It started with my big sister. She was the curator of cool. Her wardrobe full of beautiful clothes from Country Road and Sportsgirl. She’d bequeath me some glitzy, funky top before trying it on and realising she actually still looked really good in it.
I knew she liked Ben Folds Five but it wasn’t until my seventh grade music teacher Miss Rowe surreptitiously handed me a Ben Folds Five mixtape in class, I knew I should pay attention.
The shroud of secrecy made it even better. I got home and put the tape in my walkman and pressed play. The driving piano riff with bright intensity started, the opening of One Angry Dwarf.
I was hooked.
I’d been dutifully learning piano, the endless scales and finger positions and music theory made for drudgery at times.
Suddenly, the piano was a weapon, pumping out revenge in the words of Ben Folds: Jane remember second grade?/Said you couldn’t stand my face/Rather than kiss me you say you’d rather die.
Piano was cool.
I was part of the American indie rock scene, too dope for sleepy Sydney suburbia.
I could feel the song seeping into my veins.
The second verse started: don’t give me that bullshit/you know who I am/I’m your nightmare little man which gave the thrill only a naive church-going girl can understand upon hearing swear words. I was 13 and ripe for some good old-fashioned teen rebellion.
I watched Saturday morning ‘Rage’ to catch the video clip for One Angry Dwarf — a policeman sticking his head down a hole in the ground to appear in an upside-down room with Ben Folds standing over a piano rocking out with Darren Jessee and Robert Sledge on drums and grungy electric guitar.
Now I’m big and important/One angry dwarf and 200 solemn faces are you
I wanted to be a person who listened to Ben Folds Five, not just for enjoyment, but for when people asked me what bands I like. “Oh yeah, bit of Ben Folds, you know..” and they would know I was the kind of person who shopped at American Apparel and used a Polaroid camera. I stuck it to the man.
If you really wanna see me/Check the papers and the TV/Look who’s telling who what to do/Kiss my ass goodbye
The more I listened to his stuff, the more it resonated. He wasn’t just a good muso, he was a first-class storyteller, weaving a host of characters into his songs.
There was Fred Jones who got fired for his job cos ‘no one left here knows his first name’, or Uncle Walter who harboured delusions of grandeur and told you everything he’d do if he was President or Steven’s last night in town.
I sang along with We’re Still Fighting It at the Sydney Opera House with Folds cutting a solitary figure onstage under the spotlight and lost my literary nerd-girl shit when he released an album with Nick Hornby.
Cut to a year ago. I’m in a rowdy bar in the industrial town of Geelong. The bar has become a hit thanks to its kickass piano performers who can play any song on request and a heave of drunken patrons hug and sing their lungs out.
I grab some paper and write my hit-list of Ben Folds songs to add to the request pile. One Angry Dwarf, Army and Underground.
I see the pianist pick them up with a perplexed look and toss them aside. Enraged and a bit tipsy I march up to the piano with an accusatory finger. ‘Don’t you even know Ben Folds Five!?’ What was wrong with this guy!?
He was the soundtrack to my adolescence which followed me into my adult life, my Spotify account set to notify me when he drops anything new.
Yesterday I downloaded his biography A Dream About Lightning Bugs onto my Kindle, wondering if it’ll spark the same electricity as his music first did all those years ago.
One day, my sister moved away and started a family. We would scour op shops and outlet stores when we caught up. A few years ago, I picked out a top. ‘Ugh, that’s gross Cherie’, she said.
‘I think we have different styles,’ I said back. I finally owned it. My style. Ben Folds Five wasn’t a hand-me-down anymore, I was rockin’ the suburbs to my own tune.
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