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NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • From the genre-defying icon Ben Folds comes a memoir that is as nuanced, witty, and relatable as his cult-classic songs.
“A Dream About Lightning Bugs reads like its author: intelligent, curious, unapologetically punk, and funny as hell.”—Sara Bareilles
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY NPR AND PASTE
Ben Folds is a celebrated American singer-songwriter, beloved for songs such as “Brick,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Rockin’ the Suburbs,” and “The Luckiest,” and is the former frontman of the alternative rock band Ben Folds Five. But Folds will be the first to tell you he’s an unconventional icon, more normcore than hardcore. Now, in his first book, Folds looks back at his life so far in a charming and wise chronicle of his artistic coming of age, infused with the wry observations of a natural storyteller.
In the title chapter, “A Dream About Lightning Bugs,” Folds recalls his earliest childhood dream—and realizes how much it influenced his understanding of what it means to be an artist. In “Measure Twice, Cut Once” he learns to resist the urge to skip steps during the creative process. In “Hall Pass” he recounts his 1970s North Carolina working-class childhood, and in “Cheap Lessons” he returns to the painful life lessons he learned the hard way—but that luckily didn’t kill him.
In his inimitable voice, both relatable and thought-provoking, Folds digs deep into the life experiences that shaped him, imparting hard-earned wisdom about both art and life. Collectively, these stories embody the message Folds has been singing about for years: Smile like you’ve got nothing to prove, because it hurts to grow up, and life flies by in seconds.
Praise for A Dream About Lightning Bugs
“Besides being super talented, and an incredibly poignant and multifaceted musician, Ben Folds is a fantastic author. I couldn’t put this book down—and not just because I taped it to my hand. Ben takes us into his mind and into his process from the very beginnings of his childhood to where he is today—one of the greatest musicians and writers that has ever graced the art.”—Bob Saget
Under the Cover
An excerpt from A Dream About Lightning Bugs
File Under “Music”
Music feels like the frame on which I’ve hung nearly every recollection, giving me access to large files of childhood memories. Each song, each note, has a memory attached to it. Just a few bars of the saxophone intro of “The Girl Can’t Help It,” by Little Richard, and out of nowhere I can see the towering leg of my father’s gray sweatpants passing. I can almost feel the crusty scar of the radiator burn on my forearm and smell the creosote of asphalt shingles. The song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” brings back the texture of the dirty linoleum floor, the spinning of the colorful label of the 45-rpm record, and the window-lit specks of dust on their journey around my room. These memories are from when I was two years old. That’s a lot of detail to recall from so far back. Either that or I have a good imagination.
I recently asked my mother if it was accurate to say that I was listening to a couple hours of music a day when I was two years old, and she said no. It was more like eight hours—splayed on the floor at my record player, organizing my records into neat stacks and just listening. And I would become an absolute irate little jackass when interrupted. Eight hours, damn. That’s obsessive, but then, some things never change. It’s also a lot of input and stimulation for such a young brain.
I happen to believe that all the music I listened to in my toddlerhood has served as a memory tool of sorts. Maybe it’s why I can accurately describe the floor plan of our house on Winstead Place in Greensboro, North Carolina. Where all the furniture was placed, where the Christmas tree was, which radiator to avoid ever touching again, the jar of salt I would never ever again mistake for sugar, and the small black-and-white TV playing a rocket launch from Cape Kennedy. We left that house in Greensboro when I was three. In fact, we moved nearly every year of my childhood and I can tell you these sorts of things about each house we lived in.
Neurologists and music therapists are increasingly convinced of the effect of music on the brain. A music therapist friend of mine likes to say that “Music lights up the brain like a Christmas tree.” She’s referring to the large regions of brain scans that light up when stimulated by music. Other important functions, like speech, activate far smaller areas. In fact, there is an observable physical difference between a musician’s brain and everyone else’s. Here, I googled this for you, so you wouldn’t think I was crazy.
Using a voxel-by-voxel morphometric technique, [neuroscientists have] found gray matter volume differences in motor, auditory, and visual-spatial brain regions when comparing professional musicians . . . with a matched group of amateur musicians and non-musicians.
—From “Brain Structures Differ between Musicians and Non-Musicians,” Christian Gaser and Gottfried Schlaug, Journal of Neuroscience, October 8, 2003
But neuroscience is not my area of expertise, and this is not a book of science or facts. This is a book about what I know. Or what I think I know. It’s about music and how it has framed and informed my life, and vice versa. About the stumbles, falls, and other brilliant strokes of luck that brought me here.
