A T-shirt, a Joint, And Much Embarassment

Sometime around 1984 or 5 I saw John play at a bar in Cambridge Massachusetts called Jonathan Swift’s. This was the first time I’d seen him since I moved to the US from England and it was great to see him play in such an intimate setting.

For the occasion I pulled out my old well kept Well Kept Secret tour shirt which I’d obtained a couple of years earlier from a roadie in Copenhagen during a stint as stage manager for San Francisco’s multi-media performance artists The Residents. The roadie was wearing the John Martyn shirt and eyeing my Residents “Eskimo” shirt. At the end of the night we negotiated via sign language to trade the now rather sweaty items.

During the Jonathan Swift’s gig John spotted the shirt from the stage between songs and said something like “Where d’ya get the shirt? Can’t get me one anywhere”. At the end of the show I stuck around as the place cleared and introduced myself to the stage-side bouncer as “the guy with the shirt”, which was enough to get me admitted backstage. It had been an incredible, luminous performance and I was, of course, totally thrilled to be getting to meet John. We chatted for a while before heading to the bar, where I produced a joint, which we shared. This probably explains why I don’t remember much of what we talked about. But I remember very clearly how the conversation ended.

I asked after his daughter. “She’s great.” he said, “She’s my toughest critic”. To which I responded, “Yeah, you need that”. What I meant was “Yeah, everyone needs that”, a bit of artist-to-artist banter, but to John it must have sounded like asshole-to-artist bullshit. He clearly took it personally and said something like “What do you mean? Who d’ya think you’re talk ing to”. Lately star-struck, quite stoned and now embarrassed, I stuttered something apologetic like “Oh, no….I mean…someone I’ve admired for years…. I…uh…” but I couldn’t find a way to salvage the situation. I was thinking, “Great, there’s so much I’d like to ask this guy. I’ll never get the chance again, and I just blew it”. I ended up making a speedy and embarrassed exit, kicking myself all the way home.

Laurence Campling