.  I came out of the air force after four years. Came to Richmond in ninety-four. Went back out with George for two years. It was crazy and I said that’s enough of that.”

I say, “Can you elaborate about crazy? Heavy drugs?”

“For George In the seventies it was a lot of cocaine. It was sex, drugs and rock and roll. In the nineties it was coke and free-basing crack. I remember when I quit in the seventies. Sheila, one of the brides (Brides of Funkenstein) called me and said Cherokee, you can’t quit now, we just got Sly. I say I’m not fooling with y’all. Come to find out Sly was smoking crack too. It was crazy.”

“Fortunately for me, I think God has given me an immune system to where I see that stuff, and it’s like, you know, you can’t do that stuff.”

I ask him about Parlet.

“We had two girl bands. Parlet is the female version of Parliament. The Brides of Funkenstein is the female version of Funkadelic. I was the bass player for the Brides of Dr. Funkenstein. We released two albums. The live album from the Howard Theatre is slamming. You should hear that.”

“My dream was to play for Bootsy since I was a kid. I took Bootsy’s place with the Horny Horns. I played with the Rubber Band. Maceo. All the Bootsy folks. So my dream had come true.

I mention how much I love Maceo.

“We have Prince to thank for Maceo still being with us. Maceo had gotten very ill and Prince paid all of his medical expenses and got him healthy again.”

“I’ve got a great Prince story. We were out in nineties. We just got back from Europe. Looking back on it now I wonder why didn’t connect the dots. I get a Fed-Ex from Paisley Park. I wonder what is this? I don’t know what’s going on.  We fly to Minneapolis. On the tour, we have a gig to do in Minneapolis. I’m thinking we’re going to go to Minneapolis to do a gig. When we get to the airport, uncharacteristic of Funkadelic, we have someone there to meet us. They say okay,  all of y’all go this way. We get in a van and they start driving and we think, okay, we’re going to the hotel, right? No, they took us to Paisley Park. Oh, wow. Whoa, wait a minute. Wait, wait, wait, wait, what are we doing?”

“We don’t know what’s going on. I’m sitting there putting all this makeup on. So what are we doing? What song are we doing? Okay, let’s go. Let’s go to the stage. Anyway, what happened was, we were there to soundstage and we’re doing this cut that I’ve never heard of. Next thing you know some really hot chick comes up to me and sticks a mic in my face and says who are you?  I’m kind of shy. I say leave me alone, I’m working. And you know, she came to me. She says, have you seen Prince? I say, leave me alone. You’re scaring me. I look over to George like you wanna fix this?”

“We get to the hotel. Lo and behold Prince is having a fall special called the Rise Divine. And we were part of that. So, someone says, ‘Hey I saw you on TV with Prince.’”

“Yeah, I love that guy. He was scary great. And I think he was taken from us much too soon. The first time I saw Prince was 1979. We were playing the LA Coliseum. It was us, Rick James. I don’t know who else. Keep in mind I’m nineteen so I’m kind of overwhelmed.  We’re headed down to the stage and I see this cat who looks like a Funkadelic and he’s being escorted off the stage. It’s him and this big, big white guy. After years past, I realized that was Prince being escorted off the stage. They didn’t want anybody on the stage when we went on. He had cut-offs on. He was looking really funky.”

“I’m backstage and I’m really awestruck. Then I see Larry Graham. Turns out all the Graham  Central Station guys are back stage. Our guitar player, Michael Hampton is talking to Hershall Kennedy.  On the floor are all of our gold records for Uncle Jam wants you. I say, wow, there’s my gold record. I should take my gold records. Then I think to myself, no, don’t take the records. Let them present it to you. I never got it. I saw it but I didn’t get it. Things went south with the record company so we didn’t get the record.”

“When I left Georgia in two-thousand fourteen a guy comes to the house and asks me if I want the gold record. I say, ‘what are you talking about?’ I had the blues. I was depressed. Then I got the record.”

“When you think something is done, and you’re going to move on to the next phase in your life, but you’re not done. I thought I was going to be in the Air Force for thirty years but here I am still playing for Funkadelic. But, I’m thankful. Very, very, thankful.”

“I have an eight year old son. His birthday is Tuesday. I love him more than chocolate cake. Life is good.

Wacky on the Junk is now available

bookcover
Praise for Wacky on the Junk
“Kathy Varner’s freewheeling memoir Wacky on the Junk takes readers on an engaging and spirited journey fueled by sugar (and a few other substances) and told with heart. If you came of age in the era of Wonder Bread and the Grateful Dead, this book speaks your language—and if you, like Varner, feel you were airdropped on the Island of Life, Wacky on the Junk might just have some of the survival tools you need.”
— Anne Sofee, author of Snake Hips: Belly Dancing and How I Found True Love
“…an honest and candid account of a young woman’s coming of age… Kathy shows just how positively one can turn a seemingly hopeless life around and become a more complete person, by pure depth of character or simply growing up and seeing the error of one’s ways. Thought-provoking and refective…”
—Matt McAvoy, author of Granjy’s Eyes, Kill the Witch!, Clouds, and The Black Line

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