There’s a story, almost certainly apocryphal, where Ernest Hemingway made a ten-dollar bar-room bet that he could write a complete novel in six words. The bet was taken, the money collected (no doubt in a bowler hat), and then he wrote on a napkin:
For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.
This has long been held as the prime example of word economy, and although nobody has matched it for brevity and emotional weight since, there have been numerous examples of this in the world of popular song, as we all call it. The Beatles’ ‘Eleanor Rigby’ manages to paint an entire lonely world in only a handful of lines, while – as discussed – Cat Stevens nailed the disconnect between generations in ‘Father and Son’ without a single stray syllable. Less poetically, NOFX really captured the urgency of having to pee in just three words in their classic ‘I Gotta Pee’ (although there is also a two-word refrain of ‘call-911’ and a one-word twist at the end).
‘Cigarette’ by Ben Folds Five slides into this lineage beautifully, a spare 98-second interlude which documents the selfless, worn-down life of Fred Jones, his struggle as anonymous and familiar as his name. He spends his days caring for a wife stricken with either drug addiction, terminal illness, or perhaps both, yet he isn’t even granted respite during the nights, as he is constantly on guard in case she accidentally sets the house ablaze with a dangling cigarette. It’s tragic: he is a silent hero, and it makes me deeply sad and tired to my bones just thinking about it.
The song sits on the back end of Ben Folds Five’s breakthrough album ‘Whatever and Ever Amen’, and is one of numerous heart-wrenching moments on this landmark record. Folds deals in both flippancy and dark character studies equally on this album – the track is followed by a jaunty tale about a guy who keeps throwing himself farewell parties but never quite leaves, a necessary emotional reset after the heavy air of ‘Cigarette’ (Sidebar: An ex-girlfriend and I used to have to watch an episode of ‘Futurama’ after watching the brutal prison drama ‘Oz’ late at night on SBS to achieve a similar reset).
On Folds’ debut solo album ‘Rockin’ The Suburbs’ – released in 2001 – Fred Jones’ lonely tale is fleshed out further on ‘Fred Jones Pt 2’ which details his final day at the newspaper he has worked at for 25 years – presumably having being laid off – where, “there was no party, there were no songs, ‘cos today’s just a day like the day that he started.” His sad desk accoutrements sit in a cardboard box; a younger man waits to escort him downstairs.
It’s a terrible story, and hopefully Folds will write a Part 3 that involves a beautiful new bride, a lotto win, and a life of happy luxury – but somehow I doubt it. Folds is – unfortunately – too good a storyteller for such easy endings. I’m sorry, Mr. Jones.