Chimney Sweep

Folks we meet: Violinist and mayoral hopeful Ben Barnes

Wearing a black bow tie, shirt and worn leather jacket, Ben Barnes regularly greets commuters at BART Station 16th and Mission with his rousing fiddle tunes.

“I’m a performer,” said the 52-year-old musician. “What brings me here is playing in front of crowds, in front of people.”

Over the course of his decade-long career, Barnes has played rock festivals, written hundreds of songs and toured the city. Despite his struggles with bipolar disorder, he continues to create new art and music. Just this week, he received a $20,000 grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to host a series of concerts this fall.

And now he’s even throwing his hat in the ring for the 2024 mayoral election.

“I’m not expecting a win,” Barnes said. “Now just seems like the right time to try it.” He hopes to advocate for a platform to promote the arts and destigmatize mental illness.

“My vision for San Francisco is to create an unparalleled arts and business mecca that showcases the best our city has to offer,” reads a campaign statement on its website. “Imagine a city with sparkling clean streets and a stunning skyline, where every pothole is filled and where the Golden Gate Bridge is a majestic backdrop to everything we do.”

“Together we can create a city that is not only beautiful, but also welcoming and inclusive for all.”

Barnes chooses a backing track for his performance.

Music has been the driving force in Barnes’ life since he was five, when he began traveling the West Coast with his parents to play concerts. His father David played guitar for Gasoline. His mother, Lillian, was an artist who sold her paintings on the street.

“We lived on a big blue school bus,” Barnes said. “My father furnished it with bunk beds and a wood stove. It was like the partridge family.”

But their nomadic life was anything but idyllic. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and the family’s travels were marked by “a lot of struggles,” Barnes said. When he was 10 years old, a court order separated Barnes and his younger brother from their mother.

“I had a really traumatic childhood,” Barnes said. “So I started playing the violin. And it was kind of something that kept me going.”

After playing in the orchestra at Corvallis High School in Oregon — “Go Spartans!” — Barnes studied violin at the San Francisco Conservatory, where he was tutored by renowned musician Sherry Kloss. Kloss was a student of Jascha Heifetz, widely regarded as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.

A portrait of Bach tattooed on Barnes’ left forearm.

At the conservatory, Barnes fell in love with composers such as Bartók, Brahms and Berg. Bach and Beethoven were among his favorites, so much so that he ended up having their portraits tattooed on his forearms.

“I didn’t feel like I could get my Bach tattoo until I earned it,” Barnes said. “So I learned all the cello suites and all the sonatas, all the partitas. I memorized them all for a while.”

Barnes is an omnivorous music lover who plays jazz and rock as well as classical concerts: “I listen or play anything. I’m a bitch,” Barnes laughed. “It depends on the day.”

He formed the alternative rock band Deadweight with a few friends in the early 1990s. Sam Bass played electric cello, Paulo Baldi played drums and Barnes was the group’s charismatic frontman on electric violin and vocals. One reviewer, writing for SF Weekly, compared the band’s sound to Eastern European songs “sung in the back of a big truck being driven through tornado country by the ghost of the Marlboro man.”

“We toured a lot and went to the Fuji Rock Festival,” Barnes said. “We played with George Clinton, we played with DJ Disc, Dead Prez, The Coup.”

Barnes plays a haunting tune from his Bach catalogue.

Mental illness has been a struggle for Barnes throughout his life. He had his first bipolar episode in 1996: “I ended up on the streets for a couple of months. I had to sort it all out again.” Even while playing big gigs and “living like a rock star,” Barnes went through cycles of homelessness and money problems, he said.

Barnes hit rock bottom in 2007. A manic episode led him to believe he was an undercover cop and that his family was in danger from gangsters. Seized with paranoia, he said, he threw himself in front of a train at the Balboa Park station.

Remarkably, he survived and recovered from his injuries – including a badly damaged skull – thanks to slow and painful physical therapy.

These days, Barnes pays his bills with violin lessons and busking. On a good day, he said, he could make a hundred dollars playing street games. Combined with a disability check, he earns enough for his rent-controlled apartment in Ashbury Heights, where he has lived with a roommate since 2019.

Until his mayoral campaign gets underway and his city-sponsored concerts begin in September, Barnes plans to continue making music at some of his favorite spots around town: in front of the Atlas Cafe on 20th Street, at Arizmendi Bakery on Sunset – and on 16th Street .and mission station.

Barnes performs the habanera, an aria from Georges Bizet’s 1875 opera Carmen.

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