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Charleston Post & Courier

Charleston busker with bipolar disorder shares healing power of music on downtown bench

By Kalyn Oyer // Aug 4, 2020

When Tim Falvey was hospitalized during college, he had no idea his release would come with a life-altering diagnosis. 

He left the lockdown unit of the psychiatric hospital finally knowing what to call something he had been dealing with for years but never quite knew how to categorize: bipolar disorder. 

The condition, characterized by alternating manic and depressive phases, affects around 1 percent of the population in the United States. There is no cure, but various treatments can be effective in stabilizing the condition.

For Falvey, it manifested in mood swings and then one episode of hallucinations and psychosis before he found the right treatment and changed his lifestyle. 

“I remember thinking things like this don’t happen to people who are driven, sound and capable academically and athletically and who have a great family dynamic, but that’s not true,” Falvey recalled. “Mental illness doesn’t discriminate.”

Now in his 30s and living in Charleston with a young daughter, Falvey has learned how to manage his bipolar disorder with medication and psychotherapy, in addition to healthy eating habits, plenty of sleep and daily exercise. But he also owes a lot to music. 

“Music showed up and gave me an elixir for my healing,” Falvey said. “It’s been my antidote.”

As he felt his mind unraveling, he turned to acoustic guitar. He listened to Third Eye Blind and Counting Crows. He wrote his own lyrics about overcoming hardship and emerging stronger on the other side.

“Music grants me access to my feelings, feelings that I can’t articulate because I can’t even identify them without exploring them through music, feelings that existed all along but were not manifest until I was hospitalized,” Falvey explained.

When he first began playing guitar, he did it for the healing effect on his own mind and soul.

“My artistic intuitiveness wouldn’t be manifest if it weren’t for a fissure in my spirit,” he offered. 

Then, he decided to share that healing power with others.

He’s serenaded patrons at Dublin pubs, Paris cabarets and Lowcountry bars. But before that he became a street performer, crooning on city sidewalks across the U.S., in New York City subway stations and on a particular bench on the boardwalk of downtown Charleston’s Waterfront Park.

He’s dubbed it Uncle Tim’s Bench, and he often played and sang covers and originals there pre-coronavirus. He even brought out the harmonica, adding more texture to his sweet, mellow folk offerings. His open guitar case collected coins and cash, sometimes enough to buy lunch, sometimes enough to pay the bills. 

“I’ve been all over the country and seen all sorts of places, but I never really had a geographical anchor until I found the end of the boardwalk at Waterfront Park,” Falvey said.

In Charleston, street performers are allowed to play and accept money on public walkways without a permit from 8 a.m. until 11 p.m. as long as they’re 50 feet away from public buildings, not disturbing businesses and not obstructing foot traffic.

Sometimes, Falvey would play inside the Rainbow Market by Giovanni’s Pizzeria. 

He stopped performing because of COVID-19, and has since been relying on unemployment benefits while he takes care of his daughter. 

He said he misses traveling and busking, gigging at bars and restaurants and collaborating with other area musicians. He misses humid nights on his bench while tourists danced beside him and laughter filled the salty air. 

But music has helped him make it through. He’s been playing regularly and working on some new original tunes, like upcoming single “A Silver Lining.”

“Without my bipolar disorder, I wouldn’t be creating or sharing music,” Falvey said. “In a way, it’s a blessing.”

Brian's Basement

Cincy Local Music

An interview with the artist

What is your name/stage name?

“My name is Tim Falvey and I perform within a multidisciplinary performing arts project called ‘Uncle Tim's Bench’ -- exploratory and collaborative performing artistry with street music roots.”

Where were you born?

“I was born in the city of San Antonio, Texas, USA.”

How old were you when you started singing/playing?

“I started singing and playing music at the age of 19.”

Who influenced you as a child to sing/play?

“As a child, my Aunt Ellie inspired me with her musical spoons and kazoo while she bounced me on her false left knee.”

What musicians influenced you to sing/play?

“The poetry of Counting Crows and Third Eye Blind have greatly impacted and inspired me to sing and perform my little heart out.”

What instruments do you play?

“I am vocalists who plays a mean harmonica, a proficient though simplified acoustic guitar, a wily foot tambourine, and a  top-notch kazoo.”

Who do you sound like?

“As a solo performer, listeners tell me I remind them of Jim Croce, Cat Stevens, and James Taylor. Others say that my open-ended lyricism reminds them of Adam Duritz of Counting Crows.”

What genre do you like and play?

“I enjoy the mellow, melancholy, and sweet sound of a mid-nineties Adult Alternative song. The most impactful songs that I share emote the same crestfallen yet hopeful tone of token songs in that genre. “

What is your favorite quote?

“‘Vita, Dulcedo, Spes’ - (Latin translation of ‘Our Life, Our Sweetness, and Our Hope’) -- [a reference, ode, mantra, and invocation to the Virgin Mary, Mother of Christ, in the Marian prayer ‘Salve Regina’ (translated ‘Hail, Holy Queen’)].”

If you could perform with one star, who would it be and why?

“I want to perform with Lady Gaga. I admire her cutting edge artistry, challenging of social norms, welcoming persona as an artist & person, professionalism, intensity, mission-oriented vocation, and COLORFUL + FUN showmanship. I imagine she'd enjoy performing with me.”

What do you do in your free time?

“In my free time, I do a lot of the same things I do when I'm working: travel, perform, and watch/study live music. And I love to go running.”

What new songs are you working on?

“I'm currently developing a tribute called ‘Flowers from Paris’ as a gift for both my sweetest friend Christin and for the Baby Girl that Christin and I will give birth to in August. Additionally, I'm developing a studio recording of a piece called ‘Rhonda Rhonda’ -- a hip-hop tune about some tempting eye-candy at a Halloween Party.”

Where do you usually perform?

“When in Cincinnati, I've performed shows at Fries Cafe and Millions Cafe. I had the honor of honing my craft throughout the Greater Cincinnati Open Mic Circuit at places like Stanley's Pub, MOTR, and Molly Malone's Pub. A nice place to play is in the subway stops at Penn Station in New York, New York, USA. My favorite place to perform is on a boardwalk park bench facing west under the flagpoles at Waterfront Park in Charleston, South Carolina, USA.”

Who do you give thanks to?

“I express thanks to The Empire Project of Keyport NJ, The Big Lonesome of Boston MA, Jason Laws of Brooklyn NY, 5th Wall Productions of Charleston SC, LucazFilm of Charleston SC, Sammy Hutchison of Manhattan, NY, and Cincy Local Music of Cincinnati OH --- for selflessly and defiantly dreaming dreaming dreaming dreaming in our shared visions.”