Artist of the Week: Benjy Ferree

Benjy Ferree’s new album, Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee is a magnificent, obsessive effort.  Inspired by the life of 1940s and 50s child star, Bobby Driscoll, Ferree wrote an entire album dedicated to his short and tragic life.  “Fear” is the true knock-out track of the album.  Taking not only the life of Driscoll as inspiration, it draws from the doo-wop and early rock and roll vocals from the same era.  If “Fear” acts as the dramatic anchor of the album, the rest of the songs sprawl out to tell Driscoll’s incredible story.  The fourth track, “Big Business” is a catchy rocker and another stand-out track.  It’s also a brilliant appropriation of the 50s aesthetic, filtered through the modern rock mindset of Ferree.

For those not familiar with the story of Driscoll, it’s a depressing tale.  He started out as a young actor, appearing in many films for Disney.  The animated version of Peter Pan was even modeled off of Driscoll’s appearance.  In a cruel twist of fate, he developed acne as a teenager and was slowly but surely dropped from all of his contracts.  Like so many child stars before and after him, he developed a drug problem, was quickly married, then divorced.  Unlike many other child stars, he moved to New York and joined Andy Warhol’s factory scene.  He lived a truly fascinating life that ended at the young age of 31 with an overdose in a tenement apartment.

Obviously, something about this story struck a chord with Ferree.  The difference between Ferree and Driscoll becomes confused throughout the album.  Is Ferree singing as the actor in third person, or merely singing about him?  Where does one person end and the other begin?  Ferree even impersonated Driscoll for the album cover.  In order to get to the bottom of where this deep obsession (that produced some excellent music) arose, we went straight to the source.

BTR: Your music is a combination of so many different genres – sometimes it’s more like Southern rockabilly, sometimes it’s more like Brit-pop, and sometimes it’s something entirely different.  Where do all these influences come from?

BF: I grew up in a gospel singing family.  I saw Bad Brains, Fugazi, Chuck Brown, and they filmed Experience Unlimited’s [“Da Butt”] video down the street from my high school.  The rest of it is a long story and it would require cocktails of the finest spirits.

BTR: Do you remember the first song you wrote?

BF: It was over a girl and it was really just a bad song.

How did it come about?

This white guy played bass in a go-go band and I thought he was cool because he was laid back and generous.  I felt comfortable enough to write a bad song in front of him.  He must have truly loved me.

BTR: How did you come to write an album about Bobby Driscoll?

I saw Altman’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime Jimmy Dean Jimmy Dean at the AFI in Silver Spring, Maryland, walked home and looked up Bobby Dee.  I got depressed when I read about the last days of his life because I never knew.  I just assumed that he grew old and had a huge funeral with Annette or Tommy Kirk giving a warm speech.  Then I came up with the title exactly how Dirk Diggler came up with his name {pretty much}.  Neon lights and everything.  Truly, I just couldn’t stop thinking about his life and my own life.  Then mostly it was my friend dying of cancer.

BTR: Where does that fascination come from?

I tried to fly when I was young a lot and I loved his movies, his voice, and his eyebrows.

How do you see this latest album in relation to your previous album, Leaving the Nest?

They’re 8th cousins one thousand times removed.

BTR: Been listening to anything good lately?

BF: I’m still happy that King Khan and BBQ are making records.  And that the Saints and the Sonics are playing shows again.  And that my label is cranking out Triffids re-issues.

What’s next for you?

Well, I’ve been pretty good lately.  A Ledo’s pizza with pre-cooked bacon.  The sauce is tangy, and the bacon is gamey.  Ledo’s are rectangular and make slices of delicious pizza squares.  You know, like a breakfast square, or a desert square?  You know exactly what I’m talking about.  “Squares” are something Marge Simpson would make, like a “firm gelatin square”.  “Square” sounds much better than “bar”.  So, try “Ledo’s pizza squares” today!

And by the way, as per that pizza quote, Ferree just wrote me that he “truly ate too much of that pizza as soon as [he] was done.”



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