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The Next Billy Bragg

By Gary Wien

originally published: 07/01/2005

Rick Barry may be a man without a home, but he's a man with a vision. The 23-year-old poet turned singer-songwriter is about to release his long awaited debut record. The recordings on the CD issue may very well be the signal that the next great New Jersey songwriter has emerged. Only don't call this guy the next Bob Dylan, he's got too much Billy Bragg in him for that. He's an artist that doesn't give a fuck what people think. In other words, he's the real deal...

His CD is called "Small Town Politics" which is ironic since Rick is emerging as a songwriter unafraid to show his political side (he is extremely involved in politics outside of music) but the record doesn't reveal that side of him. In fact, his most political song to date might be the last one he's written - "Stupid American Song". That's the song he wishes was on the CD, but it'll have to wait. The title actually deals with something his friend and mentor, Chris Buono, told him one night when a club employee was giving him a hard time telling him what he could and couldn't do.

"Don't stress it man", said Buono. "It's just small town politics."

The title may have stuck in his head because Rick is looking ahead to a career not bound by the clubs of New Jersey. "I want to sell a million copies," he laughs. "But realistically my goal is to sell enough copies to be able to make another record."

It make seem strange to say that Rick Barry's songwriting is showing signs of maturity as his first record is about to be released, but it's true. The prolific writer has already written well over 350 songs, of which, he is not afraid to play half of them on stage. The remaining songs were those written when Rick first started writing at age 15 and the lyrics have not aged gracefully.

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One sign of his lyrical maturity came as he was about to release the record several months ago and realized that a few songs were weak - especially compared to the songs he had been writing recently. So, he decided to add some of the newer tracks to the disc. The problem was that he had written enough material to record an entirely new record, so which songs should be added? He decided to get a little help from his friends.

"I had a party where I played 15 new songs for about 30 people," explained Barry. "I had them vote one to ten on things like lyrics and melody and make comments for each song. But I made the mistake of giving everyone beer and food before we played the set. So, as we're playing, people are going upstairs to take a leak and going outside to smoke cigarettes. There was about four people who sat through the entire thing. The songs we added to the record were the ones that got the highest scores out of those four people. Stakeout, Broken English, and Wasteland were chosen by the only people sober in my house that day - myself included."

His songwriting is beginning to reveal parts of himself that he previously masked through characters. Instead of telling stories and getting from point A to point B, Rick is reverting back to his poetry background - something he tried to avoid in the past.

"I thought it was really cheesy to consider myself a poet for a long time, but in the past few months I've realized that there's nothing wrong with that," said Barry. "It's what I am. If I couldn't play an instrument, I would be a poet or a short story writer. So the songs on the record are short stories and the songs I'm writing now are starting to come from more of a personal level. They're poetry. I'm writing more from the heart as opposed to trying to make or create characters.

"There's always been a piece of me in every character in every song. I couldn't create a character without a part of me. Usually it's a bad part. I've always used stories as a mask to explain what was going on inside me; whether it was an idea or an impulse that I had that I didn't have the freedom to fulfill."

Part of the change in his songwriting from stories to revealing true parts of himself stems from the fanbase he has amassed throughout the past few years. Rick regularly plays clubs in Asbury Park like the Saint and Stone Pony and has opened for many national acts. In some cases, his audience actually outdraws the national acts - a rarity in these days where artists have to literally drag their friends out to the show. And Rick is getting more and more comfortable in front of his audience.

"At this point I've gotten a decent enough fanbase where I feel that if I delve slightly into politics they won't stray," said Barry. "It's a thin line when you try to express yourself without insulting somebody. It's easier with characters. I can have a character in a song say, 'will you be my whore' and I'm not going to have girls call me a masochist because the character said it instead of me. That song is a character based on my more lustful side. But now I feel free enough to say what's really going on inside me without the mask.

"It's like when you have a girlfriend and at first you've got to be nervous putting your hand up her shirt and once you've been dating her for a while you can ask her to do the dirtiest, kinkiest things on the planet. So, once you feel comfortable as a musician you can really start to evolve from the mask."

He's constantly changing, constantly evolving, and usually full of surprises.

He's one of a kind... Thank God.

Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Upstage Magazine, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at gary@newjerseystage.com.

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