Robert Haimer is gone.
Well, at least in his physical form, since a cat like that can never truly be gone. Some artists are so beautifully hatched-weird and uncompromisingly themselves that even long after they have physically moved off this particular laid beau realm, their essence is still here.
Robert Haimer was and forever is a strong gale wind force of freak-tinged brilliance, not to mention one-half of one of the most captivating and wholesale unique and yes, misunderstood bands to have emerged in the past fifty years, Barnes & Barnes. This duo, formed with his childhood friend, actor/musician/overall really nice, well-adjusted guy Bill Mumy, created a body of work that, while typically umbrellaed with the “novelty” moniker, was far bigger and more layered than that.
The Barnes & Barnes dynamic is a rarified one that could only come out of the combination of Mumy and Haimer. Together these two created a sonic landscape that was as brave and bold as it was unhinged and raw. It’s easy to wince a little inside after you have been exposed to so much of their music and you’re hit with the feedback and chatter of, “Oh the guys that did Fish Heads?” Yes, they are the guys that did “Fish Heads,” and as great as that song and video (the latter thanks to another true blue art hero and savior, the late Bill Paxton) is, it does severely undersell the sheer raw muscle, emotion, and moments of vast unbridled dada Haimer and Mumy created together.
Barnes & Barnes made music that explored all the neglected nooks and crannies of the human condition. Had enough of silly love songs and all the pat breakup anthems that have as much depth, wonder, or raw hurt and psychological darkness as a circus peanut dusted in Molly? Barnes & Barnes has your back. The vast majority of 1981’s Spazchow album confronts the experience of romance gone bad or just plain gone with intelligence and an utter willingness to expose all the subterranean ugly emotions that can surface when your heart’s been broken. Songs like “Fletchy’s Revenge” delve flayed skin first into such heartsick waters, making much of not only the song but most of the album, a disquieting but compelling listen. One listen to the vocals on “I Killed Her With Love” nails this even further home.
Embracing the emotions and experience throughout life that makes one inherently uncomfortable has been one of Barnes & Barnes’ biggest superpowers. All of the weird and funny songs, like their ode to living in a public toilet titled, well, “The Public Toilet,” or the banned by Steven Spielberg bent-as-hell-classic, “I Had Sex with E.T.,” tap into so many of those not-for-polite-company ideas and experiences. We are innately drawn to the strange and what status quo society deems “gross,” especially when we are children, so why not embrace that? So much of “real life” is riddled with the literal and metaphorically disgusting, so whether it’s the appeal that the Garbage Pail Kids had for 1980s kids or that same dark glimmer that has so many current-day adults binge-watching true crime documentaries, the “sicks” of our own life and humanity is the truth.
Of course, there is much more here than knowing that sad-wrinkly-ass Amblin puppet biblically, because the two biggest descriptors that are as much part of Art and Artie Barnes as they are Billy and Robert are the words never ever used enough to describe their Barnes & Barnes output: talented and intelligent. Heaven knows it takes this deceptively simple but rare combination to create songs like “Tunnel Walker” or “Linoleum.” The former peers into the first-person perspective of a damaged soul whose loneliness forges false relationships with TV and film actors over real-life friends, lovers, or family. (Something Bill Mumy himself had to have encountered at any number of fan conventions over the years.) The harsh beauty of this song lies within the emotionally wise decision to make it ugly and sad without any garish romanticism or privileged-placed condescension. Humanizing the beast within is terrifying, but we have to do it to have at least a fighting chance of evolving as a culture and species, which is precisely why we need art.
“Linoleum” is literally about, well, linoleum, but musically gives such a topic a deep-hot blast of sturm und drang as they bellow, “You who seek the answers! You! Who long to know the glory…”, that it's an instant classic. “Fighting the Demon,” which may have one of my favorite Mumy vocals, confronts the corrosive feelings of jealousy.
Barnes & Barnes was and forever is a band that gave more musical gifts than they ever got credit for and naturally tied to that, is the figure, then man, myth, and legend (at least to me and anyone else in the proper know), Robert Haimer. For a band that embraced chaos as a subject matter, in all of its woolly glory and disgrace, Haimer always came across as the one-man divining rod to the purest potentate of musical pandemonium. This isn’t to slight Bill Mumy, whose own intuitive talent, intelligence, and impishness are an equally integral part of all things Barnes & Barnes.
But Robert Haimer could shift the whole vibe of a lyric with a gloriously uncomfortable lusty little chuckle (“Party in my Pants”) or bring an eerie otherworldliness (“Cemetery Girls”). It sounds like his voice, all dark, raw, and on edge, in “Fletchy’s Revenge,” with the line, “They make me crazy, do you understand what I’m saying to you?” For a band who were practically birthed out of the primordial ooze of awe-inspiring peculiarity, Robert Haimer was never afraid to “make it weird.” In fact, everything Haimer touched has this riveting strain of unbridledness to it. (His unhinged vocals on the band’s wondrous cover of The Beatles’ “Please Please Me” alone is vivid proof of that.)
Despite being one who had minimal at best interaction with Robert, I feel like it is the safest statement in the world to note that there was and will never be anyone quite like him. This is fitting since there has never been a band like Barnes & Barnes, or a musician and man like Bill Mumy either. How lucky is this world that it got to have such a creation like this band? In a world where the status quo and big brother business actively try to throttle any signs of actual color, discord, free thought, teeth, or heart. Art became an investment a long time ago, from Clear Channel to test audiences, but that is all the more reason to treasure and cherish the creators who refuse to play it safe. It is what separates the phony from the innovators. Do you want to build a condo or shift some tectonic plates and make a genuine action?
Barnes & Barnes, while they never get credit for it, are innovators. Robert Haimer may have left this shifty-sad but beautiful plane for the next thing, but his impact, especially with Bill Mumy, is the weird and wondrous and thriving work with all the verisimilitude that is always waiting for new ears, eyes, minds, and hearts.
If you're on Spotify, please check out this little playlist that accompanies this article. Then, if you can, support the band by checking out their latest album over at Demented Punk Records.