Feeling Gravity’s Pull

After rising to prominence with the late 60’s electric folk renaissance, John Martyn uprooted song form and subjected it to a serious sonic makeover on a series of albums which rank alongside the best of Tim Buckley and Van Morrison for their radical fusions of folk, soul, jazz and dub. In spite of that, his best music, he says, is yet to come.

“I’m pontificating,” booms John Martyn. “Well, of course, in a church you’ve got to pontificate, ain’tcha? Pon, pon, tiddlypon. And the pontiff… what? What’s the point of it all?” All I did was ask whether he had a guru. Not such a stupid question, surely  there must have been something, somebody, some beacon guiding him past the myriad obstacles and buffeting winds of a 35 year voyage through music  and I sure didn’t expect him to name some moneyed Maharishi, either. But there he is, old John Martyn, crumpled in his red leather armchair, rigormortised and wheezing with laughter. ‘Oh, ya beautie!’ he cries, finally, when the mirth lets his face uncurl. “Took me quite by surprise, that one. No I do not  simple answer. No, no indeed!” A few more hoots, then “If I had a guru, it would be Chick Murray, a Scottish comedian. I’ll give you one of his jokes now: I was out walking the other evening. This fellow accosted me, and said, ‘Excuse me, sir, is that the moon up there?” As you would. And I said: “I’ve no idea  I’m a stranger here myself!”

“For me, it’s Zen,” Martyn continues. “He was apparently a very difficult man, but obviously a very deep thinker.”

John Martyn is midway through moving into a small, former Scots Congregational church next door to his current home in the minute, landlocked Scottish hamlet of Roberton. Above his fireplace, with logs burning in the iron wood stove, are, in descending order: a gilt, French Ancien Regime mirror; a round portrait of the poet Robbie Burns; a pair of Buddhas; and a china scroll bearing the Lord’s Prayer. “Just about covers the faiths,” he says, dropping immediately into the vernacular of a Deep South hellfire Baptist preacher. “Fuck who ya want  Buddha will forgive yah, and yah can also pray to de Lawd. All in one day, right on the same rattle shelf  now, who’da believed it? Pass me that rattle, I’m feeling holy!”

Like his patchwork shrine, John Martyn’s voices (both spoken and sung), his music  his moods even  are quilted together from scraps of experience gathered during the course of a truly nomadic life. During a conversation, he’ll nonchalantly slip from Sarf England drawl to Scots brogue; ironic Lord Snooty sniff to brimstone Preacher Man; character sketches of Lee Perry or Leon Thomas. Since his birth in 1949, to an English mother and Scottish father, he’s forever been shuttling the length and breadth of the equally chequered British landscape, taking on whichever shape suited him best at a given moment. “I’m above nationality,” he says, “I was born in New Malden. My mother couldn’ae hang on. She was English, you see. In fact she wasn’t she was Jewish Belgian. So I’m a Scots Belgian Jew. To you.”

Aix-en-Provence, France, winter 1967: American singer Robin Frederick writes a song called Sandy Grey after Nick Drake stands her up in a French bar. In the summer of that year she hitchhikes to London, where she meets 18 year old John Martyn. Exit Ms Frederick stage left, rapidly, but the song remains: Sandy Grey turns up the following year, as the second track on Martyn’s debut Island LP, London Conversation. Six years later Drake makes his tragic exit  pursued by demons  but not before Martyn has written Solid Air, the lugubrious word in your ear song addressed to Drake, whose anxiety attacks, depression and dysfunctionality had driven him to the brink of self-destruction.

Based on the spectral chord shifts and tremolo Rhodes licks in Pharoah Sanders’ Astral Traveling (from Thembi), Solid Air sealed Martyn’s reputation as a master of mood and pace. It came in the midst of an intensely happy period in Martyn’s life. He was married to Beverley, the Coventry born folk singer with whom he’d already released several albums in the late 60s and early 70s, and was enjoying the kind of extended summer of love which was also a feature of the lives of Tim Buckley and Van Morrison. Like Martyn, they were each building their own canons of electric, visionary, pastoral songs. Martyn denies knowing the Sanders tune, and seems genuinely amazed at the comparison: “I never thought of that. You could be right. That’s interesting. I’d like to know which came first, the chicken or the egg? I probably just beat him to it. Is it in C minor? I’ll kill him!”

