My Ben Folds Curse: Why Can't I Have One Disaster-Free Concert Experience?
This can’t be happening.
I was tipsily hovering in a Port-A-Potty when a sound from outside struck me with a mix of urgency, grief, remorse and bittersweet familiarity. I was holding my breath, but I gasped anyway. All I could think was, This can’t be happening, over and over.
The sound was the unmistakable first few bars of my favorite Ben Folds Five song -- and one of my top-three all-time favorite songs -- being played live by Ben Folds, Robert Sledge and Darren Jesse. It was my first time hearing it live, and I was peeing on top of other people’s pee inside of a rancid plastic box.
I was devastated, and yet, I wasn’t surprised. For years, I’ve been afflicted with what I’m convinced is some kind of Ben Folds curse, and this wasn’t the first time an attempt to see him in concert had been tainted, nor was it the last.
I first heard Ben Folds Five in the summer of 1997, right after I’d graduated from high school and a few months after the release of their second album, Whatever and Ever Amen. I was living in Florida and would be staying in-state for college, and that’s arguably how the curse began, because, as anyone who lived in Florida in the late ’90s and early 2000s knows, the bands you love do not tour in Florida. I think it was a law.
The song that sucked me in and still has me by the ponytail to this day is “Battle of Who Could Care Less.” I remember sitting at the kitchen table and hearing the opening drum riff, the harmonized doos, and a piano part that reminded me of something out of an early-’80s Joe Jackson song; then looking up at the TV to see a video on VH1 I’d never seen before.
And there they were: three nerdy-cute guys making witty, melodic pop-rock. I was instantly hooked.
Throughout college, in the absence of any opportunity to see Ben Folds Five play live, I wore down my CDs of Whatever and Ever Amen, Naked Baby Photos, The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner, and their self-titled first album. But by the time I moved to New York (a city all the bands you love do tour) just as 2001 began, they’d broken up.
But all was not lost! Ben Folds was coming out with a solo album that year, and I didn’t hesitate to purchase tickets for the show he’d be playing at New York’s Irving Plaza two days after its release date, September 11.
Needless to say, the show was cancelled; even more needless to say, that was at the very bottom of my list of things to cry about that week. But I had a million confused and terrified and devastated and coping thoughts as I walked from 20th Street back to my apartment on 90th Street that horrible morning, and I'm embarrassed to remember that one of those fleeting thoughts was, I guess the Ben Folds concert isn't happening. Brains are weird.
The following June, I got tickets to see Ben Folds at the recently-closed Roseland Ballroom. My then-boyfriend, who was also a big Ben Folds fan (I was 23 -- it’s probably the main reason we were together), met me right before the opening act started playing, and he was acting very agitated. He mumbled something about a stressful experience on his subway ride over and then excused himself to go to the men’s room while I got a drink at the bar.
A few minutes later, he approached me with tears in his queasy-looking eyes.
“I think I broke my hand,” he said meekly, and then he fainted.
In a surge of post-transit rage, he had punched the men’s room door and cracked his metacarpal bones in half, as was evident from the unnatural shape of the right hand attached to his limp body.
A couple of security staffers helped him up and escorted us to an area off to the side of the stage for first aid and to fill out an incident report, which took a ridiculously long time because we were now right next to one of the amps and had to repeat everything we said four times. (“He’s 26. He is 26! No, 26! S-I-X!”) The opening band eventually finished their set, and equally loud recorded music came on.
Eyeing his hand and taking into account his seemingly shocked state, the employee filling out the report was confident that my boyfriend's hand was broken and asked us if we wanted an ambulance.
Just as I said, “No, he doesn’t have insurance,” the crowd erupted in cheers. Ben Folds was taking the stage, and moments later, we were taking a cab to the hospital.
I married that guy, obviously.
I also divorced him, which is why I ended up moving back to Florida for several concert-less years. I returned to New York in 2011 and had to wait only a year and a half for the opportunity to see not just Ben Folds, but Ben Folds Five, reunited.
