We were about to leave and he was just some random person who had rolled in asking questions about Budapest. We told him about the caves, the baths, the cafes etc. and he would reply things like “whoa… dude…no way”.
Then we said goodbye.
We spent the next month traveling through Austria, Italy, and Greece and somehow wound up in a hostel in Istanbul.
We were sitting in the hostel bar and in walks some guy who looked familiar to me from somewhere. He had a guitar and half the place cheered his entrance (Alex Barber).
We spent the night drinking and singing and listening to one hysterical story after another of what he had seen and done. He had already been there a week and was leaving the next day so we said goodbye again.
After some time we headed down to Capadoccia, a place where centuries ago the muslims had dug underground cities out of the volcanic sediment to hide from the Christian crusaders. We got there around 6 a.m. and found our hostel which was a collection of ancient cave dwellings dug out of the earth. When we arrived the family that ran the place brought us tea and baklava.
I was sipping my tea and I looked out the window to see this disheveled disoriented guy with his hair in every direction, wearing only his underwear (it was very cold out) squinting hard showing the obvious pain the daylight was causing his eyes, stumbling across the courtyard trying to find a toilet (Alex Barber).
For the next 3 weeks there was about 6 or 7 of us and 2 or 3 guitars. We spent the nights drinking Raki and singing and laughing and the days riding motorcycles and mopeds through the valleys of Capadoccia and swimming in the pools at Pamukale and the Mediterranean. I’m not sure where or when exactly we said goodbye but it doesn’t’t matter.
I went back to the states and gave away all my things and returned to Prague. Upon walking into the boathouse (a hostel down the river in Branik) I could hear someone singing and playing guitar. I walked into the dinning room and there surrounded by several other derelicts singing his heart out was Alex Barber.
We both lived in that hostel for about 6 weeks until we found flats in Prague. I had just bought a guitar but had no idea how to play. Alex was the first guy I had met who would show me how to use it without being condescending or showing off. He taught me some easy Dylan and Nirvana songs to get me started. We became good friends and for the next 5 and a half years our paths would continually cross.
Back then Beef stew was something people actually attended (though no less given to tedium) and sandwiched in between so and so’s never ending novel and so and so’s poems of self importance Alex would get up and do something like have a conversation with himself. His own prerecorded voice on a tape. He’d press play and the tape recorded Alex would mumble “hey man” and then the live Alex would mumble back “uh….hey”.
Tape recorded Alex: uh….wuddu ya doin’
Live Alex: (pause) uh…nothin’
And so on for like 5 minutes. Or the time he read the letters to his mother. The actual letter that was sent went something like this, “dear mother everything here is great! I got a great job, I’ve almost totally quit smoking and I’ve got many friends and social activities to occupy my time” then he would read the real letter which was something like this, “dear mother, my drinking is out of control, I’m smoking so much the other day I coughed up a piece of my lung and I’m so f*cking bored I just sit around all day and beat off until I come dust”.
Every week he would kick beef stew in the ass with something like this.
I later asked him if he had copies of any of that stuff and he said he would just throw it away as soon as he was done. If you weren’t there on that given night, that was it.
Later when I started playing I would gig with him and Jeremy Hurewitz. Even though Alex was better, more experienced and more well known than me he would go on first and be the icebreaker because he knew I was horrified to do it. And when I played he would make a fool of himself, cheering and screaming and singing along to try to get the crowd going to help assuage my stage fright. He was always there for me.
He was always there for anyone. The energy or feedback he gave was always positive, even if his own heart was breaking. Alex’s self deprecating nature felt like a comedy routine.
As though he was trying to perfect being down and out into an art form. I suppose I just assumed that was who and how he was, but now when I think back about that 23 year old wide-eyed kid I met in Budapest I’m not so sure. I wonder if I was there for him as much as he was there for me.
An impromptu wake assembled last night as the news drifted over Prague. Curtis, Nancy, Andy, Sandrine, Kristin, Vanessa, Duro, Ryan, Paula and me traded one ridiculous story after another, from Alex’s stage routines; that puppet, the guitar player with turret’s syndrome, to individual personal stories.
I was thinking that throughout this city and several others where Alex has lived there must be thousands of these stories. What makes his passing so sad is he was truly one of a kind and I know I’ll never meet anyone like him again.
