Martynized In Gotham; Johnkies Are Us
This story is in the form of a letter.
….so, Hillarby, it’s 3:44am and I just had visit from my neighbors, nice people, Eric & Shelly Ewell are….about an hour and a half hour ago I was rummaging through my cd’s looking for something…something I hadn’t heard in a while, by someone besides John because I’m finally coming to the end of my most recent JM listening jag…this one lasting a couple of years now…it’s sick I tell you, sick…listening almost exclusively to JM, but it happens, has happened for over three decades now so I go with it, but in the past “it” carried on for a few months, six at most, not two years, so I was looking for some Trane, Miles, Billie or Ben, and then I spotted “Sweet Certain Surprise” (having just arrived from the UK yesterday and I thank you for sending it my way) by the stereo and after listening to this most amazing collection it looks like I’ll be doing a couple more years of solitary with JM. I’ll survive!!! I think I told you I have the original “Sweet” but the sound quality was so bad I couldn’t listen to it anymore. It was just too muted to hear what I knew was going on, but, Man, I had no real idea just how smokin’ this disc was and is. Since I’m preaching to the choir I’ll try to keep my usual adjective assault to a minimum–all I can say is….if you wanna go back home, if you wanna find the center, if you wanna paddle down JM’s stream of consciousness, check this disc out.And it’s a monumental cd in that you catch John, kind of early on, starting to move from guitar to vocal. Not that he doesn’t play guitar—of particular interest is “Seven Black Roses,” I mean, fuck, I almost didn’t survive that cut. But it’s his singing on familiar tunes: John wailing, yelping, growling, howling tragic magic from inside out and outside in and making all stops in between that is most memorable and moving for me. Anyway, this 1977 performance and the final four cuts with his band in 1981 (as, I might add, you’re well written liner notes deftly point out) catches John at an extraordinary moment, his voice reaching the point where words no longer matter…he sings a Coltrane soprano solo, a deep, breathy Webster tune, his voice like water, bubbling and babbling over and between boulders, slipping, sliding, flowing down stream, it’s a moment of change similar to the change between “The Tumbler” (??? is that correct?) and “Solid Air,” a revolution, an epiphany, his vocal renaissance. As only he could say, he’s “between the drizzle and the drop.” John sings “Over the Hill,” “Jelly Roll Baker,” “Solid Air,” “Couldn’t Love You More,” “May You Never,” and “Spencer the Rover” until my teeth ached and when John and company broke into a masterful version of “Big Muff,” breaking musical inertia and lifting off the stage, the energy brought me to my feet and I turned the volume to full throttle and I was up doing a little shuffle, playing some air guitar and “Big Muff,” and then my screen door opened and in walked Eric & Sherry Ewell in their bed clothes and when I took off my headphones to greet them, you know what was going down, you can’t bullshit me, I know you’ve done this one, too, yeah, I hadn’t switched off the speakers and JM was loud, mf loud….
“Sorry,” I said.
“Yeah,” the Ewells said for the second time in three months.
“Do you Ewells like John Martyn?”
“I’m not going there, goodnight!”
….and lately, Mr. Webmaster, I’ve come back, once again, to the question that has puzzled me for years—from the very first time I heard the man until now, the same enigmatic musing has done hard time in my brain cell, no parole, no conjugal visits, it’s doing life–and that question is….What is it about John? I mean, Hillarby, what is it about John that viscerally connects me/you/the other Johnkies to his music, his sound, his….hymndom, yeah, his music? What is it about John that has kept me in his sphere of influence, in his gravitational pull all these years? What is it about John that I now (once again) find myself—for the past two years—forsaking Coltrane, Webster, Holiday, Hardin, Ray-Bone (Anderson), Subramaniam, let me stop there—and listening almost exclusively to…..Hymn…and people I work with, when they take a ride in my car ask me,
“Is he the only person you listen to,?” and I say, “Yeah.” ….I know I can’t answer this question, it’s too big for me, but “What is it about him,” I asked myself recently, driving eight hours from Frisco to Oceanside listening to a cd of rare, live JM cuts a friend sent me a year ago—for eight straight hours. The “too good to be bad, too bad to be good” cut I must have listened to twenty times that day—crazy…but what, what, WHAT is it about John. All I can say is…the very first time I heard John, saw him (and what a not-so-innocent virgin I was that first night) I went to catch Traffic at the Fillmore East and through the fog of the 60’s/70’s all I remember of that night is John’s performance, not Traffic’s, and that’s saying something ‘cause I loved that bunch, Man, could Winwood sing or what? As my friend Tony says: “fagetaboudit….” Well, anyway Father Hillarby, I must confess that those were some dark days for this child, deep in the shit was I, (as a predecessor of JM’s, the great Tim Hardin used to sing, “Bought myself a red balloon, got a blue surprise, hidden in the red balloon, was the pinning of my eyes”—if nothing else, pick up Tim Hardin III “Live” and also check out the group of bad mf’s playing with that “Folk” singer) and so, as usual I was up in the cheap seats nodding out on some excellent doogie…waiting on Winwood, Capaldi, and Wood…when through the opalescent veil of the safe & warm I heard a band playing, drummer, bass, couple of guitars wailing in a Hendrixonian way, someone was singing, not in English, growling, and even though I couldn’t make out one word I understood exactly what he was saying and I drifted down an Impressionist’s river with this most magical band, this rhythmic wonder was taking me away, I mean away, and when they were at their hypnotic best I had to see what was what and when I opened my eyes, as you very well know, there was only this one cat on stage and I exhaled.
