My Pop Life #123 : Philosophy – Ben Folds Five

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Philosophy   –   Ben Folds Five

..I see that there is evil and I know that there is good

But the in-between I’ve never understood…

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Ben Folds Five

It was on the radio in August 1995 that I first heard Ben Folds Five.  They were amazing.  The music sounded hand-crafted specially for me – pure major-chord bright-eyed sophisticated pop music fronted by a piano; witty songs, arrangements and lyrics and brilliant music with no guitars.  I’ve never been a huge fan of the guitar to be honest – so of course here follows a list of exceptions <sigh>  :  Jimi Hendrix, Joe Walsh, Blue Oyster Cult, QOTSA, Sex Pistols, George Harrison, Elmore James, Django Reinhardt, Paco de Lucia, Guy Clark, Franco & TPOK Jazz, The Ramones etc etc

But the piano.  Come on.  The finest musical instrument.  An orchestra in two hands.  Bach. Chopin.  Erik Satie.  Debussy.  Scott Joplin.   James P. Johnson.   Rachmaninov.  Ellington.  Fats Waller.  Teddy Wilson.  Art Tatum.  Count Basie.  Fats Domino.  Ray Charles.  Randy Newman.  Alan Price.  Ian McLagan.  Gilbert O’Sullivan.  Kate Bush.  Ben Folds.

Hey – whose Pop Life is it anyway ?

Ben Folds was the pianist.  Darren Jessee was the drummer.  Robert Sledge played bass.

Just three of them, and they called the band Ben Folds Five.  Sounded better I suppose.

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The first single was called “Underground” and it sounded amazing on the radio.  Amazing enough for me to go out and find the CD somewhere.  Called “Ben Folds Five“, it had a picture of a piano on the front cover.   It was excellent.   Packed chock-full of ideas, the songs were about college, leaving college, being a young adult, looking back, growing up.   Many styles.   Some were like Elton John, some were rock music, some were like music hall/ragtime, others like prog.   And they could play.   Folds himself is clearly classically trained, returned to pop.  The fuzz bass is a huge part of the sound.  And the backing vocals.  My favourite track on that first LP is called Philosophy and it is a little impenetrable lyrically – theories abound that it is about an architect, the Statue of Liberty, Ben’s cock.  Seriously.  (He made a joke about it once and everyone remembered it).   But I think it’s about having your own self-image, your own take on life and your path through it.  Your own philosophy that “keeps your feet on the ground, keeps you walking when you fall down”.    Without that you’re a cypher.

I immediately set about learning it on the piano.  It is a beautiful thing.   But very soon I was off to Australia on a gig, and by the time I came back we were completing on a house purchase in Brighton.

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Mollie Jules-Crompton

Cut to November 1996, one year later and Jenny and I are babysitting for Mollie’s girls Dominique, Kimberley and Courtnie (who was only one year old!) in Ruislip for a week.   Mollie – Jenny’s older (but not oldest) sister, married to Pete a year before us – was in hospital under observation because she was pregnant again, and she’d already lost two previous pregnancies desperately trying for a boy.   Mollie & Pete had three very beautiful and fabulous girls – still do – but they both wanted a boy, even at some risk to Mollie’s health.  It was a worrying time for us all.  Mollie was also showing signs of auto-immune disease Lupus once again to complicate things.   At this point at the end of November she was six months pregnant and there had been some alarm so Jen and I stepped in and said we could stay overnight there for a few nights.   Pete was working nights at that point.

Anyway, come November 26th we got Jenny’s two younger sisters Mandy and Lucy to stand in for us as babysitters because we had two tickets to see Ben Folds Five at the Astoria in London’s Charing Cross Road.  Over a year after the album was released this was their first tour of the UK.

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The Astoria, Charing Cross Road, London

The Astoria was one of those great London venues which has now been destroyed to make way for Crossrail, the project that allows bankers to whizz into the City from Heathrow in half an hour.   It is responsible for the current destruction of Soho as a unique bohemian corner of London.   I didn’t see that many shows there, but David Bowie in 2001, and this from Ben Folds Five are up there with the best moments.

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Ben Folds Five live

They played the whole album and some interesting covers – Ray Charles You Don’t Know Me and Elton John’s Tiny Dancer – and absolutely smashed Philosophy and Underground with Ben jumping onto the piano and playing it with his fists and feet at one point.  Good show.  We came out and Jenny immediately called her sisters to find out if all was well.  We’d driven in from Ruislip – I think I had a Jag at that point – some gas guzzling blue monster that I loved driving – and Jenny suddenly burst into tears on the street as we walked round to Soho Square.  “Mollie’s had a baby boy” she said through sobs…”he’s in an incubator”.

We drove to the hospital and found Mollie, exhausted but happy, wth Pete, and Jenny’s Mum & Dad, and there was a tiny little precious baby boy in a transparent incubator, tubes going into his nostrils as his tiny hands tried to pull them out – it was a good sign.  He was three months premature.  He weighed less than a bag of sugar – 2lbs.  In those early days there was much worry about brain damage and stunted growth and all kinds of things, but those early struggles to remove his nose tubes were a sign of strength through adversity and slowly but surely he was removed from the incubator and grew into the healthy young nephew that Jenny and her sisters called ‘Boy’ after the youngest, Cookie had named him.

