A Happy Man…
A Happy Man…
Talking with John Martyn
SS (Supersnazz): What sort of things have influenced you?
JM: Alcohol, drugs, everyday life and all the music I’ve ever heard. I don’t have any major influences at the moment. I can tell you the records I listen to more than any others, Alice Coltrane mostly. If I want to dance and get drunk I listen to Tamla and I listen to Stevie Wonder if I want to bop about and get nicely stoned; I feel most comfortable, most harmonious, must musical with Alice Coltrane, that’s really the one that’s on all the time. My desert island disc. And also Leon Thomas’ record, the one with Wayne Shorter…. oh, and Weather Report are the best band in the world. Just exceptional.
SS: Distinct influences, then?
JM: No, not really. You see, there’re not coming out yet. I’ve only just discovered that sort of music last year, and as of yet I haven’t had full time to absorb it. It’s going to take me five or six years. Now I’ve actually got a goal in mind, now I can actually hear what I want to play. It’s going to take a lot of practice… I’m practising like I never have before, not practising as such but playing a great deal. Like when I was in America, I went through the stage when I was only playing at gigs, I didn’t actually play much at all, only raving and bleaching and getting out of my head, and being about, just jive arse. But now I’m playing more than I have ever done, for myself, which is good.
SS: How did you manage to get on to record in the first place? How did London Conversation come about?
JM: I was playing a club called Folk Barge in Kingston, and a fat man called Theo Johnson came up to me and said, “I will make you a star.” Literally, quite literally! Verbatim! And I said, “Go ahead then,” and he took the record to Chris Blackwell, he made a demo disc of two songs, and introduced me, and there you are, and there I’ve been ever since. I never considered for one moment I’d be involved I mean this is unthinkable, really.
SS: The transition from London Conversation to The Tumbler is quite drastic…
JM: Is it? Well on London Conversation I’d only been playing guitar for three months, so I was only playing to tunings, E tuning and ordinary tuning. And I’d lived in Scotland all my life, and I’d never heard any music at all, and as I said, it was quite by chance that this Kingston thing happened because my mother used to live in Kingston, and I used to go and visit her once a year, so I was playing there and… I don’t suppose I’d do it now, I mean, I was only 18 or 19 at the time. Well between the two albums I got exposed to London, you see, and at that time all the heroes were about, you know, Jansch and Davey Graham, and I just kind of listened a lot to music that I hadn’t listened to before, and I met Harold McNair… met loads of people all of a sudden. Between the two I just met all these people that were older and more experienced than me musically. That’s the reason for the change.
SS: A sort of transition from straight guitar to a ‘sparkle’…
JM: Yeah, the album ‘sings’ a bit more than before.
SS: How did you become involved with Witchseason and Joe Boyd?
JM: I went to do a gig at Chelsea Art College, and this very sexual lady, with a big hooter and great big brown eyes was playing away, and I thought I’d love to fuck that, and I was there with a friend of mine called Jackson C. Frank, he’d just come over and was very screwed in the brain… We were having lots of fake Leary ‘Acid tests’, peculiar things in those days… And it turned out that he knew her, and that was Beverley. So I said, “Come on, roll me in, introduce me,” and he said, “Beverley So So,” and… No. It wasn’t my gig, it was Jackson’s gig, and he played, and then she played, and then I played, and she said, “Would you like to play some session music to me?”, and I said, “Yes.” I then went away to Scotland, because at the time I was engaged to this chick and all that was falling apart, because I was turning into a total freak, and really had few remnants of civilisation left, and she was a very straight young lady very sweet though, God bless her, and I just left her behind, I grew a bit faster than she did. So I came back a free person, and I met Bev one day and took her back to the house, and that’s where it all started. At that time Beverley had just been signed by Joe Boyd to Witchseason. She was writing a lot of songs and wanted to do this and that, and she said, “I’ve got this guitar player,” and by that time we’d been together for a couple of weeks, and we’d managed to put a couple of things together, and he said, “Why don’t you make an album together?”, and that was that, just purely coincidence. None of it had been planned.
