John Martyn: The Exorcism

John Martyn: The Exorcism.

After the breakdown of his marriage, John Martyn spent seven months on a complete bender, but the result of that desperation was his finest album for years. Nick Kent discusses divorce, drugs, death and musical devotion.

SO THERE was this Scotsman, Irishman and Englishman propping up the bar in a shabby pub in the heart of Glasgow. The Irishman, whose name escapes me, and his Scottish pal, John Martyn, are heading steadily out of the realms of dreary sobriety towards that state of intoxication which Martyn, in his brick thick Glaswegian brogue, refers to simply as a “hoolie”.

They chuckle loudly with the old soldiers present who are similarly slug-bound but going about the task with a more curt, rawboned determination. This cloth-capped faction wear a look of dogged, testy gapped-toothness, wasting no words as they shoot stray glances at this unlikely trio of true Brits. They even accept the presence of the anaemic Englishman who is well out of place and knows it. He is yours truly, newly arrived from London with a night to spend getting a profile of the Scotsman Martyn, he of the impish face, wispy beard and curly hair whose raucous declarations cause the writer to smile momentarily before his brain reconnoitres these unsettling precincts. Quite frankly, the Englishman is worried.
He was immediately made ill-at-ease on disembarking at Glasgow Central, and finding no sign of his host/subject as the Island Records rep had promised. Instead, a brood of square-necked football-loving natives—teenagers with ugly, hooded eyes and a predatory demeanour — stare at him. If looks could kill, my spirit would have ascended instantly, leaving only a skeleton, a pair of down-at-heel boots, slacks and a leather jacket with my return ticket and blood donor’s card as evidence of the fatal glare.

After some 15 minutes of restless shifting about, Martyn & Irish compatriot arrive. This trumpets both good and bad news. John Martyn has just come from the dentist’s. “He couldn’t get near my teeth,” Martyn recalls non-plussed. “Said I was too ‘verbose”! So he shot me up with valium to shut me up.” The gum-shot’s effects still linger with regard to general deportment (giddy) and speech (slurred). This, not to mention Martyn’s sudden swapping of a personable cockney lilt for a broad Glaswegian dialect, worries your scribe. And now this whole ghost-town bar scenario! Learn to blend. A radical readjusting of bearings is prescribed.

Fortunately, Martyn is only using this pub as a half-way house till a more appropriate intoxicant can be scouted out. After one lemonade and three trips to the toilets I find myself travelling a particularly dodgy precinct in quest of a more uplifting ‘perk’. This venture demands a quick sprint into a local club named— rather appropriately as it turned out —’Charlie Parker’s’. I elect to wait downstairs. By this time, my wary bemusement has turned to a state of amusement. I ask one of the club’s habituees — a suitably rough-set type just about to enter the premises— if he knows who Charlie Parker was. The youth looks at me quizzically for a moment before piping up: “A’ course I do! He’s the fella workin` behind the bar, right?” Just then John Martyn, eyes glazed, stumbles down the backdoor stairs. My companion just looks at him — he doesn’t know who John Martyn is either.

The ExorcismI start to formulate some half-baked theory about the slighted anonymity of the true musical visionary once we’re ensconced in a handy taxi. John Martyn complains of mild nausea and immediately nods out. The Irish friend opens the window and throws up. It’s 6.30 in the evening. Werewolf hour has officially begun.Looking back, I can safely say that this was never the easiest of assignments. In fact, it took three muddled encounters for me to capture the whole story, a degree of effort accorded only to the more specialised subject. And John Martyn is special.

One could zero in on particular aspects of his talents — the unique style of guitar-playing, incorporating some seven alternative tunings, the technological gadgetry that can turn his adroit style of picking into a giant thrasher of convoluted textures, motifs, harmonics and translucent ringing chords. But locking into one slant tends to blind one to the essential, John Martyn, over the twelve or so years of being a professional musician/singer and composer, has conjured forth a form of music that at its height, possesses that rarest of essences: real soul, moody bellicose cris des couers that shows a total understanding of the much-abused ‘jazz’ idiom without ever losing that vital dive into the spiritual which gave figures like Billie Holliday and John Coltrane the stature of ‘genius’.