A Dream About Lightning Bugs
Here’s a dream I had when I was three years old. It’s the first dream I can remember. It was set in one of those humid Southern dusks I knew as a kid. The kind of night where I’d look forward to the underside of the pillow cooling off, so I could turn it over and get something fresher to rest my head on for a good minute or so. The old folks described this sort of weather as “close.” In my dream, a group of kids and I were playing in the backyard of my family’s home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Fireflies—“lightnin’ bugs,” as the same old folks called them—lit up in a dazzling succession and sparkled around the backyard. Somehow, I was the only one who could see these lightnin’ bugs, but if I pointed them out, or caught them in a jar, then the others got to see them too. And it made them happy.
This was one of those movie-like dreams and I recall one broad, out-of-body shot panning past a silhouetted herd of children, with me out in front. There was joyous laughter and a burnt sienna sky dotted with flickering insects that no one else could see until I showed them. And I remember another, tighter shot of children’s faces lighting up as I handed them glowing jars with fireflies I’d captured for them. I felt needed and talented at something.
Now, this dream wasn’t any kind of revelation. Hell, I was barely three years old. And although it’s stuck with me all these years, I’ve never taken it to be a message from above that I’m a chosen prophet, or Joseph from Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. However, a half century later, it’s obvious to me that the dream reflects the way I see artistry and the role of an artist. At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others.
Here you go. A melody. See? I found it. It’s always been right there. That’s why it’s so familiar. Maybe it was in the rhythm of the washing machine, the awkward pause in a conversation, or the random collision of two radio stations blasting from two different cars and how it reminded you of your parents trying to be heard over one another. Remove a note, one flicker, and it’s the sound of the door closing for the last time and her footsteps fading into the first silence in forever. But wait . . . nope, the silence wasn’t really silence after all. You just weren’t paying attention. There’s always sound beneath the sound you hear. Or something else to see when your eyes adjust. It turns out there was also the sound of children playing outside your window and, below that, the buzz of a ceiling fan. That’s a sound you’d overlooked before, but now it’s all you can hear. We all see different flickers in a busy sky.
That’s where the melodies live. What do you notice that glows beneath the silence? Can that glow be bottled, or framed? From time to time, we all catch a split-second glance of a stranger in a storefront window before realizing it’s our own reflection. A songwriter’s job is to see that guy, not the one posing straight on in the bathroom mirror.
As we speed past moments in a day, we want to give form to what we feel, what was obvious but got lost in the shuffle. We want to know that someone else noticed that shape we suspected was hovering just beyond our periphery. And we want that shape, that flicker of shared life experience, captured in a bottle, playing up on a big screen, gracing our living room wall, or singing to us from a speaker. It reminds us where we have been, what we have felt, who we are, and why we are here.
We all see something blinking in the sky at some point, but it’s a damn lot of work to put it in the bottle. Maybe that’s why only some of us become artists. Because we’re obsessive enough, idealistic enough, disciplined enough, or childish enough to wade through whatever is necessary, dedicating life to the search for these elusive flickers, above all else. Who knows where this drive comes from? Some artists, I suppose, were simply cultivated to be artists. Some crave recognition, while others seek relief from pain or an escape from something unbearable. Many just have a knack for making art. But I’d like to think that most artists have had some kind of dream beneath the drive, whether they remember it or not.
I’m amazed when someone sees the sculpture inside a rock while the rest of us just see a rock. I say “hell yes” to the architects who imagine the spaces we will one day live in. And a round of applause for the stylist who sees what hair to cut to make me look respectable for a couple of weeks. I bow low and fast in the direction of those who paint amazing things on the ceilings of chapels, make life-changing movies, or deliver a stand-up routine that recognizes the humor in the mundane. What all those artists have in common is that they point out things that were always there, always dotting the sky. Now we can take it in and live what we missed.
My dream about lightning bugs still fills me with the same pride and sense of purpose as it did when I was three. It reminds me that my job is to see what’s blinking out of the darkness and to sharpen the skill required to put it in a jar for others to see. Those long hours of practice, the boring scales, the wading through melodies that are dead behind the eyes in search of the ones with heartbeats. And all that demoralizing failure along the way. The criticism from within, and from others, and all the unglamorous stuff that goes along with the mastering of a craft. It’s all for that one moment of seeing a jar light up a face.
Ben Folds is an American musician who has created an enormous body of genre-bending music that includes pop albums with Ben Folds Five, multiple solo albums, a classical piano concerto, and collaborations with artists ranging from Regina Spektor to William Shatner. Folds, who was also a judge for five seasons on NBC’s acclaimed a capella show The Sing-Off, was named the first ever artistic advisor to the National Symphony Orchestra at the Kennedy Center in 2017. He is an outspoken champion for arts education and music therapy, serving on the distinguished Artist Committee of Americans for the Arts, and as chairman of the national ArtsVote 2020 initiative.