There was a time—months—where I couldn’t get through The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner without crying. As a junior in college, there were several things I couldn’t get through without crying back then (the angst of puberty hit me very late—I needed your “punk rock for sissies” very much in 1999), but nothing really got me going like that album. I’d put it on in my bedroom while I attempted to write a paper, but the by time “Mess” was transitioning to “Magic,” I’d have my head down on my desk, sobbing quietly so my roommate wouldn’t hear me. You sounded so sad—my friends and I would say to each other, “Ben’s not okay,” our eyes bright with worry. You were simply “Ben” to us by then; we had all dispensed with formalities.
It feels like you’ve always been there as the background soundtrack to my everything, but there is a very bright line between Before Ben Folds (BBF; 1978–1996) and After Ben Folds (ABF; 1997–?). The first of your songs I ever heard was, like a lot of people, “Brick,” which was released right around my 19th birthday, and I have to be honest: I didn’t love it. A freshman in college, but not yet quite given over to the indie rock nerd I would become, I listened to the hard rock station in Pittsburgh almost exclusively and groaned every time your sad, slow song came on. Was it about abortion? Maybe? Did it matter? I didn’t know. Over Thanksgiving break, I went back to work at the flower shop where I spent most of high school working, and the most unlikely person answered those questions for me. My boss’ boyfriend Jim, a big lovable guy who listened almost exclusively to classic rock, defended “Brick” to me when it came on the radio. Fifteen years older than me, maybe the lyrics hit him in a place I couldn’t yet fathom. Or maybe he just had better taste. Whatever it was, Jim made me take a better listen to you. Thanks, Jim.
I don’t remember when I bought my first Ben Folds Five album, and I can’t remember if I bought Ben Folds Five or Whatever and Ever Amen first, but it doesn’t really matter because I fell in love with you head over piano-rock heels. By summer 1998, I was watching you at the Y100 FEZ-tival in Camden, NJ, completely mesmerized as you slammed your piano/drum stool, against the front of your piano, hitting the keys so hard at the end of “Jackson Cannery” that all 10 years of piano lessons in me winced. You were an animal that warm Sunday afternoon in June. I loved it.
I fell for you all over again when you released Rockin’ the Suburbs. Oh, I mourned hard when I heard that Ben Folds Five had broken up. But then! Then there was this gift of your solo album and suddenly it was all going to be okay. I think I listened most obsessively to this one; to me, it represents growing up in so many ways. I had just graduated from college and was working at my first of many dead-end jobs, living with the man who would become my husband. Rockin’ the Suburbs was released on September 11, 2001—do you ever think about that? At first I had to make myself listen to the CD, pull myself away from the news and conspiracy theories on the internet, but it became a balm of sorts to me during that time, those first notes of “Annie Waits” ringing out and lifting me out of whatever funk I found myself in. You sounded so much happier on this album; I was happy for you. It seemed like you were maybe finally settled, wife and kids. I felt myself sliding into that stage of life as well. Four years later, my husband and I had our first dance at our wedding to “The Luckiest.” We sang “Still Fighting It” as a lullaby to both our sons when they were babies.
As with all love stories, there are ups and there are downs—I don’t have to tell you that, do I? Has anyone ever taken you to task over “Bad Idea?” It’s the only song of yours I refuse to listen to and won’t let my kids hear. The R-word, man. Why? I get that it was 1996 and things were different, but even when I first heard the song during that wretched movie it was in I cringed. Now, as a parent of a kid with special needs, I just can’t even, you know? I once interviewed Adam Horovitz when he and Amery Smith were touring as BS 2000 and asked him what he thought about all the misogynistic lyrics the Beastie Boys wrote. It wasn’t a terribly original question, but he still answered it passionately, saying he was embarrassed by his younger self and regretted those songs and that they would never perform them live again. I don’t think you perform “Bad Idea” anymore but have you ever been asked about it? What would you say?
Ben, I feel like you and I have grown up together, despite you being 12 years my senior. I haven’t even gotten to your other solo albums or the recently reunited Ben Folds Five record (record! Good work, you!), or So There (I’m getting into it…slowly) or your TV appearances (bad fan; I haven’t really watched much). Your music has matured as you’ve gotten older—the last time I saw you play it was in front of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra (it certainly made me feel mature watching that performance), and I recently watched an interview with you on CBS’ Sunday Morning (because I’m at a stage in my life where I religiously watch CBS’ Sunday Morning)—but it always manages to weave itself into my life in ways the girl who hated “Brick” could never have imagined. Thanks for being with me all these years.
P.S. I once watched a karaoke DJ in the Denver, Colorado suburbs absolutely and un-ironically kill it on “Rockin’ the Suburbs.” You know that growly part at the end? He was the embodiment of it. I think you would have loved the whole thing.
Still Fighting It