SS: Stormbringer was recorded in America?
JM: Yeah, in A&R studios, New York.
SS: Some very heavy session men on the album, too.
JM: You see, Joe Boyd stuck us in Woodstock, which was just before the festival, I hasten to add, and it was a bit silly, like Hendrix lived next door, and Levon Helm lived up the road… It was all down to tea with Bobby and all that kind of trip. It was very weird, in retrospect. Just mates, all that was down to friendship, really. Just fortune.
SS: And another change from Stormbringer to Road to Ruin.
JM: Yeah, I suppose it was slightly different.
SS: All of a sudden there are horns there.
JM: That’s because I had met Dudu Pukwana, a kind of kindred spirit in that he loved drinking, and I’d never heard high life music before and I just really got into African high life music and I really got into Chris McGregor’s band. Dudu Pukwana was the leader of the horn section in Brotherhood of Breath and they also worked on Witchseason for Joe Boyd. So it was mainly just friendship you see.
SS: Loads of fortunate linkups?
JM: Yeah, oh yeah. Although, not really… it’s an attraction. You just gravitate towards people you know are going to stimulate you, somebody who knows about something you don’t know, then you come together. You know information, that’s what it’s all about, really.
SS: The electronics are starting to creep in by now, too, aren’t they?
JM: Actually, they crept in first on Stormbringer!, on The Ocean.
SS: Were there any particular reasons for getting into electronics?
JM: Sustain. I really wanted to play an instrument that had sustain and I tried to play the horn. I can play the horn, but I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be, and it needs at least a year to get your chops in, the fingering is the simplest part of it. It takes at least a year to play in a completely controlled way, and you need to have control. It’s like getting blisters on your fingers before you can play the guitar properly. I just don’t have the time, so I thought “Fuck it, I’ll just stick a few gadgets on the old whatsit, and play that like a horn.” I was just simply after the sustain when I first started.
SS: How did you get into the echo thing?
JM: That was quite organic. I really don’t know where that came from.
SS: It’s a bit like a duck talking to water, really, completely natural.
JM: I must admit I get a real buzz out of playing electric guitar. I am playing a lot of electric guitar at gigs these days.
SS: There seems to have been a big blank in your career between The Road to Ruin and Bless the Weather.
JM: Yeah. Joe Boyd disbanded Witchseason, I really don’t know why, and we were sold, in the manner of possessions, to Island Records. We weren’t world famous and nobody had paid too much attention. We’d had good critical write ups, but no-one had covered any of the songs, and we hadn’t had a number one single, and Radio One didn’t like us, and all that kind of stuff. There wasn’t too much interest from the A&R men and the powers that be, so they said, “Give him six grand, and see what he fuckin’ comes up with.” And that was it. It took a fair amount of time for them to decide to give me the money, or something, I don’t know. They got very scared at that time, really, they must have thought that I had been around a long time and I wasn’t famous, and didn’t look as if I was going to be, so why throw away good money after bad. And that’s how Bless the weather came about. Luckily Head And Heart was on that one, and loads of people started covering the songs, and the songs off the old albums, and my publishing got out of the red into the black. And they suddenly changed their tune. And for the last one I went to America, and it started to sell a bit, it popped into the charts and popped out again but it encouraged all the “lads upstairs in the mohair”, it went down well. You see, you are dependent upon that fucking thing, that is the ghastly and foul truth of it all. I mean I have had a better time with Island Records than anyone else and I can’t imagine changing to anybody else ’cause I do feel at home here now, in a strange and peculiar sort of way it’s like a well known hotel. It’s just that no matter how underground or hip it appears, or attempts to appear to be, nonetheless the basis of the whole thing is the ‘music industry’, not the ‘music art’. I really find that the only pure label is Impulse the American label. They’re the only pure label I can think of. I’ve talked to Chris Blackwell and he says, “Well you know, it’s nice man, because I can give you money to do this because I’ve got Jethro Tull and Cat Stevens and they make about £2 million a year for the record company, so I can be a patron to you.” Which is… well I’ve got a rich patron, so it’s good. It’s difficult to put the whole thing in a proper perspective and I go through stages of just hating the whole fucking thing just wanting to go and farm pigs, say.
