Rock and Roll Book Club: Ben Folds has 'A Dream About Lightning Bugs'

Ben Folds's 'A Dream About Lightning Bugs.'
Ben Folds's 'A Dream About Lightning Bugs.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

Quick, name one Ben Folds song. Right, "Brick." Okay, now name another...pick the song that's done most to expand his audience besides that one. Did you name a Dr. Dre quasi-cover? Because that's the answer, according to Folds's new memoir A Dream About Lightning Bugs.

The Folds version of "B----hes Ain't S--t," a B-side to his 2005 single "Landed," is a quasi-cover in the sense that Folds took a portion of the lyrics and set them to an original melody, making it a ballad. "I consider the melody for 'B---hes Ain't S--t' to be as good as any melody I've written," Folds writes. It became a viral hit before that was a word, and it outright doubled his audiences. There was a point, it seemed, where Folds was playing to crowds where half of the house were appalled by the song and half were there exclusively to hear it.

Today, you won't hear Folds do the song, no matter how many shouted requests he hears. "I don't want non-white people in my audience subjected to large numbers of white people gleefully singing a racial slur that had never been the point," he writes. However, you can request "Rock This B---h," which is not a song at all, and he'll sing it. After he improvised a song based on the shout at a Chicago show in 2002, the bit became a tradition — even when he's playing with an orchestra.

It's appropriate that A Dream About Lightning Bugs is being published around the same time as C.M. Kushins's excellent new Warren Zevon biography, because the two artists have a lot in common. They're both musicians' musicians, not in the prog-rock virtuoso sense but in the sense of being melodic geniuses with accessible but subversively witty senses of humor and appealingly anarchistic streaks.

They're also both essentially self-made musicians with multi-instrumental curiosity that steered them towards formal training yet kept them from ever quite buying into that world. Folds credits one college music professor — Robert Darnell, at the University of North Carolina — with recognizing his talent and steering him towards the piano, but to get there, he first had to flunk out of percussion at the University of Miami and throw his drum kit into a pond after blowing a performance test due to injuries sustained in a drunken brawl the night before.

(It was also Darnell who pointed out the virtues of Eric Clapton's unfussy singing voice, particularly for a singer-songwriter whose lyrics benefit from being understood as they're sung.)

Folds's piano-driven sound and lilting melodies recall Dan Wilson, who's quoted in the book as supporting the author's inclination to follow his interest rather than his instinct, but Folds also resembles another Minnesota musician, Paul Westerberg. Like the Replacements leader, Folds has a thorny wit and an almost cheerfully self-destructive mien.

The Ben Folds Five (a trio) never approached the 'Mats' shambolic infamy, but Folds has done his share of onstage damage — mostly in the form of pianos harmed by his sometime stunt of throwing benches at them. That does little harm, we learn in the book, if you manage to get the padded seat to absorb the impact. If, on the other hand, you climb a speaker stack for a truly grand stool-toss and miscalibrate the throw so that the stool lands legs-down on a 19th century family heirloom belonging to the promoter...yeah, that's going to cost you.

"Ben Folds" is actually his name, and he was born in 1966 in North Carolina. He grew up in Winston-Salem as a "working-class tourist," he writes, often moving from one neighborhood to another as his parents went through boom and bust cycles. He seems to see himself as sort of an Army brat of social class: familiar with a lot of social stations, but not truly at home in any of them.

That background has informed his music in the sense that he understands the varied associations with "piano pop" or "piano rock" but doesn't wholly subscribe to any particular school. As he points out, he's among the very few latter-day rockers who rely completely on a piano — not a keyboard, and typically without guitar adornment — to drive his music.

Lugging a baby grand around never made touring easy (at one point, he and his bandmates had to temporarily abandon the piano in the middle of a Minneapolis street because the sheer cold overwhelmed them), but Folds writes that he learned early on "if something didn't make sense, it might be worth exploring, because it meant nobody else was doing it."

Substantially less than half of Folds's new book is dedicated to his actual career as a recording artist releasing music and touring solo or in bands bearing his name. That may seem surprising, but his career-to-life ratio is relatively small for a rock star who's penning a memoir. He's relatively young to be doing so (now 52 years old), and he also got started late.

After years spent studying music, struggling as a would-be songwriter for hire in Nashville, and pursuing other odd jobs (one entertaining passage describes his stint as a "synth-polka" musician at a German restaurant, using a floppy-equipped electronic keyboard to simulate an accordion), he was nearly 30 when the Ben Folds Five finally released their 1995 debut.

His best-known album after Whatever and Ever Amen, the 1997 Ben Folds Five album containing "Brick" and "Kate" (written on a dare for his then-girlfriend, who thought that without a "musical" name like Michelle or Cecilia, no one would ever write a song about her), is his 2001 solo debut Rockin' the Suburbs. The title track was inspired by his newfound life as a dad living in Adelaide — he met his then-wife, an Australian yoga teacher, on a sort of rock star walkabout — and in the book he has a lot of thoughts about the music of the 'burbs.

"I felt that rock music and popular culture took the middle class in the suburbs for granted," he wrote. Suburban kids in 2001 were listening to angry bands like Korn, despite living fairly contented lives in...well, the suburbs. Folds also said he thought of Stevie Wonder, another notable keyboardist.

Don't you think he had more to be p---ed off about than the majority of white middle-class suburbanites? And yet, alongside some rightfully edgy songs like "Living for the City," Stevie wrote songs about the full range of the human experience.

He decided to write an angry song about suburban life, but one that sounded "annoyingly happy."

A Dream About Lightning Bugs, its title a reference to a metaphorical dream in which only Folds could see fireflies until he caught them in a jar (like songs, get it?), has a lot of little chapters, so you can dip in and out. There's a chapter about working with William Shatner on the 2004 album Has Been ("Shatner never does a take the same way twice"), there's a chapter about the fake album he deliberately leaked to confuse people looking for leaks of his actual album (Way to Normal, 2008) with the same song titles, and there's a chapter about a 2007 tour with John Mayer, which included one of the most epic stage stunts of all time.

During his opening set, Folds told an elaborate story with great sincerity. His father was a musician, Folds said. "Some of you are old enough to remember what happened, right?" His dad, he said, was the singer of .38 Special. One night, he was drunk onstage and a surly fan threw a whiskey bottle at him. Throwing it back, Dad Folds missed the fan and hit the fan's girlfriend...blinding her. He spent all his "Hold On Loosely" royalties on surgery to restore the woman's sight, and...well, these days he doesn't get around so good, but he's backstage in his wheelchair right now. Should he roll out to greet the crowd? When the old man who appeared slowly, haltingly, rose a single fist in the air, "the place went nuts." People were in tears.

Backstage, Folds had to dash to his tour van to avoid the horde of reporters with questions about the completely made-up story. The next day, Mayer had just one question: "Please tell me that was at least your real father?" It was.

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