Everything but the Pulitzer
The comforting sounds of Walking Wounded are playing in the background at New York's Tower Records as a crowd gathers to meet Ben Watt of the coolly subdued dance-pop duo Everything But the Girl, but Watt isn't in town this Tuesday night to spin at a club or promote a new release of remixes. Instead, he's come as an author to read from his new memoir, Patient, which chronicles his battle with a rare illness that nearly took his life at age 29.
With a glass of water by his side, Watt sits atop a table in casual poetic mode and begins to read in a soft voice. "I had the lines running into the main artery of my neck, and a little clothes-peg on my finger that checked my pulse. A ventilator tube was plumbed into my mouth and throat. My upper body was wired up with electrocardiogram suction pads. I had a catheter in my cock, and lines in my wrists for saline. Sunk deep in my chest was a food pipe.
"I must be in America. I must have collapsed abroad. Tracey had been given a little board with all the letters of the alphabet on it. I spelled out 'England?' Tracey nodded and said yes."
In case you're unfamiliar with the story behind EBTG's brilliant duo of Ben Watt and Tracey Thorn, they met in the early '80s as students at England's University of Hull, where they were both already signed to the same indie label, Cherry Red--Thorn in an all-girl group and Watt as a solo artist. Everything But the Girl formed in 1982, together with an amorous relationship between Thorn and Watt. Within a few years, the pair had developed a style of music that has stayed with them to this day: Thorn's simple vocals, set to Watt's straightforward pop and jazz melodies, singing his lyrics, which center on maladies of the heart. In the late '80s, EBTG had achieved moderate success, including songs like "Apron Strings," which wound up on the soundtrack to John Hughes' She's Having a Baby.
Their foray into la-la land took them in a bit deeper than they expected; much to their chagrin, they soon emerged as the favorites of VH-1, adult contemporary, and smooth jazz FM stations. In 1994 they changed direction a bit, achieving a major hit with a house remix of the song "Missing," which went on to become a crossover hit. That was followed by Thorn's sensational cameo in the uncannily beautiful Massive Attack single "Protection." After that, there was no doubt as to how 1996's Walking Wounded was going to sound. Midwifed by club craftsmen like Howie B and Springheel Jack, Wounded was a canvas of drum 'n' bass, urban dub, and jungle genres upon which Thorn painted a state-of-the-art pop album with her quietly powerful voice.
The source of the very real pain and emotion that makes Wounded so mesmerizing is a story as fascinating as the album itself. Just before EBTG's 1992 U.S. tour, Watt's health began to deteriorate. A mild asthmatic throughout his life, Watt was accustomed to attacks and lapses, but nothing major had ever happened to him. Until then. For weeks on end, he'd had difficulty breathing and had been plagued by stomach pains. "I would just sit and stare out the window with a hot water bottle to my stomach and cry," he recalls. Finally the pain grew so intense that Watt checked into the hospital.
At first doctors suspected that Watt was having a long, slow heart attack. When a surgeon cut him open, however, he was so shocked by what he saw that he closed Watt back up, unsure of what to do next. More than half of his small intestine had literally eaten itself away.
Watt's illness had nothing to do with music business excesses--he was the victim of a rare auto-immune disease called Churg-Strauss Syndrome that mystified doctors for months and left him with less than a third of his small intestine intact. Although the disease is currently in remission, he is on a strict diet to which he'll have to adhere for life.
Watt persevered through endless medications and surgeries, enduring spells of hopelessness and emerging from the ordeal with a strong appreciation of both life and illness, as well as the need to write a book. "I didn't mean to write this," Watt says, on close inspection still looking quite frail as he signs books and answers questions from the audience after the reading. "The whole experience left me extremely beaten up. I became a classic post-traumatic, but the last thing I wanted was more doctors or therapists."
Far from being a sulky, pathos-heavy recollection of ills and woes, however, Patient is a deeply introspective and even funny examination of what it's like to battle a serious disease. Watt recounts the trials to which the illness subjected his relationship with Thorn (Thorn is still his partner in life and music). Watt walks you through all the steps, from the initial shock and despair to the aggravation and animosity and the strange, unexpected depths to which his sickness took him, like the feelings of power that he developed over Thorn and his parents by being such a constant source of pity and attention.
"If I smiled weakly, I felt that I had inadvertently created a moment of unbearable poignancy. And curiously, because of this, I felt a huge amount of power over them. I realized I could manipulate their emotions...I surprised myself at the times I contemplated such duplicity--not so cruel as to ever really put it into practice, but cruel enough to consider it." Watt also tells the tales of the other patients around him, like the obese man with his jaws wired shut. Watt describes him with the economical power of a skilled poet: "His family came in to see him. They were huge, too--big people with jowly faces and XXL T-shirts, all in the cushion-soled shoes and elasticized waistbands, all drinking, eating, and talking seemingly simultaneously, gathered around his bed like creatures at a watering hole. Things looked so small in their hands. Newspapers were like paperbacks. Even their children were colossal. Fleshy, sugar-enriched hulks of teen and pre-teen self-consciousness."
Another interesting feature of the book is luminous childhood memories, important events and images like the car crash he was in at age eight that killed his grandfather and left him deeply shaken. The alternating scenes balance out to a fascinating commentary on how pain--especially unconscious or forgotten pain--continually shapes us.
"[The illness] has obviously had a tremendous impact both on my life and on our music," Watt explains. "I mean, I don't think I'll ever look at anything the same way again. That's where the title Walking Wounded came from. In a sense we're all walking wounded, but you have to continue on."
Art's greatest power is its ability to take something negative and turn it into a positive--to use the emotion as an inspiration to create something beautiful. That's what makes black spirituals and the blues so moving, and that's what animates an album like Walking Wounded. In the end, Patient relays a similar affirmation of life.
"I might continue writing," Watt says. "I've got publishers calling all the time, and I've been asked to do a lot of magazine articles. I even got asked to do a restaurant review once. I thought that was rather ironic."
Patient: The True Story of a Rare Illness is available from Grove Press.
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