“Frank Sinatra, holding a glass of bourbon in one hand and a cigarette in the other, stood in a dark corner of the bar between two attractive but fading blondes who sat waiting for him to say something. But he said nothing; he had been silent during much of the evening, except now in this private club in Beverly Hills he seemed even more distant, staring out through the smoke and semidarkness into a large room beyond the bar where dozens of young couples sat huddled around small tables or twisted in the center of the floor to the clamorous clang of folk-rock music blaring from the stereo. The two blondes knew, as did Sinatra’s four male friends who stood nearby, that it was a bad idea to force conversation upon him when he was in this mood of sullen silence, a mood that had hardly been uncommon during this first week of November, a month before his fiftieth birthday
Sinatra had been working in a film that he now disliked, could not wait to finish; he was tired of all the publicity attached to his dating the twenty-year-old Mia Farrow, who was not in sight tonight; he was angry that a CBS television documentary of his life, to be shown in two weeks, was reportedly prying into his privacy, even speculating on his possible friendship with Mafia leaders; he was worried about his starring role in an hour-long NBC show entitled Sinatra—A Man and His Music, which would require that he sing eighteen songs with a voice that at this particular moment, just a few nights before the taping was to begin, was weak and sore and uncertain. Sinatra was ill. He was the victim of an ailment so common that most people would consider it trivial. But when it gets to Sinatra it can plunge him into a state of anguish, deep depression, panic, even rage. Frank Sinatra had a cold.”
-Gay Talese, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” Esquire Magazine, April 1966
It is not 1966 and I am not Gay Talese. Robert Murray “Bobby Ray” Barnaba is not Frank Sinatra and his health issues well-exceed a common cold. But if you hear Bobby Ray sing on a Friday night at Cafe Hon on the Avenue in Hampden, Baltimore, you can close your eyes and almost imagine that Sinatra found his way out from six feet under.
Not knowing much about Frank Sinatra as a person, I’d say that he and Bobby Ray have only a handful of things in common. They’re Sicilian. They’ve been in a few fights and would have the scars to prove it. Olive skin that’s seen some wind and wear. And they can croon. Although the parallels may stop there, Bobby Ray has found his small stage, his loyal audience, his look and his voice and his repertoire. And he shares it with the willing every Friday at Hon Bar karaoke after 10 p.m. while he sucks down a few “long necks,” or what others call, Blue Moon bottles.
He landed on “Bobby Ray” because Barnaba was getting butchered too badly. He’ll tell you in not so few words, that every letter has a numerological value. Bobby Ray somehow equals a 9, “a good number to be out in the public eye,” he says.
Then there’s the Bobby Darin influence. “The first karaoke song I sang was 10 years ago. ‘Beyond the Sea,’ Bobby Darin. I loved it all along. Later I found out he was born in May, he’s a Taurus, year of the rat, had an Italian last name they used to butcher,” says Bobby Ray.
“He got Darin from a Mandarin restaurant–took off the front part of the word. And I thought, I got an affinity with this cat and I love his music. Too bad he died early, I’m keeping his spirit up.”
Bobby Ray will rattle off details about his bouts of West Nile virus, about biosuperfood, about the natural food store, and about how he changed his own karma. He will tell you about his studies in astronomy and numerology. He will list names and dates like he’s been studying for this test all night. He’ll tell you about Geminis and full moon Sagittariuses. He will tell you how if you stare directly at the sun, you can get a high, that he’s trained himself by staring at weak rays and gradually increasing his tolerance to stare directly up at an August sun at two in the afternoon. And he will tell you about what he calls “the sacraments,” LSD, peyote, mescaline, acid. Then he’ll tell you how he moved beyond those very sacraments, how he got clean, well, relatively clean, on his own without help.
Bobby grew up in Waverly near the intersection of Gorsuch Avenue and Independence Street. Educated at St. Bernards by the Mercy nuns, in 1962, Bobby went to Calvert Hall College High School for two years and hated it. “Freaking hated it.” He said his highest marks were in religion so they tried to get him to be a priest. His response: “That’s when I started doing drugs.”
He went to City College and repeated 10th grade, survived junior year, then dropped out. So he joined the Navy and got his GED. Bobby Ray says, “You don’t need all that. You get all the basics down.” Then he launches into a story about a kid who grew up in the ’20s who sold papers and ended up owning half of Howard Street. “Fourth grade education.” For Bobby Ray, the exception often proves the rule.
But even if he didn’t finish school, he’s constantly learning. His “teachers” these days are the authors of the books he reads. “One of my favorite quotes,” he says, is Einstein, ‘Education is something you get when you forget everything you learned in school.’ Great I didn’t fuck up.”
Bobby Ray said that in school, they weren’t teaching him what he wanted to learn. He was nearsighted and undiagnosed. “I’m squinting going what the hell are you talking about?” Pretending to put on his first pair of glasses, he says, “I get my eyes again. I’m like Mr. Magoo.” He blinks hugely to show his new ability.
“I was the little one. I was a little guy. I wasn’t big. I wasn’t hairy. I wasn’t aggressive. I wasn’t athletic. I was intellectual. Everybody was calling me names and pushing me. It was the ’50s,” he says. “To be an asshole was to be a guy. [The neighborhood] was mostly working class. I was the more artist philosopher type, around all these rednecks, greasers, and the biker parties down on Gorsuch Avenue. I knew a kid named Motor Snyder. Motor–that was his name,” he says laughing.
Without notice, Bobby Ray launches into a story about his reincarnation. “I’ve been here before,” he says. “I have xray vision in my third eye.” And all of this might sound whacky to the typical person but then he throws his whole story out there–memories he has of his own infancy, visions of his ancestors. He lets the world, or anyone who will listen, take it at face value. “What have I got to lose? I’m an open book.” Open, he certainly is.
To be continued…
I have 9 pages of notes from talking to Bobby for about 3 total hours. I will continue this next week.