Like Pillars Of Stone Forever Stand.

January 5, 2006 at 6:55 pm (Uncategorized)

Maybe you caught it as a brief blurb on CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News during the past few days. Perhaps you saw it at a music-related website. In the cold, sterile milieu of arial type, it reads standard, if a bit horrific:

LOS ANGELES – Bryan Harvey, singer-guitarist for the two-man ’80s rock band House of Freaks, was found dead with his wife and two children in the family’s Richmond VA, home over the weekend.

Harvey, 49, his wife Kathryn, 39, and their children, Stella, 9, and Ruby, 4, were found Sunday in the basement of their burning home. A Richmond Police Department spokeswoman said the bodies were bound but added that no cause of death was being released. Local news reports said the victims’ throats were cut.

Nothing in those words conveys what a loss this is. While being in a band called “House Of Freaks” might make it seem like Harvey played in a group of addled miscreants, nothing could be further from the truth. House of Freaks were one of the most literate, interesting, and, well, heartful rock band of the pre-Nirvana alt-rock era. That Bryan Harvey was perhaps the kindest, gentlest, funniest (and most down-to-earth and modest) person I’ve met in 30 years of music fanboy-ism is just an aside.

I met Bryan for the first time in 1988. House Of Freaks were opening for They Might Be Giants at the old Blue Note on the Business Loop. KCOU, the student station up there had a symbiotic relationship with The Note, and so it was sort of our unspoken duty to try to corral folks who were playing there and bring them to the station, do a 15-minute interview to promote their show that night, and then get them back to the club.

Now, I’d never heard this band, so I had no idea what to expect, but the three other bands I’d been forced to interview to that point in my fledgling career were awful bands who made awful music–I was the noob at that point. I didn’t get to interview Soul Asylum or The Violent Femmes. I got crap bands like Caterwaul. Ugh.

So I arrive at the club, and House of Freaks is finishing their sound check, and I realize that I’ve never EVER seen a band that looks like this. For one thing, despite the fact that both members of the band (yeah, they were just a 2-piece band, guitars and drums, more than a decade before the White Stripes) looked like a couple of cleancut college boys, they were creating a hell of a racket. Drummer Johnny Hott didn’t play a drum kit–instead he had a large, inverted oil drum on stage, with a crash cymbal and a washboard attached to it, and appeared to be playing it with a couple of huge wooden wire brush handles. Occasionally he’d reach over and begin beating the living hell out of a beat-up snare and tom drum that were arranged strategically to the side of the oil drum. It sounded bloody fantastic.

But after you got used to that, you focused on the guitarist and singer, Bryan Harvey. Although he was the only guy on stage, it sure sounded like there were at least 2 guitars *and a bass* playing at the same time. Using a “thumb-over” fretting technique and playing a ton of open strings, he was up there putting to shame groups that needed more musicians to get their thing done. When he sang, Harvey didn’t sound like the 6’2″ linebacker he resembled. Instead his voice had a sweet, late-period John Lennon-ish quality that made it hard to believe that these guys were from Richmond, VA.

Better yet, they were great guys. We hung out before and after the show. They invited me to join ’em for dinner. The next year they were touring on an even better record than their debut. We hung out again, I roadtripped to Lawrence to see them at the Bottlecap, and it was worth the trip. Thanks to a part-time low-paying gig with an independent promotions company, I got a chance to work with and for these guys promoting their third record, and when Harvey did a side-project with a couple of other college-rock allstars calling themselves Gutterball, we got them airplay on The Point and KSHE in St. Louis.

I have Harvey’s email address. We’d occasionally exchange pleasantries by that means, or on web forums devoted to Harvey’s peripheral music acquaintances. Bryan quit the music industry in 1995, not because he didn’t have offers, but because he was married and wanted to start a family, settle down in his hometown, and never have to tour again. Occasionally friends like Cracker or Sparklehorse would drag him into the studio for help, since Harvey was an ace guitarist and professional to the core, but other than that he was content to play around his hometown with his jokingly-named cover band NrG Krysys, having fun and making a few extra bucks on the weekends away from his job as a computer tech for the school district there.

And now he’s dead. Killed in his basement with his wife and his two little girls, their throats slashed, an arson started unsuccessfully to try to cover the crime scene. Perhaps you’ll wonder if drugs were involved. I don’t know, but I would say that it would be completely out of character. I never saw Bryan touch anything, and even saw him refuse a few joints when offered at various shindigs. It wasn’t his personality, and just wasn’t his thing, and thats why cops are baffled at this point, because that doesn’t seem to be a possible motive.

And slowly the new services pick up the story as a human-interest piece, and you’ll read parenthetically that Harvey was a musician, and maybe you’ll read that his band got their videos on “120 Minutes” back in the day on MTV. None of that conveys what a great songwriter and musician he was, though.

You know how there’s a certain inherent contradiction in Uncle Tupelo/Son Volt/Wilco that makes them so brilliant? You know, that whole celebrating the culture of where those guys are from while sort of decrying the more fucked-up aspects of it? Yeah, House Of Freaks nailed that. Harvey was proud as hell of his Virginia roots, but also loathing of that whole legacy of slavery/racial injustice that goes with it. Unlike most bands who are proud to be southern, though, Harvey was willing to take that on head-up and deal with it. So, you’d get songs like “White Folks Blood” that articulates it better than anyone who ever tried to in a pop song. In three minutes, Harvey managed as much southern gothic explication as Flannery O’Connor, William Faulkner, or Harry Crews ever did. By following it up with maybe the only great rock and roll song to invoke Civil War symbiology, “Big Houses”, he pretty much did the best job I know of in getting to the emotions of being proud of your heritage, even if you’re not so proud of everything it stood for.

Thankfully for us music geeks, last year the band’s old label, Rhino, made their first two albums and ep available in a deluxe reissued set, and if any description of what a great band the Freaks really were moved you, I urge you to do the right thing and pick ’em up.

I managed to make the drive down Tuesday for one of the many memorial services and vigils being held in Richmond. I couldn’t believe the impact Bryan and his wife Kathryn and their two little girls had on that community, how many lives they’d touched; apparently over a thousand people gathered outside their house last night in the cold to pay tribute in a candlelight remembrance. I hope they find his killers, and they are brought to swift justice. I hope I’ll someday be able to listen to one of my favorite bands and hear Bryan’s voice and be able to not think about what his final moments on earth were like.

For now, all I have is the music. It’ll have to do for now.

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