Blood Sweat And Cheers
The agony and the ecstacy on tour with John Martyn. First aid by Vivien Goldman.
John Martyn rivets attention performing. You’d be wrong in assuming that just because he’s one man with a guitar he doesn’t make every crevice of the stage swing. Single handedly, Martyn creates thunder rolls and lightning flashes of sound. With wahwah, fuzz box and echoplex, he lashes the audience into Sensurround submission by a gutpassioned I’d Rather Be The Devil, sweet talking them to surrender with new love songs like Sweet Mary Morning. The vocals on Solid Air stagger textures in an infinite kaleidoscope of shapes. The pain is actual.
His current tour is John’s first for a year and a half. In ’76 he took his abused body off to recuperate in Jamaica. He was suffering physically from over indulgence in life sweeteners of various kinds, mentally from the deaths of two of his closest friends, Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff. In Jamaica, John cooled out. He contributed the teasing lead guitar run on to Burning Spear’s Man In The Hills album, contemplated the mountains at Strawberry Hill, and was strictly Ital in a woven house in Ocho Rios.
Now, it’s back on the road again, and little things keep going wrong on this set. We’re at the University in Belfast. Someone trips over a lead and pulls out the plug; the whole shebang appears to fuse. Guitar strings break. There’s rushing back and forth, to the porter’s lodge for the key, to the dressing room, and back to the hall, where John maintains a tough, witty repartee with the drunken crowd, Scottish accent well to the fore.
That’s not quite all: John’s also suffering from food poisoning, throws up leaving the hotel, getting to the gig, and after the gig. And what else, yes, his fingers haven’t hardened up yet, and the skin cracks again each night. John keeps a tube of Locan anaesthetic by his side, and re-anaesthetises his fingertips between numbers. Before the set, he painstakingly builds up solid false nails with dentist’s denture repair fluid.
By the end of the show, the guitar is spattered with blood. “Blood and snot!” John shouts cheerfully. “See how I suffer for my art?” He plays great. Jazz? soul? samba? reggae? even folk? fuse into Martyn Music. Next time he wants to hit the road, hopefully this autumn, after recording another album, he plans to take Danny Thompson with him to play bass, and a couple of percussionists as well. But for now, he’s enjoying the nostrings luxury of solo flight, and he makes the hall and the audience swim in whirlpools of one man sounds.
In the dressing room at the university, long haired students work their way through a crate of lager. John says: “Isn’t it amazing, I still get nervous before every gig.” But his hail fellow affability remains flawless. Like the Royal Family, John’s adept at hitting subtly varied tone levels of communication with everyone he meets; the accent shifts delicately from conversation to conversation.
Now he’s standing, hands thrust into the pocket of his hairy blue three piece suit, (“I like going onstage looking like this, it really fucks up people’s expectations of a long-haired guitarist in a kaftan,”) silently contemplating an old publicity pic of himself on the back of the door. It’s high summer in the picture. John’s dressed in a white overshirt, stepping carefully down some steps, cradling a blond-haired little boy in his arms. Flowers fill trellises by the door, tendrils graze the boy’s arm. (“That’s my eldest son. Just bought him a new bicycle. With any luck he’ll fall off and break his neck.” A joke.)
John looks at John. Summer John is streamlined, breezy. Ireland’s winter John is rounder, the buttons on his waistcoat bulge. There’s a glint of shiny pink scalp under the fluffy blond curls when his hair’s wet with apres gig sweat. Both John’s teeth are even and white, and their smile flash equally boyishly.
Tho officials won’t let me take my cassette machine on the plane. I offer to de gut it in front of them, prove this ain’t no bomb, but it’s a straight choice between getting back to London with no cassette on board, or not getting back. Of course, the on board cassetteless interview beats the recorded hotel one hollow. I make notes, forgive me if I misquote, John.
“I’ve got no competition in what I’m doing. Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch, huh!” John snorts derisively. “I believe in being gutsy. If something isn’t gutsy, I find it rather objectionable. There’s too many sycophantic musicians wimping about. Perhaps I made a mistake quitting touring when I did, but if I hadn’t, I wouldn’t be alive now. It’s simple as that, I’d have been brown bread emotionally, with a tattered, unhealthy body.”
I’m constantly amazed that the public at large seems to regard you as an old fashioned traditional folk singer, when every record, every gig, is a funky free form adventure. Why is that? “Because they think that I’m just a loony, me and people like Roy Harper. Just crazy. There’s a lot of FOOLS out there.”
Also, your songs could be singles, and hit singles at that.”I don’t like singles. They’re cheap, disposable, nasty and tasteless. And I pride myself on my good taste. I’m not that greedy, even though at the moment I’m skint, compared to a year ago. But there you go, that was the unhappiest time of my life. I had more money, spent it all on holidays to take me away from the ghastly music business.”
But a 45’s just another form of conveying information, don’t you see? You can use it to express whatever you want. In the end, he agrees he’ll give it a whirl. (If it’s Number One, you can give me a cut).
We circle slowly over Heathrow, the descent begins. You’re a survivor, aren’t you John?
“DEFINITELY” John’s fervent. “Give me five bob, drop me on the A1, and I’ll be alright.”
5 March 1977