Martyn and the music press are not the most compatible of bed-fellows. He’s not been too active for the last two and a half years and his habitual ‘laissez-faire’ attitude towards interviews has never ensured good copy. Martyn projects a similarly easy-going disregard for the rises and teetering falls of his own career. His reputation as a man prone to self-destructiveness has been endorsed by a number of concerts where ill-focussed excuses for a good time have virtually obliterated the music that key albums like ‘Solid Air’ and ‘Inside Out’ show him capable of. Yet when Martyn does rise to the full stature of his talents, the results — like his recently released ‘Grace And Danger’ album —are passionate and heart-lifting.

SEEING John Martyn now in the flesh, there’s a certain ‘worn-in’ look to the once-precocious man-child visage. Yet sometimes when he smiles, Martyn’s face seems scarcely to have altered at all from the days when he chose to record in Woodstock with his then wife Beverley. With the enthusiastically innocent ‘London Conversation’ and ‘The Tumbler’ off his first album. Martyn and his newly-wedded spouse were wooed over to America where over eleven years ago the album ‘Stormbringer’ was recorded using such luminaries as members of The Band for back-up. Martyn was still coming to grips with the music he was striving for and his potential was granted a fuller rein on ‘Bless the Weather’. The songs on that third solo album were brooding, introspective, but with an intimacy that reflected their melodic richness, it was with ‘Solid Air’ though, that Martyn really found his niche. The key songs are woven from thick, hypnotic jazz-strafed motifs whilst Martyn sings with depth-charge alacrity, slurring lines, scatting his vocals. The title track — written for and about the mental strife then being suffered by Martyn’s friend and peer, Nick Drake (now deceased) is a thick, claustrophobic crag of sound through which Martyn cries out to his subject.

If ‘Solid Air, with ‘May You Never’ as another stunning track, showcased Martyn in musical territory that few could even comprehend existing, then ‘Inside Out’, the follow-up was a total immersion in the pure jazz medium, hitting the kind of heights reached by Tim Buckley and John Coltrane. Throughout ‘Inside Out’ there is an intimacy, a sense of profound fulfilment, a feeling above all that Martyn had finally located the source point.

“I would consider ‘Inside Out’ to be my strongest album, probably to date, certainly in terms of just digging in and totally soaking up the influences that were motivating me more and more earnestly. I hear that album as a total entity. With others, like ‘Solid Air’, there’s one or two strong songs, but with ‘Inside Out’ I dived in completely and created within very intense surroundings. There was no distance, no self-consciousness. It’s probably the purest album I’ve made musically, and as a statement in itself. Obviously Coltrane was a big influence but others. . . not so much, really. McCoy-Tyner was the one for me. His chords were so immaculate.

“The intensity of recording that album was so strong though that I realised I needed to dry out, to cool out if you like. I’d gone as far as I could in that idiom. I needed to relax as well as get rid of some bad habits.”

The period spanning 1973 and ’74 (both ‘Solid Air’ and ‘Inside’ were released in ’73) produced a series of worrying rumours about Martyn’s dalliance with hard drugs. At one memorable gig of the time, Martyn seemed ill-at-ease and restless and when a message was hurriedly handed to him onstage he appeared even more disturbed. Later, a mutual acquaintance told me the letter had stated that the night’s drug connection had failed to turn up.

To make matters worse, Nick Drake died in early ’74 causing Martyn intense grief. “They were like brothers” a close acquaintance once told me. “They often fought, but there was a real bond between then. In fact John may have been Nick’s only true friend. The fact that John felt he couldn’t help a guy whom he really loved from sinking into despair like Nick did caused him untold grief. Nick’s death utterly devastated him.”

A similar attempt at rekindling guitarist Paul Kossoff’s totally demoralised state of health — mental and physical —followed directly after Drake’s demise. Again, the ultimate outcome — Kossoff’s death less than a year after he’d returned to the stage at one of Martyn’s own gigs — shook Martyn up considerably.

