By Joshua Sherman M.D.
Update: Album is now available at benjaminlerner.com/music Benjamin Lerner is intelligent, articulate, talented, handsome, hard-working, ambitious, and well-pedigreed. But what defines him as “a star” is … his authenticity. Now sober 3 years (his sobriety date is June 13, 2016), Benjamin is set to take the world by storm when his debut album of his all-original “piano-raps” - developed here in Vermont - is released later this year.
Benjamin, both a rapper and trained classical pianist, has created new piano compositions based on classical music theory – and he raps against them, journaling his life of addiction and sobriety. Throughout, his thoughts are genuine. The songs are powerful, raw, and poignant.
He is human.
Benjamin hopes that by sharing his story, others struggling with addiction, will find hope and help. He feels it is never too late to find one’s true-self. But Benjamin is the first to admit that it took him a long time to find his true-self; his true voice. “Growing up, I had two parents who really cared about words and music. They were both journalists. And my mom was a musician. Other kids, depending on the nature of their parents - and their parents’ parenting style - get pushed in different ways. My parents didn’t really care what I did, so much as they cared that I was well-informed, presented myself well, and was intellectually curious. Especially my father. He would feed me high-level mathematical problems (like, when I was 5), three-digit multiplication tables. And when I was 8, 9, 10, he’d give me American and British classics to read, so that I developed more quickly than my peers. I didn’t have the pressure to get a 4.0 GPA, but in some ways, it was more intense, because he had me participating in discussions with 60 year old baby boomers who went to Harvard about the nature of geopolitics and different ethical questions. So, I was exposed to concepts that not many other people at my age would have dealt with. I was hungry for approval and attention. I basically had to validate myself from the reaction of the people around me. And I learned how to chameleon myself in these situations and read people and just perform and play a variety of different roles.”
When his parents divorced, he found himself having to perform even more. “Their families are very different and their ideologies are very different. So, I learned how to present myself, not in a fake way, just in different ways to better suit different situations.”
To complicate matters further, Benjamin was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome. “I have a hard time looking people in the eye. I obsess about specific things. like repetition. I like repeated tasks. I find it hard sometimes to read other people’s emotions, although I’ve gotten better at that. … Being on the autism spectrum, I had a hard time dealing with my friends at school – and then, at home, I had a split identity going with my family. I didn’t really know who I was, and I was not really mentally equipped to deal with [it]. And so I came up with coping mechanisms - even before addiction - to deal with the fact that I didn’t really feel like I belonged anywhere.” Adding just one more layer of complexity to his reality, Benjamin is the great-grandson of Irving Berlin, who composed such American standards as “White Christmas” and “God Bless America”. “It certainly put a lot of pressure on me. And I resented that pressure sometimes, especially in the beginning, when I didn’t want to play piano.
It wasn’t until I had a couple of milestone breakthroughs that I even got any good at it.” Ironically, it was likely the hyperfocus (courtesy of Benjamin’s Asperger Syndrome) that assisted him. “My teacher realized that when he numbered my fingers on the page, I was able to play better than when he just wrote out the notes. And the reason is that I see everything as a numbers game. For every piano piece I play, I put the melody not to a note, but to a number. And so I obsess about those number patterns. And I think in those terms. … My obsession with these particular patterns has given me a unique perspective on how music works, I think, separate from a lot of other people.”
Like most kids, he hated practicing, but he felt “a rush” as he rapidly progressed from rudimentary pieces to expert-level works.“It made me feel good the same way keeping up with my parents at the dinner table would. It was a different form of proving myself in a different arena.”That said, Benjamin readily admits that he resented the fact that his parents wanted him to perform all the time. “I kind of internalized it and made it my own struggle … It shifted from proving to people outside of me that I was good enough … and [I] became intrinsically motivated to pursue music and write lyrics at a level where I thought I was worthy of not even just the Irving Berlin legacy, but
what I began to perceive as this lineage of writers and musicians.”Benjamin also loved writing poetry from a young age. According to his mother, Mary Ellin Lerner, “When he was eight years old, he started writing poetry.
I remember the first poem, because he composed it in the backseat of the car on a grocery receipt. It was called, ‘The Soul’… It was a beautiful, very profound, spiritual poem. This was in third grade! And it just kept going from there. So, he began at age eight, and I think by the time he was nine, he had a poem published, called ‘Music’, of all things, in a collection of young poets. He was writing poems left and right … and they were brilliant and very precocious, and they never stopped … until high school, when the poems turned into raps.”
