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“Dolby’s Rupees: ‘Zak and Sara’ by Ben Folds”

*”Oh think I’ll write a screenplay

Oh think I’ll take me to LA

Oh think I’ll get it done yesterday”

-“Army,” Ben Folds

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Full Dolby Disaster ‘Zak and Sara’ lyrics:

“Sara spelled without an ‘h’ was getting bored

On a Peavey [1] amp in 1984

While Zak without a ‘c’ [2] tried out some new guitars

Playing Sara-with-no-‘h’’s favorite song

 

La da da la da da la da da [3]

La da da la da da la da da

Zak and Sara

 

Often Sara would have spells where she lost time

She saw the future she heard voices from inside

The kind of voices she would soon learn to deny

Because at home they got her smacked

 

La da da la da da la da da

La da da la da da la da da

Zak and Sara

 

Zak called his dad about layaway plans

Sara told the friendly salesmen that

‘You’ll all die in your cars

And why’s it gotta be dark?

And you’re all working in a submarine

A**hole [4]’

 

She saw the lights she saw the pale English face

Some strange machines repeating beats and thumping bass

Pictures of pills that put you in a loving trance

That make it possible for all white boys to dance

And when Zak finished Sara’s song Sara clapped

 

La da da la da da la da da

La da da la da da la da da

Zak and Sara”

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Above you see two transcribed sets of lyrics: one from “Army,” appearing first on the Ben Folds Five’s scantily received fourth album from 1999 The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner [5], and then the entire furnishing of “Zak and Sara,” of which there’s apparently a studio version but one of little concern compared to the captivating showstopper of a run-through on Ben Folds Live.

Versatility, to me, is the mark of any great musician. I read in the R.E.M. biography Perfect Circle by Tony Fletcher that immediately following Murmur, for instance, Stipe and a couple band mates actually tried their hands at heavy metal (this would have been right about at the genesis of thrash and its disciples like Metallica and Slayer). Over the years, we’ve seen Les Claypool dabble in any number of different acts from Oysterhead to Les Claypool’s Bucket of Burning Brains, now reincarnated in The Claypool Lennon Delirium, and in my opinion Primus’ 2017 work The Desaturating Seven was some of the finest of their career.

More importantly, though, playing with different band mates, shedding that costume, putting yourself in different places and getting off on your own can often be a revelation in liberty, in really harnessing a potent vial of your true vision and delivering it seamlessly to the masses.

Well, you would have known just by the very infrastructural makeup of Ben Folds Live that the Chapel Hill vocalist and pianist weren’t lacking in confidence. Folds played all the parts himself, with no help, all in spotlighted concert setting [6] with no synthesizers, no tape looping or voice-overs – no artificial sound, in other words, but all organic, microphoned and beamed into the audience and onto wax [7]. Ben Folds Live does feature “Brick,” which was pretty much the one foray into chart success boasted by his prior band Ben Folds Five (who do actually have “live” albums of their own out there, to make matters most confusing).

I’d been a casual fan of “Brick,” vastly preferring Marcy Playground’s “Sex and Candy” which similarly came out the winter break of my eighth grade year, usually seeing Ben Folds as this kind of nerdy [8], overly conceptual pedagogical without much cultural clout, if you will. My big sister got into Ben Folds Live late in 2002 and was thrusting that and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots at me, the latter of which I roundly favored for the classic rock m.o. and the Monkees pop sense.

One more college romance down, I think, and I wanted something that ACHED a little more – something organic, a statement in favor of music’s healing power. I forget how it actually happened, but somebody turned me on to Ben Folds Live.

Oh, you know what it was, come to think of it: I FOUND a Ben Folds CD in a disk drive, burned onto a CD-R, in one of the computer labs at IU. Not to be above handy artifacts, I took it home and listened to it, falling in love with pretty much every song on it like “Fair” and “Selfless, Cold and Composed” (to its credit “Song for the Dumped” [9] wasn’t on it, or at least wasn’t positioned prominently).

Somehow this collection of random songs by the artist led me to Ben Folds Live and, at track two, “Zak and Sara,” a song of this sweeping overarching beauty and cinematically depicted lyrical scene. “Zak and Sara” opens with a rapidly constructed descending piano arpeggio, something related to what Third Eye Blind or Lit might have done five years earlier on the guitar, but slower, and with markedly less skill and confidence (remember Folds is playing without electronics or effects pedals). It opens up cheesy and cheeky, like something your sister, or girls in general would like (and I have met girls who really love this song and really love music in general), “Sara spelled without an ‘h’ was getting bored”. Then comes reference to a “Peavey amp,” which is more of a guy type thing, a detail-oriented thing of a big honkin’ piece of machinery the likes of which any manly man can certainly laud. Eventually, it’s the guy who’s the hero, “try(ing) out some new guitars” and “Playing Sara with no ‘h’’s favorite song”, but again, we have the repetition of that juvenile classification of nomenclature, and the female figure having been portrayed first and so in a sense still dominant in our minds, also worthy of such attention and musical creation. To me, these lyrics are perfectly balanced between the genders, unleashed with impeccable cinematic perspective, in this sense.

