#22: Jonny Barber
Jonny Barber doesn’t do just one thing, but he’s a bit of a street-culture historian whose love affair with Colfax Avenue led him to start a website and, more recently, a brick-and-mortar museum dedicated to Denver’s longest and wickedest avenue. When he’s not keeping track of Colfax news, he’s an author and a retro musician sometimes known as the Velvet Elvis. His latest project is helping Colorado country musician Rudy Grant firm up his longtime project and dream of a physical Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame. What moves this man who’s so thoroughly entrenched in his cultural milieu? He tells you all about it in his answers to the 100CC questionnaire.
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Westword: What (or who) is your creative muse?
Jonny Barber: My wife, Anistacia Barber. Absolutely custom-made for me in every way. She’s a genius. I wouldn’t think of releasing any new music or art without running it by her first. I call her the Scrutinizer.
Which three people, dead or alive, would you like to invite to your next party, and why?
What’s the best thing about the local creative community — and the worst?
The best thing about the local creative community is the community, the people. I may not always like your work, but at least you’re fun to hang around! The worst is straight-up the cost of living and increasing lack of creative spaces available in town. I’m a big fan of Meow Wolf, but I know of a ton of local creative people that really could have used the money we handed out to them. I’ve been in the trenches here for a long time, and so have most of my good friends, and for us to hand money to an out-of-state organization that is already doing quite well is a disservice to the people who have lived and worked here all along.
What's your day job?
Haven’t had a day job since I was 21. My days are hardly ever the same. I can’t stand routine. I don’t mind roofing a house, but if I was a roofer full-time, it would be unbearable. And I feel that way about anything, really, even art and music. My résumé is all over the place and reads like an encyclopedia. I do especially like collecting and restoring old things and have restored quite a few old Denver Victorian houses and antiques. I’ve even “made” Native American and other artifacts for movie sets, and recently built my first neon sign for the Colfax Museum.
I also have a couple new albums of original material out: Western Riot!, by Jonny Barber & the Rhythm Razors, for the rockabilly fans, and The Survival Game, which features about five songs I did with Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. With album sales being what they are and streaming services paying what they do, sometimes you have to do whatever it takes to keep making music. Out of financial desperation, another highlight of my musical “career” came after a fan once told me, “It’s not so much you look like Elvis as you do a painting of Elvis,” and the Velvet Elvis was born. He’s taken me all over the world, impersonating the King.
My daughter was once asked on career day what her dad did for a living. She was six years old and said, “He’s the King of Rock & Roll!” Works for me!
What’s your best or favorite accomplishment?
Bringing someone in a catatonic state back to life by singing Elvis to them in the coma ward at a hospital. Total miracle.
You’ve come this far in life. What’s still on your bucket list?
I always want to keep exploring, traveling and learning. A lot of places I have to see yet, too many to list.
I guess after writing and performing songs for thirty years, I wouldn’t mind writing a hit song. I have no problem with being a one-hit wonder. One’s better than none! I don’t even have to be the guy singing it — I mean, the mailbox money is where it’s at, anyway!
Besides the music, I guess what I’ve always really wanted to do is make a feature film and write the soundtrack. Denver needs a great rock-and-roll movie, does it not?
Denver, love it or leave it? What keeps you here — or makes you want to leave?
Denver is too good, is the problem. Legal weed, incredible scenery, great weather, so much to do, a ton of great venues, Red Rocks, the DCPA — man, it’s TOO good. I might like to move somewhere with substantially more urban decay, just to remain inspired. Great rock and roll didn’t come from nice, sunny places. Think Detroit, Cleveland, 1970s New York, Memphis, you know…or even Seattle or London, where it’s raining all the time.
Who is your favorite Colorado Creative?
Living: Bob Ferbrache. Record producer/multi-instrumentalist. That man is so underappreciated for all he’s done to craft the Denver Sound (Slim Cessna, 16 Horsepower, Denver Gentlemen, the Fluid, DeVotchKa — man, he’s made a lot of records). Ironically, he’s now living in Vermont. But no one I know in Denver music has paid his dues like Bob.
Dead: Neal Cassady. The equation is simple: No Neal = No Beat Generation. Neal grew up in Denver and is a true son of the Holy West. Neal once wrote a letter to Jack Kerouac describing a night that took place at the Nob Hill Inn on East Colfax, called the Joan Anderson letter, which was recently found. Jack later claimed the letter was the greatest thing he’d ever read and adopted Neal’s stream-of-consciousness writing style as the voice for On the Road.
I had a psychic once tell me I’m the reincarnation of Neal Cassady. He died on February 4, 1968. I was born November 14, 1968, just over nine months later! It’s a quick turnaround, but totally doable. I was born at Stanford Hospital, where Neal Cassady first met Merry Prankster Ken Kesey, and then grew up in Salt Lake City, where Neal was born.
I don’t get hung up on this, but it may explain why I’m obsessed enough with Colfax to have started the Colfax Museum!
I am also very much in love with all of the Colorado Creatives who have come into the Colfax Museum with their lithographs, paintings, photographs, original songs, cartoons, etc.: Karl Christian Krumpholz, Mario Acevedo, Elizabeth Kurtak, Jennifer Marriott, Randy Welch, Tom Lundin, Andre Lippard (!!), Diane Victoria Flores, Richard Gallagher — too many to list!
What's on your agenda in the coming year?
Tour England with the Stones. (Quick, before I wake up!)
I’m under contract with a publisher for a forthcoming book about Colfax Avenue that I’m co-writing with Ramble Colorado writer Eric Peterson. Due to hit shelves in 2019.
I’m also finishing up a book about my walk with Elvis called In His Shoes, so I’ve got a lot of writing to do!
Who do you think will (or should) get noticed in the local creative community in the coming year?
I’d like both a who and a where to get some long-due recognition:
Downtown A-Town. The original Downtown Aurora on East Colfax Avenue. They have been struggling for a long time to really bring the area into cohesion, and now with a thriving theater district, the Aurora Cultural Arts District, and a decision to present a variety of live music at the newly remodeled People’s Building, things are really looking up.
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Add to this that I have recently been made the V.P. of the Colorado Country Music Hall of Fame, which was started twenty years ago by Cowboy Rudy Grant on East Colfax Avenue in Aurora, and we are working on a new museum and performance venue on the same block where it was founded back in the day! East Colfax Avenue has an incredible legacy of country music, and all the biggest stars of the genre have played there in clubs like the Four Seasons and the Zanza Bar.
For all the talk about "cowtown" that I’ve heard in the past, at this point in Denver’s history, the real country-Western vibe is getting harder to find. Rudy has been working at bringing his vision of a Hall of Fame to fruition for twenty years, and the fact that he’s an African-American cowboy makes it even cooler, especially for East Colfax. It’s like a scene out of Blazing Saddles, and there’s a new sheriff in town.
I’m just honored to be a part of the project, and I hope Rudy gets his dream.