Benjamin explains, “I first heard rap when I was young, and I loved it. I loved the energy, I loved the kind of animal magnetism in the vocal. Separate from any melody - and I do like melody - but I am a real ‘harmony and base’ person. It might be because I’m left handed - and when I was taught piano, my left hand was always stronger. But I was about eight or nine when I first consciously heard rap music. It was Project Pat of Memphis, Three 6 Mafia, and Eminem. They were the first rappers I liked. I remember hearing the poetry - both simple and powerful - in terms of the South rap and the complex and multi-syllabic in terms of Midwest (Eminem, Twista), and like the 90s golden age rap poets, like Notorious B.I.G., Nas, AZ, Big L. and from age 9 to 14, it kind of sound-tracked my life. I had a hard time socially adjusting, but I would put on Eminem and relate to the struggles that he talks about with family and with feeling like an outsider. [I didn’t try to rap myself] until I was drunk at a party when I was 15 or 16, and my other friends were passing a joint around and they were cyphering (coming up with improvised freestyle rap poetry). I just did it out of pure lack of inhibition and love of music. They laughed at me. My nickname was ‘Skinny’. And they said, “Yeah, Skinny, that’s hilarious.’ But - in the same way I wanted to prove myself at the dinner table earlier, I wanted to prove to themand say, ‘Hey, you know who I am? I’m a classical piano player. I’m a poet. I can do this. This is nothing’.
But it was hard at first, because there’s a difference between being able to rhyme words and being able to do it rhythmically. And I was never really a singer, and my instrument was always my hands. So it was a process, for sure. But I got into rap by being a fan of rap music and then being kind of thrust into that social situation where it was a sign of status to be able to be in the middle of the party and rhyme over these beats on command. I thought that was an incredible skill, and I wanted to be part of it.”
Benjamin was also around 15 or 16 when he composed his first song on the piano. “I was cooped up in my house, because I had done some kind of stupid thing. And I didn’t have any way to express myself… I just sat down at the piano and started playing things. … I was just playing around improvising, but when I found a chord progression I really liked, and I was able to write it down and be like, “This is me”. That was incredible, because it [went] from just being able to interpret what other people made - into [my] own vision! I mean, there’s no way for me to put a price on it or explain it. It was the first time I had made a musical creation that wasn’t just some high school, garage band, rock song or some silly exercise in classical theory training. It really meant a lot to me, because I’ll remember that piece for the rest of my life. It was the first time I ever truly put a piece of my soul on paper musically.”Unfortunately, it was at this same time that Benjammin started drinking alcohol and smoking marijuana, as well.
“My first ‘A-Ha Experience’ was with alcohol. It’s when I knew what alcohol did, and I sought-out that feeling. My friend and I were in his parents’ house … There was this rusty, musty - like literally had cobwebs on it - case of forgotten Sam Adams Oktoberfest. It was well past its prime. And I drank it, and it tasted terrible. It was tepid, but the feeling it gave me was complete detached bliss … and the raging voices inside my head telling me I wasn’t good enough [disappeared] … The first time I ever smoked pot was a year and change later … It was pretty surreal, because it gave me this medicated feeling, similar to alcohol, but less medicinal, more mind-opening. And I was able to kind of see the world through a different perspective, because alcohol is a drug, sure, but it didn’t change my consciousness, so much as it dissolved it. Marijuana was a change in perception of how I perceived the world around me.”
Benjamin, who attends AA meetings regularly, openly shares his descent into addiction. “At first, it was pretty suburban. I’d get drunk and throw up at a party and have to ply my older classmates with a bottle of champagne to keep going. I’d show up hungover to piano recitals and get low judging scores, or I’d not study for tests … but I kind of justified my addiction and the slow downward descent in terms of my academic success and my success with classical piano - by making the drugs themselves my identity. I finally thought that I fit in. And it wasn’t because it was cool. Although I guess it was. I mean, I saw the bottles in my bag and the bags of weed that I had as a status symbol - in the same way an aging businessman would see a trophy wife or a BMW. I felt accepted.”
