A Fool’s Time For Glory?
A Fool’s Time For Glory?
Steve Sutherland slips on his rose tinted glasses and pops along to hero worship John Martyn.
You’ll have read, no doubt, from time to time, the type of image boosting tripe we hacks dish out in a bid to force some fab new fad on the world’s affection just to gloat in reflected hip glory. You’ve probably even taken the bait occasionally, enticed by the fashion, reputation and one-upmanship of novelty.
But being told you’ve ignored somebody’s talent right under your nose for too damn long’s tantamount to insult; an attack on your perception, your cold shoulder, understandably, starts icing over. Having your prejudices/preferences confirmed is one thing,being converted is another.
That’s why this crusade on behalf of John Martyn was doomed from the outset… but fools rush in so I give it a go and what happens? My piece de resistance, my review of Glorious Fool, a life time’s worth of burning admiration unbottled, is reduced by a late ad/an unsympathetic sub’s sense of space priority/wilful sabotage(?) to a sycophantic skeleton of its former appreciative self.
How to face the man with an abortion like that in bold black and white? The least of my worries, as it turned out.
Martyn was due to do “hundreds, thousands…” of interviews all in one day. Guess who’s last on the list? On introduction, I swear he gazed straight through me for ten solid seconds before snapping to like an electronic impulse.
“Sorry Steve, mate, I’ve ‘ad a real ‘ard… Christ, I’m in a bad mood.” Some start. Shake hands. Try again.
“Look, I’ve gotta get out of here, get my head together. Give me ten minutes, no look, eight minutes, sorry, look take my watch, time me, eight minutes, I’ll be back…” Out of the door. Gone.
Anticipation, they say, is so much better. Usually. And harbouring respect in rock is a mug’s game; a dead-cert to leave you egg faced, disappointed and ridiculed; dumped by a hero’s human incompetence. Much better to reserve admiration for cold slabs of vinyl; untaintable statements that won’t let you down. John Martyn’s on.
He returned, tired, an honestly reluctant interviewee at the best of times. “Ideally, I’d like my music to speak for itself but… I can understand where you’re at man… I always wanted to read about… y’ know…” Good. Let’s go.
Martyn talked tersely about Glorious Fool, his latest (12th) long playing release in 14 years; an album which, he claims, “has no intrinsic musical difference, it’s better produced that’s all.”
In other (my) words: it’s brilliant. Produced by Phil Collins (“because he’s a mate, a musician, his ears aren’t painted on, he doesn’t have one eye on the dollar and the other on the expense account, he’s a straight man and I like him”) it takes Martyn two steps forward and one step back on the zig zag route from his folk roots towards mainstream acceptance. Detractors, and probably disciples too, may well see “Fool” as an artistic betrayal (Eric Clapped-out plays on one track); a bid by association for commercial clout.
Martyn denies this.
“I don’t premeditate any of my writing at all. I think that would be a wrong thing to do, morally and artistically. My style is my style. I don’t like fashion. Successful singles are fashionable, my music is stylistic.”
But matters of finance have reared their inevitable, if ugly, heads recently, prompting a surprise switch from his one and only previous label, Island, to WEA. “Island wouldn’t come up with the money I think I’m worth and WEA would, pure and simple as that. It wasn’t easy; it was an emotional decision really because I feel very close to a lot of the people there, but it was a sink or swim situation; they couldn’t come up with the money, or, wouldn’t… I dunno…”
Martyn’s career (for once a pertinent word) has straddled many musical styles, folk, jazz, reggae, funk, and now rock, but this is the first time business has been publically revealed as a prime concern. I asked why he’s just formed a permanent band after years of solo work and loose aggregations. “Well, I got divorced you see and so was given leeway to work harder.”
Is it harder work with a band? “Oh yeah. I don’t make any money on the road now so I have to work five times as hard just to break even.”
Money again. John Martyn journeyman? Leave it out. “Never, never, never ever… I’ve never lost interest in performing. I love it. My enthusiasm hasn’t waned in the slightest, I think I’ll play ’til the day I drop.”
