Toxic relationships are often apparent to everyone but the two people inside of them. Like cigarettes, they will eventually kill you. Like cigarettes, sometimes it’s easier to just delay the inevitable hard slog of breaking the habit and all the restless, anxious nights this entails. People who quit cigarettes act like total dicks. People who were just dumped exhibit similar dickish behaviour. Both are chemical upheavals. The fact that it will take many, many decades for these things to kill you means it’s rather easy to put off the decision to quit them; you rarely wake up in a crack den with dry blood in your hair after a hardcore tobacco bender, so it takes far too long to realise that you are – in fact – doing severe damage to yourself. Plus it does look cool.
But this isn’t about the dangers of cigarettes, in fact this song isn’t even about that. The title was pinched (kinda) from the Verve song ‘The Drugs Don’t Work’, and the only link seems to be that both cigarettes and sunshine-stealers (phrase borrowed [again] by Jenni Konner) are bad for your health.
In ‘Cigarettes Will Kill You’, Ben was blind to his girlfriend’s conniving, ladder-climbing ways, but his friends weren’t. Props to them for warning him about her, too; often it isn’t until after a relationship is dead that the true-feelings-autopsy is performed on a friend’s partner. “They swore you’d steal my steam to feed your dream and then be gone”, he sings in the chorus, before delivering the knock out blow. “I wish I could say that everyone was wrong.” Ben was used, plain and simple, and somewhere deep inside he must have known this. Maybe not though; it’s pretty damn easy to block out any unwelcome dissonance when you are in those early stages of love. Red flags look like regular flags when you are wearing rose-coloured glasses.
Ben Lee had just turned 20 when he released the ‘Breathing Tornadoes’ album, and was dating actress Claire Danes at the time. Considering she was coming off the back of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ fame, it’s doubtful she was the aforementioned steam stealer/dream-feeder in question. The pair met in April 1997, at her 18th birthday party (meet cute? more like meet-awesome) but it is conceivable that while in the flushes of new love, he was also casting his mind back to another failed romance for inspiration. Or maybe he just made the whole thing up. It doesn’t matter.
(A side note: If Ben Lee ever wished to form a cult, we should all be extremely concerned. Watching the excellent documentary ‘Catch My Disease’ about his life, it is astounding how many brilliant, gorgeous actresses fell completely under his spell, platonic or romantic: Claire Danes, Winona Ryder, Michelle Williams, Jason Schwartzman [not technically an actress, but hey] – they all seem enthralled by him, and in each case they seemed to do the chasing, too.)
The song’s nursery rhyme melody and jaunty piano hook meant it was a fast success, helping push ‘Breathing Tornadoes’ into the mainstream charts – his first entry – and eventually being voted #2 in the 1998 Triple J Hottest 100, beaten to pole position by the charming novelty hit ‘Pretty Fly For A White Guy’, which received a flood of votes despite the fact that almost no Triple J listener admitted to liking the song at the time. Lee did himself some minor credibility damage when he claimed ‘Breathing Tornadoes’ was the greatest Australian album ever (it’s actually the 76th best, FYI) during the press cycle, after which Powderfinger vocalist Bernard Fanning memorably called him a “precocious little cunt.”
But this was just a blip in what has flourished into an interesting, artistic life, which includes a concept album about Ayahuasca, a Hindu marriage ceremony, being crowned PETA’s World’s Sexiest Vegetarian, breathing workshops which I am annoyed aren’t named ‘Breathing Tornadoes’, a stint on The Voice, and even a reunion record with his scrappy, charming teenage rock band Noise Addict. Come to think of it, that cult idea is sounding great.