At Thursday night's Ben Folds Five reunion show, an interesting moment will be the eighth song in the set. The trio is playing its 1999 lush pop masterpiece "The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner" in its entirety, presumably in order; and track number eight is "Your Most Valuable Possession" -- an early-morning voicemail message from Folds' father, which the pianist set to music. So will the elder Folds appear onstage to recite that passage, a surreal spiel about brain, muscle and body mass?
"We're working on that," Folds said with a laugh in an interview last week. "He's a man who cannot be bribed, so we'll have to see what we can do. Not building anticipation would probably be a good place to start. I didn't tell him that was going on the record before he heard that. He was afraid to leave me phone messages for a couple of years after that -- I noticed a lot of people stopped for a while there. He told me he'd taken some cough medicine that morning. He does a lot of thinking, and he's likely to say what he's thinking."
For more on BFF's career and breakup, see the story (which has kind of an unfortnuate headline) in Thursday's paper. And for some back-story, below is the preview and review that ran when Ben Folds Five hit their mainstream peak with a 1998 "Saturday Night Live" appearance -- the worst performance I've ever seen Folds do.
Area trio on 'SNL' as hit status unfolds
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Jan. 10, 1998
On the opening track of his current album, Chapel Hill-based singer/pianist Ben Folds sneers, "If you really want to see me, check your papers and the TV."
The song, a nerd's revenge fantasy called "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," is meant as an over-the-top goof. But darned if it isn't coming true.
Not only is the Ben Folds Five being written about regularly in Rolling Stone, Spin and seemingly every other publication on Earth, but the piano-pop trio takes center stage tonight as musical guest on "Saturday Night Live," airing at 11:30 on NBC. Actor Samuel L. Jackson will be the host.
This is the first time a Triangle band has appeared on "Saturday Night Live," and the booking comes just as the Ben Folds Five is breaking out nationally. The group's new single, "Brick," is making waves at radio stations across the country, pulling its nearly year-old sophomore album, "Whatever and Ever Amen," back onto the charts.
Thus far, "Whatever and Ever Amen" has sold 278,000 copies - more than halfway to gold status of half-a-million in sales. The album vaults 32 spots to No. 94 on next week's Billboard album sales chart, and it should soon surpass its original peak of No. 90.
"Lots of people still have no idea how well we're doing," said Folds, 30, a few days before leaving for New York. "I saw somebody I knew at [Chapel Hill's] Lizard & Snake the other day, and they asked, 'Hey, you still got that band?' I said, 'Um, yeah, we just got back from Ireland.' 'Oh? Who were you opening for?' 'We, uh, were headlining 3,000-seat halls.'"
The secret will be out after tonight. Folds' flashy piano work and energy update such '70s pop stars as Joe Jackson and Randy Newman, and the style seems perfect for making an arresting impression on television.
In years past, acts from Nirvana to Leon Redbone have ridden "Saturday Night Live" to huge record sales. The show's profile has slipped somewhat, but its demographically attractive audience of up to 10 million viewers still makes it one of the most coveted TV bookings a band can get.
"It still is a catalyst, although it's not as guaranteed as it used to be," says Geoff Mayfield, director of charts for Billboard magazine. "Some acts it helps; some it doesn't. I would say Ben Folds Five is a wild card. Since they seem to be a band that a lot of people have at least heard of but maybe haven't actually heard, it could turn out to be a very meaningful shot."
By David Menconi, News & Observer
Jan. 12, 1998
Playing "Saturday Night Live" would be great except...well, except that it's "Saturday Night Live."
It's great because everyone from Bob Dylan to Public Enemy has played on this NBC late-night institution, and it draws an audience of about 10 million demographically desirable viewers. For an up-and-coming band such as Chapel Hill's Ben Folds Five, who appeared as the musical guest on Saturday's show, "SNL" is a prestigious and potentially career-making showcase.
But nowadays, playing on "Saturday Night Live" means getting shoved into the tail end of a show so painfully unfunny that it goes beyond embarrassing. It's fortunate that things are already going well for Ben Folds Five, because "SNL" probably did little to help its cause. The trio got to play only one song, "Brick" ("SNL" no longer guarantees two), and the rest of the show was so awful that it's doubtful too many viewers stuck around long enough to see it.
Things started promisingly enough. Saturday's show was the first "SNL" of 1998, and there was an air of anticipation during guest host Samuel L. Jackson's opening monologue. Jackson sounded so enthusiastic that you could believe he had heard of the band when he concluded, "We have a great show for you tonight. Ben Folds Five is here!"