I first formally met John Martyn about two years ago when Island Records set up an interview in which I was to gauge Martyn’s views on Nick Drake. Martyn —who hadn’t been informed as to the exact nature of my queries — became extremely upset when he realised what I was after, (even though I was only interested in musical matters). The resultant conversation became a fascinating, if somewhat unsettling study of Martyn under emotional stress. He refused to discuss Drake “for public consumption”, was part-belligerent and part-distraught, and the evening ended with the pair of us visiting a couple who’d known both musicians closely. Their disclosure regarding Drake’s last months alive provided the most cogent explanation for his death. Also they proved too depressing to print.

MARTYN meanwhile was carrying a gold record for the ‘So Far So Good’ compilation of his more renowned work. He kept attempting to smash the framed artefact in a fit of disgust partly at the music business and partly at himself. When anyone tried to compliment him on his talents, he would belittle his music with frustrated self-contempt. Only ‘Inside Out’ was left unscathed by all this self-directed bile.

‘Sunday’s Child’ followed some 18 months after ‘Inside Out’. “It was my cooling out album” recalls Martyn now. “It doesn’t have all the intensity of its predecessor but it wasn’t meant to have. I’d decided to go to Jamaica and get healthier generally. The more ‘relaxed’ feel of ‘Child’ reflected that. I’m not ashamed of it or anything. In fact, it has some strong songs. Nothing devastating, perhaps but . . . I’ll stand by it.

“Same with ‘One World’, in a sense. You see, every record I’ve made — bad, good, or indifferent — is totally autobiographical. I locate the emotions around me at the time and . . .well, the emotions locate themselves more probably. I can look back when I hear a record and recall exactly what was going on. That’s howl write. That’s the only way I can write. Moods shift, the most prevalent feelings take over and . .. well, look at all the songs on ‘Grace And Danger’. That’s probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written. Some people keep diaries, I make records. (Laughs). It’s all very fundamental, really.”

In 1969, John and Beverley Martyn had consummated their marriage with the recording of ‘Stormbringer’. Ten years later, John Martyn recorded a set of songs that declared that marriage completely over. Beverley instigated divorce proceedings against Martyn and now has custody of their three children plus alimony.

“She cited her reason for wanting a divorce ‘officially’ in terms of me being ‘grossly negligent towards my family owing to a desire to constantly further my career’,” states Martyn, part-cynically, part-incredulously.

“Just one morning it exploded. It was like ‘the egg’s too hard-boiled’. Slap, I’m staring at all these divorce papers. I mean, it had been going on for a while but . . . the end was just boom! That was that.”

Martyn talks about his divorce with a candour that possibly disguises a certain anguish. Very occasionally just a sliver of resentment pokes through.

“But — it’s all over now. There really isn’t any resentment anymore. As for me being all touchy and secretive, well . . . what’s the point? It’s all there on ‘Grace And Danger’. Everything. What more can I hide?”

To Martyn, ‘Grace And Danger’ is totally about the divorce. “Every song on that album, whatever people think of them, they are honest. I’m singing to Beverley those love songs. For seven months after the thing exploded (was on a complete ‘bender’. You name it, I soaked myself in it. Then it just somehow dissipated itself. All the pain and the shock of the whole damn thing. Actually, I can see the album acting as the perfect exorcism for it all. I had to get it out of me that way.”
With only the mildest reservations ‘Grace And Danger’ finally grants the John Martyn fan with a third great album. Shaped from exactly the same experience as ‘Blood On The Tracks’, it’s a spiritual journey through rampant confusion, heartache, lovesickness, caution and remorse, but with an ultimate reconciliation to Martyn’s fervent belief that love — even when it recoils on its victims —was and always will be ‘worth it’.

The ExorcismWhether this new album’s gentle majesty might finally signal more than the artistic breakthrough it so obviously is, remains a dubious proposition. I’m shocked when Martyn tells me that island head Chris Blackwell virtually held the album for a whole year before releasing it last month because “he didn’t like it”.

