Words & Photos by Rebecca Reed (www.rebeccarphotography.com)
Tim Barry is one of those enigmatic musicians. I put him in the same group as Chuck Ragan, as do most people. When you get to his show, even afterwards, chances are you won’t see him. It’s not that he isn’t a sociable, insanely nice human – after spending the day with him, I can tell you he’s one of the nicest, most down to earth people alive – he just likes his alone time to clear his head to make sure he’s ready to put on the best show you’ve ever seen, then decompress after. If you do see him hanging around outside, he will introduce himself, shake your hand, learn and remember your name, and proceed to have a genuine conversation about your life. He may even take your card and possibly buy some furniture that you built.
This was not my first time meeting Tim. At Fest 10, I took some photos of him after his set. I was excited and nervous. I’ve loved his music for years and I have this paranoia before meeting musicians I’ve admired that they’ll be complete asshats. I was told to wait an hour before I went up to the dressing room, because he needs to be alone after the show to decompress. I get that. Once I went up, he shook my hand, said it was nice to meet me, and then offered me a beer and something to “smoke.” I declined and sat back, listened to him talk with his friends, took some photos, and then RAN to whatever venue I had to be at next. Still, this didn’t prepare me to spend an entire day with him.
We met up at Converse Rubber Tracks. Converse set up a space in Brooklyn where musicians can come in and record for free. It’s a pretty incredible place. Also utilizing this space was Going off Track, a podcast done by industry veterans Jonah Bayer, Mike Cangemi, Steven Smith, and Brad Worrell that I highly suggest you listen to, (www.goingofftrack.com). They all have deep roots in the music scene and know their shit. They are also very nice dudes who are pretty funny. I got there before Tim and was introduced to everyone involved. I’ve known Jonah for a while now, so he calmed me down a bit. Tim showed up shortly after and reintroduced himself, quickly remembering that we had met a few years before and he had recently seen a photo I posted from that meeting on my Instagram. We all gathered in the small room while the hosts asked Tim a myriad of questions regarding his years in Avail and how he likes owning chickens. It was great. I sat back, took photos, listened, and tried to be as quiet as possible. Before leaving, Tim was offered a free pair of Converse, a perk of being a guest. He was obviously conflicted. He wears work boots and Carharts. He’s not really a Converse guy. He accepted, but was very vocal about his guilt over taking new shoes when he already has shoes and not everyone does. He mentioned a homeless guy he knows from growing up in the punk scene and how he would probably like a new pair of shoes. Worried about the weather, I chimed in, “A brand new pair of Converse is better than no shoes at all.” Once we’d left, Tim told me, “I wish you would have had a mic. I kept wanting to involve you, seems weird that you were there, but couldn’t talk.” It did feel kind of weird, but that’s my job: fly on the wall.
Tim was on the bus with the Hold Steady for the entire tour. It was just him – no merch guy, no tour manager – so it was just the two of us all day with no transportation from Rubber Tracks to the venue, Music Hall of Williamsburg. The venue was no more than a 10-minute walk, but I’m the most directionally inept human on the planet. Tim walked out of the venue, looked around, and had no doubt which way to go. I got some great advice – that I doubt will help me, I’m hopeless – “Just remember where the water is. Everything is water. The river is behind us. We don’t want to go towards that. We want to go away, towards the other water.” He pointed at the highway overpass and explained that I should think of that as a moving river. We were between the two, but wanted to go towards the highway. At the time, it made sense, now it makes my brain hurt. It was just Tim and I, so it would have been awkward and rude not to talk to pass the time, but as a photographer documenting the day, it made taking photos kind of hard. He’s just such an interesting human. We would start a conversation about music and I’d forget about my camera. We’d talk about food and I’d forget about my camera. We’d discuss the show that day and I’d forget about my camera. We just walked and chatted. I brought up his little girl and he lit up. We spent most of the walk talking about how she goes everywhere with him when he’s home. He gets up early so he’ll already be up when she wakes. She helps him take the chickens out in the morning and points them all out, trying to count and make sure they are all accounted for. They go bottle hunting and to the river. His description of her little voice trying to count at such a young age is too cute to put into words. His wife is an elementary school teacher in Virginia. So is my mom. So we had a talk about the state of education.
