Author Playlists

Don Paterson’s playlist for his memoir Toy Fights

“Toy Fights is a memoir of my first twenty years growing up in Dundee, Scotland; it’s a book about a lot of things, but most especially music. Indeed music was the primary method of recall in writing it.”

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 Jesmyn Ward, Lauren Groff, Bret Easton Ellis, Celeste Ng, T.C. Boyle, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Roxane Gay, and many others.

Don Patterson’s memoir is an engaging, raw, funny, and moving recounting of the poet’s life growing up in Scotland.

Kirkus wrote of the book:

“As [Paterson] charts a path through the 1970s and ’80s, he deftly avoids the twin pitfalls of romanticism and nostalgia, instead describing the poverty, violence, and customs of his youth with evenhanded observation and often humor . . . A uniquely compelling, expressive memoir packed with explosive asides and raucous insight.”

In his own words, here is Don Paterson’s Book Notes music playlist for his memoir Toy Fights:

Toy Fights is a memoir of my first twenty years growing up in Dundee, Scotland; it’s a book about a lot of things, but most especially music. Indeed music was the primary method of recall in writing it. It was a mnemonic trick I learnt from my dad, when he was forgetting everything in the thickening fog of dementia. I wrote a few early chapters – the ones about playing pop covers in a club band when I was kid – about 15 years ago. I made the mistake of selling the book before I’d finished it, which is a strategy that rarely goes well for me, though not as badly as it does for my publisher. I bought a nice guitar with the advance, and then forgot about it. (My publisher didn’t.)  I re-engaged with the book in earnest when my father was dying. He had worked as a musician, and played country music, mostly, and some folk music. It’s a cliche about dementia: music seems to pay its line deep into the hippocampus, and my dad used music as a form of information retrieval. Towards the end he was shaky on the names of his kids, but still pretty great on Waylon Jennings lyrics, or what brand of guitar he was playing in 1960. His last coherent sentence was ‘Alexa, play Lyle Lovett’.

Anyway, I stole his lick. I found that if I could recall the playlist for year X, I could pretty much just wind the line back up, which would now be knotted and encrusted with all the stuff I was clearly trying to forget. I suspect one doesn’t really forget anything. The camera’s running all the time. You just misfile things, often deliberately.

Since I often write to music, I had two playlists for this book, marked I and II below. The first was strictly for research: I need to make that clear, in case anyone thinks I was listening to the Osmonds’ Phase III for inspiration. These were songs – all formative, in their way – that I ended up writing about. Then there was the music I played either stay in the zone, or fire myself back up when I wasn’t. (To explain the bias – I started life as a jazz musician, and have returned to it seriously in the last ten years, but I’m fairly omnivorous.)


Robert Wyatt: Rock Bottom

But especially ‘Sea Song’. Toy Fights book gave me the opportunity to say how much Wyatt’s voice and music and lyrics not only meant to me, but formed me as a writer. The book found its way to him, I’m delighted to say, so he got to hear all my fan-boy gushings. ‘Sea Song’, a kind of delirious piece of surreal, submarine eroticism, is a kind of totem in the English (by which the Scots mean ‘English’) alt-rock canon.

John Martyn: ‘Spencer the Rover’, from Sunday’s Child

I was obsessed with John in my teens. Like Joni, the matter of his troubadorial genius was never permitted to be up for debate. I first heard him when he was sixteen and I was a little over one year old, sitting in a pram parked at the back of the folk club my dad used to run in Dundee; his voice is pretty much hardwired. This is a tune I sang my own kids to sleep with. It’s a traditional number, but everyone now sings it like John, which is to say the sing it like wino with a head cold.

The Osmonds: Phase III

First album I ever bought, at ten. It was a colossal error. I had to play it again the name of diligent research. Jay sings a little song about his drum, which is ok, but otherwise it’s a saccharine, ersatz disaster of a ‘rock’ record. I wanted to buy Crazy Horses, but they’d sold out. If you were an alien, and heard this album, and then discovered The Osmonds had been called ‘The White Jackson 5’ – you’d be forgiven for immediately concluding some really broad-brush, unflattering things about white people. Awful record. ‘Crazy Horses’, on the other hand, is great.

