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Aspen Times Weekly: The ride of your life

Photo courtesy of Jon Barnes

ASPEN – Some 20 years ago, Jon Barnes agreed to replicate his ultimate creation, the Ultimate Taxi. Someone who had ridden in the Ultimate Taxi, an old-fashioned yellow Checker cab tricked out with lasers, synthesizers and the first Internet-connected computer to be installed in a taxi, asked Barnes to build him an Ultimate Limo. Barnes agreed, charging the customer, who was a co-owner of Ticketmaster, $50,000. Barnes ended up not making all that much profit from the venture; he had to hire an engineer to assist him. Even apart from the shortage of significant financial gain, the project was a headache.

“When you imagine all this stuff on the floor of your house, trying to fit it all in the car so it works, and do it so you can drive it – almost impossible,” Barnes said. “It’s a lot more fun trying to entertain people than to start one of these up from scratch. Ripping all the stuff out and starting over – that would be a nightmare.”

Barnes, who lives in Basalt and operates the Ultimate Taxi around Aspen, has lost track of the limo he created. “The one I built probably fell apart by now,” he said.

There are other reasons, apart from the technological ones, that the Ultimate Taxi concept hasn’t translated well outside Aspen. In addition to engineering know-how, it takes some social skills to operate a combination nightclub/comedy venue/laser show/concert hall/photo booth through a city’s downtown streets. “To do the Ultimate Taxi, you need to be on a first-name basis with all the police. And find an insurance company that’s never actually seen what you do,” Barnes said. “And other places have real traffic.”

The Ultimate Taxi is the sort of contraption that works better when assembled bit by bit, with a lot of room for trial and error. Barnes never planned a cab with more than a thousand LED lights, a fog machine and an awesome rollercoaster effect; he began 20-plus years ago with an electric keyboard and things just progressed from there. It remains a work in progress; over the past few weeks alone, Barnes has put a subwoofer speaker on the floor in back, and added another blue laser, a hard-to-find item. In the research-and-development stage is a lenticular business card that features multiple images of Barnes and the taxi. Also in the experimental phase are the LED light strips he put on his drumsticks. “I’ll see how long the batteries last. That might be an expensive addition,” he said.

Perhaps the main reason the Ultimate Taxi hasn’t been rolled out in Las Vegas or Miami is that, while the vehicle itself is hard to duplicate, the most important component is irreplaceable. “It seems like a clever niche,” Barnes said. “But not that clever, because I can’t get someone else to work for me on my day off.”

More than the guy who pieced together the taxi’s lights and sounds, the 55-year-old Barnes is a performer – a talkative, Jewish, native New Yorker who has more than a little bit of the Vaudeville showman in him. He’ll do most anything to entertain. In my office last week, while I was trying to nail down numbers (well over half a million miles; $200 to book the standard 40-minute ride, which includes photographs, though he will do short, unscheduled trips; not a single significant accident), Barnes was more intent on doing card tricks for me. He also showed me a video of him and singer-songwriter Jerry Jeff Walker in the cab, the two playing Walker’s “Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother,” with the lyrics changed to refer to the Ultimate Taxi. (Barnes was on an electronic MIDI saxophone.)

“For me, the car is an extension of my mind. The car allows me to be an engineer and an inventor and a dreamer,” Barnes said. “Stephen Hawking says, ‘My body might be trapped in a wheelchair, but my mind can go anywhere.’ I’m free to explore the world of lights and sound.

“And happiness. Hopefully, I’m creating memories that people cherish. I’m just trying to make town a little more fun and colorful than it would be if I wasn’t here.”

Growing up in Greenwich Village in the early ’60s, Barnes, whose father was a lithographer and the owner of a printing factory, went to super-liberal elementary schools. “Some of the teachers were beatniks,” he recalled. But for high school, he was sent to the Dalton School, a private prep school on the Upper East Side where his classmates included the offspring of celebrities like Robert Redford.

Barnes was a Dalton misfit. Part of the problem, he says, is that he could never read his own handwriting. Part of it was a difficult in grasping exactly what good high school was going to do: “I didn’t feel the grades my teachers gave me were going to change my life. I didn’t see taking a job where someone asked me how I did in eighth-grade English.” And part of it was that his interests laid elsewhere. He especially liked the Hayden Planetarium, at the American Museum of Natural History, where a regular feature was laser light shows set to the music of Pink Floyd or the Beatles. “When you grow up with Laserium, the Beatles and ‘Star Trek,’ you want to build a rock ‘n’ roll rocket ship,” Barnes said of his creating the Ultimate Taxi.