Then he and the rest of the cast spent the next 40 minutes in a series of skits that were longer on cringes than laughs. Finally, about 12:20 a.m. Sunday, right after "Weekend Update," Jackson introduced the band and Ben Folds Five started into the lilting piano riff to "Brick."
There was never any question that the band would play "Brick," because this stately ballad is the trio's big breakthrough hit. It's also one of the most serious and unfunny songs in the group's catalog. An uptempo raver, such as "One Angry Dwarf and 200 Solemn Faces," would have been more telegenic, affording Folds the chance to jump up and down and maybe even stand on the piano. Another song, with Folds in his piano-pounding smart-aleck persona instead of his disarmingly sensitive singer-songwriter mode, might have been the most amusing thing on the show.
But "Brick" is delicate. Where most of Folds' songs are easy to figure out, the real subject of "Brick" is between the lines. The subtext is not owning up to the truth, not even to oneself. In the recorded version, Folds sounds as if every word is being dragged out of him. There's a subtle hesitancy that fits the song perfectly as it unfolds, with Folds' voice dragging behind the beat and only reluctantly catching up at the end of each line.
On live TV, it all fell apart. All three band members looked nervous, especially Folds. His vocal started off-key and never quite made it all the way back to the correct pitch (which often happens when a singer can't hear himself well enough in the onstage monitors, a common problem with TV gigs). Folds, drummer Darren Jessee and bassist Robert Sledge are as seasoned a group of pros as you'll find anywhere, yet their changes sounded wavery and off the mark.
Folds appeared vaguely disgusted during the four-minute performance and sheepish afterward as he grimaced a smile for the audience's applause. His only other onscreen appearance in was at the very end, standing next to Jackson with his hands shoved into his pockets as the host waved goodbye.
Anyone hearing "Brick" for the first time on the show would have been hard-pressed to figure out the subject of the song -- abortion, a word that never actually appears in the lyrics. The song describes a couple in the downward spiral of an imploding relationship. They meet early in the morning the day after Christmas to go do something the protagonist is obviously dreading. The adjectives are all words like dark, cold, freezing, numb, alone.
The details have nothing and everything to do with the real subject. The narrator picks up his girlfriend at her apartment, drives her somewhere (a doctor's office?) and paces around the parking lot after "they call her name at 7:30." He buys her flowers, then pawns some of his Christmas presents (to pay for the procedure?). Afterward, driving back to her apartment, a terrible sense of estranged finality sets in: "She's alone, I'm alone. Now I know it."
It is clear that the couple has also aborted their relationship with each other. The song's accompanying video is evasive about details, but it implies that the woman commits suicide (showing a glimpse of her fully clothed in a bathtub at the line, "As weeks went by, it showed that she was not fine"). The song is powerful and unsettling, especially when heard on the radio.
Nine months ago, when the "Whatever and Ever Amen" album was released, "Brick" was clearly the album's money shot even though it wasn't the first single (that was the more light-hearted "Battle of Who Could Care Less"). While Jessee confirmed in a recent Billboard magazine interview that "Brick" is about abortion, Folds himself has always been evasive about the song.
In a News & Observer interview in April, he declined to say much about "Brick" beyond acknowledging that it's based on his own experiences.
"I felt funny about putting 'Brick' on the album at all, and it's definitely gonna be a single," Folds said. "I don't know how I feel about that because that means there will be even more questions about it and you wonder at what point yours or someone else's bad personal experiences need to be exploited. But you have to write what you know. Beyond that, I tried to treat it responsibly so it wasn't a shock-value thing. It could've been a lot heavier, but I didn't want to do that.
"God, all this beat-around-the-bush talk is just making it worse," he concluded, then changed the subject. "Gimme two or three years, when I'm more of an old hand at this, and I'll have a stock answer ready."
Folds' prediction that he'll face more questions about "Brick" is no doubt correct, especially now that the group is showing up on television with some regularity. The trio has moved steadily up the ladder the past six months -- "Late Night With Conan O'Brien" last summer, the PBS network's "Sessions at W. 54th Street" in the fall, "Late Show With David Letterman" in December and now "Saturday Night Live" -- the first Triangle act ever to appear on the show.
If history is an indicator, a disappointing "SNL" performance won't hurt Ben Folds Five. The alternative rock group Teenage Fanclub played one of the worst performances in the history of televised live music on the show in 1992 and still got enough of a bounce out of it to make the Billboard album charts.
Maybe next time, Ben Folds Five will get two songs.