SS: I notice that there get to be blank periods between your gigs where you just sort of disappear totally.
JM: Yeah right, well, you’ve got to do that or you’d just go mad. You see if you get into the thing of chasing it and looking for the big one, you’re just into the wank. If you’re going to do that, then you’ve got to start making singles, you’ve got to start thinking in terms of what other people want to hear, which is the worst thing you can do because then you’re not playing yourself. There’s no point in playing your record collection and there’s no point in playing what you think is someone else’s collection. You’ve got to get out of all that, you’ve got to avoid cliches as much as possible except where they’re valid. There is a place for cliché, but it has to be used very carefully and very properly, with proper respect for what it is you’re trying to say. It just comes down to thinking about what you say. Now we are talking in artistic terms rather than in industrial terms, because as I said, there is a strong division between the ‘music industry’ and the ‘music art’ and really one denies the other. For instance, you don’t find any of the ‘impulse’ albums in the charts. I mean, go and ask a David Bowie freak if he’s heard of Weather Report and who’s Joe Zawinul and he’d probably say, “Oh he’s the Polish geezer with a café down the road.” It’s unfortunate, but there you are. There’s just no place for it. Not that I’m trying to say that I’m as good as those people because I know for a fact that I’m not. I don’t expect to start blowing properly until I’m about 35, because I just haven’t experienced enough yet. I’m still trying to figure it out, once I’ve got myself settled down I’ll be alright.
SS: I’ve noticed that at one or two gigs we’ve been to, that…
JM: You’ve been to some gigs and you’re still alive! You seem relatively sane to me! There’s no accounting for taste, is there?
SS: You seem to get a lot of hassle whereby half the audience is there for the big bop band. Like there was a concert up at Bolton earlier this year, which you probably dread to remember.
JM: Yeah, that was the worst gig I think I’ve ever done. In fact I came very close to doing a complete moody there. I was very close to smashing my guitar and attacking somebody, but then I decided it would be too much of an ego release and not enough of a demonstration. As it happened that developed into something else ’cause I remember I was sat in the back room and a few people came and I played a couple of songs to them. So it wasn’t a complete disaster.
SS: Do you often get that feeling that perhaps you’ve come to the wrong place.
JM: No, not now. It used to happen quite regularly, you could say that one in five was going to be like that. But now that is definitely the exception. Bolton was the worst gig I’ve done this year, that’s the only unfortunate experience I’ve had. Everyone is more comfortable with people they can readily communicate with. There are some people who are never going to understand what I’m on about, I’m not ever going to be a mass… Well, no, you can’t say things like that… I don’t envisage myself having mass appeal. There was a time when some people around here thought I was going to be another Cat Stevens…
SS: Perish the thought!
JM: Exactly! I soon stamped that one on the head! You have to be yourself in your songs, and money doesn’t come into it. I’m just not a pop musician, never going to be one, and that’s that. I’m trying to make converts, but so many of the routes in for them are blocked off.
SS: You normally start getting through when you start playing electric.
JM: Yeah… I don’t know what that’s about really. I think it’s easier these days, simply because you hear more electric music… You’re immediately a folk singer if you play acoustic music, it’s as simple as that. Even Bert Jansch has become a folk singer.
SS: It’s like stepping back five years, going to one of his concerts, nowadays.
JM: It’s very weird, isn’t it? I love him, I love his music, but it is really like time travelling, isn’t it? Honestly I can’t get on with that, I just don’t understand it. I can’t relate to it at all.
SS: Solid Air was very much anticipated, wasn’t it?
JM: It was greatly different from Bless the weather, I thought, just because there were more musicians on it.
SS: How do you feel about your previous albums, looking back on them?
