Updated: Jan 6
A large reflection and a small review of A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons
Ben Folds is the most influential person in my life that I haven't had an actual conversation with. By "the most," I literally mean the. most. I'm 95% sure I wouldn't be a music therapist or songwriter today if I hadn't stumbled across his music.
Most people would say their first encounter of Ben Folds was with "Brick" sometime in the 90s. But for me, it didn't come until the next decade. While that song was on the radio when I was a kid, I wasn't old enough to recall it at the time.
Fast forward to the 2000s and I'm sitting on a plane, flying back from a family vacation. Growing up with a parent who works for the airlines, I quickly learned that in-flight radio wasn't always the best. So, I often stuck to my own music on my walkman or MP3 player. But for some reason on this particular flight, I decided to give the radio another shot. Ben Folds happened to be a "guest DJ" on the segment playing and shared a few of his songs. One of them being "Brick" (of course) and the other being "Landed" (also, of course). I was utterly and completely enamored by "Landed." The piano intro, the word and rhyme play, everything. Just getting back into piano lessons after quitting for a few years, I didn't realize piano could sound like that. You didn't have to choose a genre to master and stick to it, you could combine and shape them. Just beginning to take a stab at writing songs, I didn't realize lyrics could sound like something a person would actually say..as opposed to something out of a Robert Frost poem. And just then trying to figure out my "style," I didn't realize looking like a nerd and not caring actually somehow came off as cool.
For the rest of high school, I was hooked. I dug into his entire discography... even all the way back to Majosha (thank you, Limewire and Kazaa). I tried to convince my band director to use "Steven's Last Night in Town" as a piece for our jazz band. I failed miserably at trying to learn the crazy piano licks in "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces." I imagined punny characters and tried to write songs about them (One called "Mr. Siga Rhett Budd," which was loosely based on "Fred Jones, Pt. 2"). I went to a concert of his and bought a sweater with a picture of him and a megaphone that told everyone to floss their teeth , and I wore it until it got holes in it.
Maybe I was a little obsessed at the time, but it was only because he gave hope to piano geeks everywhere that they could be rock stars. I was inspired. I could be your pish-posh refined pianist, but I had the permission to get honest and angsty on the same instrument. I didn't have to be just an accompanist or a piano teacher. I could write songs and make a career out of it.
My band directors, with good intentions, told me no. Being a songwriter or composer wouldn't be in my best financial interest in the long run and that I should consider it as a side gig to some other sort of music-related career. Advice that I did not want to take, but landed (pun intended) me in music therapy. Which is now a career and calling that I absolutely love.
I literally can't imagine doing anything else. Its led me to amazing people (one of them being Mr. Folds himself at a music therapy conference for 5 seconds in which I briefly forgot what words were...thus, not having an actual conversation), fostered my creativity, given me music and tech skills I never thought I would have, and allowed me to play and write songs as a means to help people. That being said, when A Dream About Lighting Bugs came out, I had to have it immediately. If this book was going to be anything like his music, it was sure to be well-written and chalk full of honesty, humor, politely placed curse words, and thoughtfulness.
And it was.
Especially the honesty. Wow.
To quote the grand poo-bah of east coast music therapists, Ken Bruscia, "[Songs] are our musical diaries, our life-stories. They are the sounds of our personal development," (Dynamics of Music Psychotherapy, 1998). And boy, does this book shed light on Ben's personal development.
Without giving away too much of the memoir itself, he's been through a lot in life for the sake and the inspiration of his music. Obviously we know that "Brick" is about an abortion, "You Don't Know Me" is about a strained relationship, and "Still Fighting It" is about the birth of his children.
He states, "I think that manipulation of time, musically, and lyrically, is part of what makes songwriting so interesting... A four minute song might dwell on one special second in our life. And that one second might represent a turning point, something that implies a whole lifetime."
Its interesting seeing which lyrics were inspired by what particular life stages and moments. And in true melancholic songwriter fashion, he openly also shared the not-so-inspirational stages and moments that we're basically just all music at the expense of parts of his life.
Broken relationships, broken pianos, and broken bones.
But he manages to find cheap lessons from these stages and learns from them. He offers these bits of insight he learned for himself and shares them with us, like thanking your teachers and letting yourself be bored, all throughout the chapters. Which, I might add, are each separated by a blank page with nothing by a caesura on a staff on it.
Music Nerdom at its finest.
The title itself comes from a dream he had as a kid in which he was catching lightning bugs and showing them to people. He compares this dream to the creative life, where we have to find the bugs (ideas, stories, etc) that light up for us and capture them in a way that people can still see and appreciate them (art, music, products, etc). A simple, yet beautiful metaphor.
If we were in the same dream, I probably would have bumped into him after he already caught a bunch of bugs. They'd be lighting up his mason jar, I'd say "Woah. COOL!" and run back to my house to find a mason jar of my own. It would take awhile to find the jar, but once I did, I'd spend my time trying to follow the places he went to catch his bugs. Maybe catch a few, but get frustrated when I didn't get as many. I'd get a different container that suited me better and find other ways and places to catch them.
Maybe later on, we'd be in a different dream together, where I'd get to run into him on the street again and I'd get to thank him. I'd look at his jar and point at the lightning bugs that inspired me to catch these lightning bugs in my jar. Maybe he'd ask me about my jar and we'd have a quick moment to catch a few bugs together.
That would be pretty awesome.
But in the meantime, I'm glad Ben got to share how he caught some of his lightning bugs in this book. Now I get to go and catch more lightning bugs of my own.... with some caesuras in between of course.