When John Coltrane was drenching jazz in acid, taking fellow Afronaut Sanders with him on a journey to the light, Martyn was in Scotland learning folk blues with guitarist Hamish Imlach, the teacher he now uncannily resembles. He never got to hear Coltrane in the flesh, but remains a fervent admirer of his innovations  on Philentropy, a live album released in 1983, he scats the vocal line from A Love Supreme. “It all became very spiritual for a while, didn’t it?” he says. “And I actually believed it! (Laughs) Then I find out they’re all fucking ravers, selling junk to each other  pissing up and down the bars and beating their missuses up. It came as a bit of a shock, really, ’cause you get your brainbox built up, thinking, ah, these cats know so much… Coltrane might have cleaned up, but few people ever do, when they get that deep into it. I can’t think of one.”

“I think you’ll find that Coltrane was like the French impressionists,” he continues, referring to the music he loves most, the chromatic tone poems of composers such as Debussy, Saint-Saens, Ravel. “Breaking the rules. Before Saint-Saens, you weren’t allowed to put two flats together. Two sharps together, two flats together: sounds enharmonic. It’s odd now, because we’ve changed, and everyone loves Debussy’s Clair De Lune. That’s got sharps and flats jammed onto its arse, but it’s really pretty and beautiful, become a bit of a cliché. But in its day it was seen as almost unacceptable.”

“I never really had a relationship with jazz. Some great tones came out of it. Weather Report were a big influence on me. Zawinul remains a shining example. But I’ve never been interested in tricky and difficult time changes, because nine times out of ten, they’re merely an excuse for the musician to show off. It’s a bit precious and ’19th century Vienna’. There’s guys like Oscar Peterson, for example, who are absolute genii, but I couldn’t eat a whole one.”

“Same with Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli: beautiful, but I couldn’t eat a whole one. It’s hard enough to eat a packet of myself for two hours every night…”

They were starlight, they were golden: the secret troupe of electric troubadours at the dawn of the 70s whose mission was to throw new light into corners left darkened by the psychedelic supernova. For these Judiths and Judases  Dylan, of course, and Van Morrison and Tim Buckley, plus Sandy Denny, Laura Nyro, Tom Rapp’s Pearls Before Swine, Robert Wyatt, Nick Drake, Richard and Linda Thompson  there were so many songs to write and sing; so many subjects to serenade and objects to love. In England, expat American producer Joe Boyd almost singlehandedly created a canon, a label family: his Witchseason production company helped turn parent company Island into a logo you could trust, with a roster that included Traffic, the Thompsons, Free and Fairport Convention. Folk, and folk rock, may have become newly entrenched, but the mud had baked hard in the sun that was shining down on the massed countercultural hordes at the tail end of the 60s. Fairport, Island’s big cheeses, harked back to the feudal system on their album Liege And Lief; tankard quaffing folkies from John Renbourn to Bert Jansch, Pentangle and Magna Carta were peddling esoteric Luddism; Fotheringay and Steeleye Span were having trouble breaking rock down into anything smaller than ungainly lumps; and Robin Williamson’s Incredible String Band were content to play village idiots.

John Martyn and his ilk brought a torrent of refreshing rain to this parched scene; Martyn’s liquefied songs turned the hard ground into a slurry of slurred notes, split into pure trace elements by echoplex electrolysis. Folk had been revived briefly to play its traditional role as transmitter of received wisdoms, homespun truths and hayseed logic, but the conservatism inherent in its reliance on tried and trusted instrumental technique and equipment, and in its zealous guarding of an acoustic/analogue mind set over the encroaching power lines, revealed itself in the image of Pete Seeger at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival, waving an axe over electric Dylan’s new mains lead. And then this band of gypsies revitalised the form like Albert Ayler revved up the American spiritual. In came electric pianos, Wurlitzers, Rhodes; tablas and expanded percussion sections; wah wah and volume pedals to create fluid phantasms across the stereo picture; serpentine rock and funk rhythms: prototype drum machines… The refrain took second fiddle to extended instrumental passages, and the voice carried a new vulnerability that spoke of an existential fallibility, with no possibility of redemption for those who’d cut themselves off from folk tradition and its safety nets of community, history or family.

