29 November 2011

A retrospective

This is me in 1997.

You can tell it’s 1997, as I am wearing an extra-large RENT t-shirt (to obscure my size four frame) and a white ribbon in my hair. Oh, and of course, my bershon refusal to look at the camera for the photo. I mean, of course. I was fourteen.

Anyway, that’s me specifically on Christmas in 1997, which is the year I received a life-defining Christmas present: Ben Folds Five’s album Whatever and Ever Amen. On CD, because iPods were barely a twinkle in Mr. Jobs’s eye, rest his soul. I’d requested that CD because that autobiographical song about teenage abortion really matched that grunge-emo thing I had going on and, as a pianist myself, I was excited about hearing an album of piano rock that wasn’t Elton John or Billy Joel.

I fell in love with Ben Folds with that album. Not the man himself, but the music. The talent, in songwriting and in performance. I went on to buy the original self-titled Ben Folds Five album and later albums as they were released. Every single one. Yes, even Fear of Pop, Volume 1, the redheaded stepchild of Ben Folds albums. You see how I could relate.

In 1999, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner was released. It was the first major album Ben had released since I first became a fan, so you better believe I was nearly hyperventilating over it. At this point, I was now a high schooler wearing more appropriately-fitting clothes and friends with a bunch of boys who played in a punk rock band. I liked my upbeat, anti-establishment music. So I admit I was a little sad to discover that lot of the album was slow, missing the pep on the first two albums, maybe even a touch prog-rock. But I stuck with Ben Folds and his vision, because I still heard the exceptional talent in his songs, and also because I could be endlessly entertained when my ska band friends played the horn riffs from “Army”.

In 2001, I was bummed to discover that Ben Folds Five had broken up, by way of Ben releasing the solo album Rockin’ the Suburbs on the perhaps portentous date of 9/11/01. Solo? I felt like it could be the end of an era, of my six-year adoration for Mr. Folds and all he could produce. But after listening to the album, I was delighted to discover that the album consisted entirely of Ben layering his own tracks – vocals, piano, guitars, drums – over and over creating a digital masterpiece that was 100% his own talent. For the rest of college (which, for me, was the era before “indie” was hip) I eschewed the Top 40 in favor of all Ben Folds, all the time. His Live album came out, then his EPs, one per year. It was a constant stream of New Ben Folds Music. I have no idea what songs were released between 2001 and 2005 that were not composed by Ben Folds.

A few years later, I interviewed for graduate school here in Nashville, and discovered rather serendipitously after arriving that there would be a master class with Ben Folds happening that very Saturday evening, on that very campus. This was it: my chance to finally see Ben Folds on stage. I quickly changed my plans to drive home from my interview a day later, killed time in Nashville, and stood in line with a slew of undergrads waiting to enter the music school’s auditorium, all bunched up in their groups of friends, who had also heard the news that Ben was essentially performing a free concert. I stood there in the January snow, lonely but full of resolve... and oh, how it was worth it. It was just Ben, his Baldwin piano, his insight on how to write a good song, and a smattering of song performances – including new songs off his not-yet-released Songs for Silverman. I became a little angry when the question-and-answer session devolved into “Can you play this song?” “Can you play that song?” from the undergrads in the audience. The only question that seemed fitting to me was, “How are you so talented?”

After I chose to attend graduate school in Nashville, I learned that living in the same city as Ben Folds has its opportunities. For one, I got to see Ben Folds on stage twice more in my first year of graduate school. Here’s where I stood behind the Ryman for hours after a concert, hoping to meet Ben, but instead just meeting his bandmates. In the end it’s probably best. There was nothing to say to Ben to convey the depths of my fandom without sounding ridiculous or creepy or most likely both.

But the other great reason to live in Nashville, as a Ben Folds fan? There were a bunch of other Ben Folds fans in this town, too. Some of the people in that photo are friends I made in grad school by bonding with Ben Folds. The girl in the front, in the black jacket? That’s Lil’ C. We became good friends through a mutual love of Ben. Years later, she was my maid of honor.

