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Ben Folds cultivates his nerdiness, ‘all in the key of awkward’

On November 17, 1970, Elton John played a trio gig that was broadcast on the radio.

The following year excerpts of the performance were collected and released on an LP named in the United States after its recording date, “11-17-70.” Unlike the richly orchestrated “Madman Across The Water,” which came out several months later, it was a stripped down affair, featuring nothing but voice, piano, bass and drums. And it went on to become one of John’s worst-selling albums ever.

According to musician Ben Folds, it was also one of his best.

“I always loved that record,” Folds told me before his show at New York City’s Pier 17 earlier this month. “It’s the only album I can think of where the full album is a rock album of piano, bass and drums. And that’s significant to me because it always stuck out as a really free, interesting format, but really not made for the radio, because everyone knows a guitar rocks more than a piano, right?”

(PLAYLIST: Elton John rocks out with a guitar-less trio)

But where others might have seen the rock ‘n’ roll piano trio as a commercial dead end, Ben Folds saw an opportunity. “I just took that as inspiration that this is something that hasn’t been tapped into,” he said. “It left an opportunity for a kid like me to fill that gap.”

Fast forward two and a half decades, and Folds and his band Ben Folds Five (a trio despite its name) began filling the gap with a vengeance.

(PLAYLIST: Ben Folds rocks out 11-17-70 style)

How that all came about is laid out in Folds’ new (and immediately best-selling) memoir, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life Of Music and Cheap Lessons.” The book takes its place among a select group of rock memoirs (Joe Jackson’s “A Cure For Gravity,” Keith Richards’ “Life,” and Carlos Santana’s “The Ultimate Tone” come to mind) that spare us the drugs-and-groupies-tell-all stuff, and instead chart the course of a person born just bursting with a love of music who has no choice but to figure out how to create it himself and share it with the world.

In Ben Folds’ case, that process started with listening to records all day when he was two years old – not only little-kid music, he says, but also Sam & Dave, Otis Redding and Little Richard. And if you don’t believe him, take it from his mother, Scotty. “I thought it was probably a few hours,” Folds said, “but I called my mother to kind of check a few things about early childhood, and I said, ‘You think it’s safe for me to put [in the book] two or three hours?’ She goes, ‘Oh, no, Ben. It was more like eight.’”

(PLAYLIST: Little Richard rocks out, influencing little Ben)

If “11-17-70” and Little Richard were keys to his musical development, his lyrics were propelled by his own dorkiness as a kid. Put off by 70s and 80s rock stars who struck iconic, coolest-guy-in-the-room poses, Folds worked at fashioning himself as their opposite. “Cultivating my vulnerability, nerdiness and weakness,” he writes, “all in the key of awkward [italics his], is what eventually felt right for me.”

Occasionally Folds’ lyrics contain bare autobiography, as in his indie rock hit “Brick,” about his high school girlfriend’s abortion:

They call her name at 7:30
I pace around the parking lot
And I walk down to buy her flowers

(PLAYLIST: Ben Folds writes about Ben Folds)

And he knows listeners love that kind of revelation. “In general, culturally, we Americans like our singer-songwriters to be telling us something of their journal entry,” he told me. “[When] Bruce Springsteen says he went to the badlands, I believe Bruce. If Bruce says, you know, ‘I revved up that car, went and picked up my girlfriend, we drove to the darkness at the edge of town,’ I believe him. I don’t want him to tell me in his Broadway show that he made it up. It hurts me to know that.”

(PLAYLIST: The Boss makes an admission to his fans)

He’s being half-facetious of course. He makes up plenty himself, and while his most disarming lyrics are written in the first person, the “I” is a character who might be any nerd among us. He even explained his process once in a song called “The Best Imitation Of Myself.”

I feel like a quote out of context
Withholding the rest
So I can be for you what you want to see
I got the gesture and sound
Got the timing down
It’s uncanny, yeah, you think it was me

(PLAYLIST: The song he wrote explains the songs he writes)

Similarly, the “I” in “A Dream About Lightning Bugs” is self-revealing only to a point. Fifty-two years old, four-times married and the father of young-adult twins, Folds writes sparingly of his relationships with people, and that might disappoint some readers. But what makes this memoir so gratifying is that he writes with such an easy charm (explaining, perhaps, why people keep marrying him) about his relationship with his art.

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