I had just left the National Review office in Washington the other night when my wife called on the cell phone: “Bryan Harvey was killed,” she said. In the car a few moments later, I grabbed my iPod and dialed up “Ten More Minutes to Live,” a song from 1989 by House of Freaks, Harvey’s rock band, and listened to the words:
Sometimes when I lie awake at night
I can see my death acted out on stage.
Oh yeah, am I the coward or the he ro?
Where will I be when I’ve got ten more minutes to live?
Nobody wants to be where Harvey was when he had ten more minutes to live: On New Year’s Day, he was found in the basement of his home, in Richmond, Va., with his throat slashed. The bodies of his wife and his two daughters, ages 9 and 4, were found with him. (On Saturday, two men were arrested in connection with these and three other slayings.)
I had not heard of House of Freaks in 1988, when I saw them open a show for Midnight Oil. The night was memorable for a bunch of reasons: I had just graduated from high school, two of my best friends and I were going out one last time before heading our separate ways, we got a flat tire in a bad part of town, etc. But the thing I remember most vividly from that evening was House of Freaks–a two-man band with a big sound, catchy melodies, and smart lyrics. I was hooked, and over the next several years I bought their albums as soon as they came out and went to their shows when they passed through town.
House of Freaks never made it big. After a couple of critically applauded albums on a small record label–Monkey on a Chain Gang in 1988 and Tantilla in 1989–things were looking up for singer/guitarist Harvey and drummer Johnny Hott. Then the duo issued a major-label release, Cakewalk, in 1991. It was in some ways their best work, but it flopped. Their chance at fame and fortune slipped away. A final album, back on a tiny label in 1993, was called Invisible Jewel. And invisible jewels are what they were: Great talents condemned to obscurity because not enough people noticed their brand of genius. I suppose it’s the story of many artists across every field. Most recently, Harvey was working for Henrico County Public Schools in its technology department and moonlighting in a band called NrG Krysys. It was Hott who discovered what happened on New Year’s Day; he was coming by the Harvey home for a cookout.
I’m not the only one who loved House of Freaks. Last week in Richmond, some 1,400 people turned out at a memorial service for Harvey and his family. The Richmond Times-Dispatch has given their murder wall-to-wall coverage. And as with so many bands, no matter how small, there’s a loving fan website devoted to Harvey and his music.
What made House of Freaks special? First, there was the fact that it was a two-man band. When I saw Harvey and Hott walk on stage in 1988, my immediate thought was: Where’s the bass player? Did he catch the flu and the show must go on? But House of Freaks was a duo, and it turned out that they didn’t need no stinkin’ bass player. With just a pair of musicians, they pumped out a sound that filled the room. Drummer Hott was a mesmerizing performer–in fact, he was less of a drummer and more of a percussionist, playing everything from spoons to tom toms to washboards. There have been other two-person bands (such as the White Stripes), but there haven’t been many and this trait distinguished House of Freaks from most of the rest.
But that wasn’t the best part, which were the words. When it came to lyrics, House of Freaks was a cut above the competition. Harvey, who wrote most of them, sang about war, history, and race–all from the perspective of a guilt-ridden southerner: “Bottom of the Sea” was about the “cargo” thrown overboard from a storm-tossed slave ship, “Big Houses” described the destruction of a plantation home, and “White Folk’s Blood” was written after Harvey saw a grisly photo of a lynching. These were by no means the only topics: Harvey also sang of love and hate, God and faith (he was not a believer), and his friends and family. Violence was never far from the surface: “I’ll Treat You Right Someday” is a grim study of domestic neglect (and possibly abuse). Death was a constant theme: On “Remember Me Well,” which is backed by a Salvation Army-style band, Harvey sang:
In a hundred years hence, with the worms I will dwell.
When I’m gone from this world, please remember me well.
You can dance on my grave, you can ring out the bell
After all’s said and done, please remember me well.
Several people have described House of Freaks as part of the southern Gothic tradition, and that’s about right. “A Good Man,” which Harvey regarded as his finest song, takes its name straight from Flannery O’Connor. Its lyrics are cleverly hopeful. In a better world, it would have been a monster hit that made House of Freaks a household name, or at least a one-hit wonder. Another of the band’s finest songs is “I Got Happy,” which Harvey wrote after meeting the woman who would become his wife; he alludes to song after song from his own repertoire, rejects their cynicism, and announces that “something went wrong and I got happy.”
In “40 Years,” the single from the first House of Freaks album–a video for it once received a very small amount of airplay on MTV–Harvey sang about the anniversary of the atomic bomb: “Be thankful we’ve had 40 years,” he pleaded.
Bryan Harvey had 49 years. His wife had less and his kids far, far less. It wasn’t nearly enough for any of them.
–John J. Miller is national political reporter for National Review and the author, most recently, of A Gift of Freedom: How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America..