Book Review: A Dream About Lightning Bugs | Ben Folds

A Dream about Lightning Bugs - cover art

Singer-songwriter and legendary piano man, Ben Folds, has spent most of his life creating — and not just music. His 2019 memoir, A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, tells his story in a way the Washington Post describes as “partly a meditation on creativity.”

If you like autobiographies, this NY Times best-sellers is a great read. If you enjoy Ben’s music, you’ll find out what inspired plenty of it. But more importantly, if you’re interested in how family, teachers, and life experiences shape someone into a creative person — this book is fascinating.

What’s this book about?

Ben Folds rose to rock star status in the ’90s with his trio, Ben Folds Five and later enjoyed success as a solo artist. He’s also produced albums for the likes of William Shatner and Kesha, is a talented photographer, and has even been a reality TV judge. Most recently, he served as the first artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center.

Ben Folds’ memoir is full of stories about his career, but it can also get quite personal. He goes into detail on his childhood and upbringing in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where his obsession with music began with a toy turn-table. He talks about his education, including music and piano teachers as well as his ill-fated single semester at the University of Miami — where he lost his scholarship because he bombed an important performance after getting his butt kicked.

You’ll find out how he struggled through early adulthood, such as his time spent playing polka music on an electric keyboard in a German restaurant. And, how he eventually cemented his place in music with bandmates Darren Jessee (bass) and Robert Sledge (drums), creating the unique Ben Folds Five sound that stood out in the era of alternative rock.

Ben Folds | Courtesy: BenFolds.com

Ben also touches on his personal life: several unsuccessful marriages, becoming a father, dealing with rejection, ego, his vices, and his mental health. In one of the most poignant parts, he imagines himself as a teacher in a classroom full of different versions himself throughout the years.

This isn’t your typical “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” musical auto-biography. It reads as a very relatable retrospective on a creative life full of ups and downs. Ben is able to hold up a self-deprecating mirror and give us some lessons I’d call very valuable — not cheap.

Who’s this book for?

A Dream About Lightning Bugs has solid advice and entertaining stories for just about anyone with creative aspirations, but it will be especially meaningful for those who hope to (or who’ve strived to) pursue a career in music.

It will be better if you’re at least somewhat familiar with his repertoire or grew up in the nineties, but the storytelling is so good, you’ll have fun reading it even if you’ve never heard a single Ben Folds’ song.

What do I think about it?

My Ben Folds backstory

Ben Folds is easily one of my favorite musicians of all time. I didn’t really get into his music until I was a junior in college (around 2001), after Ben Folds Five had already split. But, I still remember how I first heard about him …

It was in a high school public speaking class where one of the nerdiest kids in my grade stood up to give a presentation on his favorite band. This kid was short and stocky, super shy, loved Magic the Gathering, made his own medieval chainmail, and usually wore open button-down flannels with t-shirts featuring wolves or lizards underneath.

He actually came to tears as he explained why he liked Ben Folds Five while the punks in the class snickered away. When I eventually heard the song One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces, I understood exactly why he could relate.

In the Ben Folds Five song, the “Angry Dwarf” gets his revenge by finally becoming famous. The nerd from my school got payback much sooner. My final high school memory happened during a post-graduation ceremony lock-in, which included a giant inflatable joust in the cafeteria. Just before they kicked us all out at 5am, that nerd faced off against one of the biggest jerks in our graduating class … and totally destroyed him!

Turns out, the nerd also practiced medieval weaponry and fighting along with making medieval armor.

As a piano player myself, people would recommend Ben Folds to me all the time. But, when I illegally downloaded his music – it was “Brick,” which I thought was a sappy breakup song at first. Then, I saw Ben perform “Rockin’ The Suburbs” with a key-tar on The Late Late Show , and I had a change of heart.

On a road trip from Los Angeles back to Green Bay, Wisconsin – I listened to the album Ben Folds Live over and over again and have been a super-fan ever since.

My take on ‘A Dream About Lightning Bugs’

Getting a behind-the-scenes view of Ben’s life was the best part of this book for me. It’s packed with anecdotes and wisdom that show what a sarcastic sage he can be.

My favorite story was him as a teen while wearing lederhosen getting hijacked in his dad’s truck in a shady part of town. I also liked how he used lyrics from his work to outline the book and even drive the narrative. Many of Ben Folds’ songs are deeply personal, but he doesn’t often explain them. When I heard the backstory behind “Brick”, it totally changed the song for me. This book delves deeper into that song’s inspiration and quite a few others.

For those of us interested in creativity, the biggest “cheap lesson” Ben offers is how to stay true to yourself and keep creating authentic art amidst fame, failure, fortune, and family life.

Ben Folds is an accomplished musician, yes. However, his creative endeavors branch out far beyond that … including this memoir. Despite all he’s done, he still has creative aspirations he hopes to achieve. He mentions the idea of writing his own musical someday. Ben … if you read this … I think a Broadway musical about your polka-playing, lederhosen-wearing days would be an instant hit.

Whether you love his music or even if you’re not a fan — Ben Folds thinks you should be creative — because you’re a human. As he told Charles Duhigg in Slate:

“The truth is we’re at the top of the food chain because we have ideas and we’re creative. So whether you’re building a train system across the U.S. or fixing someone’s teeth, no matter what it is, you will be a creative being. And to not completely fulfill that in your life is to do everything less, is to hold back part of who you are.”

Ben Folds, Slate.com, February 2020

Music Video: Ben Folds Five reunites and collaborates with The Fraggles

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