Leo Barnes’ sax solo on Hothouse Flowers’ Don’t Go in 1988 was as beautiful as the song itself, about not wanting anyone to die. Leo died in Dublin last week of a suspected cerebral hemorrhage.
The once internationally acclaimed musician has lived in Finglas, Dublin for the last 10 years and seemed almost a recluse. Hothouse Flowers lead singer Liam Ó Maonlaí had not seen him since Barnes left the band in late 1995.
A close friend of Barnes, Marcella Gillick, said: “He spent most of the years Christmas with us in Bray. I considered him part of the family. He lived in my family for years, between 2003 and 2008, and was part of all family events. I know so little about him.”
Another friend of his, musician Danny Tobin, spoke to him last Christmas when Barnes was visiting. “He drank a cup of tea. He seemed very happy.”
During the 2000s, Barnes occasionally played in Tobin’s band Southern Xpress at the Bray Jazz Festival and Harbor Bar. “His last gig was with us 15 years ago.”
Barnes was born in 1955 and was orphaned by parents he never knew and sent to Artane Industrial School in Dublin after stints at the notorious industrial schools of St Joseph’s in Kilkenny and Letterfrack in Galway.
He was fostered by a family in Dublin. He became a member of the Artane Boys Band. In which Gaelic Weekly News In 1968, in an article about the Artane Boys, there is a picture of young Leo.
He received an Arts Council grant and studied at the Conservatoire de Bordeaux in France with Jean-Marie Londeix. In 1985, Barnes rose to prominence when he joined Hothouse Flowers.
Ó Maonlaí remembers going to Strand Studios in Dublin where demos for the song were recorded Hike.
“Leo came in and played like a bird. I had never heard anyone play like that before. He was an outsider. He didn’t know his parents and that would make anyone a loner. Most of us have very clear and definite role models. He had to look for his role models. He was the nicest man in the band.”
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Ó Maonlaí recalls a night after a show in Cork in 1987. “I went through a dark night of the soul. Leo recognized that. He also took me by the hand to my hotel room, put me to bed and kissed my forehead and put water by my bed.”
In a profile of Hothouse Flowers from 1990, Rolling Stone The magazine noted that Barnes was reading a biography of James Joyce’s wife Nora on the band’s tour bus, which was traveling to Belfast while Ó Maonlaí played the tin whistle.
Terry O’Neill, who was agent and publicist for Hothouse Flowers from 1986 to 1990, remembers Barnes as “probably the most talented musician in the band”.
Allan Gannon, who owned Marlena’s nightclub on Leeson Street, Dublin, recalls that Barnes performed regularly in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
“Almost every single conversation I had with him stemmed from the same thing – the trauma he suffered at the industrial school in Artane. He told me, ‘I was in juvenile delinquents’ reformatory, people who had committed crimes, and my only crime was not having parents.’ He may have learned an instrument, and that’s how the world got to know the name Leo Barnes, but by God, he paid a terrible price for it.”
Barnes played on American folk singer Michelle Shocked’s 1992 album Arkansas Traveler. He also played with Gavin Friday’s band for a time. “He was one of a kind,” said Friday, “a troubadour of a lifetime.” Barnes left Hothouse Flowers in late 1995.
According to Tobin, who shared a house with him in Raglan Road, Dublin, in the late 1990s and then lived near him in Bray, Co. Wicklow, “he was in touch with his foster mother, Kate, in Sallynoggin and he had two sisters, Margaret and Mary, one of whom was a nurse in Zimbabwe. Leo was an incredible man. Outwardly he was sociable, very funny, quick-witted and did not like to put up with fools.”
On the inside? “His experiences at St Joseph’s in Kilkenny, Letterfrack and Artane had an immense impact on him. He was a shy and very thoughtful person. But he was light ahead of everyone.”
Gillick said, “He was the most humble, reserved and shy person I have ever met.”
Tobin recalled a story Barnes told him when he filed for welfare in the late 2000s. “He had never received unemployment benefits. When he went to register on Tara Street, they asked him, ‘Do you have any other income?’ He said, ‘I get royalty checks.’ And they said, ‘Are you part of the royal family?’”
Leo Barnes was, of course, an Irish rock king.
https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/music/music-news/obituary-leo-barnes-talented-musician-who-played-memorable-sax-solo-on-dont-go-by-hothouse-flowers-41580958.html Obituary: Leo Barnes, talented musician who played a memorable saxophone solo on Hothouse Flowers’ “Don’t Go”.