“Seconds pass slowly, and years go flying by,” a twenty-something Ben Folds sings on “Jackson Cannery,” the opening track of his 1995 debut with Ben Folds Five. Nearly 25 years later — a quarter century! — those lines have a deeper meaning for the 52-year-old singer-songwriter. “I’ve always felt we were time-dumb, time-gullible,” he tells PEOPLE. “That’s what makes storytelling through songs so interesting. A song lasts three or four minutes and can imply one second, or one year. Not many songs cover a precise four minutes in someone’s life. I think to appreciate that makes songs even more miraculous. An entire life can be evoked with the right combination of notes and words, in a second or two.”
Folds’ mammoth reputation as the virtuosic, stool-throwing, “Miserlou”-banging Jimi Hendrix of piano has often eclipsed his formidable talent as an immensely gifted lyrical narrator. Whether he’s writing as a Japanese businessman in the midst of a mid-life crisis, an Archie Bunker-ish uncle, a lecherous mall cop, Muhammad Ali, or his own ex, he brings characters to life with a novelist’s eye for detail. Even when he’s critical, he treats these figures with compassion, empathy and dignity. On the other hand, he can be refreshingly frank and self-aware when cataloging his own foibles, all while making us feel less guilty about our own.
His lyrics made it obvious that he had a book in him, and last week it finally arrived. His new memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs, is an insightful, touching and often hilarious look back at his life and career, told with wit and good old-fashioned Southern warmth — like Truman Capote, but with more F-bombs. The title comes from a childhood dream of catching lightning bugs in jars and holding them up for all to see. The idyllic image became a personal touchstone for Folds, crystalizing his view of the artist’s job: to share what often goes unnoticed. It continues to drive his creativity. “I begin by going towards what glows — like fireflies. A melody, a piece of an idea. A clue. And then trying to capture that,” he says. “It’s a process of course. The bottling, like fishing, like building, like any kind of imaginative work, can be tough, but when you catch it in a bottle it’s great!”
Throughout the book, Folds attempts to demystify the process of creation and illustrate that it’s open to anyone who wants to chase their own fireflies. “I hope that [the book] speaks to artists who aren’t artists as an occupation,” he explains. “Artists who are locksmiths, teachers, farmers, lawyers, whatever. I mention Charles Ives for that reason, an insurance man who ended up being one of our beloved composers from the 20th century. I hope it speaks to how life informs art, but just as importantly how art — its technique, its flow — can inform how we live life.”
Life is the summation of experience, both good and bad, and in A Dream About Lightning Bugs, Folds doesn’t hold back about the wrong turns, stumbles and falls that brought him here. They’re what his father Dean refers to as “cheap lessons”: harsh enough to scar, but not to kill. “If I had to be open, vulnerable, and tell something that made me cringe in order to serve the greater purpose, then I just sucked it up,” he admits.
Just as good and bad moments make a life, good and bad songs make a musician. Folds writes of hearing great works by Scott Joplin, Stevie Wonder and Elliott Smith. He also speaks at length about “The Chicken Dance.” Both are significant to a man who’s soaked up sounds like a sponge since birth. “There’s a time for listening. A lot of listening. As I say in the book, I was listening to music for eight hours a day at 2 years old. That’s corroborated by my mother, who didn’t know what to do with that. You must listen. Listen with your heart and think later. As you get more skilled at music, it’s more difficult to put the brain away for the listening. The brain is for telling you why you liked something. It’s important to analyze what led to the feeling. This way you can help navigate that trip to a finished piece of music using your mind when you need it. And you’ll need it. So listening is good for both. When you write, I think you should not concern yourself with whether or not you’ve heard something. Tell your truth.”
As you may expect, A Dream About Lightning Bugs is crammed with enough music references to warrant a sizable playlist, filled with songs written by himself and others. Read on for Folds’ thoughts and memories about 10 selected tracks.
1. “The Girl Can’t Help It” by Little Richard
The first sound we “hear” in the book is, appropriately enough, a killer piano track from the dawn of rock ‘n’ roll.
“It brings up the feeling of the dusty floor where I listened to records. And I immediately see grey sweatpants passing — my father’s.”
2. “Maple Leaf Rag” by Scott Joplin
Some artists were moved to make music after seeing the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For Folds, it was watching fellow second grader (and future wife) Anna Goldman wailing on a ragtime number at school. The formative moment ignited a desire to both rock out on other people’s songs and get his own down on paper.
“I had songs in my head and I would have loved to be able to play what I was hearing. But at that moment, when I saw Anna play, it was about just putting fingers on keyboard and making something sound that great.”
3. “Hotel California” by the Eagles
Melodies were often enough to transfix the budding musician, but Folds cites this 1977 Eagles classic as a crucial track that alerted him to the power of lyrical poetry.
