Down That Lonesome Road

Down That Lonesome Road. Jonathan Futrell meets John Martyn, a folk troubadour who is still one of Britain’s best-kept secrets.

Something strangely prophetic happened to the much younger John Martyn when he opened for Charles Mingus and Weather Report at The Bijou Club.

It had been a frustrating night for the English troubadour hoping to get himself heard above the clatter of a Philadelphia supper club: He admits it may have been an error accepting a gig with such exemplary jazzmen, but then as now he had something unique to offer and he wasn’t going to let East Coast diners get the better of him.

“Nobody was listening and I was furious. I smashed my guitar to smithereens; on the table. Just then Mingus walked out of the kharzi and said, listen son, I’m 56 and I’m still wallpaper. Who the hell do you think you are?”
The strange thing is that, almost 20 years and a catalogue of splendid recordings later, there are still only a handful of people listening to John Martyn. It is lamentable that at 43 he is still one of this country’s best-kept secrets. His brooding tenor voice, which sounds as if it was invented during a hangover, and his synthesised guitar playing, underpinned by pure funk percussion, envelop his melancholy love songs in a way that is romantic, modern and even pastoral, in its scope. I have been an unreserved fan since I heard what many claim to be his finest achievement, Solid Air, released by Island Records in 1973. On that and subsequent albums, notably Inside Out and One World, Martyn distanced himself from the London folk scene that he started out on and embarked upon a solitary exploration of ambient sound where the songs are defined by their mood and texture.

Sadly, innovation is not enough and despite marketing campaigns by Island under the former MD and committed Martyn fan, Chris Blackwell, and almost continual live work at home and abroad (a mixture of sublime music and rowdy boys’ humour) he has failed to shift large amounts of “product.” But if the public has been slow to latch on to his music other musicians have not. Steve Winwood, Phil Collins and Eric Clapton and countless others have all involved themselves in his projects. In some ways, Martyn is a musician’s musician. Clapton’s version of the definitive hippy love song May You Never, (taken from Solid Air) on his Slowhand album is reputed to have earned more for Martyn than all his own 25 albums. I met him at his home about an hour’s drive west of Edinburgh, this large, barrel-chested man with a ruddy complexion, curly hair and a brown beard.

“You think this is remote,” he said. “If I had my way I’d be further away.” He likes to be “suited and booted” on stage, but for me he wore tatty dungarees and moccasins. There was a fire in the hearth, bits of fishing paraphernalia hung up, two guitars and a friendly Staffordshire bull terrier called Punch at our feet. A photograph of reggae producer Lee Perry was a reminder of Martyn’s sojourn in Jamaica in the late 70s and I could make out a Smokey Robinson album peeking out from his record collection.

His house is what “getting it together in the country” is all about. His 16-year-old son Spencer attends to the electronics and is sound manager on the UK tour. “He’s great,” said Martyn. “He learns everything so fast.”

Martyn is full of self-deprecation and doubt, but there is no denying that his white soul voice rivals Van Morrison’s in intensity. So why did he open his account with folk?

“I started out listening to Bukka White and Robert Johnson, solo acoustic stuff. I did have, and I have to a lesser extent now, this kind of fascination with the lonesome road. I like that rationale, that beatnik nonsense. If you listen to the slide guitar on Jack The Lad on this album [Cooltide, released last month], you will hear touches of Bukka White; the tone is much the same. It’s all by accident, just how I play.”

Much of his artistic strength comes from wearing his heart on his sleeve. “It’s the only way to go. It just means I’m a bit exposed at times.”

Every emotional turmoil he has survived over two decades is recorded on vinyl. The 1981 Grace And Danger, a “reach for the razors” chronicle of Martyn’s break up with his wife Beverley, with whom he used to record and perform, was so harrowing for the former Island boss that its release was put back a year. Blackwell keeps a CD of that with him at all times. Martyn considers it his best work. Today Martyn is signed to his manager’s independent Permanent label: “I like to have friends around me.”

Cooltide is his brightest work since Sapphire almost a decade ago. It is a portrait of a contented man who has remarried (he met Annie when she managed a recording studio in Ireland) and who is coming to terms with middle age: Father Time is the most defiant treatment of the mid-life crisis ever committed to vinyl. Elsewhere, Jack The Lad, The Cure, Call Me and the dream like title track show that Martyn is still ahead of the pack. Of particular interest on Cooltide and indicating a new direction is the contribution of saxophonist Andy Sheppard, with whom Martyn is hoping to cut a drum-free jazz record next year.

Martyn is touring Britain with a seven piece band until November. As the man says, it promises to be a “cool, cool time”.

Cooltide is released on Permanent Records. Martyn plays at the Manchester International II tonight and Queens Hall, Bradford tomorrow.

Jonathan Futrell
The Sunday Times
28 September 1991