Martyn isn’t remotely shaken by Blackwell’s indecisiveness though.

“He found it too depressing, really. It upset him a lot, the whole episode. He’s known Beverley and (for years as close friends. He felt too personally about the divorce and the record upset him. But now it’s out—end of episode. I mean, it only rankles when I see the kids and they call me by another man’s name because they’ve got a new father. That hurts, but otherwise it’s old history.”

Was Martyn’s move from the South back to his Glaswegian roots something he felt he had to do then?

“Oh no! That move was made purely ‘cos my old man got very, very ill a while back and I had to come up and look after him. Simple as that. It’s OK up here. I feel a lot more together as a result. I don’t know. I’ve come through yet again. (Laughs)Things are fine.”

THE IRISHMAN, Scotsman and Englishman are reunited on a Monday in a Soho restaurant. The evening before, John Martyn had performed a formidable set of numbers at London’s Apollo Theatre with a full band —guests Phil Collins on drums and Max Middleton on keyboards plus regular bassist, 20-year-old Alan Thompson (from Martyn’s 18 year-old cousin’s semi-pro band) and percussionist Geoff Allen. Martyn always seems more forthcoming the earlier one locates him and today is no exception.

“God, how do I see myself as a figure in the rock market place? I don’t know. I really don’t! You saw the audience, didn’t you? Who was in it?”

Umm . . . a few folkies, a lot of ‘mature’ concert goers, a lot of females . . .

“A lot of females! Good news! Ah, right then, there’s a chance for me yet. But . . . I don’t . .. no, I can’t see myself as ‘product’. I’m lucky certainly in that I’ve never been given deadlines or had any outside ideas forced on me. I can make a living playing solo though I’d love to have a band all the time. I’ve not made much from my records. In fact, that version of ‘May You Never’ by Eric Clapton has probably made me more money than all my stuff put together.”
I compliment Martyn on his version of that same song played solo at the opening of the gig.

“Agh, I played that song totally calculatingly last night. My one big number, ladies and gentleman. I just did it totally cynically, which isn’t a boast because I’m not proud of that. You should have seen us the night before the Apollo because though we were a bit sloppier musically we were definitely more soulful. There was more spontaneity, a better feeling overall. And that’s what I go for every time. With a good band it’s such a joy because there’s a constant exchange of ideas and musical textures. Working with Phil (Collins) can be just so uplifting because he’s always in there. And Max (Middleton) who I’d only met two days before last night. He’s this very shy bloke who’s always there. He picks up a song in one play and by the third run-through, he’s just very undemonstratively tossing in these gorgeous chords and little runs that give the music that edge, that flow. When it’s flowing I can just get totally inside the music and bounce off the other players.”

It would seem almost too obvious to say that Martyn is now pretty much totally committed to playing jazz music. He denies being particularly knowledgeable on the subject though, whilst those other performers whom one could hoist up as kindred spirits — Joni Mitchell, Van Morrison, Tom Verlaine, James ‘Blood’ Ulmer — he casually denies having listened to.

“I can’t run off a list of important players or anything like that. I’d concur with the statement about my music now being jazz-based but, well you name all those people I’ve not heard so I’m talking out of sheer ignorance but jazz itself doesn’t seem in too healthy a state. The ‘fusion’ bunch I’ve encountered — bits and pieces that don’t impress me in the least. Only Weather Report have done anything creative in that area, but I’ve liked them for quite a long time and haven’t been that moved by the more recent stuff they’ve put out. Actually there’s one guy over here, John Stevens, I really like. I’m going to do some work with him possibly. He’s interested in my singing voice in the context of his ideas and what I’ve heard has really knocked me out. But otherwise Britain doesn’t really have that much of an ongoing ‘jazz’ scene with younger players getting involved. The more established composers don’t seem to be playing anything interesting.”