But it gets better. See, the song itself is trippy, with its penchant for rendering chord progressions and delivering emphatic, hearty vocals, again with no electronic help whatsoever. But it’s nothing compared to the lyrics, which offer a glimpse into the mind of Sara, a schizophrenic who almost sort of “comes unstuck in time” like Billy Pilgrim of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five [11], and unleashes this hilariously lurid doomsday prediction to the lives of all the salesmen in the guitar shop where Zak is practicing, or serenading, however you wish to view it.

Now, it’s surprising to me that Folds doesn’t have a degree in literature, because just as a B.A. in English holder myself, I can easily view multiple ways of analyzing this song, in terms of the complex psychology plotted down objectively in one of the characters, as well as in terms of the artist himself and the kinds of sociological things he might want to diagram with the rhetoric he’s grafted. One of these things, and this is a relatively musical discussion I guess as opposed to a psychological one, is the death of rock music – it’s a guitar that Zak is trying out, but in her sort of expressionist hallucination, rock music has given way to “strange machines repeating beats and thumping bass”. The salesmen in the store, then, who seem to give Sara an off-putting vibe, might represent continued commerce, the type of thing that doesn’t regard what exact thing it is being sold, as long as there is some selling going on. Folds himself identifies most with Zak, the virtuoso of the antiquated brand of music, making a musical statement not opportunistically bolstered by the style of the times, but with focus and genuineness.

Something odd happened at work on Sunday, a day which for some reason seemed to call for music that was reflective and… uh, kinda depressing. I enjoyed Ben Folds Live more than I did R.E.M. – New Adventures in Hi-Fi, which I’d hitherto consider a classic untouchable in soundtracking the falling of the leaves this time of year. “How the West Was Won and Where it Got Us” boomed in with its dark, eerie tension, and that fully did the trick, but at other times it seemed to devolve into glossy alt-rock shmear, getting by on the same tired old riffs that have bulwarked mainstream also-rans for several decades.

Ben Folds Live is a poetry lover’s rock album, set to astonishingly bare musical rudiments. What’s even better, some of the songs actually come with an initial explanation, like “Not the Same” which is about a dude who tripped on acid too hard and then became a born-again Christian, and of course “Brick,” which hauls in another gut-busting load of real-life experience, dealing with an aborted child of him and his girlfriend. “Fred Jones Part Two” sympathizes beautifully with the old and lambasted: “Life moves on like a runaway train / Where the passengers change / They don’t change anything / You get off someone else can get on”. “Jane” again considers other people’s plight keenly so that by “One down,” you’re happy to hear Folds actually narcissistically shout out his barbaric “yawp” (he actually says he’s gonna “sh**” out some music) and truly acknowledge that he’s built a musical career to be reckoned with, from the ground up, and in all the right ways. But “Zak and Sara” will to me always remain the centerpiece and galvanizing statement on Ben Folds Live and once I heard it, right away, I was permanently glued to his solo stuff.

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[1] Astonishingly, “Google Lyrics” has apparently failed to acknowledge this as an “amp” made by Peavey Electronics and allotted the word as “Peavea,” which I’ve seen fit to correct.

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[2] Uh yeah Google I’m pretty sure that’s gonna be the letter “c” in there and not the verb “see” meaning optically view, barring some serious reverse-misogyny here on the part of artist and translator or something.

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[3] Google also omitted this gibberish session, which I just find oh so crucial!

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[4] This expletive is apparently only present on the Ben Folds Live version, which I consider the definitive version.

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[5] To be honest I’ve never listened to the whole album but “Army” surfaces on Ben Folds Live, a solo piano-and-vox live album the importance of which I’ll get to in a sec.

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[6] The album was apparently recorded at various shows from March-July 2002 and released as an audio document in October of that same year.

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[7] Significantly, though, Folds does enlist the crowd for some key vocal help on “Army” and “Not the Same” as well as even who but John McCrea of the band Cake for “Fred Jones Part 2.”

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[8] And I’m pretty sure this is exactly how the listening public saw him in 1999 as they gravitated to boy bands, rock/rap and Eminem, despite a couple of really great songs being on The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner. Heck, if half of those people were even to learn the dictionary definition of “biography,” that would be an achievement in itself, probably.

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[9] Despite the fact that it’s, like, about dating, “Song for the Dumped” actually isn’t that COOL – a musically flat gag-anthem where the artist would be better off indulging in bona fide melancholy than trying to show off some comedic, toothy meanness.

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[10] In a sense, then, even the “Peavey amp” is relatively high-tech by Folds’ standards, and it’s ironic and perhaps telling that he portrays a story of this machinery, like a resigned plaint of the overtaking of the world by said machinery.

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[11] I’ve heard rumors of cats being aware of when a person is about to die, like in a nursing home where they will cuddle up and curl up with them just a few short hours before the passing, on a consistent basis. This could be related to a similar time-shifting phenomenon.

 

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