When Ben Folds supported John Mayer on his Continuum tour in 2007 things didn’t go entirely to plan - and we’ll get to that - but what’s even more interesting is how the pair met in the first place.
Writing in his excellent 2019 book A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons, Folds recalls that he first became aware of Mayer back in the late ‘90s, “when he was just some kid at Berklee College of Music who was bootlegging Ben Folds Five concerts and selling them online.”
Fearful of how digital distribution was changing the music industry, Folds says that his then manager wanted to make an example of Mayer and “bust his ass for profiting off our music,” but that he convinced him to “call off the dogs and leave the kid alone.”
Justifying his decision, Folds writes: “I didn’t see anything wrong with someone being excited about our music and sharing it with others.”
Folds and Mayer’s next encounter was in 2000, when the guitarist turned up backstage in Athens, at one of Folds’ gigs. Then, when Folds was filming the video for Rockin’ the Suburbs with Weird Al Yankovic, Mayer was there again, “Just hanging around, I guess, to see how it was done.”
And then to 2007: “Seven years later, millions of records [sold], a handful of Grammys and countless tabloid covers later, [Mayer] had pretty well figured out how it was done,” writes Folds. “It turns out this kid was an absolutely brilliant guitarist and songwriter. And so we were now touring together, a newly world-famous John Mayer taking out the old dude he looked up to when he was younger.”
All good, you would have thought, but there was a problem: Ben Folds’ cover of Dr Dre's controversial Bitches Ain’t Shit.
Released as the B-side for Landed, a single from the 2005 Songs For Silverman album, Folds says that his intention with his version of the song was to create “an absurd effect, both sad and funny,” achieved by slowing down the words in comparison to their gangsta-rap delivery and adding a melody (which Folds believes is one of his best).
“Sung this way,” Folds argues, “the misogyny in the original lyrics could be explained by how badly the narrator was hurt.”
The song was certainly open to interpretation, though, and whatever the intention, it was starting to go viral - or as viral as anything could go in 2007 - and had introduced Folds to an audience of what he calls “drunken college boys”.
“I can’t say I was comfortable with all of this,” recalls Folds. “In fact, the song never got easier for me to sing. It always felt so wrong, but, then, that was also part of what made it interesting.”
Mayer’s shows were meant to be family-friendly, though, and when Folds played Bitches Ain’t Shit on the tour - reasoning that it was his current ‘hit’ and therefore had to be in the set - it went down badly, and was frequently booed. Folds’ reaction? Give the crowd the finger and play the song twice, just to get an even bigger rise out of them.
This led to an awkward meeting with Mayer’s manager, Michael McDonald (not that one), who requested that Folds cut Bitches Ain’t Shit from his set.
Folds refused, calling it censorship: “And I stuck with that line,” he confirms. “I told him that I wouldn’t hold a grudge if he fired me. But he knew that John wanted me on the tour, and so I was kept on. It was probably unfair of me to be so stubborn, but I was a child that year, at least onstage.”
Folds says that he was going through an “awful divorce” at the time, suggesting that this may have contributed to his behaviour. Things escalated even more when, seeking a compromise, McDonald asked Folds if he would at least refrain from playing the song twice. Folds agreed, but then proceeded to play it… three times.
Reflecting on the controversy, Folds says: “These days I’ve stopped playing Bitches Ain’t Shit and I ignore requests for it. Music should work to ease social tensions, not throw gasoline on the fire, even inadvertently. I don’t want non-white people in my audience subjected to large numbers of white people gleefully singing a racial slur that had never been the point.”
A Dream About Lightning Bugs: A Life of Music and Cheap Lessons is published by Simon & Schuster, and Ben Folds' new album, What Matters Most, has just been released. Check out the Ben Folds website for tour dates and tickets.