One time I got on a crowded metro, sat down and took out a book and started reading. After a few minutes I looked up and started with a fright at the sight of across from me, Alex leering at me with one eye bulging wide open, the other squinted shut, nose crinkled up, mouth crooked and drool dripping off his chin. I hadn’t seen him when I sat down and he must have sat there, like that, for about 2 minutes.
Drooling, just waiting form me to look up as the other passengers stared at him in horror. It was about the funniest thing I’d ever seen. I laughed my f*cking ass off. Once again, Alex playing the fool to make someone else happy.
At Alex’s going away party when I was leaving he said “no you can’t go man, I’m leaving Prague”. I said, “oh bullsh*t, you’ll be back in a month”. He said, “I don’t know” then paused and smiled and said, “we sure did have a good f*cking time in Turkey didn’t we” and I said, “we sure did but hey, you’ll be back in a month”. He threw his arms around me and and said “hey Jimmy man I love you”.
As I walked out of Ultramarine that night I was absolutely certain I would see Alex again, that we would have another beer, that I would see him play another gig, that I would be at Acropolis again with him dancing bare chested singing improvised lyrics to the techno.
This morning when I went outside and looked around at the world for those of us still living, I had that cliche thought that people have at times like this, that all those petty little bullsh*t things don’t matter. That grudge you’re holding against someone or that fear or anger you can’t get past. It’s not f*cking important.
I love you too Alex. I hope you’ve finally found peace.
VIRGINIA FOSTER’S MESSAGE
I’m Virginia. It was my joy, privilege – and occasional challenge – to be Alex Barber’s mother for 30 years, six weeks, and two days. Not that the relationship has been severed. Far from it. It has merely been transformed.
I’m writing this on a beautiful, warm day on the coast of California, sitting on a deck overlooking the Pacific Ocean, watching the waves roll in. But in my heart, I’m with you there in Prague, celebrating Alex’s life.
And I know that Mattie is there in person, bringing with her all the love of Alex’s family and friends on this side of the Atlantic – for we know that Prague, and all of you, were at the very center of Alex’s heart, mind, and creative imagination for the last five years of his life.
I’d like to share with you a few things that have happened in the days just before and after his death. In one of his last emails to me, Alex wrote: “I saw something on TV the other night about Mark Twain. I think he was something else. He really gets at it. I reckon he was about a saint in some ways.”
That comment sent me in search of something that Twain might have had to say about departing this earth. What was his take on it? Well, here’s the quote I found, “Annihilation has no terrors for me, because I have already tried it before I was born – a hundred million years – and I have suffered more in an hour, in this life, than I remember to have suffered in the whole hundred million years put together.
There was a peace, a serenity, an absence of all sense of responsibility, an absence of worry, an absence of care, grief, perplexity; and the presence of a deep content and unbroken satisfaction in that hundred million years of holiday which I look back upon with a tender longing and with a grateful desire to resume, when the opportunity comes.”
In some ways, I think Alex knew his opportunity was coming. Just hours before he died, he sent his Aunt Mary a funny email about going to heaven. She had just come through major surgery, and he was trying to cheer her up, teasing her that she had made it through the tunnel and into heaven.
In his email, he wrote, “That tunnel can be a challenging thing for many people. They see the light, they see the beautiful angels beckoning, they want to come, and yet, sadly, they fear leaving themselves behind in the world with all those unpaid bills and the kids to look after and let us not forget the accordion lessons we’d been dying for.
Most people are afraid, and that fear keeps them too heavy for heaven. Like a pebble trying to float on a cloud. But, my Aunt Mary is pure of heart and that’s why she made it.”
Well, Alex’s Aunt Mary, though pure of heart, is still firmly rooted on this earth. But Alex, being pure of heart and light as a feather, floated right on up. And what fun he is having, trying out all manner of powers available to an unfettered spirit. I don’t know if any of you have sensed him about, but we’ve received reports of people feeling his spirit emanating from a wide range of creatures – among them, bald eagles, a coyote, and a tiny lizard.
I’d just like to leave you with this thought. Someone once said, “We all take different paths in life, but no matter where we go, we take a little of each other everywhere.”
As you know, Alexander – as he had recently asked to be called – was a person just bursting with life and joy and high-jinx and a tender feeling for every living thing. That’s my most fervent wish. That you’ll each take a little of Alex, a little of that spirit, with you wherever you go in life. Keep the love alive, keep the joy flowing freely, and honor whatever is in your heart. God bless you all.
– Virginia Foster [email protected]