We arrived at the venue and were standing outside. A guy recognized Tim and walked up. He said hi, they chatted. The guy is a furniture maker who recently moved to New York City and his girlfriend lives in Chicago. Tim is genuinely engaging him so much, I feel like we know this guy’s life story. Tim asked if he was going to the show and the guy explained that he couldn’t get a ticket, the show had sold out far too quickly. We said our goodbyes and walked in as The Hold Steady were setting up their merch. Tim is alone on this tour and has no merch person or guest list space. After a few minutes of struggling, I offered my services and there we had it. Security gave me my band pass, and we left to go grab a taco from the street cart around the corner. I remembered why I was there and took one photo of him on the way to get food. Apparently the tacos were delicious. I’m skeptical of Mexican food in the state of New York. We walked back to the venue, found his room, and he began to change the strings on his guitar. I FINALLY got my camera back out and started to shoot. While I was doing so, he gave me a primer on changing strings and imparted a few tricks he’d learned from other musicians on tour. He breaks a lot of bridges on his Martin, which he explains is the part on the bottom of the guitar that the strings rest on. Now he uses the plastic tubes that kids make bracelets out of as buffers. They protect the strings from the bridge and vice versa. He set down the guitar so the new strings could rest and stretch. He took this opportunity to sit on the couch and try to figure out the mess of a guest list. New York can be a tricky place for guest lists. All the record labels and industry people are here and they all want to see you, which makes it hard to get friends and family (and photographers) into your show. One person was a non-negotiable, his brother, who lives not too far from the venue. Like Tim, he’s musically gifted. He writes classical music. Incredible.
Finally, it was time for sound check. I started hearing reggae music blasting from downstairs. I’ve been through my fair share of sound checks and I’m consistently baffled by the ubiquity of reggae. Tim, man of infinite knowledge, explained that it is to check all the speakers and make sure they are set. Reggae spans so many notes – from super low bass all the way up to quivering treble – that it’s a perfect test. We went downstairs and he set up by his lonesome, plugged in his guitar, played through three songs, and got it all dialed in. I was elated to get my own personal Tim Barry preshow. We went back upstairs and beer had magically appeared. He offered me one. Who says no to free beer? He picked up his guitar and started warming up for the show. Super special Tim Barry preshow part two! He explained that he’s been trying to learn how to finger pick better and he’s the first to admit he’s never been the best guitar player. I disagreed. His fingers weren’t following his brain and he gave up, giving me the best quote of the day: “Beckah, if all else fails, play SLAYER!” And so he did. It was awesome. Apropos of nothing, he fixed a light in the room that was shorting out. No big deal. That ended my preshow Tim time. He needed to warm up and get his thoughts together. I headed downstairs to set up merch. Remember people, I’m not only a photographer, I’m a damn good merch girl. In other words, I’m good at sitting on a stool, drinking beer, and telling people to buy t-shirts and music because it’s awesome.
The show started and I put out my “Be back in 10 min” sign. Tim played all the hits. He hopped into the crowd and got everyone involved. Since it was The Hold Steady’s 10-year anniversary show, 90% of the people had never heard of Tim Barry. I can tell you – and my photos will corroborate – everyone loved him. I went up on stage, shot from all the angles, and sang along like the giant fangirl that I am. I may have even finger pointed at one point. I was hiding behind an amp when I noticed he had stopped playing. He stood at the mic and announced, “I want to thank Rebecca for coming and hanging out with me, and for taking pictures of this old, ugly guy all day today. She’s a great photographer and I appreciate her being here.” I was stunned. I’ve been doing this “job” for 15 years. I’ve taken photos of all my favorite bands. I’ve done still photos, live photos, I’ve broken bones shooting in the pit, and I’ve been on stage, but in all those years, no one has stopped and thanked me during a show. I didn’t know what to do. I stood up, came around the amp, curtsied, and promptly ran away, (I am one of the shyest people you’ll ever meet). I went back and sat at the merch table justified in my prior impression of Tim Barry as a genuinely nice, totally good dude.
Once his set was over and The Hold Steady had begun, I went outside for some fresh air. Tim was talking to the guy from earlier, the one who couldn’t get into the show. He had gone to a bar down the street and met a guy with a spare ticket, so he was able to get in. He was stoked. The rest of the show was a blur of merch and The Hold Steady. I was kind of stuck at the table, but their set was awesome and Tim came out and played a song with them. He’d learned the words when he was warming up preshow. After everyone filtered out, I packed up, counted the money, and went to say my goodbyes. Tim was hanging out with a few friends, finishing up the last of the magical free beers. I took a few more photos and Tim said gently, “I think we’re done with the photos for today, right?” I agreed. It had been a long, epic day. I got one last photo of he and I. I’m always behind the camera, and sometimes I’ve gotta prove to people that I really exist. I said goodbye, “I’ll see you in Montreal at Pouzza hopefully,” and left.
Looking back, these paragraphs don’t do the day justice. Days like my day with Tim are the reason I take photos. Not because I get to say, “Oh, so, this one day, I hung out with Tim Barry,” but because I got to know a great person who has so much to teach us all. Like how to navigate using imaginary rivers and not break guitars. And, if all else has failed, just to play Slayer!
Check out Tim Barry’s Going Off Track interview here.