Although he was accepted to Frost School of Music for piano and music business (double major), he did not take school seriously. “I cared about smoking weed, rapping, talking to girls, sniffing coke - because I started doing that - and … I dropped out of school. … I got a day job selling Christmas trees, and I was getting drunk and high every night. … I blew through thousands of dollars, of money that wasn’t mine, partying and driving around the country trying to get drunk with kids. Ultimately, Benjamin moved to San Francisco with the goal of a fresh start. Soon after arrival, however, his wisdom teeth all came-in, and they were impacted. He had them removed under anesthesia, after which he was given some pain medicine to take home.“I was like, ‘No, I’m not a junkie. I’m gonna be okay. I don’t need that.’ And then they looked at me, and they saw the way I was dressed. I literally had a RAW Rolling Papers t-shirt on. They were like, ‘You can’t smoke weed for two weeks’. And I looked at them, because I wasn’t drinking, but I had convinced myself that smoking weed was okay. I looked at them like they just told me that I couldn’t breathe for the next two hours, and I got scared. So, I started taking these Percocets - and before I knew it, I was addicted to them. When I ran out, I couldn’t sleep. And it just so happened that down the hill in San Francisco, there’s this place called the Tenderloin, which is this place where thousands of California’s homeless flock … for the cheapest and most potent drugs. … I went down there, and they didn’t sell percocets, so I started buying oxycontin 30s. The first time I snorted an opiate was like the feeling I got from drinking times 1000. I mean, it was this lucid bliss. I, literally, felt like I was talking to God, because not only did the voice in my head saying that I wasn’t good enough go away, a new one came in - and it was like, ‘everything is okay’. It was like the sky was opening up for me … And then the consequences started getting real. I went from partying too hard and getting a DUI - to pawning everything I owned and going days without eating anything but Ramen and water. … And within a couple of months, I was sniffing heroin. I went to rehab. The first time, I wasn’t ready. And then it just sped up to me smoking oxys, smoking heroin, popping Xanax and Klonopin every day. There was still one line I wouldn’t cross, which was shooting heroin.
Then one day, my friend and I were broke, and we only had enough for half a gram of heroin, and he’s like, ‘Skinny, the only way we’re both going to get high is if I hit you’. So I looked away, and he did it - and from there, I started smoking crack, I started forging bad checks, [I was] on and off Suboxone, lying to my family, spending dozens of thousands of their money, I was smoking crack off of dirty tin foil … and shooting black tar heroin in collapsed veins with abscesses with dirty needles, and all of that stuff. … I got to the point that I, literally, didn’t get high anymore.” That’s when Benjamin knew he needed help. “There’s only so much dope you can shoot before it just becomes background noise … It was medicine to get me through the day … When I went to rehab, I didn’t think it was going to work. But I’m grateful I made the decision to go that day.” In the intro to one of his songs, “Liquid Fentanyl”, Benjamin admits, “When I first went to rehab, I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to make music anymore ‘cause I made music about doin’ drugs for so long, I didn’t know if I’d be able to do it without getting high. It took getting clean for me to realize that expression and creativity is the drug I’ve been searching for all along. I’m still a junkie. I just get high off of music now”Benjamin’s great-grandfather created a vision of hope in the 20th century through his music. Similarly, Benjamin hopes that by sharing his personal journey through this new hybrid of rap and classical music, he can bring hope to others who are struggling.
“I don’t just make music, I come face to face with who I am as a person … I used to write songs that I thought would get me musical clout, that people would like, and that people would listen to. I wasn’t writing music for me, I was writing it for other people to listen to. And then I stopped doing that. I started writing music purely as an expression of what was going on inside of me …And regardless of any reaction I got from it, regardless of anything anyone told me, I felt better. I felt lighter. Because just like I did with the song that I wrote when I was 16 - the classical song - I had put a piece of my soul on paper and out into the universe. And regardless of how many views it got, how many people re-blogged it, I was in it for me. And then I started writing my piano-raps. I never thought I’d be able to integrate piano and hip hop together. I always had two separate sides. But, then it just came together in this organic fashion … And then I came up to Vermont - and through a pure act of serendipity - a friend that I had from my years in coming up to visit the property my dad built, comes out of the blue to visit me on the last night I’m up there in early November last year. I played a piano-rap for him, and he’s, like, ‘This is really cool, you ought to meet my friend.’ I [went] to the studio and through no push or willpower or act of my own, I found
myself telling my story in a gorgeous studio with an incredibly beautiful piano and a microphone. I’m not trying to be cool, embellishing, whatever, I’m just telling it how it is. I do personally believe in God, but regardless of any of that, what got me back into music was using music as a tool to communicate my passion and the feelings on the inside of my head. Because when I was using music as a tool to become popular, to get clout as you know the kids are calling it these days, to
get SoundCloud followers, to get views, to get girls, to get whatever … That was corny - because people could hear that the only intention in my voice was advancing my own materialistic agenda.
The second that I made it real … about the struggle I’ve been through, about the real negative and positive things I was experiencing, my music started to take a different tone. It started to be something that I was proud of on a visceral level, and that’s how I got to the place I’m at right now: CLEAN.”
For more about Benjamin Lerner,
his music, and his journey: