A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music And Cheap Lessons, by Ben Folds
From at least high school I have been somewhat fond of the music of Ben Folds, whether it has been with his pop-rock trio Ben Folds Five or his solo work (especially in Rocking The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman and the Over The Hedge soundtrack). Folds’ music tended to combine a witty, self-deprecating insight with a certain degree of sentimentality that I have always found appealing as someone who is somewhat divided between cerebral wit and sincere and deep sentiment in my own personal emotional life. In reading this book I found myself somewhat frustrated at Ben Folds because I do not believe he has used his obvious God-given gifts of observation and insight to make his life better. He comments often here about various aspects of his behavior (including frequent marriages and divorces and throwing tantrums) that demonstrate him to have considerable emotional immaturity, but he doesn’t show that he has moved beyond such things. It is easy enough to recognize where we may be flawed in certain areas of our lives but not know how to get beyond those roadblocks and overcome those shortcomings and the author clearly is in that stage of development, a prolonged adolescence of wisecracking and confessional writing that has not yet ended up in maturity.
This book is about 300 pages long and is divided into numerous sections and smaller chapters. The author frames his work, as one would expect, by talking about the role of music, and this begins with a series of chapters on his early life. He writes about his attempts to dominate his household as a child, his life caught between classes as an ambitious if poor child, and the lessons his father attempted to give him. He writes about the culture he grew up around in North Carolina as well as gives praise to his music teachers and talks about his own fraught educational experiences in Miami and UNC-Greensboro as well as his early work. There are some thoughtful discussions of the stories that led to some of his songs, and his belated recognition that he had lived out even some of the worst aspects of songs like “Mess” as he comments on the breakup of Ben Folds Five and of his numerous marriages. There are discussions of the music business and how he admits to having been a jerk in several ways, including in the process of recording his first album but not telling the original producer that the songs were being re-recorded. Both his touring for Ben Folds Five and his solo recording and work are given plenty of room here and the author reflects on how he is moving into a period as a legacy actor struggling with his health and reputation.
Where does Ben Folds go from here? It’s hard to predict the future, but looking at the past, we can assume that even as a legacy act Ben Folds is going to provide some good music. Whether he continues to play familiar songs from the past or write new songs ever few years as he has so far, it appears that music is an essential aspect of Folds’ life so far, and if he stopped playing music he would likely need another creative outlet, such as the writing that this book represents, in order to preserve the internal equilibrium that results from his self-expression. The author’s worrisome tendency to impulsively marry and separate/divorce is troubling, as it has already contributed to his children having the sad experience of broken homes. And that is not even getting into the cringeworthy way that the author viewed his high school girlfriend’s abortion as a cheap lesson that didn’t cost him any limbs when it cost his murdered unborn child everything. Ben Folds could stand to use some greater empathy and understanding of the way his own life and how he has lived it has affected others. Perhaps less wit and more deep soul searching would be appropriate, and hopefully this book and its reception is a start on that necessary work.