….yo, Hillarby, what is it about John?…huh?…huh? is it shared experience? I think not. But it’s also beyond lyrics, and chord or note choice. It’s past singing style…it’s more than attitude, point of view, balls, it’s more than that. But what is it? Well, all I say is….after I saw John that night I went on a record hunt that lasted forever and almost killed me. I started with the big stores and having no luck anywhere I methodically (and I know what you’re thinking Hillarby and yeah, I know methodically for a junkie and a pill head is not exactly a science, but….), okay, so looking for a JM record I somewhat methodically devoured record store after record store like a fat man working his way through an “All You Can Eat” sitch, belching them out in Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Manhattan.
“Ah, mister record store man, two weeks ago I saw this guy at the Fillmore and he was like %#&*)^@!….”
“Sorry, don’t know who that would be.”
“He said his name, but all I could make out was like Ynnartin, ever hear of a Ynnartin…..” I yelled.
“What genre of music does he play?”
“Ahh, he plays….ahhhh….well, he plays….ahhhhh……Ynnartin music!”
“I’m sorry, I’ll have to call security now…..”
About a week later, coming out of a stupor and to my senses, I walked over to the Fillmore and asked around until the manager said, wild eyed, “Yeah, you must mean John Martyn.”
And then I visited record shop after record shop,
“Got anything by John Martyn?”
“Never heard of him.”
Almost a year later,
“Got anything by John Martyn?” I said to this guy dressed in all black in a newly opened funky smelling basement record joint in the east village, and rubbing his goatee, squinting his eyes the dude says,
“John Martyn???? John Martyn???? John Martyn????”
I screamed, “Yeah, John Fuckin’ Martyn.”
“John Martyn…Yes,” he said.
I thought, Did he just say YES?
“Did you say, ‘YES’?”
“Yes, John Martyn…over there…in the Folk music section.”
“In the Folk section…..I’m talking Martyn, m.a.r.t.y.n, Martyn?????”
“Yes, he’s a British Folk artist, you know.”
“Folk, listen, I don’t mean to be argumentative or anything but Folk?–Buffy St. Marie, Joan Baez, Peter, Paul, & Mary, Judy Collins…listen, this mf Martyn tied me to a torture rack with his guitar, and kept tightening the ropes, he’s this one man band, maybe I’m misunderstanding you, are you saying Folk or Fuck music? ‘cause if you’re saying fuck mus………oh, it doesn’t matter, just show me where, where, where, Martyn where…..?”
“I’m sorry but I’ll have to call security now.”
….so I got “Solid Air.” That’s where I dropped in, with the folk record “Solid Air” and that was it. Played nothing else for months. That’s the genesis of this thing. So what is it about John? Well, all I can say is….here’s some JM history I’ve never wrote you about. In late 1972???, I had a court date on a Monday that was looking bleak, looking like time. My wife (at the time), assuming I was going to jail, got us a couple of tickets (and sugar cubes) to see John Sebastian at Brooklyn College. Call it luck, call it happenstance, call it fate: walking up to the theater the sign read:
By the time Gail and I reached the theater we were fairly blasted and confused and we looked at the sign for what seemed like minutes, then turning to each other we both said at the same time, our faces as bright as sunshine, “Do you think it’s that JOHN MARTYN?” We cracked up, laughed until our cheeks hurt, but walked into the theater with renewed vigor. It was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen, but one of the saddest nights of my life. John started out at a million miles an hour—wha-wha, reverb, echoplex—making my noodle cook. You know, you been there. But this idiot college crowd couldn’t get close to John. Where the centrifugal force of JM holds us ever closer to the source, they were being spun out, JM was slamming them against the wall. And they were too busy drinking and throwing Frisbees and eating sandwiches to listen. I’d never seen anything like it before or since. These kids started chanting, “We want Martin Mull.” Martin Mull sang jingles—JINGLES!!!!!!!! There they were, in the presence of a human who could bring them closer to the Power than any saint or singing angel could. There they were, JM blowing the world away, rewriting history before their dull eyes, and they wanted jingles. Well, after a while they started yelling ugly shit at John and he fucking yelled back. I started yelling at the fuckin’ little pricks to shut up. Well, John played a few more songs for the faithful (they were already there back then), got lost deep inside and did his thing, like he was playing Leeds or London, Dublin…… After he went off I went out back an waited for him, something I never did or do except with John, I felt had to apologize, I had to and when he came strolling outside I said, “John,” and he looked at me and I just put out my hand and he took it and while we shook hands I told him for the first time, and very eloquent I was, “John, you’re the greatest, the fuckin’ greatest, Man,” and he said to me for the first time, “Thank you, thank you, Lad.” Funny thing is, Hillarby, after saying to him so many times (Brooklyn College, Café Wha, Bitter End (?), the Bottom Line (twice, last in June of ‘98), and on the west coast at the Great American Music Hall in San Fran, and at McCabe’s Guitar Shop and that other little joint down on Sunset Strip), “John, you’re the greatest, the fuckin’ greatest, Man,” I’ve never said any more, any less. What’s that all about?
