Tagged: Little Richard

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

The Great Australian Songbook IV (20-11)

Now it starts to get hard! This is where I start to become ultra-conscious of who and what’s getting left out. The songs get harder to put in any kind of order. And I haven’t made it any easier for myself – I found I’d written Nick Cave’s The Mercy Seat down twice in my initial list of 40 (hmm – should that make it higher?), meaning I now have to find an entirely new song that’s magically going to vault straight into my top 20! Choices, choices…

20. BILLY THORPE & THE AZTECS – Most People I Know Think That I’m Crazy (1972)

This wasn’t the song, by the way. I always had this one in here. (I won’t cheapen which one it actually is by revealing it.) But, in short: what a wonderful chord progression this is, and what a great lyric, that anyone who’s ever got shitfaced in a bar with their friends should be able to relate to. Don’t we all, deep down, feel a little crazy as we try to navigate our way through a world we never asked to be born into? To be honest, I struggle to understand the fuss about much of Thorpie’s catalogue, but props to him for this brilliant common touch.

19. HOODOO GURUS – Like Wow Wipeout! (1985)

This one is all about the beat, hammered home by a human metronome called Mark Kingsmill (Richard’s older brother). Two chords and a chorus that rhymes “walk” and “talk” do the rest. But that beat! It’s a stomp made for football stadiums, and though the Hoodoo Gurus didn’t quite reach that level of success, it’s true that for a while, cricket fans would hold up placards reading “Like Wow Wipeout!”, usually after a six was struck in a one-day game. As a humbled Dave Faulkner noted, the real stars in Australia are our sports heroes anyway.

18. HUNTERS & COLLECTORS – Throw Your Arms Around Me (1984; re-recorded 1986)

A lot of folks would have this higher, and I can understand why. Crowded House recognised its potential by making it a staple of their live shows for years, but had too much respect for the song to even attempt recording it. (Of course, the Crowdies may have been biased; their bass player Nick Seymour was the brother of the song’s author Mark.) Eddie Vedder and Ben Harper have also covered it. So why wasn’t this now beloved tune a hit? It’s true that both the 1984 single and 1986 album recordings, by radio standards of the day, are rough and ready, and that probably cruelled Throw Your Arms Around Me’s chances at the time. But that surely says more about the tin ears of the fools that made such dumb decisions. Really, how could anyone not like this song?

17. SUNNYBOYS – Alone With You (1981)

Like Throw Your Arms Around Me, this song touches with its directness. But whereas the former track is a timeless soul ballad that wouldn’t have sounded out of place if recorded by Otis Redding or Wilson Pickett in the 1960s, the Sunnyboys were fans of the Kinks, the Remains and Radio Birdman, and the urgency of Alone With You is a reflection of that. Jeremy Oxley was a prodigy until tragically cut down by illness: his lyrics are straight to the point, he wore his heart on his sleeve, and his voice is effortlessly warm and natural. And just when you think this magical song can’t get any better – having already somehow found room for not one but two solos, with not a note wasted – he uncorks a third, pealing effort to take the song out. Wow.

16. RUSSELL MORRIS – The Real Thing (1969)

If you were under the misapprehension that Johnny Young was just that prat from Young Talent Time and that Molly Meldrum’s contribution to Australian music began and ended with Countdown, you need to hear this amazing song. Written by Young, produced by Meldrum, and sung/spoken in tongues by Russell Morris with unusual fervour, is this a hippy anthem or proto-punk madness? I’m not sure, but Little Richard would be proud of this inspired nonsense: “Come and see the real thing, come and see the real thing. Oo-mow-ma-mow-mow, oo-mow-ma-mow-mow.” Confused? Don’t worry, Morris can explain: “There’s meaning there, but the meaning there doesn’t really mean a thing.” (And get well, Molly.)

15. THE CHURCH – Under The Milky Way (1988)

Like the Only Ones’ Another Girl, Another Planet, or the Stranglers’ Golden Brown, or Johnny Thunders’ more direct Chinese Rocks, this could be an ode to heroin, which singer/bassist/writer Steve Kilbey has admitted to having a passionate relationship with. Or maybe that’s just a thought implanted by this song’s opaque, narcotic haze. It drifts blissfully by in a wash of 12-string acoustic splendour, with Kilbey murmuring gently in your ear like a slightly more stoned Lou Reed, with not even an e-bow solo destroying the effect (that’s the one that makes Peter Koppes’ guitar sound like bagpipes). After that unexpectedly noisy interlude, you’re back in a stoned stupor, Kilbey’s whispering again, and a more conventional but even more psychedelic guitar solo – with just a hint of wah-wah this time – drops you gently back to earth.

14. ARCHIE ROACH – Took The Children Away (1990)

“This story’s right, this story’s true. I would not tell lies to you.” And with that declaration, Archie Roach tells you his story, and the story of his people, with such quiet, understated hurt that the challenge for the listener is to get to the end of the song without weeping. It succeeds for two reasons: Roach’s words forced white people to imagine – as Paul Keating noted we failed to do, in his famous Redfern Speech two years later – these things being done to us. But songs don’t work as essays or speeches, even when they’re this well written. The real power comes from Roach’s beautiful singing: full of humility, grace, and unspeakable pain, it never forces itself on the listener. But it compelled a nation to listen and – eventually – say sorry.

13. THE REELS – Quasimodo’s Dream (1981)

A mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a riddle, Quasimodo’s Dream – which writer Dave Mason has disparaged as “just complete rubbish when you listen to it” – doesn’t seem to add up to anything. That hasn’t kept other singers and songwriters including Jimmy Little (who gave it several new dimensions) and Kate Ceberano (who missed the mark with an upbeat dance pop/big band approach) from going back to it, trying to tease something fresh from its haunting, otherworldly beauty. The key to its effectiveness is the tender conviction which Mason invests in those spooked, baffling lyrics, making this slow, sparse song sound clammy and claustrophobic. Whatever you end up making of it, once heard, it never leaves you.

12. THE GO-BETWEENS – Cattle And Cane (1983)

Written on a battered acoustic guitar belonging to Nick Cave while the Go-Betweens were squatting with the Birthday Party in dank London, Cattle And Cane is nonetheless the ultimate expression of their “striped sunlight sound”. Its acoustic/electric texture and tension – thanks largely to Lindy Morrison’s quirky, shifting time signatures – created, as bass player Robert Vickers noted, a song that was “complex but also memorable, which is an almost impossible thing in music”. Every part works, even the perfectly weighted bass solo that underpins the guitar break, with the late, great Grant McLennan’s gorgeous, heartfelt vignettes of growing up in north Queensland front and centre. Has a singer ever had more sincere eyebrows than this man?

11. THE BEE GEES – Spicks And Specks (1966)

What do you say about this? Younger generations have the introductory piano theme tattooed on their brains, thanks to the ABC’s long-running and much loved music trivia show; older Australians will never have forgotten it. The military march of the drums and punchy arrangement, topped off by a trumpet finale, never swamps the best harmony pop/boy band Australia ever produced. It’s too bad that their lack of success in Australia at the time forced the Brothers Gibb to return to their native England in late 1966 – while still at sea, they found out Spicks And Specks had become their first number one hit.