Signs You’ve Made It

Inspired by: Free Coffee” (2008) from the Ben Folds’ album Way to Normal


As the first song from Way to Normal to pop up in the series, let’s talk about how Ben Folds recorded almost two whole albums and “leaked” the “wrong” version of the songs, which led to a lot of internet discussion on the various Ben Folds sites around the internet what was going on because the “leaked” versions were definitely a little more foul mouthed than regular Ben Folds.

As a quick aside, the first time I saw him perform “Free Coffee” live was pretty amazing. If you listen to the song, it has a very distinct piano sound, one that people that he made by using a distortion pedal or something similar. But one of the first times I saw him play the song live, which was a few weeks before the album had even released, he put a tin of Altoids on the piano strings and did some other stuff I’m surely forgetting to get the wonderful sound.

He also apparently did it at a show I went to a few months before that show that the internet apparently forgot (but I was there, I promise!). It just reinforces his musical bonafides in my eye, something that was further reinforced when I was a member of his Patreon a while ago and he wrote a song in a couple of hours (from lyrics submitted by patrons) playing all the instruments while we watched in stunned silence for the most part.

Anyway… while not all the songs got the “leaked” treatment, “Free Coffee” was among those that did, with an alternate version called “Free Coffee Town.” It’s a different concept altogether. It’s upbeat and almost has a counter narrative to the “Free Coffee” that was on the real album. Whereas the album song is about becoming famous and being given things, “Free Coffee Town” is almost an ideal version of what would make life even more amazing:

I want to live in a land where there’s free coffee
And the beer flows out of the ground
The women are nice and they don’t think twice
About kissing you and fooling around

I wanna live in a place where there’s lots of diamonds
And the parties last till dawn
The fights don’t hurt and there’s chocolate dirt
And the weed is grown instead of the lawn

Ben Folds, “Free Coffee Town”

While Ben Folds has never become a super megastar like a lot of his contemporaries, he’s “famous” in the sense that people who know him know that he’s a big deal. Just like any celebrity I suppose. The narrator in “Free Coffee” – which is likely Folds himself – laments that when he was broke, or an unknown, he struggled through life like everyone else. Now, that he has some level of “fame,” he goes to the same places he used to go when he was struggling and they throw perks at him that he doesn’t necessarily want:

And they gave me some food
And they didn’t charge me
And they gave me some coffee
But they didn’t charge me
And when I was broke I needed it more.
But now that I’m rich, they give me coffee.

Ben Folds, “Free Coffee”

I see the free coffee as a metaphor for all the perks afforded to a certain class of people that aren’t afforded to everyone else. And the “famous” version of Ben Folds is wondering what he’s done to deserve all this special treatment, other than being a moderately successful musician.

This isn’t to begrudge Folds his success or anything like that. Musicians from his background that manage to stick around for almost 30 years should be lauded. He lives a comfortable life, and at some level, I think he still remembers those days in North Carolina 30 years ago when he was trying to book his weird “rock” ensemble at local clubs, playing for bad food or gas money. He just doesn’t need the free coffee, and wishes that they would offer it to someone who does.

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