JM: They all have their high points. Bless The Weather is the purest record I ever made, and some of the tracks on London Conversation have a certain naiveté about them, in retrospect. Stormbringer was very straight from the heart. The Road to ruin was the least satisfying to make I listened to it three or so times after I made it and I’ll never listen to it again. It was the least satisfying to make because it was nonspontaneous. I like to attack them and do them, and then jump out. That one took about six months because Joe Boyd was running back and forth, like we’d do two sessions, then he’d go to America for a month, then we’d do an overdub on a session we’d done three months before. It got to be such a drag, I couldn’t be bothered to turn up for two of the sessions. It just got too much. At the time, I made the mistake of being too complacent, and lived in Hampstead, and went through the whole thing of smoking loads of dope, and living very flashily… I just got into the whole “suburban creative person intelligent” vibe. I indulged myself for about a year. The Road To Ruin doesn’t come into the running at all for me, there’s a couple of nice songs on it but… Now Solid Air… I really like the title track. It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I’m very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It has got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself. There comes a point when you must live all the things you talk, otherwise you don’t sleep easy, in fact you’re just not a happy man, and I’m really interested in being a happy man more than anything else. For me the way I’ve gone, it seems inevitable that a large part of my life has got to be devoted to music, and I’m trying to involve myself less in the paper chase. I mean, I want to buy a farm… I’m doing the whole “rural escape” thing. All of that… it’s like I said, I’m existing somewhere on the line between the ‘music art’ and the ‘music industry’.
SS: How about going back to America? Did you enjoy the Traffic tour?
JM: It had its moments… it had its moments of acute depression, but it had moments of real elation. Not necessarily musical, just a real high. The biggest gig I’ve done here is the Queen Elizabeth Hall, yet the smallest gig I did there was 6,000, and the biggest 24,000. Wow! There you are, on your own, doing the same thing as you’ve ever done, but it’s just all of that out there. And the feedback you get off the audience in America is just incredible! I was much easier understood over there than I ever have been over here! Like when I was playing the electric thing, if I was singing, then they’d applaud the instrumental break. And if I hit a note in a particular sequence, they’d all go wild! And it really vibes you up. Over here there does seem to be a cool, it’s a lack of joie de vivre, a lack of true understanding of a musician’s purpose. A case of “We’ve paid our money, you’d better be fucking good.” If it’s not that, it’s “Blow my mind, man!” It’s not universal, I’m not putting the British thing down, but I did come across less of it in America. I think there is a heavier musical awareness over there, I found I was accepted more readily.
SS: So you’ll definitely go back?
JM: Yeah. The next five months are all worked out. I’m going to work really hard for five months, then take the next six off. I would like to get to the point where I just play, on my own terms. I don’t have to go anywhere to make money.
Two years ago I was having to go out to make money to survive, and that’s a bad situation to be in, because there’s a great element of professionalism, and it becomes part of yourself, whether you like it or not. Luckily I seem to have got out of that now.
SS: When you were talking about cover records earlier on, how do you feel about the cover versions of your songs?
JM: I did expect a little more. I expected a better rhythm section. I really wanted that song (Head And Heart) to be done by Astrud Gilberto, or Stan Getz. I really wanted the samba thing. Somebody like Carlos Jobim. I really like that Brazilian music.
SS: I remember reading where you were considering getting a band together, but vetoed the idea after seeing the sort of hassles Bronco had, whilst you were on the Island promotional tour.
JM: That was the first time I’d ever toured with a band, and I had no idea of the internal stress, I’d never really considered the emotional stress within a band. I play a lot with Danny Thompson now; we don’t have any permanent arrangement or anything, we just like playing together. It’s nice, and when it gets boring, we’ll just tell each other, and that’ll be it. But if I could find a compatible drummer… I mean, I love Remi Kebaka, he’s a great drummer, but I don’t think I could go on the road with three people, it’s just not me. I’m either exceptionally gregarious, the life and soul of the party, or the loner. There doesn’t seem to be any in between.
SS: It’s the latter that usually comes over, at least that’s my impression, also listening to the music it seems very much observations.
