The Boy Can’t Help It

The Boy Can’t Help It.

Rambunctious loons, Soave swilling romantics, tireless anarchists, people who fill baths with dead fish, all detect in him some sort of kindred spirit. John Martyn by Nick Coleman for Mojo.

John Martyn tells a good story about Ben Webster.

Ben Webster was a tenor saxophonist who liked to play soft, melancholy ballads. He played them like a man on the edge of tears in a tone that was singing and pent up in the middle, fraying to cotton wooliness at the rim, as if in imitation of the marginal sounds of weeping. Webster liked to render tenderness in great detail. Webster was also a violent man, prone to bouts of depression and dependent on heavy dope. Bear shaped, bleak and huffy, he regarded the world with hostility through eyes as hard and bulbous as doorknobs, and was not above taking a slicer to his problems. Martyn is very keen on Webster and he chuckles as he tells the story of a gig in England in the ’60s at which the great man exceeded himself. It was in the afterglow to Tenderly or How Deep Is The Ocean or, more likely, his signature Chelsea Bridge, a woofling impressionist sketch complete with ripples and mist, and Webster had played it with motionless intensity, like a great sad bird hovering at the limits of what a ballad can say. So much so, in fact, that when he finished, there was silence in the hall; and as he bowed in acknowledgement of this, the hush was broken only by the tinkle of an object falling from his breast pocket, a razor blade, which lay gleaming in the spotlight, still wet with the blood of the fixer he’d fixed for non-delivery prior to the show. “Hmm, I love tender players,” concludes Martyn. “I just like things tender.”

Light floods the restaurant of the exclusive club in Chelsea as if it were a conservatory. It comes through leaves and glass and makes everything glow, including Martyn, who is heaped into a corner like compost. He wears a purple silk tarpaulin for a shirt and his seaweedy hair is braided in clumps. He is convivial.

“I am not a great man for suffering fools gladly,” he says, eyebrows up, looking down into his glass of Medoc. “I mean, how do you break it to someone that they’re being foolish? It gets you into trouble.” He giggles.

We are reflecting on Martyn’s reputation for humpiness, which is deserved. He insists that nowadays he is a tolerant man; that he stays in his pram at all times, except when sorely provoked, and then only gets out of it on behalf of others. His eyebrows almost meet in a point half way up his forehead as he explains that, really, when you look at things objectively, it’s all about balance. At which point a poker player from the night before wanders through the French windows and Martyn calls him some names. The poker player stands still, as if lassoed, and smiles absently in our direction. “Go on, fuck off with you,” roars Martyn and giggles some more.

John Martyn’s career is hovering betwixt and between at present. He’s fallen out with his last record company, Permanent; he is presently without a deal; but Island have recently put together a 2CD ‘anthology’ of his work: a sort of Greatest Non-Hits of one of the great self-destructive, beautiful ogres of British music. “Hurrmmph, well I’m glad they didn’t wait until I was dead to do it,” says the ogre, not quite begrudgingly. “Having said that, I’ve probably played everything on the record better than that at some stage. I mean, that’s the horrible thing about records – you play a song five days or maybe even five years after you’ve recorded it and it’s better than it ever was before. It’s a compliment that Island have done this anthology thing but I don’t wanna hear it. I don’t listen to the old stuff.” Which is more or less what you’d expect him to say. Sweet Little Mysteries tells a neatly marketable tale of an extreme talent on the ramble, concentrating into a small space 16 years worth (1971-1987) of largely sublime music, yet failing to convey the surrounding drift of contumely used by Martyn to shape his romantic troubadour myth. Anthologies, by definition, tidy things up and John Martyn, by definition, is against tidiness.

Go and see him play live now, still doing it with audacious passion and a joke car-horn at places like the Half Moon, Putney. At 46, Martyn insists that he is a mellower, more mature man, with insight into his own nature. Yet he would also argue that his maverick creative instincts persist in him like an itch, along with all the other crap he goes in for. The car horn is for honking between numbers in place of polite conversation.

“I’m thinking about doing an album of Cole Porter covers,” he says. “With Andy Sheppard.” Uh-huh. Sounds like a great idea. “And I’d like to get Pharoah Sanders in on it too. He’s fantastic. And he loves my stuff.”

