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Floating drums and lederhosen: Ben Folds’ musical journey
Hari Sreenivasan: Singer-songwriter Ben Folds first came to prominence in the 1990s as the leader of the band-- "Ben Folds Five" -- which, in keeping with the particular brand of humor that runs in and out of his work - had only three members.
Now Folds has added "Author" to his resumé, and he recently sat down with NewsHour Weekend's Tom Casciato to discuss his new memoir.
Ben Folds (singing): And so Annie waits Annie waits Annie waits for a call.
Tom Casciato: You might have been able to predict Ben Folds at fifty two if you had known Ben Folds at two.
Ben Folds: When I was two years old I was listening to eight hours of music a day.
Tom Casciato: Seriously?
Ben Folds: Yes.
Tom Casciato: And what were the records? Do you remember what you were listening to?
Ben Folds: Yeah. Oh I remember them. I remember Sam and Dave "Hold On I'm Coming." I remember that one.
Sam and Dave (singing): Hold on. Hold on.
Ben Folds: Otis Redding. Little Richard records, which I loved. He was so off the hook and exploding with insanity.
Little Richard (sings): Wop bop a loo bop a lop ... Aaaagghh
Ben Folds: I was taken to a child psychologist about this. He came to the conclusion that I -- I should be kept back in school, that I was slow. But I know that my mother says that she came back feeling like the doctor was wrong, and that I was just creative.
Tom Casciato: His mom, Scotty - whose picture once graced the sleeve of a Ben Folds Five single - was only 21 at the time. But she was old enough to be right about her son.
It's all spelled out in Folds's new memoir, which he signed for fans before a recent show. It's called A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons. In it he's generous with praise for those who inspired him during his North Carolina childhood.
Tom Casciato: You named your good teachers in your book.
Ben Folds: Yes. Because my good teachers changed my life.
Tom Casciato: And yet, you write about being on the verge of being kicked out all the time or --
Ben Folds: Yeah.
Tom Casciato: -- being a D student.
Ben Folds: I was alternately awful and well ahead. I was crawlin' out the window, I was skippin' school all the time. And skipped school in, like, tenth grade and came up, uh, to New York with my friend. I mean, it's dangerous. People, like, offering you drugs and taking you to strip clubs, right, in-- in-- in the middle of uh -- you know. I was kinda young for that.
Ben Folds (singing): It's okay. You don't have to pay. I've got all the change.
Tom Casciato: For all that, his book offers fans no rock star tale of drugs and groupies. Nor does it brim with intimate stories of his four marriages, or his being the father of twins. Rather, it's about a wise-guy kid with an ear for melody who brought a punk sensibility to the kind of group that had never had one: the piano trio. But this punk also wrote astute pop lyrics in the everyday language his fans could relate to.
Ben Folds (singing): ... cause everybody knows it sucks to grow up. And
And everybody does. So weird to be back here.
Ben Folds: It was important for me to strip away the formality of songs,.Rose are Red, Violets are Blue, yeah, girl you 're -- That's just -- that stuff just gets in the way.
Ben Folds (singing): She's a brick and I'm drowning slowly.
Tom Casciato: Some of his songs are autobiographical.
Ben Folds: My girlfriend and I, pregnant in high school, and we went and got an abortion all by ourselves. We didn't tell adults. We were all alone. And I wrote about a song about that later.
Ben Folds (singing): They call her name at seven-thirty. I pace around the parking lot. And I walk down to buy her flowers.
Tom Casciato: That song was called "Brick." it was the one that put Ben Folds Five on the map in 1997. But we're getting ahead. For now he had an education to complete. And while young Ben's academic record may have been spotty, his musical talent was never in doubt. He got a full scholarship to study percussion at the University of Miami.