JM: It’s internal, most of it, I think I’m getting closer to what I want to do with the words on Inside out. I’ve really got my words together a bit better on this album than I have before, it’s difficult to say. You know how you can say to a cat, “It’s cold in here, isn’t it,” and if it is he’ll agree with you, and if it is but he’s feeling paranoid he may think you’re talking about his vibes. Or maybe he thinks that the decor is cold or you yourself are cold. So I’m more interested in using that multiple interpretation of a single word. But you have to be very careful in that kind of territory ’cause you’re then into the Charlie Manson trip, he got inspired to kill pigs off some Beatles’ album. When we lived in London I got guys coming up to me and saying, “I’m taking my 14th acid trip, it’s the 28th December, what does the 56th word on your 112th album mean?” I’m very interested in that sort of thing because I find that’s how I react to people, I immediately cover all the places they could be going, and I’m trying to use that multiple interpretation but within a framework, which is just love. I don’t mind being misinterpreted but you mustn’t misunderstand me. It’s difficult to explain because it’s there on the record. There’s a very great emphasis, verbally on the word ‘love’ on the album, the word ‘love’ crops up a great deal, and is there to make that point. But all the rest of the words are to be used to their fullest extent, to be extended as far as you can, but you’ve got to make sure that all the ways you extend them are positive, not negative; no horrors, no panics, no bad vibes all the good ones. It’s very difficult to put all that together. Hopefully I think I’ve done it, but you can’t be objective about your own stuff. ‘To see ourselves as others see us…’
SS: Perhaps a concept album?
JM: I don’t think I could ever do a concept album. I don’t know what a concept album is, I mean love is a concept, life is a concept.
SS: It’s just another of those unfortunate categories.
JM: Yeah, once again that’s the industry. You have to label things before you can readily sell them. I mean, here we are sitting here and it’s all very underground and hip and groovy together, but Lou and Leslie Grade are still making more money than anybody else in the world.
SS: They sell souls, don’t they?
JM: Of course they do. It’s just a long joke you can’t get involved in it. You’ve just got to keep yourself as clean as possible.
SS: How do you cope with the sterility of something like Whistle Test when they say, “Come on and play us two numbers to promote your new album.”
JM: I close my eyes. I find that I’m playing more and more gigs with my eyes closed anyway. I just find it easier, and for the last eight or nine months I’ve been playing almost exclusively with my eyes closed, except when I’ve got a really hard piece of fingering, and I don’t want to goof. It’s easier with your eyes closed to get into the feel, ’cause that’s what it is, an emotional communication, hopefully. That’s what it’s all about.
SS: It’s a rare treat to hear Jellyroll Baker on Solid Air, people have been waiting for that for years.
JM: It was very strange that, because I had this song and I couldn’t get it together. Every way I sang it, I just couldn’t get behind it, and eventually I thought, fuck it, I’ll play something else to get myself in the mood, so I played Jellyroll Baker. I played it and someone said, “That’s great, we’ve got to get it down on record.” And I said, “What?”, and then I remembered just what you said, ’cause people are always coming up at concerts and asking when I’m going to record it. So I stuck it down.
SS: Of course it could work the other way, like Seven Black Roses does everyone demanding it.