On Solid Air, longstanding partner Danny Thompson’s double bass trips up the time signatures; while Martyn forces the performances of their lives out of Fairport Convention’s core members  the rhythm section of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks; John Rabbit Bundrick on keyboards; Simon Nicol on mandolin. Their reading of Skip James’s spooked blues ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’ is revisionist rather than reverential, reconstituting Britfolk as a glittering slew of liquid mud flecked with gold dust.

“I was so naive, and so young, and so self obsessed, that I honestly do not have a handle on it,” is Martyn’s recollection of the early Witchseason days. “Those were the days of Pearly Spencer. Those were the days of the dancing, whirling dervish  I breezed through them. I didn’t think about anything, really, at all.”

In an NME interview from the period, Martyn banged on about letting his heart rule his head. Nothing much has changed in that respect, except that now he says, “I would express it in a less aggressive fashion. I think it’s important to find a balance between the head and the heart. I continually fight cynicism, for instance. But one is occasionally driven to it. I can’t suffer fools gladly, and that’s occasionally taken as arrogance by other people. By that, I mean bankers. Guys who are after your bread… there are guys out there putting out records of mine, they don’t know a hatchet from a crotchet. I just like to be upful and bright  that’s the message with all the music I create.”

The Road To Ruin, Bless The Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out, Sunday’s Child, One World: it’s one of the great unbroken musical innings  a parallel to Tim Buckley’s series of albums from Happy Sad through Starsailor, or Can’s output between 1968-74. But Martyn was never simply the ‘upful and bright’ sylvan merman of song. “I wanted to be a doctor  I should have been that,” he reflects. “It put an awful lot of strain on the family life, being a musician. You get trapped: there’s a devil in me that definitely comes out now and again. No question. Same as in everybody, I suppose; I was a bit more upfront about it. I don’t quite know why. Without being a songwriter, I think I’d have probably been a lesser person.”

The devil rode out in his music, too: Dreams By The Sea depicts an idyll shattered by paranoid suspicions, like Picasso’s screaming beachside women; Ain’t No Saint, from Inside Out, is drawled in drunken slur: Just get it together,’ he snaps, with no mental energy left for reasoned argument. May You Never, written for his recently born son, contains a catalogue of admonishments that could easily have been autobiographical: “May you never lose your temper if you get in a barroom fight, May you never lose your woman overnight…”

Martyn steeped folk in acid; he made it vulnerable, open to all kinds of foreign invaders  free jazz, the ad infinitum of dub echo, and the ghost of the blues. Back in The Wire 124, Ian Penman honoured him as one of the ‘Great Lost British Voices’ alongside Kevin Ayers, Nick Drake, Kevin Coyne and John Cale. But none of those contemporaries leave you flying so high or driven so deep, nor so colourfully bruised as Martyn’s songs. The real, darkling story manifests graphically on the artwork of Inside Out: on one side, Martyn’s silhouetted head is filled with a thunderstorm; while outside the sun blazes. On the back, the weather is reversed; sun in the brain, outside it’s rain.

On the Inside Out sessions, he upgraded the group with the addition of Traffic’s Steve Winwood, Chris Wood, Bobby Keys and Remi Kabaka. By 1975, he’d piped Danny Thompson back on board his tour bus, adding a mighty figure from the world of free Improv  Spontaneous Music Ensemble’s drummer John Stevens  and occasionally inviting ex-Free guitarist Paul Kossoff (Martyn had played guitar on Kossoff’s solo LP Back Street Crawler). This is the ensemble (minus Kossoff, whose erratic playing had to be cut) heard on the perennial favourite Live At Leeds, privately released in 1975 in an edition of 10.000 by Martyn himself, and sold mail order from his Hastings home.