My friend Lauren and I arrived at Rumsey Playfield in Central Park nice and early, which allowed us to get a spot just a few feet from the stage. There was a friendly we’ve-probably-all-done-a-capella-at-some-point-in-our-youth vibe in the audience. We shared a blanket and drank overpriced rosé out of plastic cups with two women we’d met in line, Melanie and Heather, who had been to dozens of Ben Folds shows. We talked about which songs we were looking forward to hearing live the most; I was just happy to be there, but I was most excited about finally hearing my favorite, “Battle of Who Could Care Less.”
I got a second cup of wine just before Ben Folds Five took the stage, but I would’ve felt all tingly even if I’d had only water in my system. It was finally happening. I was seeing them live, close-up, on a beautiful September night in my favorite city. Nothing was going to go wrong this time, except, of course, the train of thought that led me to believe nothing was going to go wrong.
It’s always difficult to decide when to go to the bathroom at a concert when you love every song by an artist and also when the bathrooms are polyethylene crap pods. I decided to make my way over during “Sky High,” a new song.
I walked all the way around the audience to the get to the Port-A-Potties, took a deep breath, entered one, and locked the door behind me. I could make out the muffled last few notes of “Sky High” as I unbuttoned my jeans, and just as I settled into a the-toilet-is-lava squat, I heard it: the opening drum riff, the harmonized doos, the piano part that reminded me of a Joe Jackson song.
They were playing “Battle of Who Could Care Less,” and I was missing it.
I finished as quickly as possible, and as I exited, I noticed that I had obliviously cut the bathroom line; I simply hadn’t even seen it because it was unlit and understandably far away from the units. (I mean, who wants to stand really close to one of those things?)
In addition to feeling guilty about my inadvertent bad manners, I realized that if I had gotten in the line, I would’ve at least been out in the open air watching them play my favorite song instead of what’s arguably the most unpleasant position to be in while something you’ve waited years for is finally happening.
No time to wallow! Must get back to awesome spot in audience to enjoy the rest of this highly anticipated life moment!
I ran back around the perimeter of the audience and started squeezing my way through the people that stood between me and what was left of my dreams; that is until I fell over someone who was incomprehensibly sitting -- sitting! -- on the astroturf in the middle of the crowd. Still ferociously determined, I hopped up, managed to have the presence of mind to say “I meant to do that,” and made it back to my friends.
The only line of the song I got to enjoy without any chaos was the very last: “You’re my hero, I confess.” It was the most ironic it had ever sounded.
Overall, that concert was amazing, but I will always regret missing “Battle of Who Could Care Less” -- and how I missed it. But I was living in New York; surely another chance to see Ben Folds, Five or Fiveless, would pop up soon.
And it did, less than a year later, when they played Celebrate Brooklyn in Prospect Park. It was one of the only non-free shows of the festival, and Emily had to back out for mommy reasons, and I had to sit on a hill really far away from the stage, and they were inexplicably opening for Barenaked Ladies, but IT WAS GOING TO BE OK. I was looking forward to enjoying a set similar to the Rumsey Playfield one, and I would have my ass firmly planted on my last-minute friend-date Kristina’s blanket when they played “Battle of Who Could Care Less.”
Except they didn’t play it.
They didn’t play a lot of songs, actually, because they were technically an opening act (for Barenaked “Marci Actually Could Not Care Less” Ladies), with a shorter set. I may or may not have stomped like an insolent child for my whole walk home.
Since then, I’ve missed the Billy Joel/Ben Folds New Year’s Eve concert at Barclays Center due to admission costing a gold-plated firstborn’s arm and leg, and I’ll miss his performance at this weekend’s PopUp Dinner benefiting the Prospect Park Alliance because I’m on a really tight budget right now and can’t afford the tickets and BYO picnic foodstuffs and a sort-of-mandatory all-white outfit.
Did I break a mirror in a concert venue bathroom? Walk under a ladder at a music festival? I have no recollection of doing so, and if I did, I need to seriously rethink my superstitions-are-BS stance. But I’m hopeful that another chance to see Ben Folds play without a hitch (and with “Battle of Who Could Care Less”) will come my way in the near future and that this concert-equivalent-of-a-cockblock curse will be lifted.