America: ‘Muskrat Love’

My next purchase after Phase III. Another terrible song, really, for all its sweet singing. I read here that ’the song depicts a romantic liaison between two anthropomorphic muskrats named Susie and Sam.’ I have nothing to add. But the B-side, ‘Cornwall Blank’, is a terrific, driving, keening number that takes a left turn into some gorgeous bittersweet harmony. It switched on a light somewhere, and led me to the first and greatest Eagles album, which led me to Steely Dan, and that was that.

Kris Kristofferson: Kristofferson

I cried inconsolably when my dad lent this record to my Uncle Iain, but he gave me Can’t Buy a Thrill by way of compensation, so y’know. It’s still a great record. When I was a kid I knew every word, or at least a word that sounded like every word, since I couldn’t understand a single word Kris was saying. ‘Bus did flatten batten roo.’ Yeah. 

PFM: Photos of Ghosts

From my Italian prog phase. I grew out of it at 16, sold all my albums and swapped them for Coltrane, Miles, Mingus and Keith Jarrett and a bunch of ECM records. I put it on again after forty years, with some dread. It’s terrific. I’d should’ve kept it. At least ten different genres are covered in every song, and it’s all note perfect. And so many notes. So very, very many. And hilarious English lyrics about knights and eternity and whatnot sung in a thick Italian accent. Wonderful.

Fairport Convention: Rising for the Moon

Half the worst Fairport album ever, and half the best Sandy Denny solo record ever. It tends to get overlooked for the first reason. I played Sandy’s song ‘After Halloween’ on repeat during the second worst breakup of my life. The first worst was the same person ten years later. ‘Let Down’ from OK Computer, since you ask, but ask anyone that year.

Radka Toneff: Fairytales

I was obsessed with Radka, and her early death didn’t help the obsession. A classic of Scando jazz, there’s enough here to convince you what was quietly unearthly about her singing, though YouTube hosts the more irrefutable evidence.   


John Abercrombie: Characters

I have to include this on the simple grounds that it’s always playing. John was my favourite guitarist. I met him face-to-face only once, at London rehearsal studio. He was in the next urinal, so I overcame the temptation to turn to him and tell him I loved him, but I kind of wish I had. This beautiful watercolour record is the sound of a young musician coming fully into their own voice. I know every note backwards; one’s very favourite records can become so familiar they enter an odd category of ‘impossible to wear out’. If I heard nothing else for the rest of my life, I’d be fine.

Federico Mompou: Music Callada

The Herbert Henck version, though the original Mompou is good too. Think Satie meets St John of the Cross. I’ve been putting this on playlists forever, and I guess it’s going nowhere. I now just associate it with typing. It’s another record I know well enough to play in my head: the first piece, the ‘Angelico’, starts on an E, so if I just recall it I can tune the guitar to it. Charles Koechin’s Les Heures Persanes (the Kathryn Stott version) is a good alternative.

Bill Evans: Waltz for Debbie

You can tune to his one too, as it happens. The first note of ‘My Foolish Heart’ is E, although it’s supposed to be F. I guess time slows things down a bit. I have a Pavlovian response to the first bar, which immediately settles me into a non-negative frame of mind, i.e. as close as Scottish people get to positive one. There’s also something beautiful in hearing the audience at the Vanguard clinking and shuffling and chatting away, half-listening as musical history is quietly made in the corner. And it sets Scott La Faro’s death, now just ten days out, into a terribly heartbreaking and immediate human context. Toy Fights has a fair bit of death in it, alas, and it tended to place a sort of mortal filter on whatever I was listening to. 

Django Bates: ‘Little Petherick’ from Belovéd

Toy Fights being a memoir, I was instinctively drawn to anything that invoked the nostalgic. Little Petherick is a village in Cornwall. I’m sure this is an invocation of a childhood memory. Shockingly underrated in the US, Django is one of the finest musicians the UK has ever produced. He’s a wonderful composer, but it’s his piano playing that kills me. His resting state is generally frantic, as he has a mind like an insect, but I sense the freneticism stands protectively in front of an almost too-much-to-bear, childlike lyricism. I can’t go and see him in case he plays a ballad, and I have to be carried out on a stretcher.