Mojo October 1994Martyn’s parents separated when he was little, Mum returning to home territory in Surrey, Dad remaining in Scotland. John was their only offspring. “I was whipped about from pillar to post,” he says of his childhood, “and culturally it bred a schizoid thing in me. I can be both Cockney and Scotsman, and on particularly good days I can be Afghani too.” Nevertheless, he says he enjoyed himself immensely. “I had a great time. I mean, I’d love to be able to tell you the opposite and blame everything on my sad childhood, the poor soul from a broken home, but I really had a great time. My grandmother was probably a better mother to me than most modern day mothers ’cause she brought me up with that Victorian thing, used to massage my feet and give me mustard baths, wash my head in carbolic soap. Well cool. While the old man was left to teach me how to fish and fuck and ride a bike,” and instruct him in the art of distilling shoes. “You can distill anything, you know, if you really want to.”

Meanwhile the Martyns’ large house, “13 fucking huge rooms”, thrummed with Aunts and Uncles who played the piano, against which cultured background wee John, who had learned to read at four, amused himself with algebra and chess, and exhibited contempt for football: “I mean, complete and utter piffle; the opiate of the masses,” he huffs, after asking which team I support and then hooting “Ar-se-NOOOO!” into the sunlight like a baboon. “It was a pretty religious family. My dad didn’t do much, though he wanted to be a Doctor of Divinity. Used to package bibles for the native Congolese for the Scottish Bible Society. Until he got his call up papers. The war ruined everything for him, though. Completely fucked him.” He frowns and hammers it out like racing odds. “Flying up some beach you’ve never seen before, in heat you’ve never experienced before, on benzedrine you’ve never taken before, and you’re going to shoot some cunt you don’t even know and your best mate right beside you getting his head shot off. Fuck that. When he came back he could only think of having a good time. Didn’t want to work. And as far as I can see he lost faith in the whole of society. He was a very sweet man but the war just destroyed his brain, took his illusions away, his innocence. He became a singer. Sang for the British Forces Network blah blah blah, went pro and flew about the boards in the variety theatres.” He died about six months ago. Martyn’s voice, lighter than you’d expect and speedy, fluctuates evenly in accent between softened Scottish and south eastern English hipster crank. His Rs often come out as Ws.

“One thing’s for sure: music isn’t everything. You can go to a jazz club but you won’t be fulfilled. You can go to a folk club and you won’t be fulfilled. You can go to a concert hall and see Barbra Streisand and you certainly won’t be fulfilled. The whole thing,” he waves a mitt beyond the garden, “is a damn sight bigger than that. Life is bigger than music. And I wish I had three lives to live, separately at the same time. Because there’s never going to be enough time to get things done: not enough hours in the day, not enough years in your life. I mean, I never had any intention of being a musician. I wanted to be a doctor or an artist.”

Martyn began playing the London folk clubs in the ’60s because, he says, they were the only places that would let him play. This might be disingenuous, though. His early records, especially the ones he made with ex-wife Beverley Kutner, are as folksy as everyone else’s were on the late ’60s acoustic singer songwriter kick, their vocabulary largely modern but their syntax ancestorial. And nowadays he is stridently contemptuous of the purist English folk scene, for its uptight academicism and for what he believes to be its parochial irrelevance to the facts of contemporary life. “Who in Santa Barbara in 1994 wants to know about what some geezer said on the gallows in Yorkshire in 1792?” he bawls and flings wine down his neck. He then draws himself up to a height, eyebrows pushing into the remnants of his hairline, and favours the room with a couple of stanzas of something loud from the sinuses. “Oh, ’twas on a broit May marnin’…” A waitress passes through the French windows without a glance. “Bollocks.”

“I mean,” Martyn continues, settling down, “that folk worldview, I can’t hack it. That idea of there being a communal intellect in music, that thing where, and I apologise for the cliche, everything has to be in a bag, it’s utterly fatuous. For me it’s like the Hari Krishnas. Every time I see ’em in the street I feel like rolling down the window of the cab and yelling, ‘Aven’t you got no fucking homes to go to? Whassa matter with you? GET A LIFE!’ He settles again. ‘The trouble with folk is that it doesn’t swing!” Indeed, rather than waste gas on the impact of folk music on his work, Martyn prefers to consider his debt to French Impressionism, and Debussy. He says that from the age of nine he used to bully his father into buying him prints of Chagall paintings. There are echoes in his work, particularly in his abstract mid ’70s Outside In period, of the harmonic ‘canvases’ of Debussy: music as a suffusion of light, dark, colour and tone; as an object in time subject to the rules of space. Hence Martyn’s continued reworking of old material, the point being not to do it to perfection but to hold it up to the light just to see what happens as conditions change.

