When “got nowhere but home to go, got Ben Folds on my radio” became a lyric on Counting Crows’ sophomore release “Recovering the Satellites,” I, like many Counting Crows fans, rushed out to figure out who the Ben Folds Five were. Turns out, there were only three of them. It also turns out that I loved them. “Ben Folds Five” and, later, “Whatever and Ever Amen” became staples of my listening rotation. It’s no surprise, then, that when Ben Folds Five announced in 1998 that they would visit Norfolk, Virginia, I was first in line at the Williamsburg Ticketmaster window to buy a ticket (seriously…it was a physical location. At a grocery store.)
Opening for Ben Folds Five was an “alt country” musician named Robbie Fulks. I had never heard of him, or alt country for that matter, but I was intrigued. As a classic country fan who hated the poppy, Playgirl-model-from-the-city-wearing-tight-clothes-and-singing-with-a-fake-country-accent music Nashville had been littering the airwaves with, it was interesting for me to learn that a musician, and a genre, was emerging to take the industry to task. I loved “Country Love Songs” from the minute I listened to it, and quickly became just as excited to watch Fulks as I was to see the featured act.
The 2/23/1998 show at The Abyss was a culture clash. While Ben Folds and Robbie Fulks were both talented musicians and gifted writers with nearly identical senses of humor, they play decidedly different styles of music. By the time of this concert, Ben Folds Five had broken through to the MTV faithful. “Brick” had become a hit. The lyrics to “Song for the Dumped” were imprinted into their brains. The iconoclastic combination of masterful piano, punk sensibilities, intelligent lyrics, and quirky personality had captured their attention. It was quite clear when Fulks took the stage that very few were ready for a lanky lyricist in blue jeans channeling Hank Williams, Steve Earle, and Elvis Costello. “She Took A Lot of Pills and Died” was met with members of the audience turning to each other with “what in the world?” looks. By the time “Every Kind of Music But Country” was unveiled, heckling began. Jeers of “where’s Ben Folds?” and “who’s this redneck?” started to surface. The smile on Fulks’ face got bigger. Instead of the crowd laughing at the musician, the musician seemed to be laughing at the hecklers. It was almost as if he, and all of his supporters, were convinced “dude, if you aren’t enjoying this it’s your problem.”
In 2005 I had another opportunity to attend a Robbie Fulks show in Asheville, NC, at the Grey Eagle. I had never been to Asheville, let alone the Grey Eagle. And I didn’t spend a second researching what I was getting into. In my mind, I was about to see one of the most talented musicians in the world and any venue that could attract him must be worth checking out. The two hour drive to Asheville from Yadkinville was just enough time to listen to the brand new “Georgia Hard” twice, with breaks for “honey, are you sure this is the right exit?” and “didn’t you just go to the bathroom?” When my wife and I finally arrived, me in my Robbie Fulks “Country Is Not Pretty” shirt and she in my “Old Town School of Country Music” shirt, we doubled the head count. I checked the tickets again to make sure I didn’t get the time wrong. I didn’t. Thirty minutes until showtime…four people in the crowd.
The Grey Eagle was definitely a unique venue–equal parts coffee shop, corner bar, and family diner. With no one to fend off for general admission seats, my wife and I set up camp on a couch right in the front row of the small, but well-equipped, stage. A crowd slowly but surely began to assemble, but by the time Fulks walked onto stage there couldn’t have been more than 50 people in attendance. As excited as I was to be sitting three feet away from my favorite artist in what was seemingly a private and intimate performance, I found myself confused. Concerned. Out of body. It was like I had a favorite movie, but no one else wanted to see it. It was like I was watching the next Picasso paint, but realizing that his work would never be seen. This was the best concert I’ve ever attended, with none other being even close, but I was left more disturbed than fulfilled.
After the show, an audience member offered my wife and I a mysterious beverage in a flask (remember, it was North Carolina). After a few drinks and some great conversation, I was surprised to notice that sitting next to me was Robbie Fulks himself. He thanked my wife and I for sporting his shirts and sipped water while we all talked. My mind raced. “Robbie Fulks is sitting next to me.” “He just talked to me.” “What should I say to him?”
The best I could come up with was “I’m a really big fan, Robbie. Thanks for all you do.”
Sunday, Fulks wrote a post at RobbieFulks.com entitled “audience/no audience that has finally, after all of these years helped me reconcile my thoughts.
As true as it is that artists’ work and performances are influenced (necessarily, and often gratefully) by audience response, or that the roar of a crowd or a good sales week make the cock hang weightier, it seems to me that no artist is a creature of his audience. We don’t exist for them. If no one were there to listen and encourage and clap, we’d still be playing and singing, or would be at the slightest goad, such as a brassy niece coming round and getting your old banjo out of the attic. We are doing it for ourselves. Or we’re doing it for an audience that we don’t and could never have, the fanciful group of listeners conjured by the mind game, “What would I make if I could make what I would most like to hear?”
It reminds me of “With Great Power: The Stan Lee Story” In one scene of the documentary, Lee talks about when he was about to quit the comics business. Consumer advocate and parent groups had decided that comic books were harmful to kids. They had pressured comic book publishers to strip out anything that, in their eyes, could be harmful to young readers. As a result, comic books became boring, watered down, and uninspired. Stan Lee couldn’t take it any more, and talked to his wife about a possible career change. His wife noticed that the discomfort seemed to have little to do with creating comic books, and everything to do with how he was asked to create them. She urged him that if he wanted to quit, at least wait until he creates a comic book the way he wanted to. That way, she figured, he could get it out of his system. If he got fired, it wouldn’t matter because he wanted to quit anyway. That comic book ended up being The Fantastic Four, and started a ten-year run of creation that saw Lee invent Hulk, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, X-Men, Daredevil, Silver Surfer, and other classics.
I worry about artists. I worry about what consumers, publishers, corporations, communities, bill collectors, spouses and in-laws do to artists. And while I know that all art isn’t good, or even worthwhile, I know without question that a world without art would be unbearable. Feedback, applause, cheers, and jeers don’t create art, but they can encourage it. They can prevent it. They can nurse it and kill it and feed it and starve it.
And as magical as they can be, creators are flawed creatures. They need and don’t need audiences all at once. The really special ones, though, create because they don’t know what else to do. The really special ones don’t quit because they can’t find their audience, or because someone booed, or someone didn’t buy a ticket, or someone didn’t like their ideas. The artists that make it, whatever the hell that means anymore, have spouses, managers, friends, family, and fans that inject a pause into the inevitable decision to quit. The human brain’s biggest flaw is the desire to make everyone admire its master. An artist’s only hope is that she, herself, can admire her own creations.
Create like no one’s watching. Encourage others to do the same.