Johnny Done Badly
Johnny Done Badly.
Over a wee dram o’champagne, John Martyn meditates on life, loyalty, loneliness and love’s labours lost.
Sympathetic ears: Chris Salewicz
Eyes: Jean-Bernard Sohiez
Drinking champagne and orange juice, a belated present for his 33rd birthday two days previously, the bright faced John Martyn flails every way about his end of the sofa like a passenger in a rowing boat on a stormy loch in his native Scotland. Or perhaps like a drunken man on calm waters. Somewhere in between is John Martyn’s actual reality, despite his habitual joviality, there is a tense, slightly haunted edge, the sense that at any moment he could turn. He says the only time he attains clarity is when fishing. Yet his pained, pleading, singing voice, his unique guitar style, and the poetic songs that for the past 13 years this purist has been writing are the very definition of cool. But be wary of any pigeon-holing of John Martyn as an esoteric near-jazzer: that kind of categorisation is why he is now sitting in an office at Warner Brothers Soho HQ, rather than at Island Records, his home for 14 years.
“Chris Blackwell,” he mentions the Island boss in an amicable tone, “Said to me at our last meeting that he considered I had a jazz niche which I had succeeded in manufacturing for myself, and that that was where my career lay. “I don’t see it that way, and I never did. When his minion made me an offer of money with which to make my next record, the amount was so paltry and made in such a bad way that I put the phone down on him, I’m not exactly known for my rudeness. I’m not known for my avarice, either; I’ve always been something of an idealist, and I will maintain that position. “But quite simply I was not offered enough money to make the record I wanted to. lt’s odd; I’ve always sold plenty of records, and I’m not in debt to Island at all. In fact, they owe me money. “I’m a very loyal person: if I fall in love with someone,” he makes the first mention of a theme which will continually recur with near obsessiveness, “then I’m there. But I wanted my career to expand rather than remain static.”
Apparently the split with Island isn’t because they delayed by a year the release of John’s last album, Grace And Danger, an open wound account of his break up from his wife, Beverley, with whom he recorded two albums. “I was in a dreadful emotional state over that record,” he sighs, deliberately matter of fact, in a voice that veers between English and Glaswegian accents. “I was hardly in control of my own actions. The reason they finally released it was because I freaked; ‘Please get it out! I don’t give a damn about how sad it makes you feel, it’s what I’m about direct communication of emotion’.”
More than ever this communication of emotion now must be tempered by commercial considerations. The divorce means Martyn is no longer financially independent. Perhaps he has reasons for seeming edgy; under the terms of what sounds like a crippling financial settlement, he must earn £280 a week, “Before I start eating any of the spuds … I have four children in wedlock all of whom I maintain. But, in fact, the children have little to do with this settlement; its all for Beverley, whom I still like. “I don’t see why it should have to be so acrimonious. I didn’t even want the fuckin’ divorce in the first place: unreasonable behaviour on my part, apparently. “Basically, what is being said is that not only have I got to support my former wife, but they’re also going to cut off my fucking nuts!” To compound his financial problems Martyn is no longer a solo performer: he now has three full time musicians backing him on stage, necessitating a total working unit of 12 people. “When I was solo I earnt a great deal of money. I had no overheads, and I was selling out large gigs. But now it’s not just for the sake of my own ego that I need to sell more records than I do!”
As a man with a considerable jazz background, John Martyn is hardly impressed that jazz is suddenly hip; he positively foams at the mouth in disgust at the notion. “Oh shit! The other day I saw some prick walking around like Lester Young, one of the finest saxophonists ever, dressed in a zoot suit and porkpie hat. What a fucking monkey! He’s walking around trying to be somebody else. It’s like someone dressing up as Jesus, man. “It’s been done. I love style. I hate fashion. “I actually saw a quote by some band: ‘All boy bands don’t look good’. Dig that. Shit! “It’s verging on the absurd. In fact, it is absurd already! “Shit, man: the hip dressers in Glasgow make these wallies walking around the West End look stupid. But they don’t pretend to play instruments; they look sharp because they want to pull.”