WITH HIS father fully recovered from his stroke. Martyn is a pretty independent entity. Now that he’s been forcibly restrained from pursuing a life of domestic responsibility, wouldn’t a change of environment be a good idea? He’d spent considerable time in Jamaica some four or five years ago playing with the Likes of Jack Ruby and Burning Spear and generally soaking up the better reggae influences. Now he talks enthusiastically about maybe setting up operations in New York, his sights well set on making tentative in-roads into the burgeoning jazz club circuit of lower Manhattan.

“Yes, America seems a good move to me right now. In fact, plans are afoot to activate the transplant (laughs) . . . as we speak, even. No, it’s not that certain but it’s an option. Well, I’m definitely more than interested.

“It’s funny, because just lately I’ve been fairly prolific . . .for a change. Those two new songs we played last night are so new they don’t have titles yet. One I wrote 3 days ago after I’d been told about the death of an old friend who was living in Amsterdam at the time. Also that really hectic, agile number with me scatting away while we’re all playing like bloody dervishes around this jazz ‘swing’ beat that speeds along. That one’s another impromptu effort I tossed to the band at a sound-check. It’s such a teasing, loopy effort we really went out on a limb playing it live. But those songs — there are five or six already written in that idiom. I want to play faster for a change. They’re a breakaway from the general more ponderous rhythms I’ve been working on for most of ‘One World’ and certainly ‘Grace And Danger’. A change is definitely desirable anyway and right now that more aggressive, speedier style is the sound I find most appealing.”

Despite certain initial apprehensions regarding the man’s state of health, John Martyn is very much alive and in buoyant spirits. With so many colleagues sucked off the mortal coil it’s a testament to the man’s strength of character that he continues to carry on sharpening his musical talents, quietly adding to an already formidable body of work. Irresponsible and well-soiled with that glazed-eyed look beaming out helplessly, he is one of the courageous few totally in synch with his particular scalpel-over-the-heart candour, compassion and soul. He works well beyond those precincts already over-populated by bogus half-wits. His music mates head and heart, the mode is superbly tailored to the message whilst covering an expansive waterfront. And as for the future?

“God, I don’t know what I’ll be doing tonight, let alone thinking in terms of some careerist masterplan! I can’t even think in terms of ‘business’. The managers I’ve had have gone through hell trying to organize my ‘affairs’. Things like taxes, hotel reservations — all that stuff —just fall by the way-side. I’m bloody lucky in that somehow I’ve just sloped along with my ‘cult’ audience and my patrons (laughs). But then another side of me reckons I bloody well deserve patronage! No-one’s ever told me what to do or forced me to go ‘commercial’. Chris Blackwell has never demanded that I be more prolific or more ‘accessible’ or that I should write ten ‘May You Never’s per album. But then Chris knows me and knows that it would be totally stupid and pointless to do that because I can’t be a ‘hack’. Sometimes I wish I could!

“All I know is that I have this one (pause) vision, if you like … not the kind of word (like using but I know that the most fulfilling thing I could ever achieve would be to go onstage with a small unit of musicians and be so inspired that I could perform a whole set of spontaneously created music. Just capture the moment at hand and perform completely impromptu, improvised music for a whole two hour set.”

Do you think that aim could be feasibly attained?

Martyn looks pensive for a second, then mock-jokingly replies. “No! Not right now. Maybe not ever! But I’ve come close to achieving that, partly. There have been glimpses, when I’ve got swept up in a mood that pushes me into going out on that limb.”

“That’s what keeps me going really. The very possibility — however slight — of finally arriving at that place where one can create pure music. Spontaneous music is so exhilarating that its pursuit makes everything else worthwhile. And it really doesn’t matter if just ten people witness me achieve that. Success is when you know your own worth. All the rest is … unnecessary, ultimately.”

Martyn sinks another brandy and walks out into the bustle of Soho’s Berwick Street. It is three o’clock on a sunny, pre-winter afternoon and by six werewolf hour will probably once again prevail. But Martyn is smiling, a resilient trouper who calls his own tunes. Precious few truly deserve to walk side by side.

Nick Kent
New Musical Express
29 November 1980