Live At Leeds is about as far out as Martyn ever went  musically, at least. Stevens is a massive presence at the centre of this maelstrom, propelling the songs and fanning their elements apart. Melted in the heat, ‘Inside Out’ stretched to 18 minutes of convulsive, chewy energy. Stevens only worked sporadically with Martyn after that, cropping up on some of the tracks on 1977’s One World. What footprints did his ‘search and reflect’ method leave in Martyn’s music? “The things I learnt from John Stevens were things you wouldn’t ‘learn’, as such,” Martyn considers. “There were thousands of things you learnt with John Stevens. A complex character. I liked him because he had a spiritual thing about him. The last time I worked with him), he said, ‘We’ll all sit down, and sing a note  the note that you’re most comfortable with.’ Some of us sang better than others …. And we came to this chord that we all liked. ‘Right  that’s the chord we’re going to write the piece about. Could you all remember the note you played?’ OK, write it down on the piano. Bang, bang, bang, and you’re off. No emotional commitment! But there obviously is an emotional commitment, because you would be singing the note you were singing at the time; you must have a purpose. Do you feel like (he sings a high note), do you feel like (low note), do you feel (mid-range)? I liked him for that. Spontaneity is what I learnt from John Stevens. Nice guy, sadly missed. People misunderstood him, they misread him. Some people would see him as an arrogant little bastard at times, never thought of anyone but himself. I knew him, he was a gentle motherfucker, wouldn’t raise his hand to a mouse, to a tiger, to a door  somebody else would do it for him. Others are going, ‘He’d give you the shirt off his back’. And both things are true.”

By the mid70s, Martyn’s lyrics suggested monsters hatching in the idyll. On 1974’s Sunday’s Child he’s cast as a wandering star, revolving far from the fixed centre of his domestic life. He sends bulletins back home from hotels 2000 miles away (Root Love), protests his undying commitment (One Day Without You), and on Clutches, in his now frequent ‘devil voice’, he proclaims how sweet it is to remain in the possession of his ‘residential woman’. He also dedicated a pair of songs to his two young children, My Baby Girl and Spencer The Rover, which both fall on right side of cloying.

If Sunday’s Child marks an uneasy turning point in Martyn’s career, One World is an Indian summer before the monsoon struck: divorce, alcoholism and worse. His voice contains a new huskiness; a weary grinding of words in the throat’s mill. Ecologists may have loved ‘messages’ like “It’s one world/Like it or not/One world/Believe it or not”, but for Martyn it’s a realisation that leaves him ‘Cold and lonely’. Dancing is a piece of special pleading: “Oh darlin’/I want you to try to understand/If you’re leading the life of a music man/You gotta wander reelin’ and a rockin’ round the whole of the town… ‘Til the morning takes you home.” He wanted to enjoy his success, but conflicting obligations were tearing him apart.

“I think you have to fight with people all the time,” he reflects. “I think that’s one of the reasons I went on the piss for a while. For a while I had the reputation of a real bad boy; this man was going to punch you out, shoot you or fuck you. I deliberately cultivated it, because it kept people away from me. I want people away from me, basically… Obviously one loses one’s innocence as one gets older; it becomes more difficult to speak. But I think innocence really is permanent.”

Martyn took a busman’s holiday in Jamaica during 1976, hanging out with Burning Spear, Max Romeo and Lee Perry, who co-wrote the faintly lewd rock number Big Muff. “There was only three ways to get paid by that boy” is Martyn’s recollection of working with Perry, “dodgy dollars, hookers, or blue movies. So eventually I just started doing it all for nothing. We were mostly doing the same thing at the same time. I wobbled in, and brought an echoplex, and he’d never heard one before. The only difference was, he had two Revoxes. I only had one, the bastard!”

Martyn also had a Rhythm Doctor: a drum machine winking through the mist of Small Hours and One World. He got more flack for that: “People thought it was so funny, that this geezer would walk onstage with a glorified metronome. They could not see that it was in fact a bass drum, with a kick drum at the top. A lot of the things I used to fiddle about with confused people at first.”

