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How Ben Folds Five’s Whatever And Ever Amen transformed a teen piano geek

Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images
Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images

My tiger mother forced me into piano lessons at age 4. Many other Chinese immigrant kids I knew had the same experience. Our schedule was rigorous; the punishment for not practicing at least an hour a day was loss of allowance, television, or any sort of merriment. Through my childhood and teenage years, I dutifully burned through Bach two-part inventions, Beethoven sonatas, Debussy preludes, almost all committed to muscle memory. I became a high-functioning piano robot—robotic in the sense that I played without emotion. I never questioned why I had to practice the piano. It was just something that happened between 4 and 5 p.m. every afternoon. I had no feelings for the piano whatsoever.

When I was 15, a trio from North Carolina scored a radio hit on alternative-rock radio and changed all that. That trio was Ben Folds Five, the song was called “Brick,” and it was about an abortion. Not that this Chinese immigrant understood the lyrical subtext at the time. What resonated was that this moving song was played on a piano, an instrument I associated almost solely with the classical pieces I’d been trained to replicate. Intrigued, I bought the CD it hailed from, titled Whatever And Ever Amen, on the day it was released—20 years ago this week.

For me, it was a wide-eyed epiphany that resembled the scene in Almost Famous when Patrick Fugit’s character discovers the stash of records his sister has left behind. Whatever And Ever Amen wasn’t exactly Pet Sounds, but after so much rote, dispassionate recreating of Rachmaninoff and Haydn, that album gave me, for the first time, a sense of the piano’s potential for real, emotional resonance. Those 88 keys finally spoke in a language I could understand.

The Ben Folds Five’s sophomore effort was the album that marked the height of popularity for the group, landing it heavy rotation on MTV and a musical guest spot on a Samuel L. Jackson-hosted episode of Saturday Night Live. Much of that had to do with timing: Alternative rock in 1997 was a jaunty, novelty placeholder between the end of grunge and the start of rap-rock (with a blessedly brief stop at the swing revival). “Song 2,” “Tubthumping,” “The Impression That I Get,” “Semi-Charmed Life”—all of the year’s hits had a certain, irresistible quirkiness. It was the perfect atmosphere for a trio who married nerdy pop to classically trained piano-playing to gain popular traction.

While I was aware of rock musicians who’d banged their hits out on a piano, my curiosity hadn’t ventured much past “Great Balls Of Fire” or “Good Golly Miss Molly”—both already ancient history in the pop music canon. For me, hearing Ben Folds sing, “Don’t give me that bullshit, you know how I am? / I’m your nightmare little man” while hurtling through intricate 16th-note runs on opener “One Angry Dwarf And 200 Solemn Faces” was a real “holy shit” moment. It had the kinetic energy of rock music, but there were also jazz chord voicings, and the lyrics (when I finally paid attention) were snarky and sarcastic—traits familiar to teenagers. Even now, I recall sitting in the parking lot of my high school with my fellow band nerds, playing the song’s piano solo on a loop from my car stereo, and losing our minds the way NBA fans might over a spectacular slam dunk.

I also remember turning down my stereo during “Song For The Dumped,” just so my parents wouldn’t hear the lines, “Fuck you too! / Give me my money back / Give me my money back, you bitch!” Like the Adam Sandler comedy albums I also listened to in secret, it was hilarious, R-rated crudeness (though today, I cringe a bit at the misogynistic undertones). Folds matches the lyrics’ bluntness by violently pounding the keys with his palm, not making music so much as cathartic noise. Bassist Robert Sledge cranks the distortion to match him, drummer Darren Jessee rides hard on his crash cymbal, and together it sounds chaotic, sludgy, and satisfying.

All of that double-bird-flipping aggression had its counterpoint moments of heart-wrenching tenderness. “Brick” might have been, for me, the most melancholic song to chart this side of “Tears In Heaven.” “Selfless, Cold, And Composed” was written in the pop-unfriendly style of a jazz waltz, accompanied by timpani and Bacharachian string arrangements. For those versed in classical music like I was—or who appreciate how different key signatures create unique colors and moods—“Selfless,” with its technically challenging and uncommon key of F-sharp major, exuded an especially lush and warm quality. Taken through the analytic filter of a decade of piano lessons, I found it especially absorbing.

Whatever And Ever Amen became an album I didn’t just love, but wanted to crawl inside. I sat at my piano and transcribed the piano parts note-for-note, learning every song. The record changed my relationship with my piano from passive indifference to active fascination. In my sheltered musical exposure—heretofore limited to Hong Kong Cantopop and Top 40 fluff—I was now hearing harmoniums (“Smoke”) and klezmer clarinets (“Steven’s Last Night In Town”) for the first time. But I was also enjoying a catchy, eminently replayable pop record (none more than the hook on “Battle Of Who Could Care Less”), one that redefined me in that unpredictable way certain albums do.

During my senior year, our high school held a talent show. By then, I owned every piece of music Ben Folds Five put out, including Japanese singles (hard to come by in those pre-Napster times). The B-side to one of them was an obscure instrumental called “Theme From Dr. Pyser,” which featured a full string-quartet arrangement and a Misirlou middle section. I decided to perform that song, solely because I didn’t have to sing. I ended up winning.

Thanks to Whatever And Ever Amen, I had broken free from the baroque and classical composers that defined my childhood musical experiences. Ben Folds Five was the gateway that nudged me toward other genres, beginning with jazz. By the time I graduated, I was deep in the throes of Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum, and Thelonious Monk. I told my parents, “You know, I’ve done this classical piano for a while. I’d like to try something new.” They didn’t put up a fight, and I decided to pursue jazz piano in college.

It didn’t last long. I simply couldn’t compete with the skills of my fellow jazz pianists. And the disappointment burned me on the piano for a good 15 years.

But recently, I had my first child. Our family of three moved into a two-story duplex on a leafy residential street in Chicago. Now that we had the space, the very same Yamaha upright piano I spent years practicing on was shipped from my parents’ home to our new place. Rediscovering the instrument and playing music for my son has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my first year of fatherhood. When he hears the sounds from the piano, he’ll stop whatever he’s doing and crawl under the bench and between my legs, pressing the sustain pedal up and down.

The song I most like playing for him is “Evaporated,” a quiet ballad that is the closing track from Whatever And Ever Amen. The best part is when the boy looks up.