Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know

Mad, Bad And Dangerous To Know.

He’s been making music for 30 years. Now John Martyn is so madly in love again he’s recorded a new album to prove it. But, says David Keenan, he’s still as daft as ever.

John Martyn is laughing his ass off on the other end of the phone. “I’ve dislocated my f***ing shoulder. Can you believe that?” he splutters, through high giggling gulps. “Believe it or not, I saved a baby from a burning building. I just saw it come streaming through the air from a third floor window and I just managed to catch it. Oh ya’ beauty. I’m a lying bastard. What happened was they flung a wean at me, just flung a wean right at me, and I just went and caught it the wrong way, man.”

Wait a minute, let’s get this straight. Someone flung a wean at you?
“Och, it was fine. It was my own wean -well, one of my godchildren. Just caught it wrong. It’s brand new -well, not brand new, about a year-and-a-half old. Damn wee heaviest f***er I’ve ever felt.”
Then he’s off again and now he’s got me started. We’re both bawling and howling down the phone to each other. I make a vain attempt to calm things down by asking if he can still play the guitar.
“Oh it’s f***ing murder,” he bursts. “Right enough, that’s the easiest bit, though. See getting in and out of cars, rolling over in bed, and putting your clothes on? You ever tried wiping your arse with your left hand if you’re right-handed? It’s impossible!”

I never have, I tell him, but I’ll give it a shot later. He continues:
“International tour coming up and what does the f***ing boy do? Dislocates his f***ing shoulder. What a w****r. Tell the world, my boy. Right, go on -ask me something about music. Come on, stop laughing.”

This joyous tirade, delivered at break-neck speed in a choice selection of comedy accents ranging from slurred Glaswegian hammer through ineffectual Lord Snooty-isms, is just so heartening. It’s good to know Martyn is as mad, bad and wretchedly funny as ever.  This year he celebrates 30 years in the music industry, a career that’s seen him cast as a lone, gruff, often bewildering voice from somewhere in the dark margins of folk rock.

“I was never in the music industry,” he corrects me. “Never will be. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is. I try to avoid it at all costs. Put it this way, I try to put a buffer between me and the hard core, know what I mean? Get someone to manage me and look after my business. I lose my temper very quickly these days, especially with a broken shoulder. Shouldn’t do it, though, ’cause if they hit you you can’t hit them back. Aye, I better watch myself, hold the old mouth and keep it nice and quiet, keep a nice quiet demeanour about you. Act discreetly, walk discreetly, and you can go anywhere.”

Martyn’s fallen in love again and his new album, Glasgow Walker, recorded in Scotland and mixed in Kilkenny, where his girlfriend lives, is a sweet eulogy to what William Burroughs once described as: “The best painkiller there is.”
“Oh, aye, it’s a real love album,” he beams. “That’s all I do, all I ever did. Love is the most powerful force on the f***ing planet. It’s hard to tell that to a guy when he’s looking at you with a razor, kicking your nuts and screwing your wife, but there’s still no question in my mind. It’s like Ghandi, here, do you want to hear a joke?” He’s off again.

Glasgow Walker, as well as burrowing ever deeper into his favourite theme of redemption-through-love, sees Martyn further expand his sonic palette with caked layers of synth and tripping drum machines, indulging an inventive streak that’s seen him continuously push the generic envelope since his bizarre electronic folk fusions of the early 1970s. Inspired by new currents in jazz and rock, particularly the big band electro jazz of Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock and the devotional works of John Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, Martyn brought funk rhythms, excessive wah-wah, Wurlitzers, Rhodes and primitive drum-machines to skeletal folk forms, appalling purists on a scale not seen since Dylan’s electric guitar howl scalped the Newport Folk Festival in 1965. Martyn’s 1973 album Solid Air still towers in his back catalogue, renowned mainly for its title track, a hand offered to his doomed friend Nick Drake as he traced his final spiral of depression and self loathing.

