Decked out in black bow tie, dress shirt, and worn leather jacket, Ben Barnes regularly greets commuters at the 16th and Mission BART station with his sweeping violin melodies.
“I’m a performer,” said the 52-year-old musician. “What brings me out here is playing in front of an audience, in front of people.”
Across his decades-long career, Barnes has played rock festivals, written hundreds of songs, and busked all over the city. Despite his struggles with bipolar disorder, he continues to create new art and music. Just this week, he was awarded a $20,000 grant by the San Francisco Arts Commission to put on a series of concerts in the Fall.
And now, he is even throwing his hat in the ring for the 2024 mayoral race.
“I don’t expect to win,” said Barnes. “It just seems the right time now for me to try it.” He hopes to campaign on a platform of elevating the arts and destigmatizing mental illness.
“My vision for San Francisco is to create an unparalleled arts and business mecca that showcases the best of what our city has to offer,” reads a campaign statement on his website. “Picture a city with sparkling clean streets and a skyline that takes your breath away, where every pothole is filled, and the Golden Gate Bridge is a majestic backdrop to all that we do.”
“Together, we can create a city that is not only beautiful, but also welcoming and inclusive to all.”
Music has been the driving force in Barnes’ life since he was five years old, when he began traveling up and down the West Coast to gigs with his parents. His father, David, played the guitar for gas money. His mother, Lillian, was an artist who sold her paintings on the road.
“We lived in a big blue school bus,” said Barnes. “My dad fixed it up with bunk beds and a wood stove. It was like the Partridge Family.”
But their nomadic life was hardly idyllic. His mother suffered from schizophrenia and the family’s travels were punctuated by “a lot of fighting,” said Barnes. When he was 10 years old, a court order separated Barnes and his younger brother from their mother.
“I had a really traumatic childhood,” said Barnes. “So I took to playing violin. And it was kind of something that kept me on track.”
After playing in the orchestra at Corvallis High School in Oregon — “go Spartans!” — Barnes studied violin at the San Francisco Conservatory, where he was taught by renowned musician Sherry Kloss. Kloss was a student of Jascha Heifetz, who is widely regarded as one of the greatest violinists of the 20th century.
At the conservatory, Barnes came to love composers like Bartok, Brahms and Berg. Bach and Beethoven were two of his favorites, so much so that he ultimately got their portraits tattooed on his forearms.
“I didn’t feel that I could get my Bach tattoo until I’d earned it,” said Barnes. “So I learned all the cello suites and all the sonatas, all the partitas. I had them all memorized for a while.”
Barnes is an omnivorous music lover, playing jazz and rock as much as classical concertos: “I’ll listen to, or play, anything. I’m a slut,” Barnes laughed. “It depends on the day.”
In the early nineties, he formed the alt-rock band Deadweight with a couple of friends. Sam Bass played electric cello, Paulo Baldi played drums, and Barnes was the group’s charismatic front man on electric violin and vocals. A critic writing for the SF Weekly likened the band’s sound to Eastern European songs “sung in the back of a big rig driven across tornado country by the ghost of the Marlboro Man.”
“We did a lot of touring, and went to the Fuji Rock Festival,” said Barnes. “We played with George Clinton, we played with DJ Disc, Dead Prez, The Coup.”
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 few months. I had to get everything worked 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 his lowest ebb in 2007. A manic episode led him to believe that he was an undercover police officer and that his family was in danger from mobsters. In the grips of paranoia, he said, he flung himself in front of a train at Balboa Park station.
Remarkably, he survived and recovered from his injuries — including a severely damaged skull — through a slow and painful program of physical therapy.
These days, Barnes pays the bills by tutoring violin and busking. On a good day, he said, he can earn a hundred dollars playing on the street. Combined with disability checks, he makes enough for his rent-controlled apartment in Ashbury Heights, where he has lived with a roommate since 2019.
Until his mayoral campaign kicks fully into gear and his city-sponsored concerts begin in September, Barnes intends to keep playing music at some of his favorite spots around the city: Outside Atlas Cafe on 20th Street, Arizmendi Bakery in the Sunset — and at the 16th and Mission station.
thank you for the thoughtful and informative article. You’re interview skills are great. I felt totally comfortable giving personal stories and my aspirations.
Ben is the greatest of humans. I have known him for over two decades. He is a musical genius and inspiration.
Ben is a friend of mine, and has been since I met him in the late 90’s. Thank you for telling his story in such a thoughtful manner.
Thank you Drew, I hope you’re having some great design days.