James Barker, a former co-owner of the Avant Garde coffeehouse on Prospect Avenue in the 1960s, died Nov. 5 in Santa Fe, after reportedly falling ill in October.
Barker -- an accomplished guitarist -- and Gordy Simon purchased the Avant Garde, which was the epicenter of Milwaukee's counterculture during its brief life span, in late 1966 or early 1967, and owned it until it closed in late 1968.
According to Avant Garde regular Mark Goff, Barker -- who was nicknamed "Jimmy Two Feathers" -- was "a major figure in the beat/hippie/arts scene. He had become a significant national/international figure as a jewelry-maker but kept his ties to Milwaukee through friends and family."
Barker's love for Milwaukee rock bands like The Baroques and The Velvet Whip changed the feel of the Avant Garde, which, before his tenure, had hosted strictly acoustic folk and blues performers. Barker and Simon continued to host the poetry readings and film nights begun by their predecessors.
Barker, who was born in Milwaukee in 1941 and attended the Layton School of Art, moved to Hopeland, Calif. in the early 1970s where his passion for making jewelry flourished and he won numerous awards for his work, including a Gold Award in 1983 and a third-place finish in Japan's International Pearl Competition.
Barker moved to Santa Fe in 1988.
"When I think of James, I think of him as an occasional curmudgeon, a title I think he would readily cop to, considering his ongoing disappointment with the current political administration, (although he might not call it that)," says his friend Lisa Bialac-Jehle, of Topanga, Calif. "I also think of him as a hopeful idealist. He wanted the world to step up to the plate, and fully expected at any moment that everyone would come to their senses and do the right thing.
"James and I became pretty good pals in the past year. I am also a jeweler; I make one-of-a-kind work in silver and gold and had recently taken the plunge into working in 22k. James was really helpful with technique and information. Always very generous and open, besides telling me when he thought that something I made was good, or as he put it, 'sucked.'"
Goff says that some of the old Avant Garde gang will reunite to celebrate Barker's life.
"Some of us old counterculture types are throwing a memorial for him next Sunday, Nov. 20, at 2 p.m. at Von Trier. We're putting together a display of the posters he did for the performances at The Garde."
Read our article on the Avant Garde here.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.
He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.
With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.
He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.
In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.
He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.