On The Road Again With A Rock Legend

On The Road Again With A Rock Legend

You can’t keep a good man down and John Martyn’s no exception, despite an amputated leg, writes Mary Braid.

My heart sinks when John Martyn’s tour manager says the singer songwriter nipped out to see a friend hours ago. He’s already late for our meeting and I know his reputation as one of the most talented but self destructive musicians. It’s a fair bet he and his pal haven’t gone for a healthy, pre-gig jog along Plymouth seafront.

But just when I’m wondering if Martyn will be sober enough to talk, if indeed he ever shows, he pitches up in the hotel bar, back from what looks like a pretty sedate lunch, at least by his former standards, at an old friend’s fish restaurant. He has another surprise in store. The old Martyn might have relished a “bar room fight” (May You Never, one of his best known songs, makes reference to one), but this version is asking Theresa, his Irish girlfriend, to wheel him out of the bar because a brawl is about to erupt at the next table.

Yes, that was “wheeled out”. Martyn, that contradiction of gruff, hard living hard man, composer and singer of sensual, original love songs, is in a wheelchair. His right leg was amputated below the knee 18 months ago. At about the same time he shattered two vertebrae when a car in which he was a passenger hit a cow in Co. Kilkenny, where he now lives with Theresa. So how did that happen? “Oh you know,” says Martyn, with a wicked little smile. “Black night, black car, black cow.” This apparently explains why the driver of the car failed to see the beast. “I was sat there just minding my own business,” Martyn insists, “and the cow just came through the windscreen. It nearly killed me.”

He is plainly in poor physical shape. “I have put on five and a half stone in 18 months,” he says, embarrassed at his fleshy padding. “It’s all in this sitting.” He adds, however, that he is becoming less reliant on the chair and will walk on stage for the night’s show in Plymouth, the second gig in a tour of England and Scotland. Despite everything he is upbeat and jokey. “I don’t drink any more,” he explains, though clearly he is a few steps short of the Alcoholics Anonymous definition of abstinence. What’s in his glass? “Cider and vodka,” he replies. What he seems to mean by “not drinking” is that his consumption has slowed and he is managing to function, at least to his own satisfaction. “I used to be able to drink for three days,” he says. “But 18 hours would be my limit now and that would really have to be party time.”

It’s 36 years since Martyn released his debut album, London Conversation, and his influence on generations of British musicians is widely recognised. His 1973 collection, Solid Air, was recently voted one of the best 50 albums of all time in a newspaper poll, but his legion of fans can tell you, often bitterly,  that Martyn has never received the commercial success his talent deserved. So what has brought him back on the road? Love of music or a case of needs must? It has been reported he is skint.

“A bit of both,” he says. “I am bankrupt and I don’t know how to do anything else. I can’t be a plumber and there’s not much call for a one legged sumo wrestler.”

Martyn is the son of two light opera singers who divorced when he was five. He was mainly raised by his father and grandmother in Glasgow, and grew up in a family of heavy drinkers. By the time he was 14 his grandmother, who used to drink secretly all day from an egg cup, was giving him a nip to warm him up for his morning paper round. But Martyn insists he would not have been more successful, or more creative, if the booze, “the only drug I never defeated”, had not taken hold. And the drugs? “It is a bad thing to say, but I don’t think I would have written some of what I wrote without them,” he admits.

His re-emergence may be timely, if the renewed interest in Nick Drake, his contemporary and late friend, is a guide. The Glaswegian wrote the song Solid Air about him and their work has much in common. But Martyn is inclined to take a dark view of the “pretty ghoulish” interest in Drake, who died in 1970 of a drugs overdose at the age of 27. “It wasn’t just that I loved the man,” he says. “The business crushed him. Had it paid more attention to his talent he would be around today producing beautiful music. It’s way too late now.” He adds for good measure: “To paraphrase Hunter S Thompson, the music business is a shallow, drooling money pit where pimps and thieves survive and good men die like dogs.”

It surprises many that one of the maverick Martyn’s closest friends and biggest fans is Phil Collins. You would think there might be some envy there. Does Martyn, the bankrupt, never look at Collins, the multimillionaire, and think the big houses, flash cars and swimming pools might have been his?

“Commercial success has evaded me but it doesn’t bother me,” he claims. “I have the respect of other musicians and I still love playing, though I’m approaching 60 now. And I wouldn’t want to make bad music.”

Martyn insists his desire to innovate is intact. This special quality first took him from folk into blues and jazz and, more recently, hip-hop. Above all, he created a singing style that hovers between instrument and human voice. His personal recording studio disappeared when his Lanarkshire house was repossessed by the bank, but he now carries out his musical magic on computer. “I still have little targets I set myself,” he says.

Martyn’s own singing style, “why not hold a note for longer and bend it?”, was hugely influenced by Pharaoh Sanders, the Little Rock sax player. He says the tracks for his next album (which is due out next April) are all but in the bag. He seems enthusiastic about what he might still achieve and Theresa may well have something to do with his positive outlook. The couple have been together for six years and there’s a warmth, connection and humour between them. “Once you know what signs to look for you realise there are loads of people with prosthetic limbs,” says Theresa. “We are always spotting them in airports.” They burst into laughter.

Martyn thinks he is still relevant. He points out that his concerts not only attract his own generation but also twentysomethings. Three years ago, before the black cow and the amputation, he collaborated with Sister Bliss of the dance act Faithless and had his first chart single success with Deliver Me. Does he still think he sings well? “Better than ever,” he smiles.

John Martyn plays the Carling Academy, Glasgow, on Wednesday.

Mary Braid
The Sunday Times
14 November 2004