When Ben Folds was younger, he’d read through virtually every music magazine at his local 7-Eleven in Winston-Salem, N.C., trying to figure out where rock stars learned to be rock stars. Did they take piano or guitar lessons? Did they attend music college?
“It just wasn’t cool for a rock star to shout out to his music teacher,” Folds writes in his new autobiography, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, out Tuesday. “Rockers were supposed to be completely self-taught, rolling out of bed one day with messy hair and a bong, and suddenly—boom—they were the shit.”
But how did Gene Simmons actually become Gene Simmons? Folds attended band camp—did Simmons? Did he know what key “Calling Dr. Love” was in?
“Well, you could read all of the interviews you wanted to, they were never going to pull back the veil and let you sort of understand how they got there,” Folds tells Paste. “There was no sense of giving back. Before you can understand someone’s creative process, you have to understand where they came from and who they are.”
Understanding Ben Folds’ creativity is the crux of his book. Unlike the artists who hid their musical education and background while he was growing up, Folds wrote his memoir to tell that story: how he learned how to play instruments, why he stuck with it and what creativity truly means to him. Without that incredibly detailed background, he says it’s impossible to fully understand his career and his creative approaches. It’s why he mentions every music teacher from kindergarten through college by name, spelling out how every class and every music lesson led to his accomplished back catalogue. He doesn’t even mention the formation of Ben Folds Five until page 163 of 311.
“I spent way too much time on childhood for the pure reason that anything that was going to be understood about what I made, had to be seen through that lens,” he explains. “You have to understand who my father was. I think then it’s helpful to see how he was. If it’s interesting, and if it’s compelling towards the story of creativity, then it would remain. Then, stories of my life that are batshit crazy, those would be loads of fun to talk about and would be really entertaining, didn’t go in if it didn’t serve that purpose. If something was terribly uncomfortable, I didn’t want to talk about it. But if it did serve the purpose, I had to say it. I had to put it in.”
Those stories—which range from a chapter about walking to piano lessons in the snow to hanging out with elderly parapsychologist regulars at a German restaurant after his polka sets (his first regular music job) and a lot more in between—all serve the purpose of showing what actually led to Folds developing his own personal creative method and, in turn, influencing his own songwriting.
But it takes him a while to get there. Folds details his myriad music failures, including: getting kicked out of the University of Miami’s music school in spectacular fashion (after which he threw his drum kit in the campus lake); playing in cover groups and wedding bands; attempting, and failing, to make music careers in London, Nashville and New York; fronting multiple groups with no label interest; and signing and getting dropped from various publishing deals.
Each stop along the way made him who he is today. The book wouldn’t have been truthful without each story, as painful as they may be. And the process has been a rewarding one for Folds: He even suggests that everyone should write their own memoirs in their mid-40s. It helps you rediscover the truth in your own personal life, separating it from what you misremembered along the way, he says.
“You would find some stuff that you realized was fiction—I don’t care how honest you are,” he explains. “As it went along, I realized I was getting the job done even with the truth, even with the things that weren’t exaggerated.”
Even though the truth may have been painful, a lot of these individual stories led to specific lyrics in Folds’ back catalogue, many of which are inserted throughout this book.
For example, instead of telling the story behind Whatever and Ever Amen’s “Brick” (which he writes is detailed enough on its own), he instead tells the entire tale of his relationship with his first girlfriend, including the abortion the song is about, with a major focus on the aftermath. Exhausted from working two jobs, he almost flunked out of high school while trying to help her recover both physically and mentally. The story ends with him driving her to the hospital where upon her release, his car got totaled. The next week, he borrowed his mom’s Honda Civic, which was stolen that day. When his father told him to lie to the police and say he lost more valuable items than were actually in the car, he couldn’t do it, resulting in the “Brick” lyric: “She broke down / And I broke down / ‘Cause I was tired of lying.”
Originally, the book was going to be even more centered around the lyrics, Folds explains:
“I considered the form of it being based on my songs, but I felt like that was too—I know this is funny to say because it’s a memoir—me-centric. It didn’t allow me to tell the story of creativity. I kind of wanted a study of my songs to have someone walk away and think about the images in their life and what that brings up and how that might be a song for them and what’s important and what’s not important. For someone who knows all of my music, it’s of a certain kind of interest. But for someone who doesn’t know my music, I also wanted it to be of interest.”
What results from this effort is an incredible memoir that’s quite different from most other musician autobiographies. Folds absolutely succeeds in his mission to pull back the veil behind his process and show the world how it all came about. While some chapters paint him in a negative light, he’s honest throughout, proving that it’s possible to be legitimately objective and truthful about yourself if you’re willing to commit to it. There are loads of entertaining stories—even one that references a 2018 Paste article—but it’s the heartfelt ones that paint the picture of Folds’ early life and struggles to get a career jump-started, that truly resonate.
“This is a book about what I know,” Folds writes in the first chapter. “Or what I think I know. It’s about music and how it has framed and informed my life, and vice versa. About the stumbles, falls and other brilliant strokes of luck that brought me here.”
That journey, beginning with a dream he had at age 3, is one of the most rewarding any musician has brought us along for in quite some time.