Barry Fey

Barry Fey, RIP: A love letter to what Denver has become.

RIP, Barry Fey.

Fey always struck me as a “rock” guy. “Rock” as a general noun where anything that could be rock was a good thing – in the way non-music fans romanticized the word rock without any true context or scrutiny. I abhor that idea of “rock” because it’s akin to walking into a museum with your pants down and getting high-fives from other people who also have their pants down. But Fey was a fan of music. We know this. His fandom led to his rise and fame. His fandom led him to risks that are well beyond most of our comfort zones. The fan experience was clearly a major motivator for Fey and he was not above putting artists in harm’s way to deliver on that promised experience. While he was a rock guy, he also had everything in common with those of us buying tickets. He had an appetite for music and he wanted it to occur in a place he called home.

Several years ago I was invited to attend an awards ceremony in honor of Barry Fey. It was an event that promised the attendance of big name stars. Barry was the first person to receive a star on the Rockbar wall of fame and the ceremony was to induct him. It was a strange marketing gimmick which never really went anywhere beyond this single event. As for the Rockbar, it was a bar with an endless amount of unrealized potential on the ground floor of a tweaker-ridden hotel. The bar is now justifiably entombed in plywood, gathering dust in the dark.

While the monolithic names that were used to lure me to the event never materialized there were indeed big names there, but none of them really at the status of a household name. The closest you’d get to true stardom, beyond the man of honor, was Robert Fleischman, the original frontman of Journey. It was a ceremony in which friends and colleagues of Fey toasted him for his career of which he’d been retired from for over a decade at that point. An affair where old men stood up at the podium and began each story with “After my open heart surgery….”. Of course many of the stories were jaw dropping and larger than life and almost surely retold by the man himself in his 2011 book, Backstage Past. Some of the stories were of a borderline abusive leader making unreasonable demands on his employees, all told with a ‘we can laugh about it now, since you didn’t follow through on your threat to shoot me’ tone.

The story that stuck more than any was played on a VHS after the ceremony on a TV next to the table. It was Barry’s retirement ceremony, a much more grand affair than the one I was attending at that moment, which featured a taped congratulatory statement from then President, Bill Clinton. Former Senator Pat Schroeder gave a roasting speech that punchlined with “Look at the gigantic prick on that horse.” Then the video showed U2‘s manager Paul McGuinness toasting Fey. McGuinness spoke of just how unrealistic it was to come to Denver to play shows, as it was a day’s drive in and a day’s drive out and it just didn’t make sense. He spoke of how Barry Fey made the trip to Denver viable for touring bands. Not just viable, though; he made it desirable.

There is an alternate universe where Barry Fey didn’t move to Colorado and become a promoter. In that universe, he and a young U2 didn’t gamble all of their money on making a concert film which ultimately led to Red Rocks becoming one of the most attractive stages in the country (an event that Bono spoke of on that same video.) There is a universe where it’s just not worth it to come through Denver. Perhaps, in that universe, someone has come to fill that void and Denver has ultimately fulfilled its destiny of becoming more than a United Airlines hub. Perhaps not.

Luckily, I don’t live in the universe where this may not have happened and neither do you. Barry Fey & his team paved that way a generation before me and laid the ground work for promoters who were more important to my generation, like Nobody In Particular Presents, who followed a similar arc on a smaller scale with “alternative” bands. Fey is due, and no doubt has taken, a large amount of indirect credit for where Denver is today.

I suspect these shows are part of what kept many of us anchored here in our youth. Many of us still have shoeboxes lined with ticket stubs to hold onto those memories. I met my first love in the balcony of a Pixies show. The concerts that came through our town were, at least for me, where I realized and was reminded that I was not alone in my tastes and passions. There are towns where that doesn’t happen; where youth feels alienated and alone because those opportunities to find people with aligning tastes simply don’t exist. Denver could quite easily be Boise, ID or Billings, MT in the absence of someone willing to take the financial risk to realize the opportunities that they see. Denver is no longer a dusty cow town and instead it’s become a petri dish of ideas and sounds and cultures that is no longer playing catch up to bigger cities with more notoriety.

I have an abundance of gripes with my hometown, but if I had to reflect on where we could be – a massive field of wheat at the foot of the Rockies, surrounded by farmers and meth labs and virtually no one around to share my tastes with (essentially, Kansas), I’d have to say we have it pretty good as far as culture goes. Its hard to deny that Barry Fey had a great deal to do with that.

In closing, I recognize that it’s easy to wax fondly of Fey’s life & contributions since I’ve never seen the business end of his handgun. Rest in peace, Mr. Fey. Who’s to say where we’d be without you?

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