Musicians, especially successful ones, often write books. The works usually adhere to certain guidelines; most notably, musicians write about music.
Ben Watt—the English artist who made up one half of the group Everything but the Girl, then helmed record labels and became a successful DJ—doesn’t care for this convention.
Watt’s first book, Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness, described his near-death experience after contracting Churg-Strauss syndrome, an autoimmune disease. His recent work, Romany And Tom, takes a different tack: It’s about his parents.
So here’s a spoiler alert: Don’t pick this book up if you want to read what Watt envisioned when he concocted his powerful remix of Terri Walker’s “Guess You Didn’t Love Me.” He also just released a new album of elegant folk rock, Hendra, but you wouldn’t know that from Romany and Tom. Even Watt’s wife and EBTG co-founder Tracey Thorne plays only a small role. As Watt noted in an interview with Diffuser.FM, “I only ever write out of compulsion.”
What compelled him? The lives and loves of his mother and father. “We only ever see the second half of our parents’ lives,” Watt writes, “the downhill part.”
The effort to see his parents’ lives as a whole leads Watt to a better understanding of them and of himself. The parents “we see and judge every day have been shaped by experiences … which we have never known: the times they were hurt; the days they won; the times they compromised.” Judging is easy, knowing harder, empathizing harder still.
Watt’s mother Romany loved to act, but her dreams of being an actress got cut short by children in her first marriage. She changed tack, becoming a journalist and writing for a number of publications. Watt’s family vacations often depended on his mother’s assignments, when she got to write a travel story or profile a star living abroad.
She kept “scrapbooks and souvenirs … full of notes, inserted scraps of paper, and handwritten annotations,” many “underlining the importance of ‘Burton.’” That’s the actor Richard Burton, who Romany describes as “sex in chainmail.” She interviewed him several times. Other famous subjects of her writing included “a badly hung over Richard Harris,” “a nervous Michael Caine on the eve of stardom in The Ipcress File,” Anthony Hopkins, Goldie Hawn and Woody Allen.
Watt’s father Tom dressed impeccably and gained an early reputation as a talented jazz musician. But like Romany, this first career ended on a sour note when life as an in-demand musical leader didn’t pan out. He loved the big band era, once telling his son, “Five saxophones, four trumpets, four trombones. Was there ever a better sound?”
Of course, the explosion of rock ‘n’ roll in the ‘50s and ‘60s put big bands out of business. “He might have found a way to keep going,” writes Watt of his father, “even on a small scale, even when his sound was driven on to the sidelines in the sixties.” But “small-scale was not [Tom’s] style. He didn’t want to play with any jazz orchestra; it had to be the jazz orchestra; an orchestra with stirring, irresistible contemporary sound of which he was the mastermind.”
Unwilling to compromise, Tom turned down any job offer that wasn’t up to his standards, including one from George Martin, who would go on to produce the Beatles.
Tom spent a little time working other jobs and a lot of time drinking. The weekly highlight: a Sunday jam session at The Bulls Head, which, according to Watt, “was, and still is, an institution on the London jazz scene.” These sessions functioned as “Dad’s home from home … he was happiest in the company of quick-witted plumbers and fitters, tenor players and drummers.”
Romany and Tom clearly had more interesting lives than the average Joe and Jane. Nonetheless, most readers have their own parents to worry about, so somebody else’s might not seem worth a read.
Recognizing this, Watt uses a few different techniques to hold our interest. First, he plays fast and loose with chronology. While a memoir frequently starts back in time and proceeds slowly and inexorably to the present, Watt skips around, back and forth, making his narration feel more true to the way we think about things. You hear about The Bulls Head because Watt drives his sick father around and happens to come upon a number of his old haunts.
Watt also retains remarkably good memories of the incidents he describes. He remembers details of weather and the scenery on specific drives and vacations; this helps the reader share a sense of time and place. (According to an interview with Billboard, Watt did a lot of research to help achieve this effect.) The doorman from his father’s Sunday jams, for example, was “famous for his sandals and socks,” which earned him the nickname “Blazing Sandals.”
In addition, Watt makes it seem like he discovers things about his parents along with the reader. The book reads as an exploration, not some historiographical essay on his heritage. His realizations happen as if in real time: “I thought of … the struggle parents often have to impress their children with their past glories … recently [Romany] had said to me [of her time as an actress] ‘They were the best years of my life. I was accepted.’ And the word ‘accepted’ stayed with me.”
Watt pieces together a full picture of his parents, through scrapbooks and memories and conversations and whatever else he can find. The result is never boring and frequently deeply touching.
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and he can be found at signothetimesblog.