Do you know D.C.?
Get our free newsletter to stay in the know about local D.C.
It’s impossible to watch Cocksucker Blues, Robert Frank’s unreleased chronicle of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 tour, without thinking that the real reason the band suppressed it was not to shield the public from all the fucking and nodding, but to hush up persuasive evidence of a fundamental truth: Few things are as uncharismatic as rock stars when they’re not actually doing their jobs.
That was a less publicity-savvy era, of course. Twenty-five years later, everybody’s comfortable with the notion of fabulousness as so much costuming. So when Ben Watt, who with partner Tracey Thorn makes up Everything but the Girl—a band that has always conveyed a glamour born of plainness—chose to write about himself, he couched the story not as an intimate look into the ordinary life of an extraordinary person but as a simple chronicle of the curious mundanities faced by a common person under exceptional duress.
In 1992, at age 29, Watt developed Churg-Strauss Syndrome, an autoimmune disease so rare that only 30 cases of it were reported over a 25-year period. In a catastrophically extreme response to a still-unknown allergen, Watt’s body attacked itself, destroying the blood vessels that served his small intestine, causing most of it to rot inside him. A couple of months later, he emerged from the ordeal nearly 50 pounds lighter; he had nearly died several times, and surgeons had been able to save only 15 percent of his small intestine.
In his preface, in unstated but presumably intended homage to The Magic Mountain, Watt explains the difference between outpatient and inpatient hospitalization as being akin to entering unfamiliar terrain: “Overnight is when you are really on the mountain.” The slender account that follows—dispassionate but harrowing, self-focused but not self-obsessed, by turns clear-sighted and pain-blinded—thrusts readers into a realm of personal suffering that would have been otherworldly even to the inmates of the Sanatorium Berghof.
Watt’s plain-spoken account takes a position among the growing literature of the past couple of decades that seeks to demystify the body, to expose its wants, needs, and workings. By studiously hewing to the body’s essentials, even when they prove distasteful, Watt opens himself up without forfeiting his privacy or his self-respect. “My bowels cramped up,” he writes. “I started to vomit—not regular vomit, but watery green bile. I filled a bowl beside my bed. At eight, though, it really started. A whole litre this time. Strangely, it wasn’t an unpleasant experience. Quite nice all things considered. I seemed simply to have to open my mouth. The velocity with which the green bile erupted was astonishing, like a geyser. It was fascinating. Like cartoon spewing. I had five or six spasms, with either Tracey or a nurse passing fresh disposable buckets in the shape of bowler hats to me like firemen, while I filled them up and handed them back down the line.”
Too many corporeally centered writers unveil their insecurities when exposing their bodies. The implication is always “my body is important because it houses me!” Watt suggests that you should be concerned about his because you’ve got one a lot like it—and it may one day traduce you the same way his did.
Although we know Watt’s going to make it, that he’ll live at least another five years—he is staring at us from the cover, after all—he ably unspools the details that draw us into the narrative. He actually gets us to savor the texture of his awful experience—I was somewhat puzzled to find myself continuing to read while eating.
With equal acuteness, Watt observes the way illness distorts familial links. His mother agonizes over his father’s refusal to visit; his somewhat distant half-brother captiously accuses him of leading the wastrel rock ‘n’ roll life. Watt touchingly records his family’s helplessly inappropriate attempts at solacing him, and recalls one cab ride back to the hospital: “I crouched in the back, gripping myself still, eyes brimming with tears, staring at the backs of the fold-up seats in front, Tracey with her hand on my back, although I didn’t want it there.” He watches, unable to eat and barely able to speak, as Thorn’s 4-year-old nephew catches himself after starting to repeat his earlier offer of a jelly snake.
At least in terms of narrative exigencies, Watt is fortunate to get shuttled from room to room and for these rooms to be wards, where he can watch analogous dramas unfold around other patients’ beds. There’s a husband irritated by his wife’s incessant knitting; another fastidiously reluctant admittee who soils his new, clean pajamas almost instantly, forcing him to adopt the state-sanctioned uniform of his comrades; a young drug addict, his chest ravaged by abscesses, who is gently tended by his parents; and a fated man with a chronic cough who is quietly wheeled out while Watt is out of the room, only to be replaced by another patient later in the day. “That night I was kept awake by the sheer absence of coughing,” Watt writes.
Watt’s clinical condition may have been virtually unique, but the surroundings in which it was treated grow increasingly universal. Medically chaperoned death is a commonplace in technologically developed countries, and Watt gives insight into the possible ways we won’t get out of this world alive.
Watt’s avoidance of his and Thorn’s pop stardom throughout Patient (he refrains from using the band’s name except on the dust jacket) doesn’t result in a book that has nothing to say about the pair’s work. It doesn’t seem impertinent to suggest that Watt’s illness may end up suiting him and his career well. Having been chubby all his life, he now has a foolproof way to keep the weight off (he embraces his new gauntness, eschewing naso-gastric sugar drips and powdered glucose supplements that would enable him to bulk up). EbtG has also been driven to produce its best music.
An apparently well-adjusted couple since the early ’80s, Thorn and Watt have generally had to pretend quite a bit to come up with their lovelorn plaints. Before ’92, it was all getting a bit glib, eventually heading for the admittedly pleasurable cul-de-sac of that year’s Acoustic, which contains five covers and six old EbtG songs. Even 1988’s Idlewild, generally considered EbtG’s strongest pre-illness album, in retrospect is too much the sort of thing that members of a women’s book circle would recommend to one another.
But losing a lover to illness—even temporarily—means falling prey to an infidelity beyond the grasp of either person. The fear and anger the situation breeds is perfectly adaptable to affairs of the heart. (Marriage vows traditionally include a sickness clause, with good reason.) Thorn has observed that the largely gay audience that made “Missing” a club hit a year after its release was partly responding to a romantic lyric that broaches the ultimate question: “Could you be dead?”
Watt laid bare his condition by appearing with his shirt undone on the cover of the album from which that song was drawn, 1994’s Amplified Heart, the title of which is doubly freighted coming from someone who had just been auscultated on a regular basis. And if Watt’s “my life is just an image of a rollercoaster anyway” was a curious lyric before Patient, those peaks and valleys now emerge as clearly as the ones on a medical chart.
The sort of group that makes purists insist on a distinction between rock and pop, EbtG makes music for people who hope they get old before they die. There’s a good chance that such a band will continue to age well, so there’s no guarantee that Watt will take time out from his music to follow up on his literary success. Should he decide, however, to pursue a second career, Patient indicates that it could be one of some promise.CP