Tagged: Jerry Lee Lewis

Ben Folds: “I dreaded that song coming out”

Ben Folds has what appear to be perfect piano-playing hands. They’re large, with long, elegant fingers – until you look closer and inspect the damage. “My left hand’s fucked,” he says, raising a beer with it. He lowers the glass, then vigorously shakes out the hand, from the elbow down. There’s an audible click. “Good to go for the next couple of hours.”

Folds, whose sweet, sometimes earnest, often irreverent songs with his group Ben Folds Five were a staple of late-90s alternative rock radio, has just released a memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs. In it, he describes the piano as “living-room furniture” – expensive and heavy, and therefore manifestly unsuitable for rock & roll, which is supposed to be portable.

But, he says, if you look at the handful of notable pianists in rock history – Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John, John Cale – “they all had to sacrifice their piano to a degree. Stand on it, attack it, sacrifice it, to show that you’re on Team Rock.” Folds’ hands have paid the penalty.

His right hand isn’t much better. In late 1984, a pumped-up jock on a wrestling scholarship beat him to a pulp the night before his exams at the University of Miami. The weedy Folds – then a budding percussionist – tried to hit back, only to slam his fist into a cinder-block wall. Crippled, he failed the exam the next day, then threw his drums in a lake.

The story sums up Folds’ self-deprecating approach to his memoir, which has brought him to Australia for a book tour that culminates with the Melbourne Writers’ Festival this weekend. “If I put something in the book, it’s because I suspected there may be a good chance that a liability was an asset towards my occupation,” he says.

If anything, Folds is a proud member of Team Dork: a bespectacled boy next door. He remains in-between, an outsider, a status he acknowledges he’s actively cultivated. A musician, he says, is “branded and tethered by the personality they exude through their songs”. Folds’ brand is awkwardness.

Today, his work spans high and low culture. Since 2017, he’s advised the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington DC. From 2009 to 2013, he was a judge on an NBC talent contest, The Sing-Off. He’s collaborated with Regina Spektor and satirist “Weird Al” Yankovic, authors Neil Gaiman and Nick Hornby, and actor William Shatner.

He realised he’d found his own voice when he started using words like “stupid” in songs. “It’s very freeing to hear how awkward that is, and to feel how that resembles life, suddenly,” he says. “It’s not on the stage anymore – the guy’s fallen off the stage, and then you can relate to that person.”

In a chapter ironically titled Cheap Lessons, he writes about his best-known song, Brick: taking his first girlfriend to a clinic for a pregnancy termination. He fills in the stuff that isn’t in the song – the two jobs he worked to pay it off, the final year of high school both he and his then-partner both mostly missed, their sympathetic parents, the emotional aftershocks.

“I dreaded that song coming out,” he says now. “I tried to talk the manager and label people out of it: that it wasn’t a hit, it’s upright piano, it’s out of tune.” At the time it was written, though, “the point wasn’t to reveal myself; the point was to write the best song I could. Consider me almost a songwriting sociopath. I do not give a shit, as long as it’s a good song.”

A Dream About Lightning Bugs is Folds’ take on what it means to be creative. The title is drawn from the first dream he can remember, of catching fireflies as a child, which he uses as a metaphor for songwriting. Making art, he writes, is about “following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others”.

Like Brick, the point isn’t to reveal himself. A late chapter in the book concerns a mental health breakdown and recovery. Most other rock memoirs would make a whole book out of this. Folds doesn’t dodge it, but doesn’t wallow, either. “Everyone hits the bottom, it’s actually not special to do it,” he tells me. “That’s the dynamics of life, you go up and down. It’s OK.”

Instead, much of A Dream About Lightning Bugs is centred on childhood, where the seeds of creativity are sown. As an obsessive two-year-old growing up in North Carolina, he says, he would spend up to eight hours a day listening to records. “I probably would have been called functioning Asperger’s or OCD or ADHD or something like that.”

On his 2004 collaboration with Shatner, Has Been, Folds received a valuable lesson on what he calls “The Death of the Cool”. Shatner challenged him at length to define what the term meant: ‘“Benny, listen to me, what is ‘cool’? Benny! Listen. What is ‘cool’? You don’t understand!’”

It was an ideal Folds says he was still caught up in, as he battered his hands on the keys. Being cool, he says, has “damn near ruined pop music”. He’s called his songs “punk rock for sissies”, but no genre was more rule-bound than punk. “Adding too many chords – terrible thing to do. Care about what you look like – terrible thing to do. There was a lot of lying going on.”

