Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Fred Jones, Pt. 2" - Ben Folds

There are certain times in our lives when we're just perfectly wired to GET music. Times of change and upheaval, times of questioning and times when we're unsure of ourselves leave us vulnerable and searching. We search for answers, for reassurance, for something that can ground us and pop music is an ever-ready, sympathetic companion with whatever answer you want (or hopefully need) to hear.

I don't know much about Ben Folds' personal life, but it seems to me that he must have been in some state of change while writing his debut solo album, Rockin' The Suburbs. If he wasn't, then his characters sure as hell were, with almost every song but the title track featuring people breaking up, moving, giving up, having kids, etc. It was just the sort of album that is almost dangerous to give an eighteen year old kid, wrapped in the narcissistic melancholia of getting ready to go to college. It can lead to prolonged mopeyness, exaggerated attempts at ennui and occasionally a few worthwhile reflections on life. I speak from experience here.

It was the late spring of my senior year of high school and I was doing great. I had a proud end to my debate (yeah, that's right) career, I was finishing my classes with relative ease and I was finally finding a social circle that actually socialized and, wait for it, oh-sweet-Jesus-yes, a girlfriend! Basically everything I'd spent my high school career working towards finally came together, but I only had a few months to enjoy it. Everyone I knew was excited to go to college, move away and leave high school in their dust while I was secretly thinking, "no, don't make me leave yet! I just finally got the fucking hang of this and it's over?"

Enter Ben Folds. The mix of mid-tempo rockers and tearful ballads on Rockin' The Suburbs ensured that it lodged itself into heavy rotation that summer as I laughed, hung out with friends and felt that ball of dread grow in the pit of my stomach. I was busy during those few months, working two shitty, exhausting jobs that had me getting about four hours sleep, waking up at 4:00 am and grabbing naps when I could. But despite that I still managed to find time after dropping the girlfriend off for the night or clocking out to drive the streets of my suburban town aimlessly and sing along to epics of angst by Folds and Death Cab For Cutie (go figure).

"Fred Jones, Pt. 2" was easily my favorite song at that time. Its simple story of a man being forced out of his successful career into a life he didn't want so obviously paralleled my own (mostly imagined) problems and feelings that I couldn't even register the connection at the time. Folds is masterful in both his playing and writing as he uses short, descriptive lines to paint a picture of such crushingly sad silent desperation over slow piano riff and understated strings. His voice rises and falls with emotion throughout the song and always holds a dramatic pause after the line "and I"m sorry, Mr. Jones...". The music nearly falls out before he barely sighs out "...it's time."

As with most great desperate character sketches like "Eleanor Rigby" and "A Well-Respected Man", it's the little details of the story, at once uniquely personal and instantly relatable, that twist the emotional knife. Folds starts each verse of his story by lingering small observations like how streetlight through the blinds creates "lines on his face", Jones' hobby of painting over slides on a canvas or how he's escorted out of his job carrying a box of "things that remind him that life has been good". What makes it all so effective though, is how the small observations build into cathartic choruses. It's enough to make the lump rise slowly in your throat as you sing along to lines like "all of these bastards have taken his place / he's forgotten, but not yet gone" and yet the words are still so powerfully sad that they don't allow for a full release. "Fred Jones, Pt. 2" is thus an exercise is the esquisite build up of dull pain and resignation, followed by only a partial release, allowing a listener so-inclined to revel in that blue ache.

The "Pt. 2" in the title is a reference to a Ben Folds Five song off an album equally filled with sadness, anger and change, "Cigarette". In that song, a Fred Jones is equally hopeless, as he cares for his unstable drugged wife, which doesn't even allow him to sleep, lest she accidentally burn the house down. I've never been able to decide if Folds thought that these two men were the same person. Has Fred Jones spent his younger life depressed and tired only to be kicked to the curb at the end? Or perhaps Folds picks the painfully generic name to allow Fred Jones to be a template the modern man, dealing with life's crushing reality. Maybe it's his way of saying "hey, even if you're happy you're whole career, it's all gonna end, be it by fire or retirement".

This question brings me back to my favorite line in the song. As Jones is being lead out of his office for the last time, the narrator comments that "life barrels on like a runaway train / where the passengers change, they don't change anything / you get off someone else can get on". It's one of those messages that's somehow uplifting because of it's honesty. We all know there's a strong element of truth in Folds' resignation. We know that, whatever we might like to believe, life will probably not turn out the way we wanted. Humanity's greatness and its madness comes in our willingness to keep going, for each generation to keep boarding that runaway train. Fred Jones is like Gatsby, working towards an impossible future, beating his boat against an inexorable current because that's all he can do, despite himself. It's a fact about people that gave me a solace when I was eighteen. It still does.

Fred Jones, Pt. 2 - Buy Rockin' The Suburbs
Cigarette - Buy Whatever And Ever, Amen
Fred Jones, Pt. 2 (feat. John McCrea) [Live] - Buy Ben Folds Live

1 comment:

  1. Great post...unlike Frankie Lee and Judas Priest, some things are revealed. Some more songs I need to listen to.