JM: Yeah, well I can’t hack that anymore. I think I’ve played it twice in the last two years. I sometimes make it in Belgium or Germany. It’s like giving people what they want, but what they want isn’t always what’s best for them. And it isn’t what’s good for you! That’s what annoys me about those people we mentioned earlier, there’s no sense of responsibility about what they write. You see, you really must be careful, it’s like the Beatles/Charles Manson thing: you do influence people every time you put one of these things out. It’s like a book, and you can’t say in a book, “Go out and kill as many people as you like, hate policemen, and screw all the birds you see,” it’s just mad. It’s just like Goats head soup, I mean what’s that about. It’s just a bad vibe, it simply has evil connotations, evil vibes and I really mean evil. I’m a very simplistic character and I have a very sharp division between good and evil, and to make money from evil things is worse, but I guess it’s obvious in a way because the two things are synonymous. Money is the root of all evil and vice versa. The things people do to each other for money are just frightening, especially for large amounts of it. It’s bad enough when you see geezers getting ripped off for a quid deal in the Portobello Road, but when you see entire nations being ripped off! I’m not trying to get all Bangladesh about it, but that’s what’s going on. The world is full of bastards. You owe it to your conscience to be a scholar and a gentleman, and you’ve got to do the right thing. I now need some time to adjust to my verbalised opinions, because I’m not the gentlest of people in my everyday life, I can be exceptionally hard with people and I can really be nasty, and very occasionally violent. That’s a thing I want to knock right on the head. To be truthful, I haven’t been violent, except in defence of my family and home for the last two years. But I’d just like to stop it, because I really am an absolute believer in pacifism. And that cerebral control of heart/gut negative responses, I really believe that’s what you should be aiming for. There are lots of fashionable ways of doing it, but I don’t want to do it any of those ways. Gurus are big business nowadays and there’s a general air of spiritualism, which I’m suspicious of. It’s just another manifestation of overcrowding and the pressures of the 1970’s.
SS: It sounds like a psychedelic hangover.
JM: Yes, absolutely, I couldn’t recommend acid to anyone with a clear conscience, I just couldn’t.
SS: There’s more and more people feeling the same way.
JM: I just couldn’t recommend it with a clear conscience, I’d have to say “Look you’re on your own, if you do it, don’t give me any of the responsibility, just make your own decisions.” That’s what I meant about a sense of responsibility, ’cause there’s so much advice and shit being laid down, so many people telling you what to do on their records. As it happens, I’m saying a few things on Inside out, but hopefully I’ve made the right decisions as to what to tell people.
SS: Suggesting rather than telling?
JM: Well there is a track where I get up and really scream, in fact I do a fair bit of screaming on the album. I get angry that people are so silly, and I get angry that I’m so silly. You know when Pharoah Sanders screams with his horn, that’s not anger, it’s just a depth of emotion, it’s a cathartic release. It’s an energy thing, its better than fighting! You see music could be a force, the Indians have recognised that for years, and vast numbers of very intelligent people have seen that in classical music. Rock and roll is the music of the violent age, etcetera etcetera. Take Hawkwind for instance, its fucking brain damage music. I suppose you’ve got to dig them for their honesty, but it’s definitely brain damage, you’d have to be damaged to hack that!
SS: Boredom rock?
JM: Yeah, there’s so many peculiar things going down that I just can’t see.
SS: Well you can see what they’re trying to do, building up layer upon layer of…
JM: But Charlie Parker was doing that in 19 whatever.
SS: He can do it by virtue of experience whereas these cats are younger and are trying to cut corners.
JM: That’s what I’m saying. I don’t expect to start blowing properly till I’m 35. That’s why I’m practising a lot now. Danny’s turned me onto that. Danny’s such a gas, if your motives are pure, then you’re OK.
SS: There’s more electric on this album, is there?
JM: Yes, there’s a lot more electric guitar on this one. Me doing a B.B. King impersonation at one point. It’s a weird album, I can’t really describe it. You’ll just have to listen to it.
SS: I remember hearing that you had planned an all electric album, but scrapped it because you felt it didn’t lend itself to record… You couldn’t express the ranges of music.
JM: Yeah. Rather Be The Devil on Solid Air just doesn’t make it for me. On the next album I hope to put some live things down, and I hope to do it live. It’s much funkier live.
SS: How much control do you have over your albums?
JM: I had much more control over Inside out than before. I’ve never, to be truthful, been very happy over any record sleeve. I’d be quite happy to stick them out in brown paper bags.
SS: The visual trip can be quite interesting…
JM: Oh yeah, I mean it’s all in context with what’s actually going on. As long as there’s no dichotomy between the visuals and what’s on the album, then it’s OK.
I think this year I might do a third album. I really want to do another simple album like Bless The Weather.
SS: Well thank you for your time.
JM: It’s been a pleasure.
1 September 1973