….so, my Man, what is it? Any answers yet? I don’t have any. I doubt I ever will. Just like I’ll never understand how it is that after three decades John stills gets on stage, unzips, improvises on the scriptures, literally takes you to the holy land and still plays to the “tables & chairs” over here? That he is still relatively unknown; how is it possible. But we’ve rapped on that forever and I have to let that go. At this point I don’t feel sorry for John, he’s partied down for thirty plus years, I feel sorry for them, the hearing deaf. All I can say is…I can count on John. I’ve always kept him in my head. I can connect the dots with John through most of my adult life. There are only a few people alive in my world today that go back as far as the Fillmore East. And I never talk to them, never see them. Having only said, “John, you’re the greatest, the fuckin’ greatest, Man,” hardly classifies us as buds, but in a strange way he’s my oldest friend; been together in fat times and skinny times, that’s for sure, anyway, Hillarby, the one thing I know is that I’ll never figure this love out. Shit, even recently, on September 11th, as usual I was up early doing my coffee, cigs, writing thing, tv on but muted, and out of the corner of my eyes the picture switched to a close-up of the Twin Towers and one building was on fire and had a hole in it like ten floors high and I turned on the sound and the news person was rapping, rapping it’s head off but was scared and within a few minutes a column of thick black smoke had made its way up and around the building putting a strangle hold on it, and I looked at my clock, 5:45…8:45 in NYC, better then 9:15 but still there’s got to be thousands of people in that tower and thousands more teeming, streaming down below…and, Man, I watched and listened, listened and watched and still five months later every time I shut my eyes that fucking jet plane smashes into and through the tower shattering cement, glass and steel, incinerating sinew, bone and brain, leaving a ghastly, God awful ancient heap of smoldering ashes that only minutes before was modernity’s best and I can’t stop from imaging where the 3,000 dead were when the proverbial shit hit the fan: the doomed mortal souls on those topped off, fuel-bomb jet planes, sitting like stick figures, kindling, their faces a collective Munch “Scream”; the family from your side of the pond, so eager to “see it all” they skipped breakfast to be first on line, four smiling faces, eyes laser beamed on the floor numbers flying by as they sped almost to the observation deck in their mass elevator grave; the hundreds of soon to be dead firefighters in their station houses playing cards, reading the sports section, eating their last breakfast; Angie, sweet, sweet Angie who arrived early to prepare for an important meeting, at her desk on the 86th floor, her morning coffee at her lips, smiling at the pictures of her baby girl when a hundred ton Boeing jet plane entered from behind and whoosh….and what did I do….I muted the TV and put on some John and when the first tower fell John was singing, no, it would’ve been appropriate and a cool tale to tell, but he wasn’t singing “I Don’t Wanna Know,” it was “Small Hours,” and a little later I remember “precious babies, yours and mine, mine and…” and that was the first morning in many a year that I had whiskey and JM for breakfast and all I can say is that when my tower falls, when it’s my time to go to sleep for a billion years, I hope and pray the last sound I hear in this one world is John voice……..
Rap ta ya,
About Glenn Frantz
Glenn was born in Brooklyn, New York USA on April 2, 1949. His mother died when he was 13 years old and his teen years were in the ’60’s when he got into drugs, sex and rock ‘n roll, and also some college! Glenn had some dark times but beat the drugs and joined Synanon, a therupeutic community, in 1977, out in California.
He was a Mets fan, loved hockey, loved music and loved John Martyn ‘s music since becoming a fan in 1970. He also loved reading and writing, all kinds of art and Rumi poems. Many of Glenn’s short stories and poems have been published and he had recently written a book. Glenn had Christmas lights up in his apartment all year long….one of life’s great characters and a truly compassionate man.
Glenn died in Encinitas, California on July 1, 2003 aged 54 years. A great loss to his friends and family and the world at large.