When musicians write memoirs, the chapters in which fame kicks in are usually both the best part and the beginning of the end. Tales of backstage debauchery are a reader’s reward for slogging through endless reminiscences about a singer’s childhood pets or their parents’ divorce.
But fame has a distancing effect as well. Once artists play their first sold-out show, or sign their first record deal, or spend their first holiday in Biarritz with Mick and Bianca, they are no longer relatable human beings whose experiences in earlier chapters — childhood crushes, bullies, trouble at school — mirror our own.
It’s an unbridgeable gap, one that Ben Folds, a singer, pianist and musical Everyman whose relatability seems to have been factory-issued, does his best to navigate in his engaging and solid new memoir, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons.” To Folds, his brief flirtation with stardom was numbing and ridiculous.
“Lightning Bugs” is partly a meditation on creativity (“At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you,” Folds writes, “and putting it in a jar, to share with others”), and partly a plain-spoken memoir. It’s about as pure an extension of Folds’ naturalistic musical voice as it’s possible to get, light on drugs (only briefly alluded to), sex (ditto) and scandal (once, during a “Late Show” appearance, Folds threw his piano stool and upset David Letterman, and Folds was mildly upset that he was upset. That’s about it for scandal).
The book traces Folds’ musical pilgrimage, from childhood piano lessons in his native North Carolina to his days as a lederhosen-wearing teenager playing polka samples in a German restaurant. After unsuccessful attempts to land a record deal in Nashville, Tenn., and New York City, he returned to North Carolina. He was soon to turn 30, which is the worst thing that can happen to a musician.
Within weeks, he formed what would become his breakout band, Ben Folds Five, with local musicians Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge, whom he hardly knew. Within a year, they were cutting a debut album so terrible, Folds writes, it made someone who worked with the band cry.
Still, Folds knew they were onto something. The ’80s hair band scare had given way to the post-Nirvana, underground-misfits-go-pop vibe of the mid-’90s. Frontmen no longer needed to be mythic, heroic figures. They were free to be vulnerable and uncool and awkward, few more so than Ben Folds Five, a trio with no guitars, centered on a piano — “middle-class living room furniture.”
The trio never reached Beyoncé levels of fame, but for Folds, their early success was still rough going. Making music was easy enough, but industry glad-handing proved difficult. “The social part, the immersion in quasi-fame, sent my soul running for the recesses of my skull, where it crouched in hiding for years.” It got worse: The band’s second album had a single that landed. “Brick” was a wrenching piano ballad detailing Folds’ girlfriend’s teenage abortion. One of the unlikeliest songs to become a hit, its success was semi-scandalous in 1997, and unthinkable today.
For Folds, fame, as expected, was a bummer. He doesn’t remember much of Ben Folds Five’s post-”Brick” ride, he writes, “and what I remember mostly makes me sad.” The trio never followed up “Brick” with another big hit, and they eventually broke up by email. Their reunion a few years later is scarcely mentioned.
Folds’ post-Five life has been a musically omnivorous one. He has released solo albums, collaborated with William Shatner, been an artistic adviser to the Kennedy Center, and served as a judge on the NBC a cappella show “The Sing-Off.”
According to Folds, the constant restless motion of music-making was a way to avoid deeper issues: He was good at music but bad at life. He worked himself into ill health to avoid facing his chaotic inner self and married repeatedly; the book doesn’t even mention his fourth wife by name. “I didn’t know yet what drove this pattern of marriage and divorce, or my workaholism, the sleeplessness, or the dreaded gnawing anxiety I felt each morning before facing the day,” Folds writes. “But I knew it had real consequences.”
Folds eventually moved to Santa Monica and dealt with his demons with a yearslong process of self-actualization that included Pilates, meditation and therapy.