Boards of Canada: Music has the Right to Children

Who knew nostalgia was capable of such violent intensity. I’m old and Scottish, so I can play this as often as I want, which is all the time. Maybe that’s the reason it’s closer to déjà vu. It sounds exactly like someone dug some analog synths from the ground in AD 3023 and plugged them in to see if they still worked. I feel I’ve said this before somewhere. I’m sure I will again.

Robert Glasper: Black Radio III

I played it constantly on its release while I was endlessly going through the copyedits and galleys. It seemed to say: ‘correct for boring’. I’m still in shock at how good every damn track on this record is. My favourites change from day to day, though I have trouble seeing past anything with Lala Hathaway on it. Get the ‘supreme’ version with all the extra stuff. Amir Sulaiman’s almost unlistenably moving ‘In Tune’ has a lot to teach ‘page poets’ about what they’re doing wrong these days.

Pharaoh Sanders / Floating Points: Promises

Toy Fights is also about my parents, my dad especially, and the whole business of cultural and social inheritance. Being partly born out of my dad’s awful decline, I found myself increasingly obsessed with how the very old dudes keep themselves going. This record must have been close to Pharoah’s last, so there’s a bit of energy conservation going on. But O – what a fine setting Sam Shepherd has shaped for his final word on the matter. Every great musician should be so honoured.  

Lets Eat Grandma: I’m All Ears

I also had to remember what it was like being a kid again. Listening to kids is the quickest route back to that world of self-delighted discovery and innocent innovation, or at least what we innocently thought was innovation. Besides, one always gets energised by what the kids are up to these days. This record was a collaboration with the late and greatly missed Sophie, the Scottish producer. I’ve been following these two lassies since they were 15, which sounds creepy, frankly, but if you were there at their haunted inception, you’ll understand. Anyway, if you need an album of deconstructed bangers sung in a Norwich accent with harmonies from a Bulgarian woman’s choir, look no further. Like FKA twigs, they’ve recently managed to get more commercial while sounding no less strange, which I think is maybe the holy grail.

DOMi and JD Beck: Not Tight

See above. Domi is a wonder of a pianist. JD is headed to be the most influential drummer of his generation, but we’ve been able to say that since he was 12. He drums like a hailstorm on a tin roof. This album was the least-disappointing over-anticipated debut I can remember. And how cool to have the 82-year-old Herbie Hancock guesting on it (and still burning, of course). I find the respect paid by the young musicians today towards their ancient mentors extremely moving. I’m afraid we don’t see much of that in poetry, where the generational divide now strikes me as officially irreparable. Anyway. Take the wins where you can. This is a lovely record of near-telepathic understanding, and one that not only plugs you back into the crazy energy of two kids still only halfway down the front nine, but makes you want to find the kid in yourself again, and make new and good things.

Kim Burrell and Cory Henry: Live at the New Life Tabernacle

I’m sneaking this on as my ‘Why am I doing this, or indeed anything’ track. YouTube only, but good lord: if this doesn’t give a wallop to your castigated pulse, nothing will. Their records are, of course, independently wonderful, but the in-church recordings are something else again. And while we’re here, check out that video of Cory playing at Melvin Crispell’s funeral; it’s just one of the most moving and inspiring things I know, and literally why God invented the iPhone.    

Don Paterson was born in Dundee in 1963. His previous poetry collections include Nil Nil, God’s Gift to Women, Landing Light, Rain and 40 Sonnets. He has also published two books of aphorism, as well as translations of Antonio Machado and Rainer Maria Rilke. His poetry has won many awards, including the Whitbread Poetry Prize, the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize and all three Forward Prizes; he is currently the only poet to have won the T. S. Eliot Prize twice. He was awarded the Queen’s Gold Medal for Poetry in 2009. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, the English Association and the Royal Society of Edinburgh, and is currently Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews. Since 1997 he has been poetry editor at Picador Macmillan, and he also works as a jazz musician and composer. He lives in Edinburgh.

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