So Over the Bars of a Graveyard: “Amelia Bright” & the Imperative of Resurrection

December 1, 2011 at 4:19 pm, by

On April 29, 2000, Ben Folds Five performed “Amelia Bright” at the University of Scranton.

Because “Amelia Bright” was a song slated for an album the band never finished recording, the widely dispersed 4/29/00 recording of “Amelia Bright,” was canonized by BFF fans as the unofficially “official” arrangement of the song.

“Amelia Bright”–penned by the Five’s drummer, Darren Jessee–paints the portrait of two lovers: an anonymous narrator, and Amelia Bright. But Amelia might be dead.

In the famous bootleg, the chorus begins, “Here lies Amelia Bright / In a red 50s dress from a thrift shop nearby.

Red is a bright and lively color. So it comes as a shock to the listener when Folds begins the last chorus slightly differently: “Here lies Amelia Bright / Over the bars of a graveyard nearby.

And the narrator concludes the chorus with an ambiguous image: he lied down and “stared at the sky / with Amelia Bright.”

Is Amelia Bright’s spirit in the sky (hence “the sky / with Amelia Bright”), her body lying beneath a tombstone (“Here lies Amelia Bright / Over the bars of a graveyard…”)?

Or is she alive?

In the second verse, we hear:

There’s me
Spread all over the floor.
I’m lost in one place.
I’m stuck, and I’m straight.
And I hope you feel the same too.

Are these words sung to a dead body in a coffin with the hope that she feels something in that cramped grave? Or, are these words merely sung to some wasted lover, lying powerlessly on the floor? Is she wiped out but alive, or truly breathless and gone?

The word “dead” never appears in the song, and the ambiguities are endless.

In 2008, Jessee’s new band Hotel Lights released their album Firecracker People, featuring their own studio cut of “Amelia Bright.” Not only did this version have new orchestration, it lacked the “graveyard” line, which was the whole point of tension between Amelia’s life and death!

So the rearranged “Amelia Bright” gives fewer clues indicating that Amelia is dead. And why would she be? After all, the warlike, bassy drumming on the chorus in the Hotel Lights track almost imitates an overactive heartbeat.

Nonetheless the music is more subdued in Hotel Lights’ arrangement. In fact, there’s a lot of dead space (i.e. silence) that can be haunting, utterly divergent from the rocking BFF version.

So, what’s the real version of the song? Ben Folds Five’s wild bootleg, or Hotel Lights’ later, gentler, more sophisticated cut?

To answer this question, Darren Jessee took a cue from his own lyrics. In the final verse, he reminds Amelia that she has “a life to rewrite and improve.”

Darren rewrote “Amelia Bright” for Hotel Lights, for reasons that, for BFF fanatics, may have never made sense until recently. Fans have been split over wether the Firecracker People “Amelia Bright” is an improvement over the Scranton bootleg.

About two months ago, Ben Folds released The Best Imitation of Myself: A Retrospective, a collection spanning his career from longtime fan favorites to previously unreleased recordings. Among those rarer treasures was the long-lost 2000 studio version of “Amelia Bright.” Many fans celebrated this news, but many were later disappointed to hear what felt to them like a lackluster, heavy-handed studio outtake rightfully never intended for release. (Too late.)

Despite the vivacity some bootlegger once captured in 2000, “Amelia Bright” never came to life in the studio with BFF.

Darren’s strategy was to take Amelia’s life, rewrite it, and improve it. So, in the 2008 rewrite, Darren’s more chill, and Amelia’s not dead. And it’s gorgeous.

For Jessee, this was a song that almost died. But, he resurrected it. He executed his own techiyyat hammetim (“enlivening of the dead”) in order to save this art. And not only did he perform techiyyat hammetim on the song, he breathed new life into Amelia herself: once dead, now alive.

I struggle with the idea of a physical, bodily resurrection of the dead (even though Jewish texts do talk about this). I believe in the spiritual and soulful resurrection of the best of all that we know that has died–people, relationships, values, crafts. But I don’t think some messianic, anointed king nor God alone is gonna do this resurrection for us; techiyyat hammetim is our imperative.

One reason I love bootlegs is the potential that lies within those lost gems. Maybe that song didn’t work in the studio. But maybe it can work in the studio when you re-imagine it. When a song is dead, perhaps it is a mitzvah to do our best to resurrect it. After all, it’s so beautiful when you give it the right soul.

On August 17 this year, I got to see Hotel Lights perform in Brooklyn.

It was awesome. Plus they performed “Amelia Bright.” While it impressively resembled Firecracker People‘s symphonic masterpiece, Darren–sitting at the electric piano–pounded out a huge glissando at the final pre-chorus, and–for just a moment–it sounded more like Ben Folds Five than Hotel Lights.

“Amelia Bright” might be alive, but she’s not yet fully formed. Techiyyat hammetim is not merely resurrecting and reforming that which has died. It is that entire process of birthing and nurturing a creation that began with a single cell, a single gamete, or a single negligible studio outtake. Techiyyat hammetim is witnessing the continual development of that which was once dead.

This month, Ben Folds Five will be reuniting with the hopes of creating their first new CD in 12 years.

The band may have “died” in their disbanding in October 2000, but, given the delightful fruits of Folds’ solo career and Jessee’s Hotel Lights, it seems the Five have a lot of potential for finding some new nourishment in the studio.

Just as Jessee gave a new and desirous life to Amelia, fellow Ben Folds fans and I are praying hopefully that BFF will perform the mitzvah of techiyyat hammetim in order to bring about a long-awaited revival of themselves.

This is a band with a life to resurrect: to rewrite and improve.

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2 Comments So Far

  1. Wow. Fantastic work Jonah. Let’s hope they really are resurrecting and not just one of Ben’s ideas that never come to fruition.

    Josh Frisch, December 3, 2011 at 6:09 pm #
  2. Thanks Josh, and amen! I still remember Ben announcing he was working on a jazz album right before the 3 EPs came out… still waiting on that one.

    I spoke to Darren after the Hotel Lights show in NY in August, and I asked him if they were really coming back into the studio. His answer was that they were talking about it but there was nothing official planned.

    I’m curious to see what Ben’s tweets this month reveal.

    Thanks again for the kind words, dude!

    Jonah Rank, December 3, 2011 at 6:18 pm #
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