A long time ago in New York, I saw Ben Folds Five at a small club in the East Village. I held onto the name of the club for a long time, but my brain has now given up on such categories of information. I remember a standard-issue black box, with sticky floors and a lot of posters. I was a generally shat-upon college intern at Time Out New York that summer. Out of pity, I think, the marketing manager had given me her laminated pass to a music festival, plus the names of a few maybe-someday bands. The pass had her photo on it, and the only feature I shared with her was our gender. My California ID not only didn’t match the pass but also showed that I was twenty. And yet somehow, I saw some bands. The bouncer that evening on Avenue B squinted at me and said, “yeah, right.” But he let me in.
Ben Folds came on stage and sprayed pheremonal energy and sweat everywhere. He climbed all over his piano, which seemed to fill the room. I saw a couple of other bands whose sound I liked, bands who kicked at their gear and closed their eyes on the high notes. But that night, Ben Folds believed. He got down into his own music in that way that combines total release with pure control. I think it’s easier for men, that balance of wide appeal and intensely personal self-expression. For men, the rules about what is and is not sexy are slightly more lax. I now associate Ben Folds with a certain brand of late nineties irony, Rockin’ the Suburbs, the clueless chump you seem to think I am… But any rockstar has to play with charisma, and that night, he was very indie nerd testosterone.
Over the next few years, my socioeconomic demographic would come out big for Ben Folds. But I didn’t know that then, and I don’t tend to think of my own musical taste as particularly trend-setting. I was by myself in a club in New York. The vague recommendation of the marketing manager was all I knew about this odd, piano-centric band with funny lyrics. I stood there oscillating between euphoria and self-doubt. I let strangers jostle me. I steadfastly refused to give up my place near the stage. The crowd was full of music critics, industry insiders, real people who lived in New York and had real jobs… but suddenly I didn’t care what they thought. I wanted to run up to the stage and dance on that piano.
In an absolutely uncharacteristic move for me that summer, I found the guts to walk up to Ben Folds afterwards. I was burning with it. I had to tell him how much I liked his music. I had nothing in mind beyond pure admiration. I am technically no longer a teenager, I told myself. I have a pass around my neck that says Time Out. In the dark you can’t tell the lady in the picture is blond. I am paying rent on a sublet in New York. I have a right to be here. I can do this.
Ben Folds was incredibly nice. I managed to convey enthusiasm without drooling. We were chatting! Magic! And then he asked me if I lived in New York. I didn’t live anywhere! I was still in college! Keeping it cool, I said: I live in New Haven… He proceeded to tell me where he was playing next. And where and when he would be in New Haven. And that maybe he would see me there? if I came backstage, to let him know? The wheels in my barely post-adolescent brain strained with the effort. Not only had I managed to play the role of adult and Time Out writer convincingly, but this rockstar I had just met seemed to be asking me to come hang out with him.
As soon as I realized this, I blew it. I started thinking frantically about how I couldn’t get into the clubs he was telling me about, how I had no fake ID, how I was just an intern, how technically I was living with my boyfriend that summer, even if that wasn’t going particularly well. I felt like he could see all this on my face—that my face screamed confused college intern—which struck me as deeply shameful. So I froze. I got awkward and moved away. Before I even got out of the club, I started beating myself up, rehearsing all the ways that the more savvy, city, boarding-school kids I went to college with would have known how to respond. Since then, Ben Folds’ recorded music has never had quite the same panty-dropping effect on me, but I still like it. His voice gives me a warm feeling and reminds me gently that wanting something badly often makes me totally screw it up.