John Stevens plays drums on Big Muff, but Martyn’s song structures generally seemed to be tightening up. “I became disillusioned by the attitude of the jazzers” he comments. “Basically, I found them very competitive, even more so than folk singers. I found them even more hustly, and even more potty. And I’ve never been one for coteries; I don’t like scenes (he speaks the word with his lips curled back). Fuck the scene  there ain’t no ‘scene’  the whole thing’s a scene.”

“And you find that as your income increases, because of your popularity, the sharks get you. It becomes something else  it’s absurd. The music industry should be run by angels!” He snickers, then transforms once again into a raving, shouting Southern preacher man: “Gabriel, come down, blow your horn, bitch! It’s time you made an appearance! I, the Reverend James John Martyn Iain David McGeachy  I’m demandin’ you come down and sort this shit out! ‘Cause they’s fuckin’ wid’ yaw harmoneh!”

It’s somehow appropriate that John Martyn should end up in a church: he seems ready for the pulpit. His latest album, a collection of cover versions released earlier this year, is called The Church With One Bell, a tribute to the site of his latest fresh start. (His current label Independiente sent him a list of suggestions for songs, and he apparently rattled them off straight onto tape, which explains the unusual mix, from Martyn favourites Sonny Boy Williamson, Elmore James and Randy Newman, to Portishead, Ben Harper, Dead Can Dance, and the sacred ground of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit.

Since 1980’s Grace And Danger, a record bristling with raw nerves, open wounds and plea bargains after the breakup of his marriage, Martyn has been falling gently to earth. He’s put out more than ten albums since the early 80s, but somehow  and almost all Martynophiles agree on this  he took on the appearance of Robin Williams’s character in the Woody Allen movie Deconstructing Harry: an actor quite literally out of focus.

With Phil Collins’s drumming and the Jaco Pastorius influenced bass of John Giblin, Martyn’s style was on the edge of a new era. WEA, who picked him up after he fell away from Island, tried to repackage him as an AOR star for the new decade, and sure enough, his next two LPs sailed into the charts. But this course still wasn’t smooth: the title tracks of 1981’s Glorious Fool swiped at the newly elected President Reagan (“I think it would have been much more fun if Audie Murphy had got the gig” he jokes); while the recording sessions for Well Kept Secret (1982) were interrupted by Martyn impaling his chest on a fence behind his house. None of it felt right. “It took me into a mode that didn’t fit. And I dug it, I sung my best, despite my two punctured lungs. ‘The fence that ruined my life’  I’m surprised I haven’t smashed the fucking thing for kindling.”

It wasn’t his only setback in the last 15 years. Lacking the focus and artist centred commitment of a production house like Witchseason, Martyn’s subsequent work has been bouncing around too many different labels: back on Island for Piece By Piece (1986) and the live Foundations (1987), then to the independent Permanent after Island rejected the tapes that became 1990’s The Apprentice. Then relations with Permanent broke down following a misguided attempt to rerecord much of his 70s material. The original idea was Martyn’s: “I wanted to do that because it sounded so different with the band, and I really liked the direction it was following, and I wanted a record of that. I don’t record records to order, really. If you’re 19, you can get shoved around by those motherfuckers as much as you like. When you’re 50, you can turn around and go (he adopts a menacing Scots accent), ‘Who’re ye talking tae, pal?”

A messy sequence ensued. The label issued the redone versions as Couldn’t Love You More, without Martyn’s blessing; then he remixed and rerecorded the new versions, and put them out himself as No Little Boy. To complicate matters further, Permanent also released No Little Boy, adding three extra tracks. Compounding the error, Permanent have since metamorphosed into Artful, and have released some extremely shoddy Martyn packages in the last two years, including a A Very Best Of double set comprising the botched re-recordings. Martyn knows what he wants to do to the boss of Artful the next time they meet, and it’s not charitable.