Eventually Shatner’s persistent questioning made sense. “He was saying that he didn’t want to be held to some stupid kiddy standard; he wants to make something for him that speaks of his life, and what’s cooler than that?” Folds says. “A 75-year-old man doesn’t give a shit, just does not give a shit, and he’s the coolest motherfucker on the planet.

“It was interesting to me to have someone who was just void of judgment of whether something was acceptable or not in indie-rock that year – with certain people, with certain magazines, who wear certain clothes. And the not-being-cool brand, if you will, was working for me. So I had to acknowledge that.”

First published in The Guardian, 29 August 2019

Look away: musings on Jimmy Savile

Sable Starr was punk’s Lolita. She was barely a teenager when she began attending shows in the early 1970s, quickly making her reputation as one of the leading groupies on Sunset Boulevarde. “Every rock star who came to Los Angeles wanted to meet her,” model Bebe Buell remembers. That was rather too polite: pleasantries weren’t all that were exchanged between Starr and Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart, Robert Plant, Marc Bolan, David Bowie and scores of others. Iggy Pop confesses baldly in the opening line of his song Look Away: “I slept with Sable when she was 13.”

Starr’s best friend at the time was Lori Maddox, another veteran of Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco, the notorious Sunset Strip club where strict ID checks at the door ensured the girls were under 18. After losing her virginity at 13 – to, legend has it, David and then-wife Angie Bowie – Maddox was a precocious 14-year-old when Jimmy Page left his LA girlfriend Pamela Des Barres, author of the classic self-proclaimed groupie memoir I’m With The Band, to be with her.

Page dated Maddox for about a year before leaving her in turn for Buell, who was at the time dating Todd Rundgren (as well as Iggy Pop). A devastated Maddox later knocked on the door to Page’s LA hotel room. Buell answered it, and although she kept the chain on, it didn’t stop an enraged Maddox from trying to drag the older woman out by her hair. Page laughed sadistically from the bedroom as his two girlfriends fought over him.

Led Zeppelin’s brutish manners were later laid bare in curdling detail by Stephen Davis, whose book Hammer Of The Gods set the bar at an all-time low for the rock-stars-behaving-badly genre. That was until the appearance of Mötley Crüe’s stupendously vulgar The Dirt which, as one critic put it, made I’m With The Band read like a nun’s diary. Each page contains an unforgettable anecdote, not one fit to be reprinted here. (Well, perhaps just the first line: “Her name was Bullwinkle. We called her that because she had a face like a moose.”)

The mystique surrounding both bands was only enhanced by the publications of these two bestsellers. In the case of Mötley Crüe especially, The Dirt has done more to rejuvenate their fortunes than any of their unremittingly awful albums ever could. Their exploits are regarded with awe more often than revulsion. When you’re a male rock star, conquests come naturally with territory, no matter how gross the underlying misogyny.

Not everyone got away with it, of course. Chuck Berry, without whom we may never have had rock & roll at all, served 18 months in prison after transporting a 14-year-old girl across state lines. The reputation of another originator, Jerry Lee Lewis, never recovered after his third marriage – to his 13-year-old first cousin – was revealed. But the imprisonment of Berry and the blacklisting of Lewis happened in the early 1960s, when the surrounding opprobrium had as much to do with the moral panic attached to rock & roll itself than any concerns about paedophilia.

I’d wager that some of our heroes are watching the gruesome revelations surrounding the life of Jimmy Savile with considerable discomfort. Many of them played for him and his attendant, adoring teenage crowds on Top Of The Pops. A man knighted for his charity work and widely loved for his carefully cultivated persona as a benign English eccentric has now been revealed as one of the country’s worst sexual predators. And, like Iggy Pop, those surrounding Savile found it easiest to look away.

Savile, though, wasn’t on stage – unlike the stars he introduced to the world, many of whom were probably indulging in behaviour no less reprehensible. While it’s true that the early 1970s was a sexually freer, more liberal time, and that Pamela Des Barres was never anyone’s victim, our fascination with the bad boys of rock remains undimmed. We love them as rogues; for living the untamed life that most of us never will. We view them through Savile’s famous rose-tinted spectacles.

Sable Starr died three years ago, aged 51. She’d grown up to live the straight life, raising two children, but she remains publicly defined by her past as one of rock’s super groupies. Johnny Thunders is remembered as the legendary New York Dolls guitarist, not the jealous boyfriend who mercilessly beat her up when she was not even 16. As for Iggy Pop, he tenderly recalls that he last saw Starr “in a back street with her looks half gone / She was selling something that I was on / Look away, look away.”