John, tell me about Danny Thompson (the acoustic bassist with whom Martyn made much monkey business during the middle part of his career, and whom Martyn is heard to insult so roundly on Live At Leeds). “What d’you wanna hear? I’ll tell you the best lies I can think of if you want.” Go on then. “Naaaah. I couldn’t. I love him too much.” At which point Martyn is suddenly transfixed by something on the table. “Cor. Look at that.” It’s the shadow of his empty wine glass. Sun is pouring through the bulb of the glass, and through the traces of fluid still clinging to its sides, to fix a limpidly sharp wine glass after image to the whiteness of the tablecloth. A slightly distorted repeat echo of the real thing. “That’s beautiful, innit? How lovely. How pretty. Look. Will you just look at that!” He stands up and leans right over the image on the cloth, and taps it with his finger tips. And that’s where we leave Danny Thompson.

It was around the time Martyn became matey with Phil Collins that his marriage to Beverly collapsed, the two events being connected only in the fact that Collins was in the throes of breaking up with his own wife and he and Martyn found it convenient to snivel together. They also produced between them Grace And Danger, which remains Martyn’s most commercially cohesive gesture to date despite the fact that it is a sore, confessional album in which the light of impressionism is played against a background of absorbent gloom. Martyn, never previously known to abstain, slipped into alcoholism. “I got out of me pram for six years,” he says. “I couldn’t handle the idea of the marriage not working. So I got out of it.” With the usual consequences. There follows a dilation on the John Martyn Method for kicking alcoholism, which involves John Coltrane at full whack, continuous television and the occasional large gin to remind you of the horrors of what you’re missing.

“I’ve been addicted to just about everything in my time, and you’ve got to be an arsehole if you can’t kick,” he says, resisting the temptation to moralise. “I never get drunk at all these days. Haven’t been drunk since the old queen died. Not that I’m abstemious just four or five glasses of wine and a couple of shorts: that’s me, pong!” And then, just as we’re into clear water, the undertow: “I mean, you just have to do the bodycount to check out how cool it was. It was only tough little fuckers like me that survived. I mean, look, when Paul Kossoff went out on the road that last time, I begged his management: I said, please, don’t send him out on the road, you’re gonna kill him. And it was a rotten band, Back Street Crawler. Shit. Bad heavy metal.”

Martyn and Kossoff were evidently magnetised by one another, the former frequently inviting the ex-Free guitarist to join him for encores, working with him in the studio, clueing him up when he seemed most clueless (for evidence, listen to Time Away from Kossoff’s first solo album, Kossoff and Martyn in a Sargasso of sustain and reverb, inchoate but serendipitously lovely). Martyn sounds like an elder brother. “Gosh, he was a good player. Lovely man, sweetheart, far too good for the likes of me. Delightful little fella. But God he was fucked up. I could tell you stories but I don’t intend to because it’s personal.” He taps the table, looking down.

Out in the garden in a bower ten minutes later, Martyn is soft again. Talk has shifted to Lee Perry, the Upsetter, who lent ears, fingertips and polymorphous perversity to Big Muff on One World.
“Scratch is mad. He’s got an affliction.” Uh-huh. “He and I share a great interest in repeat echo. I mean, he kind of invented the dub shit. A classic mover. He and I are very similar, but he’s crazy and I’m not. But I get on all right with him because I cook for him and we play music together, and I do understand everything he’s on about. Very few people do.”

“Last time I was with him he filled the bath with dead fish and sea shells. And he put dead fish and sea shells all over the cooker and spray painted the whole gaff. And it wasn’t his gaff. He was moving out the next day. And on the day he moved out he put big black letters all over the wall saying, ‘One man moves out, and now the workers move in’. Mad as a snake. And I say to him: What the fuck is this? What are you on about? They give you all this money; they lionise you, treat you special; get you everything you want, all the time you want it… What is this, worshipping seashells, cuddling trees and wanking yourself off on the lawn? And he says: ‘Man, it’s a com-pul-shaaan’.”

Martyn is expansive. He has one arm up over his head.

“And if you have an imagination that wide and an intellect that big, and you’ve been born a Jamaican with nothing but two Revoxes and your wits between yourself and the rest of the world, well… You want it distilled? You ever hear Roast Fish And Cornbread? There, you got it: blummm blumm erk-k-k-k pffff-pfff-pff-pff-pf-p.” He makes a C-shape with thumb and forefinger and makes dub-echo in the air with his hand, sending it off into the trees.

Nick Coleman
Mojo Magazine No.11
1 October 1994