“I was more familiar with R&B music of the ’60s. That was more direct. I loved that. I also was thrilled by this ambiguous approach in ‘Hotel California.’ Really, I’d have benefitted from being exposed to more real poetry, but I was getting the idea through rock music.”
4. “Fusion Juice” by Jeff Lorber Fusion
A scholarship to study drums at the University of Miami seemed to be Folds’ ticket into the music industry, but then a bully and some booze intervened. A drunken brawl meant that he was dropped off to his practical exam in a cop cruiser with a severely injured hand. In a move out of Whiplash, his unsympathetic professor forced him to sit this Jeff Lorber Fusion song anyway. The results were less than stellar. In pain, and painfully aware that his scholarship was blown, he tossed drum kit into a nearby pond in a fit of rage. Keith Moon would have approved.
“Total transparency: I can still play this tune on piano … or a little of it.”
5. “Beer Barrel Polka” by Frankie Yankovic
Folds’ first regular music job was working as a one-man polka band at a German restaurant in his home state of North Carolina. Clad in Bavarian lederhosen and armed with an early sampler machine, he honed his performance chops as he cycled through the handful of polkas he knew — including this one. He wasn’t the most inspiring gig, but it allowed him to save money to enroll at the University of North Carolina at Greenboro. More importantly, it afforded him time during the daylight hours to work on new songs.
“Wow. What can be said. I’ll never un-learn this melody.”
6. “Swanee River” (a.k.a. “Old Folks at Home”) by Stephen Foster
Folds devotes a full chapter in his book to shouting out teachers who made contributions to his musical development. But a special place is reserved for Robert Darnell, a professor at the UNC-G who spotted, and subsequently nurtured, his talent on the piano.
“It’s a tune everyone knew, so I was asked to play it from memory by my piano teacher — then add my own harmony. It was my first real deep music lesson — in college.”
7. “Pants” by Randy Newman
With a gift for melody, penchant for satirical lyrics and a rebellious streak a mile wide, it’s easy to see why Folds might have something of a kinship with Newman.
“That’s not my favorite Randy Newman song! But I saw him do this on TV and later, as I did television as a singing-songwriting pianist, I began to assume he chose that song for the same reason that I’ve often gravitated towards silliness on TV. It feels like nuance evaporates over TV. It doesn’t feel like it will be absorbed or remembered. It’s a promotional exercise for which I’m grateful! (It sells records.) But it does feel like the best move is to just be an idiot. Sitting at a piano singing something slow seems like channel changing stuff, doesn’t it? Even if the song is great. It’s now what we’re conditioned to watch on TV.”
8. “Living for the City” by Stevie Wonder
A quick scope of the musical scene in the early ’90s revealed a troubling array of artists who churned out a seemingly unrelenting string of steeped in rage. The one-note message began to grate on Folds, who looked instead to artists like Stevie Wonder who embraced a broader spectrum of emotion and the human experience.
“Love this song. I mentioned it as an angry song of Stevie’s — or an edgy one, at least. He wrote love songs and fun songs. In the ’90s everyone just started doing one gear. There were so many 24/7 anger bands. It was big business, mostly performed for and by middle class suburbanites. Makes you think about 2016.”
9. “It Hasn’t Happened Yet” by William Shatner
Folds’ 2004 collaborative album with Shatner was a long time in the making. Even as a young, unknown composer he harbored ambitions to work with the Star Trek icon, sending hopeful letters to his agent. These notes went unanswered, but the pair finally teamed up in 1998 when Folds was working on his Fear of Pop side-project during a break in BFF sessions. Shatner added spoken word verses to “In Love,” playing a lecherous older man who’d read up on ’90s new age material in an effort to seduce women. The one-track partnership would evolve into a full-fledged album, Has Been, six years later. Folds co-wrote and produced the LP, and also learned a valuable lesson about the concept of “cool” from the actor.
“I described this in the book better than I could in a moment here. I even made it into play form to get it across, like he was Socrates. He taught me many things. One thing was to stop worrying about whether something was ‘cool’ or not. Not that I felt overly concerned with that. But we rock musicians used the word for everything. He wanted me to use other words — expand my vocabulary a bit haha. And to be specific and not confuse ‘good’ music with ‘cool’ music. Possibly two different things
10. “Boxing” by Ben Folds Five
And finally, a track written solely by the man himself. Begun as a teenager, it ultimately surfaced as the closing track on Ben Folds Five’s self-titled debut in 1995.
“At the time, I felt freedom in writing a waltz. I was learning my voice. I was learning to write a waltz about an old man using boxing metaphors, as opposed to writing about what everyone else was writing about. I’m not sure what that even was, probably mostly about girl trouble or how someone else did something bad to you, or how you would be proven right in the end. You know, rock stuff. I felt very rebellious going my own way and this song represented that for me. I wrote most of this before I was 20.”