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Robert, Jordan and Cookie in 2006

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Robert – June 17th 2007 when he was 11

Robert is now 18 years old and a more throughly great young man I couldn’t wish to know.  Thoughtful, funny, gentle but nobody’s fool.

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Robert Jules-Crompton and I in 2013

 I’m not sure he even knows this story about his nativity – from our side anyway.  I doubt he’s heard this song.   But I know he has his own philosophy which keeps his feet on the ground.  Jenny and I took him to see Tottenham v Chelsea one day for a birthday present a few years ago.  All Jenny’s family are Tottenham Hotspur fans.  Oh well.

It’s now November 2015, some 20 years after that first Ben Folds Five LP was released, and two days ago Robert’s nan Bet, Pete’s Mum, passed away in Yarmouth.  Cycles of birth and death.  She will live on inside us all, inside all who knew her.  But death is a loss, and it has been a sad week. Rest in Peace Nanny Bet.

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Pete, Kimberley, Bet, Dominique in 2013

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Ben Folds Five did two more LPs : Whatever & Ever Amen and The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner – both outstanding;  an LP of B-sides, and then split.  Ben Folds did some cracking solo LPs himself – notably Rockin’ The Suburbs and Songs For Silverman, and Ben Folds Five reformed for one last LP The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind in 2012.

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Robert with his nephew Kian, Dominique’s son in 2012

Philosophy, the song, has a moment towards the end when everything goes mental and Ben’s pounded piano solo turns into a quotation from Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’, that mighty work from 1924 which has come to symbolise New York, via Woody Allen’s Manhattan and various other cultural markers.  Soon I will get the famous cadence – the theme from Rhapsody in Blue – tattooed onto my left arm. Sometime this November.

LP track

Live from Jools in 1996

Reformed band in 2010

My Pop Life #40 : I Ain’t Mad At Cha – Tupac Shakur

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I Ain’t Mad At Cha   –   Tupac Shakur

Heard you might be comin’ home, just got bail
Wanna go to the mosque, don’t wanna chase tail
I seems I lost my little homie he’s a changed man
Hit the pen and now no sinnin’ is the game plan

Tupac raps about how times have changed since he was a child, how friends have left him, how people have turned on him since his success, how things can’t ever be the same.   In the first verse an old school friend who became a muslim doesn’t want to join him in his new life making rhymes & money:  but they go back a long way together, and 2pac is not angry.  Second verse is about an old girlfriend, third verse concerns his success.   It’s a lovely lazy funky reminiscence, thoughtful and lyrical, wise and compassionate, one of the best tracks from his best LP All Eyes On Me.  The sly slinky bass line and piano figure is a direct lift  from 1983’s A Dream by Michigan Motown act DeBarge, not sampled but re-played faster and funkier.  But it makes the track one of 2pac’s finest moments, dance-floor filler, late-nite groove, take your partner and slowdance.  Not many rap tunes you can do that with.

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It was recorded the day that Tupac was released from prison – Oct 12 1995, along with another track Ambitionz az A Ridah – both produced by Daz Dillinger.   The soul singer Danny Boy sings the chorus hook.  The track was released 2 days after Tupac was shot dead on Sept 13th 1996 in Las Vegas, probably by the Crips gang whom he had attacked hours earlier.   I don’t suppose we’ll ever know what happened and much print and film has been spent on the attempt, with no clear conclusions.   I personally find the East Coast/West Coast beef unlikely to be the cause of death.

Tupac was an educated man whose parents were both Black Panthers.  He was raised in East Harlem and among his close friends from school were Jada Pinkett.  But it was on the West Coast that he made his mark as a rapper, first with San Fransisco’s Digital Underground, then as himself.   He was a charismatic actor too, clearly in demand and successful but appeared to enjoy flirting with the thug life which eventually killed him as a young man at the age of 25.

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We were getting used to living in Brighton when this LP came out.  All Eyez On Me was a blast of G-funk hip hop from the Dre stabled Death Row Records.  It has 14 producers, including Suge Knight, boss of the label, Dr Dre, and Tupac himself.  Apart from this one track it is an unapologetic glamourisation of gang-banging and thug life, not at all like his previous 2 LPs both of which feature more conscious raps.  We moved to Brighton because it reminded us vaguely of Venice Beach in Los Angeles, one of the few ‘neighbor”-hoods where we’d considered buying a house, but eventually didn’t.  You could hear gunshots there on some evenings as Anita Lewton could testify.  You could buy weed from shady types on Pacific Ave.  The whole LP reminded me of Los Angeles, Snoop Dog, California Love, all that bollocks, there I was on Brighton Beach reading the Argus with headphones on listening to gun this nigga and hoe that.  The grooves are sensationally good, but the content is frankly embarrassing – apart from this one tune.  And this one tune is a tune.   Things were changing…

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                                    Then he got shot.   The video was filmed with a new re-recorded version of the track played live, it features Tupac in heaven alongside other dead musicians Jimi Hendrix, Nat King Cole, Bob Marley, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Marvin Gaye, Sammy Davis Jr.  Danny Boy is also present as an angel.

Change, shit
I guess change is good for any of us…