Unsurprisingly, he now “just wants some peace.” Disillusioned with Green campaigning (“the marrowfat people”), he’s trying to do his bit for various peace movements around the world. “To my incredible shame, I did not even know that CND still existed. Can you dig that? Shows how you can be distracted by the music industry. I used to do all the marches to London. The whole world is in a tangle. The one that I can maybe do something about is the undeclared apartheid in America. I’ve been banned from two states (Missouri and Alabama) for saying that. They don’t like it when you say that! I always carry a gun when I’m in America. Just to save my life, you understand…”

In 1996 he found himself sharing a label with Portishead; the album And revealed a sophisto take on contemporary downtempo beats and rhythms (Talvin Singh cooked up a memorable remix of Sunshine’s Better). As we sit in his chapel, he plays me rough mix cassettes of new material for his next record, featuring his own live drum machine manipulations, and bubbling rhythms reminiscent of the darker moments on Sly Stone’s There’s A Riot Going On. The vocal tracks, he says, are rough guides, laid down while he was  as they say round his way  totally blootered. “I like to be in control, but slightly out of it”, he explains, when asked if writing is getting harder. “Yeah, it is harder to write words. And yet, to a degree, it’s a lot easier. Things have never changed, honestly; my body’s got older but the rest of me’s just the fucking same. I’m still 19, the way I look at it. There’s less drive to write now than there was.”

“Although if I were deprived of the studio, for instance, and replaced in my 19 year old circumstances, I’d just pick up an acoustic guitar, and start again. Because that would be the only thing that would keep me happy. There’s not much to do!” So many of Martyn’s songs seem directed towards a particular individual: a lover, one of his children, or an object of Martyn’s copious scorn. Is such an object lacking now? “I never sang a love song to anyone in my life, not directly anyway” comes the surprising answer. “No, I’m not in the business of that. The reason I write love songs is mostly to expurgate and excise the pain of being involved in the situation. It also keeps certain things in your mind. I’ve lost a lot of friends, and I have songs about them, so I occasionally sing those, and it brings them back into my mind  I can see them walking, talking, and that’s cool.”

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon in the middle of the Scottish landscape. Martyn has been downing beer like lemonade, and is lobbing cans at the iron coal scuttle. “The three industries I hate most are film, fashion and music. They’re all equally dishonest. The entertainment industry should be more giving and less taking. Because basically, it’s money for old rope  you’re getting money for what you like doing. People have to remember that it’s a luxury, a frippery. ‘Music should be a minor diversion, not a major culture explosion. As far as I’m concerned, good music is about as important as a good game of whist, canasta, or five card stud. I don’t think you should ever take it seriously. It’s what my old man said: if you think about things too much, then I believe you are doomed. Doomed forever. It’s like Zen and archery. Shoot the bow without thinking of the target. I know it, ’cause I know when I’m good and when I’m bad. And when I’m good is when I’m not thinking about a damn thing. I know it sounds absurd, but that’s the way to do it: think without thinking.”

Once John Martyn has moved into his church for good, with his four Apple Macs and his home studio, he wants his own TV show. He dreams of getting groups up here to broadcast live from his living room. Meanwhile, he plans to turn six local cottages into an orphanage cum retreat for underprivileged city kids who’ve never seen the countryside. He wants to fill their heads with fresh air: “Once they’ve seen it, they’ll always go back. It becomes a dream.” He’s readying a new album for the first half of next year, and a new group to tour with. There’s no looking back.

“The best is yet to come, he mutters. ‘Fuckin’ better be. If it doesn’t, it won’t be for lack of time. I’m greatly flattered, because I can hear myself in just about every acoustic guitar player I hear these days, the last 20 years. They’re all playing with the backslap, and I invented the fucker. 40 years ago, you couldn’t get a job as a string player in a dance orchestra unless you could double on sax, and vice versa. The days of blowing bands like my older ones is over; thing to do is get a band, couple of scratchers maybe. I just want everything now. Give it to me. I want it yesterday. I demand it, I deserve it, I’m a beautiful person  give it to me, now.” A giant, gruff laugh erupts from Martyn’s belly, reverberates among the old church rafters, and nearly sets that one bell to ringing.

Rob Young
The Wire
1 June 1998