But other fans could be found online, back when Facebook was in its infancy and there were “groups” instead of “fans” or “likes” and communication within those groups was restricted to the students of that university only. Ben sightings around Nashville were reported on the Facebook group page for my university, and I lamented that I had yet to spot Ben. I then got a message back from a fellow graduate student, saying that his friends used to live next door to Ben, so he saw him then. I wrote back admitting my jealousy and introducing myself. He wrote back to introduce himself – a graduate student in math. We became friends.

That spring, Ben Folds performed at an outdoor music festival at our university. I went with Lil’ C and my new math friend. He had killer blue eyes.

In 2007 I started dating that friend.

The following year, Way to Normal was released. It was then that I was faced with the truth: all these years, through all these albums since my introduction to Ben Folds Five, I’d missed the energetic, banging piano rock on the original album. As much as I told myself “but listen to the talent!” on all the other albums, I craved Original Ben. And that’s why Way to Normal, to me, couldn’t be more aptly named: it’s the Ben I’d missed for the last decade. I put the tracks on my iPod and listened to nothing at work but that album, over and over, for a week. Fifty straight hours of Way to Normal. That album was my way to Normal Ben. And if that had been the last album he ever released, it would have been a fitting goodbye.

Just a few weeks later, while riding the Way to Normal high, I learned that Ben Folds would be playing with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. I’d owned and re-watched the DVD of Ben playing with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra over and over. This was my dream concert, the concert that I had always wanted to see and knew that if I ever saw it, I’d never need to go to another concert again. I bought tickets immediately. I went with my now-boyfriend, the one I met through a shared appreciation of Ben Folds.

At the concert I got to hear performances of the old much-loved songs as well as songs that had been released just weeks earlier. There was a vocal chorus for “Cologne”. There were real horns on “Army”, not just the crowd singing the two parts. There were strings on “The Luckiest”. After that, I found I was right: I haven’t been to a Ben Folds concert since. I haven’t needed to.

In 2009 I got engaged to the friend with the killer blue eyes. I rocked out to Ben’s album of universities singing his songs a capella, another stunning display of musicality, as I drove to work, looking at my new sparkly engagement ring. And in 2010 I married my fellow Ben Folds fan. My mother-in-law actually wrote an invitation to Ben Folds asking him to sing at our rehearsal dinner. I can’t really blame him for turning down the request, as sincere as it was. But I also can’t blame her for trying.

With a husband in the house, the television was on more frequently, and that’s how I learned that Ben Folds was – and had been, the previous year – a judge on a network reality show. And I will admit that I hated that when I heard it. Yes, Ben has always been slightly under the mega pop culture radar, with a group of dedicated fans, never the mainstream fandom that he had with as “Brick”. I thought maybe he wished for that sort of fame again. But I didn’t want him to “stoop” to reality television. I didn’t want my teenage years, my college years, my grad school years, my reason for finding my husband cheapened by participation in a dumb reality show.

Despite my misgivings, I watched it. And it was incredible. I was wrong. Ben wasn’t selling out. Instead he gave true musical critique. He helped the performers on the show to develop true musicianship. He showed the television audience, this is what musical talent looks like. Not pop idol, not America’s Got Talent. He wrote about musical criticism, too, to instruct beyond his thirty-second soundbites. So along with being entertained by the show, I was heartened and relieved to know that Ben is still the same quirky talented performer that he was when I first listened in 1997. But now, I watch him with my husband, who I met only because of my longtime Ben Folds fandom.

Last night was this season’s finale of the Sing-Off. My favorite group won! Maybe you are thinking that it seems silly to use a season finale of a tepidly-rated television show as an excuse to be so retrospective... but you know what? I defend my dissertation today. And about half of this blog post chronology took place while I was working on this degree, which I started working on in 2005. This is a good time for looking back, for thinking about how I got here, and for being grateful for all the inspiration along the way.

I think a lot of people have a musician whose music defines the phases of their life. And for all the new phases I’ve got coming up, with Lil’ C, with Mr. P? I’ll be rocking out to Mr. Folds then, too.


Christal said...

You've made me a little teary-eyed. I owe Ben Folds so very much. Thanks for your priceless friendship, dear one! (And Congratulations for today, the culmination of years of your intense marathon!)