As frontman for the Bongos, the poster boys of ‘80s indie-rock’s Hoboken Sound, Richard Barone taught the world a new way to rock, marrying ‘60s pop influences and New Wave urgency. In 1987 he started his solo career with the drastically different Cool Blue Halo, a live, acoustic-based album of fragile, magical “chamber pop,” showing the rock world the possibilities of unplugging. Today he’s busy assembling a deluxe 25th anniversary expanded reissue of Cool Blue Halo as a box set including the remastered album, additional live material, demos, a DVD, and much more, with a pre-order site set up to help cover costs for the meticulously crafted project. He’s also teaching a class called Stage Presence and the Art of Performance at NYU, where aspiring young performers get to pick Barone’s brain for tips on taking it to the stage. We asked the pop professor to share the most valuable lessons from his long, luminous career, covering his encounters with everyone from Quincy Jones to Tiny Tim, to get an idea of the kind of hard-won wisdom his students are soaking up.
1. Tiny Tim and the true meaning of fame
When I met Tiny Tim, at age 16, I kind of got this picture of what fame is. When I was younger than 16, he was a huge recording artist and television star, but when I met him, he was performing at the tiniest dive bar at a travel lodge motel on the highway, it could barely hold 25 people. Only five years before, he had sold out Royal Albert Hall in London. He didn’t seem to care, and he seemed quite happy. I spent that summer with him, recording him for the album I‘ve Never Seen a Straight Banana [unreleased until 2009]. He never seemed to let on that he was disenchanted or depressed, he just kept performing every night, which he did until he died, and I guess I learned from him what fame is. It’s not something you have to stake your life on. That was a big lesson for me. That’s why the subtitle of my book [the memoir Frontman] is Surviving The Rock Star Myth. Fame is a myth, really. Let’s not die if we don’t have hits, let’s just have fun making the music.
2. Lou Reed and the art of timelessness
I met Lou Reed when I first came to New York; he was in a guitar shop on 48th St. I was buying my first Rickenbacker. I was really too young and awestruck to say much except hello. A couple of years later the Bongos were on RCA and Lou Reed was also signed to RCA, so somehow we had phone conversations to talk about engineers for our albums we were making; we were comparing studio notes on the phone. I’ve been friends with Lou since then. One thing I learned from Lou is, I find him now and always timeless. When he did “Walk on the Wild Side,” I thought he could be from any era. I started thinking the way he lets his art define his life makes him timeless. Lou has never been irrelevant in any way … it doesn’t matter what decade it is. Metal Machine Music transcends all genres and decades. He’s so much in the moment. If you’re really in it, time does not exist. That’s something I aspire to and that’s a lesson I’m trying to get my students in my class to get a grip on — transcending time.
3. Quincy Jones’s push to perform
One thing I learned from Quincy Jones … if you’re a performer you should always be ready to perform. That comes from the jazz world, where you are pointed out to take a solo and you just have to be ready. I was producing his daughter Jolie’s album … I went to see him and he had guests over. This was late at night, maybe 2 a.m., and I was not in performance mode. The minute I walked in, he turned to his guests and said “Richard’s going to perform for us,” which I had to do on a bizarre instrument. It was a laser-beam midi-controller, which had six beams of light; he calls it the Human Beam. I’m not sure if it’s ever been marketed, it’s something he was helping develop. I’d never seen it in my life. It was about spontaneously having to perform, and that’s something I teach my students in my class — they are called up at any moment to perform, because I think it’s great training. If you’re gonna be a performer you should always be ready to do it.
4. Don’t trust in trends
Trust your own feelings for the music that you want to do. I learned that in a good way with Cool Blue Halo. The sound of that record was absolutely against any trend of that moment. It was [at] the beginning of the grunge sound … there was an industrial movement, there was nothing like Cool Blue Halo out there. I was trying not to duplicate what I had done with the Bongos, so I didn’t want to have bass or drums. After I heard the roughs I almost became suicidal because I thought it was absolutely gonna kill my career. I thought “No one is gonna want to hear this,” because it was so against the trend; there was no backbeat on the entire album! I had just come out of a pop group — we were charting, and it was a guitar-pop band, and I put out the complete antithesis of that. I thought the press would be so negative that I would never work again. But at the time it came out I had never received such unanimously positive press in my life. So I think my lesson from that is about trusting your feelings about what you should do at the time, and not to look back much after you do it. Play the music you love even if it’s absolutely against the trend.
5. The power of the persona
The Bongos wore vintage clothing because we had no money. The clothes we could get from the Hoboken thrift stores were from the ‘50s. So we made it a point to find stuff that looked really ‘50s, like really baggy pants and the kind of shirt the Hardy Boys would wear, that was our early look … these boys who were playing rock & roll but were kind of from another era, and were slightly nerdish. It was the development of a persona. The exercise for my class is to help them find out who they are by exploring other personalities. I told them “I want you to come to class in an alter ego” and the idea is that we are going to see what it feels like to be something else. How much do you want to be something else and how much do you want to be yourself? Like Elton John for instance … Reg Dwight had to create the Elton John character because he needed to be out of himself to perform because he was too shy. Lady Gaga … she was in NYU, and the students there circulate videos of her from when she was at the school, and she had long brown hair and was extremely shy at the piano, looking down at her fingers. She had to create the Lady Gaga character to have the nerve to get on stage and perform. I want to let them feel how it is to do that, to get them out of their own heads so they can perform.