As if to illustrate Martyn’s principles mean more to him than bulging pockets, the conversation shifts uneasily to Canada and America where he’s becoming so successful I figured a (semi) permanent move might be on the cards.
“Can’t stand Ronald Reagan can I? Can’t ‘ack ‘im. Ronald Reagan put the caibosh on it for me. I mean, ‘e’s an animal, a B-movie actor and when the world’s most powerful nation can get a B-movie actor in as president it shows how powerful the berks are behind him. They could have chosen Burt Lancaster, I’d have even preferred Charlton Heston, someone who had a bit more class man. Jack Nicholson at least. But a turkey like Reagan… man, you kiddin’? Glorious Fool is a direct lampoon, well… more of an attack on him.”
So is Britain that much better? “No. Margaret is a dead loss. She took the milk from the kids, she’s got three million unemployed, she’s the worst advert for feminism I ever saw. I mean, I couldn’t sleep at night if I were her. She denigrates the word ‘woman’, she’s not a woman, she’s a machine. She hasn’t got the brains of a carrot… she can’t even express herself.”
Suddenly, from fatigued irritation, Martyn gows angry. “They threw eggs at her in Glasgow, it was a waste of damn good eggs as far as I’m concerned. They should have thrown rotten fruit, she should be pilloried, bad politicians should be pilloried. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an honest politician.”
Martyn admits that his songs are autobiographical, “a diary of things that have happened to me and my friends”, and that the marked rush of adrenalin in his recent work is the direct result of his divorce and desire for sexual adventure. But this new explicit aggression also stems from realistic, righteous anger. Don’t You Go, for instance, is Martyn’s most overtly political song to date; an anti war anthem. Why write it now?
“Because I think the British public is being geared to the neutron attack, some jive ass shit is being manufactured in Poland and I won’t have any of it. I’m damned if I’ll go to war, damned if I will! I mean, the last war I presume was justified, I have it on good authority that Hitler’s gangsters had to be stopped, but I can see nothing on the horizon worth fighting for apart from nuclear disarmament. I’d fight for that.”
Would you play a benefit?
“Certainly, certainly and intend to do so. I’d fight for that. If someone’s jeopardising my children’s future, as far as I’m concerned it’s no holds barred. Greed, it’s all greed, all money mouthpieces and puppets, people sitting behind vast companies manipulating the masses. I won’t have it.”
Is a benefit the best you can do?
“I could actually make a political album, but that would be agin me principles, pardon the pun, but I’m an apolitical person. I detest politics. I’ve never used my vote simply because I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils. I mean, basically all you’re doing is voting for the stars of the debating societies of 20 years ago.” “If everyone abstained, every single man and woman, and said ‘Listen, I’ve ‘ad enough of you’, that, to me, would be a really strong political statement. I don’t think anyone should vote in the next election, nobody.”
How about you as a performer? Is it important for you to remain honest?
“It’s all important. I’ve never lied on stage, never. I’ve told the odd white lie in my personal life to avoid aggravation with the woman I ‘appened to be livin with at the time, but artistically I think integrity is important.”
“I like to write ambivalent lyrics, lyrics that are open to… one hopes not misinterpretation, but I’d like a multilateral interpretation of the lyrics. I’d like the same song to be angry one night and compassionate the next, that’s really the measure of a song’s breadth and of the emotion that’s in the performer. For me, music is an emotional communication and should be used as such.”
John Martyn conducts interviews like he performs honestly, from the heart. He’s never recognised showbiz conventions, never, after 14 years in the public eye, learned: to recite interviews by rote. He was losing interest in this one so, out of respect, I stopped. When I got home, half impressed, half bemused, I started going on about Martyn’s unenviable interview rote.
“Oh, poor bloke,” said Phil. “A musician never has to go out to work, some hardship, talking to you to help sell his records.”
Ah, me, getting caught up in the fantasy and losing sight of perspective. The biggest pitfall of all. The pitfall, still, today, that John Martyn avoids. I trust he’ll appreciate the irony.
3 October 1981