Originally published on MadeLoud, April 26, 2009
In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Bobby Driscoll was one of Walt Disney’s hottest properties, a charismatic child actor from Iowa who proved himself capable of shouldering big productions like Treasure Island, Song of the South and the animated Peter Pan. Before hitting puberty, Driscoll earned a special Academy Award, a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and a lot of money. Unfortunately, salary disputes and a severe case of acne led Disney to cut him loose not long after he came of age. After that, Driscoll floated around the periphery of the acting world, taking TV and stage roles and eventually becoming an early fixture in Andy Warhol’s Factory entourage. Sadly, his adult life was plagued by a severe drug addiction that led to repeated arrests and, eventually, his death. At the age of 31, the former star was buried in an unmarked grave in a New York potter’s field.
As a boy, Maryland-based singer-songwriter Benjy Ferree was a huge fan of Driscoll’s Disney work – especially as the voice and character model for Peter Pan – but he had no idea of his hero’s unglamorous end. After reading Driscoll’s tragic story online, Ferree says he “got super depressed at first and had to write a record.” Paraphrasing a title from a Robert Altman film, he crafted Come Back to the Five and Dime, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee, a 14-song cycle that he calls a “tribute record” to the forgotten child star.
It’s the obscurity of Driscoll’s demise that sticks with Ferree most. “Not that I was right, but when I wrote the record, I felt that nobody cared about him but me. He was the face and voice of my childhood dream hero, and [he was] forgotten about. The fact that I couldn’t find a book or even a bad film (it’ll happen) made about him seemed nuts. I was devastated when I found out. I thought I knew everything about him.”
The life and death of Bobby Driscoll is a topic especially well suited to Ferree’s style. The wide reach of Disney is one of his recurring themes, cropping up repeatedly in his lyrics and conversation. The various sections of his website, are given theme park-ready names like “Safariland” (tour dates) and “Futureland” (music and video), and the signature emblazoned across the top of each page bears an unmistakable resemblance to Walt Disney’s famous scrawl.
As Ferree crafted the songs, it became evident that the album’s scope would reach beyond the lonesome death of Bobby Driscoll. Events in his own life, including the death of a close friend, shaped the album into a personal project that’s as much about Ferree as Driscoll. “I really dedicated the record to my late friend Chris, but Bobby Dee jump started my life around me. I guess it makes sense to me, since music is my life and the language that I know the most. I’ve walked away from it with what’s important in life to me. I was not expecting that.”
The final product is a musically accomplished, uniquely moving portrait of a boy growing into manhood under the burden of Disney-fixation. “My conscience is a cricket / Every time I curse he writes me a ticket,” Ferree sings on the opening track, the aptly titled “Tired of Being Good.” Employing diverse styles ranging from blues stomps to doo-wop to balladeering, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee digs deep into Driscoll’s self-doubt (“When the mailman wears a mask and brings a ticking box / It’s called fear”), failed marriage (“In a whirlpool of love the spiral takes you down / To the bottom of the sea”) and drug addiction (“It would be my prayer / To come off the junk”).
Yet even with the dark nature of the material, Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee carries itself with a hopeful air that’s definitely by design. “Someone’s tragic death becomes the most important thing that the world remembers them for after they have gone,” Ferree says. “[Bobby Driscoll’s] memory is treated like bums get treated: ‘If you ignore him, he’ll go away.’ I felt like I had to dedicate a record to him before I wrote the first song in his memory.”
As might be expected, the songwriting process for such a personal and ambitious album differed from the approach Ferree took to his debut record, 2006’s Leaving the Nest. Again, he goes back to Disney as a point of comparison. “This record was more of a quick decision and it didn’t take as long to make… It was more animal than the first one. The first one was animal, but more like when Bambi first met Thumper – a shy record, you could say. The Dee record was the hunter killing Bambi’s mom and Bambi getting to know his hardened and stern father afterward.”
Apparently there’s an audience for a sadder but wiser Bambi of an album, as Bobby Dee, Bobby Dee has brought Ferree a good level of national exposure. He recently played several sets at the 2009 South by Southwest festival and was a featured artist on National Public Radio’s World Café program. Still, Ferree hasn’t gotten too swept up in his own growing hype. “I don’t know if anything has changed,” he says, “Except for the fact that I’ve played more radio shows since then that my closest friends are super excited about. I’m out of the loop on radio, cable TV, new bands, et cetera. But playing radio shows has been dreamy and I like the scary, crazy buzz from it.”
So what’s behind the widespread appeal of a musical chronicle of a star who no one seemed to care about? Ferree suggests it may have something to do with Bobby Driscoll’s status as a universal icon. He sees the public nature of Driscoll’s work as something of a bridge between the actor and his audience. “He may have lived the making of those films, but he wasn’t raised in the mid ‘70s and ‘80s on Peter Pan and Song of the South like I was. Those films have a huge impact on my life, right or wrong. No one can escape Mickey Mouse.”