“At the time nobody cared about Solid Air,” Martyn spits. “Nobody gave a f***, but they’ve caught up at last. I’ve no idea why. When I released One World and Grace And Danger punk was in, and romance was out. You know, ‘Stab your granny, don’t love your daughter’. I just slowed up after that. But now I’ve become prolific. I’m back into it worse than ever these days.”

If anything, 1977’s One World should have been the album that marked Martyn’s rise to the upper echelons of outsider-cool as he hooked up with legendary idiot savant dub producer Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry. Punk was only just beginning its flirtation with dub reggae when Perry and Martyn first went gun slinging together. The Clash’s London Calling, also produced by Perry, was still two years away.

“Perry is mad,” Martyn splutters. “Totally off the wall. One time he starts putting gaffer tape round his ankles and his wrists and I’m thinking ‘What the f*** is going on here?’ He says ‘It represent slavery, man. You must come and be my slave and play guitar’. So I eventually ended up going down and playing guitar for him and I have to be honest, he really did make me a slave. At one point he’d got me that scammed I was making soup for him, cooking breakfast for him, preparing his dinner and playing guitar all for free. The missus was totally scunnered, it was more than I ever f***ing did for her. Finally I snapped. I says, ‘Listen pal, everyone thinks you’re mad. I don’t believe you’re mad but what the f*** is going on? Tell me, I’m your pal.’ He just replies, ‘I’m keeping them away from you.’ He meant the music industry. He’s a smart bastard.”

In wasn’t until 1998’s The Church With One Bell that the clueless cow masses finally woke up. Here were Martyn’s darkest obsessions laid out on a plate, 10 of his favourite songs chewed over and spat out, from Portishead’s Glory Box to Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit. Martyn summed it up best in his liner-notes: “The saddest, written by the oppressed, for the same.”

“You see, I’m not a folk musician,” he explains. “Absolutely not. I’ve finally got a handle on what it is I do and it was Danny Thompson the bass player who told me. One night he says to me, ‘You played good tonight’ and I just told him I was making it up as I went along. He says to me ‘That’s what everyone was doing, only they know the notes to play and you don’t.’ See! If you don’t know what you’re doing you come up with things that other people have never heard before, things they’d never have thought of. That’s what all the best ones do.”

His singing voice still sounds as unique and otherworldly as ever. Indeed, he remains one of the truly great British vocal stylists (you could count the others on one hand -Robert Wyatt, Kevin Ayers, Dan Treacy of the TV Personalities, Charles Hayward of This Heat)!

“My singing doesn’t sound like anyone else,” Martyn proudly states. “I try to use my voice like an instrument. It wasn’t a conscious thing, though. I just sing what I feel. I’ve never modelled myself on anybody else. No thank you. I did years ago, when I was starting out. I had a Bert Jansch period for about two months and then I was Howlin’ Wolf for a day or two. Didn’t have the chops for it. I was a bit of a boy at that time but still, ambition never killed you.”

Boozing and fighting nearly did though…
“Aye, I don’t give a f***. I don’t care that I’ve got this hard drinking, wild man image. People are going to say it anyway. I know I’ve been a daftie in my time. I have my moments, know what I mean? I can’t deny that, but as far as I know, no more than anyone else I mix with. I talk to cab drivers, publicans, bus drivers, and they seem to be just as active in the lunatic areas I am. The only difference between them and me is I’m public. Everybody I know is as daft as me but they just pick me out and go, ‘Oh he’s at it again. He’s daft with it’.”

He’s back at it all right but the world is certainly a better place for it. So here’s to dafties.

Glasgow Walker is released on May 29. John Martyn was born in Glasgow in 1948. Inspired by American blue, he became a fixture on the British folk scene before becoming the first white musician to join Island Records, debuting in 1968 with London Conversation. Addicted to experimentation he is constantly refining his sound and flirting with other genres. His 1998 album, The Church With One Bell, was a collection of covers by artists as varied as Billie Holiday, Portishead and Ben Harper.

David Keenan
Sunday Herald
21 May 2000