As it turns out, Barnes was right about school: he never has had to rely on his grades. While many of his classmates went to Ivy League universities – Barnes says 10 percent of his class went to Harvard – Barnes skipped college in favor of a job at the Scandinavian Ski Shop, in midtown Manhattan. Quickly he had a realization that it would probably be more fun selling ski gear while living in an actual ski town. In 1979 he moved to Aspen. He lived in a bunkroom in the basement of the Highlands Inn, and also worked there, cleaning rooms and making breakfast. He also took an assortment of odd jobs – filling vending machines, working at a dry cleaner, and during busy seasons, driving for the Mellow Yellow cab company.

In 1983, the Mellow Yellow dispatcher came into the Highlands Inn to eat, and told Barnes that a driver was leaving town and looking to sell his cab, a 1978 Checker Marathon with 75,000 miles on it. Barnes enjoyed the taxi business – “It was like being in a movie, driving a cab in Aspen in the ’80s – the characters!” he said – and he bought the vehicle.

But a major portion of the taxi job was sitting around waiting for the next fare, and Barnes’ restless mind wasn’t suited for inactivity. “You sit at the airport waiting for the next plane,” he said. “Some people read magazines or pitched quarters. I had a keyboard and tried to teach myself music. It was a way to keep myself entertained.” The keyboard was perfect for someone who specifically did not want to share his budding musical talents with others. Sitting at Paepcke Park at night, he could practice songs by the Beatles and Elton John; when passengers got in the cab, he’d shove the keyboard under the front seat and act like a normal hack.

Eventually, he stopped putting the keyboard away, and played it for his customers. “I figured it couldn’t hurt to be memorable to everyone who stepped into your cab,” he said. “Differentiate yourself – that’s a good marketing strategy. I just over-differentiated myself.”

Over time, the equipment – none of it essential to the task of driving a person from point A to point B – piled up. By the late ’80s, when he was driving for High Mountain Taxi, Barnes remembers having to take all his gear out of the car to pass inspection. While putting the music instruments and assorted gear back in his car, he had a realization.

“It would be more fun to be an amusement ride around the mall, competing with the horse carriages, than giving people a ride up to Snowmass Village. I decided to go off and sell fun,” Barnes said. He enlisted a friend, Bob Zook, to help engineer lights and fog, and an old yellow cab became the Ultimate Taxi.

“I looked at my car and saw lights, a mirror ball, a synthesizer,” Barnes said. “I said, ‘Clearly, you have the most unusual taxi in Aspen. Why not go for the most unusual taxi in the history of the world? But there was no plan to build this incredible taxi. It was to blur the distinction between work and play. To make work so much fun, it seemed like play.”

Barnes and his Ultimate Taxi have been featured on the Travel Channel, MTV and the Food Network, on TV shows in Germany and Australia, in The New York Times and London’s Financial Times. Barnes figures the oddest place the taxi has shown up was on a Japanese game show.

Being a musician/magician/comedian, while also driving a cab through Aspen (often with your elbows) is more draining than simply picking up passengers and dropping them off, and Barnes says that long nights of doing the Ultimate Taxi can be wearying. Beginning in 2005, Barnes established a second career, as a consultant on search-engine optimization, which he runs out of his home in Basalt.

Perhaps not surprising, Barnes take an unusual approach to the business: He offers not to charge clients for the first month of work. “Because I want people to be happy and tell their brother about how great it is. Just like with the Ultimate Taxi,” he said. But Barnes added that, at home, he’s a normal guy, with a wife (Beth, a registered nurse) and three kids (one of whom teaches communications at the University of Texas, and is working on her doctorate). When not driving the Ultimate Taxi, his ride is an ordinary, 10-year-old Volkswagen Passat sedan.

But Barnes hasn’t lost any of his zeal for the Ultimate Taxi. A few years ago he added the rollercoaster feature. Playing a rollercoaster simulation on the video screen, using motoring techniques they don’t teach in drivers ed, and following an ingeniously mapped-out path through Aspen streets, the effect is improbably realistic. Barnes has kept his sound and light system on the cutting edge, improved his music skills, taken magic lessons from local magician Doc Eason. He’s thought about turning the Ultimate Taxi into an actual amusement ride, and toys with the idea of creating a variety show from inside the cab. “Like a late-night talk show, without too much talk,” he said. “For small acts. Not a fire-juggling act.”

In the category of iconic Aspen attractions, Barnes puts the Ultimate Taxi up there with the view from the top of Ruthie’s Run and fireworks over Aspen Mountain. “The car may be the greatest invention of the 20th century, and there’s a billion cars on the earth,” he said. “I want mine to be the best. I don’t only want no one competing with me. I don’t want anyone to try.”

With all the lasers, smoke and fog, music devices and card tricks, what element of the Ultimate Taxi is Barnes most proud of? The fact that, despite all the lasers, smoke and fog, music devices and card tricks, he has a clean driving record.

“Safety is my number one priority,” Barnes, who drives at a crawl through Aspen, said. “Because the first person I run into is going to be the last show the sheriff ever lets me do.”