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July 7, 2014

Book Notes - Ben Watt "Romany and Tom"

Romany and Tom

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Better known as a member of the band Everything But the Girl, Ben Watt also excels as a writer. His memoir Romany and Tom is eloquently told, poignant, and moving throughout.

The Independent wrote of the book:

"In this elegantly written and clear-sighted memoir, Watt—who is best known as one half of the pop duo Everything But The Girl—juxtaposes memories of growing up in a household of boho, hard-drinking parents, with his later efforts to help them navigate old age, with all the fear, stubbornness and disorientation that comes with it . . . A tender work. . . cutting to the heart of the frustrations that come with caring for one’s parents who were, not long ago, just like us."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Ben Watt's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, Romany and Tom:

My father was a jazz musician and bandleader. My mum was a showbiz writer. I grew up with older siblings. Walking from room to room was like scrolling along the FM dial. Downstairs my dad played jazz, sometimes until four in the morning if he came back from clubs with poker-playing brass sections. Upstairs I heard left field folk by Roy Harper, mainstream folk by Simon and Garfunkel, Lou Reed live, J.J. Cale, Brian Wilson, Roy Orbison, James Taylor and records that my mum got sent by press departments that no one else wanted, records which unexpectedly became mine: early private teenage discoveries included Neil Young and Brian Eno. All of this music made up my upbringing, and formed the backdrop to the book I have written about my mum and my dad, 'Romany and Tom'. It is about their marriage, their parenting, their old age, and the years before I was born that I never knew. And it is about me too. Here are songs that feature in the book, and a few more that still echo in my head.

J.J. Cale, "Magnolia"

I get sad listening to this. My half-sister, Jennie, died in 2012. Unexpectedly. She had a tough life. Lived with neurosis when she was young. And then recurrent depression. But she was so gentle and kind at heart. In her twenties, my mum let her come back from the psychiatric home and stay with us for a bit. She lived for a few weeks in the flat downstairs where my grandmother used to live. I went down after school. We would just chat. She treated me like an adult even though I was only thirteen. We sat with the windows open. It was the summer 1976. A proper heatwave. She used to play this and we would just sit. Lazy, woozy music. Just drifting out into the garden like a haze over the cut lawn and the smoking incinerator full of leaves and cuttings.

Bill Evans, "Peace Piece"

It was hard learning piano from my dad. But that's kind of normal I suppose; he was a jazz musician. He used to tell me every chord I'd ever need was in Bach, or failing that, Debussy. The music he listened to was exotic and difficult to my ears but I absorbed a lot of it. When I tried to start writing songs he showed me this Bill Evans recording. The Satie-like rocking of the chords, like a tethered boat, then their slow expansive extension. Simple then progressively more complex. Suddenly atonal. It is like a musical stream of consciousness. It made me see the building blocks of chords.

Toots Thielemans, "In a Sentimental Mood"

For all his whipsmart put-downs, and bullish charisma, my dad was at root a sad melancholy man who just wanted the world to love him and his music. Whenever he imploded, he would shut himself away in the kitchen and listen to jazz and more often than not I'd hear Toots Thielemans come on - that harmonica, swooping and sad, yet escapist and fanciful. It must have spoken to him.

Tommy Watt Orchestra, "Crumpets for the Count"

In 1957 and 1958 my dad recorded two albums for George Martin at Parlophone with his jazz orchestra. They were to be his only albums. He was never that proud of them. He felt they were too mediated by the record company, too whimsical and commercial. Yet, in the middle there are a several great cuts. One is 'Crumpets fo The Count', an unashamed homage to Basie, with a great band and a great arrangement. When Basie did finally hear my dad's arrangements he asked to keep a couple for his library.

Frank Sinatra, "Love Is Here to Stay"

My mum and dad's affair was soundtracked by Sinatra's Song for Swinging Lovers, released in the year they started seeing each other. Every lyric told their story. Thwarted love. Resilient love. Smart, sophisticated love shot through with wisdom and pain. Sinatra voiced it all. And Riddle's arrangements were effortless and stylish, witty and rarely sentimental. All love affairs should be conducted to this record.

Roy Orbison, "In Dreams"

My eldest half-brother Simon was more than ten years older than me. He was distant, cool, unapproachable. But when he did let me into his world I was often entranced. He loved the Beach Boys and Roy Harper and Roy Orbison. He cut out the head of Orbison from an album sleeve and pinned it on his wall and made a small hole where his lips were. In the hole he would place a lit joss-stick that filled his room with sandalwood. In this atmosphere I would listen to songs like 'In Dreams' as a young boy. It was curious, other-worldly, beautiful.

Magazine, "The Light Pours Out of Me"

From the age of sixteen I was allowed to leave the house on week nights and go to gigs if I had finished my homework. I used to travel to the Nashville Rooms on my moped and saw the emerging bands of the late seventies. I witnessed Magazine. Smoke lingering, Devoto all in red, the band immobile, and this metronomic insistent beat, and the climbing lead guitar cutting its swathe through the crowd. It was a turning point. A door into another world.

Bunny Berrigan, "I Can't Get Started"

During the writing of my book 'Romany and Tom' I was coincidentally contacted by one of my dad's oldest school friends, who wanted to tell me before he died how much of an influence my dad had been to him. He had been a well-known jazz archivist and it was my dad who had set him on his way. As a teenager he remembered him as precocious and charismatic - always on the hunt for the latest sound. At one point he recounted how my dad had sold half his 78s to buy this record by Bunny Berrigan; nothing else would do. It had represented the coolest most laid-back sound at the time - lazy, swinging, almost insolent.

Harry South, "The Sweeney (Closing Theme)"

The rousing main title theme to this British cop show of the seventies is one the most famous TV themes ever written, but the reflective gentle variation of it that closed the show is the one that sticks in my mind. I picture me and my mum and my dad watching it as the credits rolled in our flat when I was growing up, and my dad being moved by it - it is great writing by Harry South - and murmuring his assent, and my mum levering herself out of her chair to go and put the kettle on before the news.

Blossom Dearie, "Something Happens to Me"

My mum was not a natural jazz fan and politely tolerated a lot of my dad's records. But she loved cocktail hour, when my dad played things like the Oscar Peterson Trio or this fantastic record by Blossom Dearie, that I still listen to now. Subtle, light on its feet, effortlessly stylish. When it starts I still hear the clink of ice in glasses and the short rush of fizz as the tonic water was opened.

Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers, "The Morning of Our Lives"

On of my first big rock shows while I was still living at home was Jonathan Richman at Hammersmith Odeon. I bought a single ticket on my own because I had heard 'Roadrunner'. It turned out to be the epitome of anti-rock. Tiny equipment on a huge stage but Richman's charisma filled the room. For the encore he had all the house lights turned on and came down to the lip of the stage and sat with his legs dangling over the edge and started a Q&A with the audience. I was thunderstruck. Rock music could be this minimal,this engaging.

Ben Watt and Romany and Tom links:

the author's website
the author's Wikipedia entry

Guardian review
Independent review
Kirkus review
New Statesman review
Observer review
Publishers Weekly review
Telegraph review

The 405 interview with the author
Herald Scotland profile of the author
Huffington Post profile of the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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