Ben Folds: I considered the school the doorway to the world where they made music. But I had a southern accent and at Miami they were all New York kids. I was so intimidated by that. And then so I come in with this drum set, which I paid precisely $27 for, I saved up for over a summer, which is an old plywood kit that was falling apart. The other kids had really nice drum sets. Uh, those things were horrifying to me. It was horrifying not to be dressed the right way. I didn't have the right t-shirt. Didn't have the right shoes. What I'm not so proud of is that I lost the scholarship because I got into somethin' that could be described as a fight but was more of me just gettin' myself beaten up really badly and goin' to the hospital all night.
Tom Casciato: A fellow student beat him up. Folds broke his hand on the wall trying to punch back.The next morning was his final exam.
Ben Folds: And I had been up all night. I had been drunk the night I got dropped off in a police car, blood still on -- on me. And I remember goin' up to the instructor. I was like,
"Can I take my test next week?" And he goes, "No." You know, they made me play my major test for the year now with a -- a broken hand. I knew I'd flunked the test. And I knew by flunkin' the test I had lost my scholarship. And threw my drum set in the lake at the moment that I realized that I flunked the test. Kid drama. I was very dramatic. But I got applause for throwin' 'em in the lake by all these kids who never gave me the time of day 'cause suddenly I had done somethin' that was funny and cool.
Tom Casciato: Folds's memoir describes how "cool" was hard to come by back in north carolina, where he got his first official gig: playing polkas in a german restaurant, for which he was required to dress the part.
Ben Folds: For a kid like, tryin' to look cool growin' up, you know, like, se-- 18 years old by this time, maybe 19. And my little skinny legs stickin' out of, like, legit German lederhosen playin' Beer Barrel Polka for old people. I wasn't gettin' laid that year.
Tom Casciato: The concept of cool--
Ben Folds: Yeah.
Tom Casciato: -- and being cool or not being cool runs in and out of your book.
Ben Folds: Yeah. In my era in the '90s, being cool was maybe about being miserable. Being cool was maybe about um, you know, a lotta dark-- lotta dark things, not takin' things too seriously.
Tom Casciato: Well, your -- your song title, "The Battle of Who Could Care Less."
Ben Folds: Yeah. Who could care less? Which of you is more cool than the other because you have so much apathy.
Ben Folds (singing): Do you not hear me any more. I know it's not your thing to care.
I know it's cool to be so bored.
Tom Casciato: And at one point you figured out that you really wanted to cultivate your own nerdiness.
Ben Folds: Uh-huh. When I was honest about my feelings about not being cool, that really seemed to resonate with people.
Ross Garren (singing): I was never cool in school.
Ben Folds: And I think I cultivated that then because I realized, Hey, I'm speakin' for like, 80, 90 percent of us who don't feel cool.
Tom Casciato: Besides offering insights into his work the book charts Ben Folds's course through more than two decades of ups and downs in the music business, including his having produced an album for William Shatner of Star Trek fame. And given that punk sensibility, his story features a reasonable amount of bad boy behavior along the way. Like the time he was on Australia's Midday Show in 1997.
Ben Folds: It was a very, very naïve show, innocent, way behind the times. Didn't realize that we had dirty words all in the song. And we just cussed our way through the song. At the end of it I threw my stool at the piano and stool bits went everywhere. Looked very violent, but it was showbiz. If you ever YouTube it it's hilarious 'cause I threw that stool, and then even to go-to-commercial break music sounds like somethin' from the '50s. It's like da da da da da da da da da da da. Like, it's just way out of time. But this was just shocking for the man who's piano it was, who happened to be the host of the show. And he was very upset.
Geoff Harvey: There's 47,000 fantastic Australian groups trying so hard to get on and we let them on because they are American, I don't know.
Tom Casciato: Later, says folds, he became friendly with the man whose piano he assaulted.
Ben Folds (singing): You were not the same after that. Walking ...
Ben Folds: You know, one of the things my parents could have done, if I was gonna give them a little advice as a 52-year-old back to a 25-year-old father, maybe a little discipline. Just a little bit.
Tom Casciato: For Ben Folds at 52, the onstage behavior is somewhat less raucous these days. Still performing before thousands, he's less likely to throw a stool than to conduct a singalong. Either way he's still making music his fans can relate to.