Starting Again At The Bottom

Starting again at the bottom.

TWO years ago, after Island Records rejected his last LP; John Martyn entered a “black period” that lasted six months. In an alcoholic haze, he committed himself to a “life minus music” and looked set, after 21 years’ performing and 20 LPs, to be another casualty of the rock-and-roll fast lane.

Next week, however, a reformed and remarkably healthy John Martyn releases a re-recorded version of that same LP, The Apprentice, for an independent label, Permanent Records. It is, he says, “like starting over again right at the ground floor.” But a British tour that begins with 11 nights at London’s Shaw Theatre says otherwise.

John Martyn is one of the enduring cult heroes of British rock, a fully qualified survivor who began playing on the Sixties’ folk circuit before discovering the joys of semi-electric improvisation. A series of seminal mid-Seventies Island albums, most notably Solid Air and Inside Out, explored a unique folk-jazz hybrid built around Martyn’s slurred vocal style, while his live shows were celebratory affairs: Martyn, his guitar, and a loyal following who found his music the perfect stoned evening out.

But Martyn’s lifestyle took its toll; his great friend, singer Nick Drake, for whom Solid Air was written, committed suicide in 1974. Two years later Martyn’s own “addictive personality” began to have serious consequences as his staple on-the-road diet of drink and marijuana was supplemented by harder drugs. “Originally, I’d get loaded to get ideas,” he says candidly. “I was into everything and, even now, I genuinely believe I found out stuff that I wouldn’t have done otherwise. In fact, the only drug I regret getting involved with is alcohol: it’s the only one I couldn’t beat.”

In the Seventies, Island boss Chris Blackwell would whisk Martyn off to Jamaica every time the demons took hold. One such sabbatical produced in 1977 the inspired One World album which grew out of the singer’s friendship with the maverick Jamaican producer, Lee “Scratch” Perry.

By 1982, however, having left Island for WEA, Martyn was seriously engaged in his “flirtation with death by alcohol”. The early Eighties were hardly his halcyon period and he moved back to Island in 1984, a chastened man, and released the acclaimed Sapphire album.

“I could drink quite a lot and play well in those days but the alcohol was having a more destructive effect on my personal life. I’d find myself having these creative blocks that became more frequent and prolonged.”

In February 1988, after leaving Island once again, he “took to the booze with a vengeance, downing nearly half a bottle every morning just to get straight.” At his lowest ebb, he was told by his doctor to “stop drinking or die”. He stopped.

The new LP, then, is a testament to what John Martyn calls his “unquenchable self-belief” and contains more than enough evidence of a talent that is now content to grow old gracefully.

At the Shaw Theatre shows, starting on March 27, Pink Floyd’s Dave Gilmour and Irish singer Mary Coughlan will be special guests. There will also be a short set featuring Martyn, his guitar and echoplex and, it is hoped, bassist and long-time collaborator, Danny Thompson. “It gets called for constantly,” he grins, ruefully. “In the past, we’d be doing perfectly well, then I’d play the acoustic set and the place would go mad. The band would troop on afterwards looking decidedly dejected. I’m negotiating ways to avoid that.” Does he miss the older, wilder times? “No, ‘cos I can have them back any time I feel like it. “I always knew, deep in my heart that being a performer and a Scotsman would carry me through. It’s called attitude and I’ve always had bucketful’s of it. That and a hideous optimism. It drives some people mad.”

Sean O’Hagan
The Sunday Correspondent
18 March 1990