John Martyn lives in Moscow, he tells me delightedly. Moscow is a hamlet of eleven houses 17 miles south west of Glasgow. He moved back to Scotland two years ago to care for his ailing father, a near tragedy that closely coincided with his marital split. “My father is no longer terminally ill, though he was. He’s surviving, and given a fair breeze will be alright.” He far prefers the honesty of the area’s “hard nosed” inhabitants, he says. “Before I was living in Heathfield in Sussex, where my ex-wife still lives, a sensible girl, so I don’t know how she can stand it. Though,” he adds, opening himself wide open, “I suppose she’s learnt to live with middle class ponces. Glasgow’s wonderful, if they’re going to rip you off, they do it neat, sweet and petite, It’s very straight like that, Glasgow. I hate deception, although I’ve used it in my relationships with women, simply because women get ludicrously jealous if they find you fucking outside whatever it is they think they have on you. So I’ve had to use duplicity. I’m not in the least ashamed. I’ve used it all over the world! Actually, I’ve fallen in love three times in my live, and to those women I’m utterly faithful … I love women, I must confess. They are my weakness… But then I’m a romantic…”
The phone rings on the table in front of John Martyn. He picks it up: “Go away! I’ve no idea who you are or what you want. I’m in here grooving, now get off my case! Goodbye. Shall I switch accents to Glaswegian for the rest of the interview? More champagne? It’s not every day I’m 33. Actually, this year has been very good for me, though the last two were pretty shitty.”
Glorious Fool was produced by the highly talented Phil Collins. As with most aspects of his life these days, there was a Martyn matrimonial connection in their meeting three years ago: Collins also had split up with his wife; the two assisted each other through their divorces. Martyn is surprised when I compliment the Collins production, mentioning that it was particularly impressive considering it was the Genesis drummer’s first time for another artist, John Martyn had assumed that Collins had produced lots of other people. The oddly innocent Scot is similarly stumped when I give him the past history of his new manager, Sandy Roberton; he’d never considered what Roberton had done before. In such a vein, indeed, Collins had told me he didn’t think Martyn has the least idea as to just how good is his music. He does have a massive ego, the drummer had pointed out, though that almost certainly is not linked to artistic self esteem.
“I do have a massive ego,” he admits. “I have to. It’s huge. I can be wrong, though… unlike most women I’ve been involved with.” He pauses. “The problem is they’re so beautiful, aren’t they? They’ve caused al the problems in my life. Every single problem can be put down to women. Dreadful things. It makes me sound like a misogynist.” De Maupassant became a total misogynist, I mention, though this was probably due to his incurable syphilis. “Well, this would tend to bias one, wouldn’t it?” John Martyn guffaws loudly. “Actually, I’ve never caught the clap in my life. Never once. So far I’ve got away without having to pay to learn. Ohh… Women are beautiful. Children even more so; that’s the hang-up with me. I’d love to have loads more. I’d like to surround myself with children they genuinely are such an inspiration . Ohhh…”
John Martyn talks little about Glorious Fool, his best album in several years with a title track dedicated to Ronald Reagan. The album was made at London’s Townhouse, where Martyn stayed for the whole of the recording, in the rooms on the first floor. Phil Collins told me that he and the other musicians would be packing up around three in the morning from laying down backing tracks when Martyn suddenly would reappear in his dressing gown, demanding to put on lead vocals. John Martyn doesn’t talk about this however. Instead, he speaks of a song on the LP entitled Amsterdam. “It’s about a friend of mine who hanged himself in Amsterdam. He hanged himself for the love of an expensive hooker. If I could have had any brothers I would have chosen that man.” It almost seems odd that the quietly tormented soul that is John Martyn had started off the day by gifting huge bouquets of flowers to each of the girls in the Warner Brothers press office. Perhaps it isn’t surprising at all, though.
New Musical Express
10 October 1981