Pop culture is sufficiently saturated with the rags to riches tales of rock stars, so we can be forgiven for thinking that the progression is formulaic. A pained childhood, a night of destiny, drugs, more drugs, the end. The life story of Ben Folds, however, steers away from this hackneyed fare.
An obsessive musician and wry comedian, Folds set himself apart at an early age but never lost his observant eye. In fact, with maturity, it only grew sharper. A Dream About Lightning Bugs chronicles the misadventures and lessons learned by an artist who took the rock star route in order to find himself.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs is the sublimation of the Ben Folds story. His frenetic energy, musical obsession and his penchant for diving headlong into life are served up with trademark wit and honesty.
It was never going to be any other way. Folds the toddler was spending hours a day watching the hypnotic spin of LPs under the needle – this junkie’s habit was established early. Far from isolating himself though, Folds’ understood from an early age that empathy makes a good (or at least honest) song tick. He writes, “Stand in as many pairs of shoes as you can manage, even ones you consider reprehensible or repulsive – even if it’s just for a moment.”
The keen observance of the human condition is the foundation for his razor sharp lyricism. His dazzling musicianship is born from his capacity for concentration and drilling down into his imagination. In the early days, before putting pen to paper on a new arrangement, or laying a finger on the keyboard, the teenage Ben would take to the front yard, dressed in boxers and only armed with a bowl of cereal. The seeds of songs would be planted in these pacing sessions, feeling nothing but the North Carolina breeze and the confused stares of his neighbours, Folds would pace, allowing the arrangements to turn over in his mind.
This infatuation for creation would later be manifested in the complex arrangements of Ben Folds Five – his initiation to fame. But before he arrived at that point, he would be dragged to and fro by the ever present counterweight to his musical journey: life. The inexorable path towards a career in the music was shaken by high school failure and a failed attempt to fall in love with jazz (which ended in violence).
Throughout the anything but linear progression of his career, Folds illuminates the “cheap lessons” (i.e. things that didn’t directly threaten his existence) that served him so well on his path to sustainability. For example, who would’ve thought that his stint as a lederhosen toting polka act would teach him about being present as a performer. He writes, “It’s always the easy way out, being an existential chicken. Not really being there. It’s harder, it’s riskier, to be present. And not just in music, but in every action and exchange in our short lives.”
Even the painful chapter immortalised in the lyrics to Brick fell into this category. He talks about what he learning to channel his emotions into his songs, “I write songs about what I feel. And I feel there could not be a more expensive cheap lesson in this episode.”
For all of his honesty and being present in the moment, the rock star life for Folds didn’t follow the script. Though you couldn’t apply the term to his work ethic, he had the lifestyle of a slacker, mentioning, “I’d enjoyed going to sleep as the sun rose. I’d enjoyed reaching for my glasses at 2pm and stumbling up to get a burrito and a Coke for breakfast.”
After the release of the Ben Folds Five debut though, the phone started ringing of the hook. The North Carolina three-piece, consisting of bassist Robert Sledge, drummer Darren Jessee and Folds on the piano and lead vocals was taking the country by storm. In an era suffused with rock from Angry Men, there was obviously a pent up demand for the trio’s brand of piano punk, rich with whimsical harmonies, undercut with a good helping of snark.
Folds did his best to play the part too, his antics causing pain to pianos the world over, including an especially memorable Australian visit to the Midday show. The band’s rollercoaster ride would continue for a few more years, but for someone whose honesty was at the core of his artistry, fame was not apt to be a happy experience.
The constant travel, the growing family commitments and the fatiguing labour of maintaining his public persona was taking its toll on Folds’ psyche. The pages of Lightning Bugs reveal a man who dived headlong into life, yet was doomed to repeat the same mistakes, if he didn’t taken the time to reflect on them. Eventually, he did.
Folds – as busy as ever post band breakup – found solace in taking on a variety of projects. Herculean recording and touring commitments had been a tonic for his anxiety and an attempt at escape, but gradually, he no longer felt guilty for pursuing his curiosity, “It turns out that it’s actually my responsibility to identify and follow my interests. Being interested is why I still have a gig at all.”
This, and many other lessons (cheap or otherwise) are profound for the reader and no doubt, a way for the author to take stock too. And even though A Dream About Lightning Bugs closes out with “Fuck it, I’m done” – there will no doubt be enough ammunition for a second, rather different, volume two in the future.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons is out now via Simon & Schuster.