I’ve never met Ben Folds in person. But based on his songs and his interviews, I suspect he’s a little bit like me and we’d get along great. I’ll bet he hides a surprisingly sensitive nature behind a pretty thick veneer of smart-ass. Most of his best songs, either solo or with his Five, are tongue-in-cheek post-modern pastiches about the jackasses among us. But every once in awhile, he lets his more emotional side out for a walk and surprises us with a story-song of real depth and feeling.
“Fred Jones, Pt. 2” from the solo album Rockin’ The Suburbs has been a favourite of mine ever since my first (and only) Folds gig in England in 2001. It’s a pretty mix of piano, strings, and voice in waltz time, with a gorgeous melodic flow and plenty of rhythm for a song with no drums. John McCrea from the band Cake helps out Ben on harmony vocals and gives the song an interesting warmth and resonance.
I think what really gets to me about this song is the subject matter. It’s about Fred Jones, a man that is downsized after 25 years of working at a newspaper. Hard to say if Folds foresaw the collapse of the newspaper industry, or if he just got lucky picking a random vocation. But rather than going out with a well-deserved (early) retirement party and cake from his peers, Fred Jones finds himself unceremoniously pushed out the door by circumstances beyond his control. The kids are now running the asylum, and there’s no room for the ‘old man’ anymore. In fact, nobody even remembers his first name. He is, literally, yesterday’s news.
In the days that follow, Mr. Jones tries his hand at sketching as a hobby to keep busy. But he finds that he’s kind of crap at it, and all of his pent-up frustrations at being let go before his time and “forgotten but not yet gone” come to a head. Meanwhile, a streetlight shines through the window shades, casting lines on the floor and lines on his face. Folds doesn’t come out and say it, but one gets the impression that Fred doesn’t have a family around him to console him in his hour of need. You can almost see him staring at the floor, wondering “What am I supposed to do with myself tomorrow, let alone for the next twenty years?”.
This song makes me sad because it makes me wonder what I’m going to do if some day I end up like Fred – alone, out of work, and forgotten but not yet gone. Pretty well everyone gets through the work day by dreaming about how retirement will some day be a well-deserved stroll into the sunset. But if it comes too soon or under the wrong circumstances, it must be really miserable. I really hope that someone at least gets me a cake on my last day.