Probably some of you don’t know who this is, but he was someone special to me. Ben Bochner. I was sitting on a train in London yesterday when I learned of his unexpected death from a massive stroke. News of a friend’s passing is always sad to hear, but learning of Ben’s sudden exit pierced my heart.
The first thing I did was turn my face toward the window and the second thing I did was search for him on spotify to see if his record was there. The one I have listened to dozens of times. Heartland. I found it, clicked on ‘Big League Dreams’ and listened with hot tears to Ben’s rich baritone voice roll through an ageless tale of a young man chasing an unlikely dream. After years of eating dust in bush league towns, the young man finally gets his chance. And then comes the trademark Ben Bochner twist. You should listen to the song.
I first heard him sing 'Big League Dreams' at a music festival called Kerrville, in Texas. It was 2013, a hot day even in the shade under the New Folk tent. A few of us were passing a guitar around, drinking afternoon beers, playing songs for each other. My first impression of Ben was what a gracious presence he had. Just wide open in his soul and easy going and gentle. And then the guitar got to him and he dropped this nine verse smartbomb of a baseball song that left everyone wet-eyed and speechless. I cried the first time I heard Ben Bochner sing.
A few hours later, I watched him on stage in front of a packed audience of a couple hundred people. He sang this song called Unknown Blessings - a song about being thankful for the good things coming your way, even though right now you might not know what they are. Think about that for a second. Ben has this way of writing melodies that are instantly familiar, and by the second chorus, every person in the audience was singing along. "Give thanks for unknown blessings, already on their way."
Ben and I parted ways after that weekend at the festival. We traded albums. I put his in the car CD player and gave it a listen, and another, and then it just lived in my car for about two months. Most of the songs were just Ben and his guitar and maybe a second guitar and some harmonies. But it was all about the song and the singing. Which is what I’m in it for. Songs like Heartland, Her Hands, Still Small Voice, Midnight to Midnight, and of course Big League Dreams and Unknown Blessings just got inside me and carried me around through that long summer tour.
Later that year I had a residency thing at a club in Portland and I asked Ben to come up and be part of it for a night. We hung out, drank some beers and I got to enjoy a little more of that sweet disposition and self-effacing humor. I also remember later that evening, during his set, there was a girl in the room, young and pretty and indifferent to the quiet wordy music coming off the stage. She talked to her friend through every song and was completely oblivious that she was the only one doing that. I watched Ben get more and more annoyed, until he finally just called the girl out from the stage. "Hey darlin, I'm singing some songs up here. If you gave em a chance, you might just hear something you like." And he smiled. I thought she’d get up and leave, but she didn’t, and she didn’t talk again either. I guess she did hear something she liked because she bought his CD at the end of the night.
Not many songwriters have moved me like Ben did. He was a real troubadour - no shellac to him whatsoever - and his songs were unironic and from the heart, with just enough piss and vinegar to make em stick. There’s gonna be a very well-attended funeral in Eugene tomorrow. It kills me that I’m stuck over here. But I know Ben will be surrounded by a lot of genuine people and good-hearted friends, all sharing tears and laughter and some really great memories of a man who quietly inspired so many of us.
"You can laugh at the moon, you can laugh at my tune, but you’re a fool if you’re laughing at love."
Thanks Scott Carson Ausburn for the photo.