Boozy Martyn Hits New Peak
Boozy Martyn Hits New Peak.
The barman is having trouble with the drinks order.
He’s poured out two glasses of brandy and one of port but there’s a problem… they should all be in the SAME glass. When I point this out, he blanches and even in seen it all Brighton feels compelled to ask: “God, who’s that for?” It has just gone noon.
The answer is a huge Orson Welles figure sitting in the corner in a wheelchair, hellraising singer songwriter John Martyn.
If people know anything at all about Martyn it’s the fact he should be more successful and that he likes a drink… or several. The two things are not unconnected. Martyn may well be the cult artist’s cult artist, a writer and performer whose wonderful mix of folk, blues, jazz, rock and dub has never caused much overtime in the charts compilers’ office. But the 60 year old guitarist’s profile is higher now than at any time in his 40 year career.
A raft of names from Paolo Nutini, Beck and Portishead to Paul Weller, U2 and The Verve have acknowledged their debt to him and Martyn’s “back slap” guitar sound has been credited with inventing everything from trip-hop to chill-out.
A new box set, Ain’t No Saint, collecting four decades worth of rarities, classics and live tracks has won rave reviews. And this year he won a Lifetime Achievement gong at The Radio 2 Folk Awards. Phil Collins and Led Zep’s John Paul Jones paid tribute and Eric Clapton sent a message saying Martyn was “so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable”.
That Martyn was around to collect the award was something of a miracle. He has outlived many of his contemporaries but survival has come at a price. In 2004, a burst cyst forced him to have his right leg amputated, the latest in a litany of career sabotaging scrapes, ranging from alcoholism, drug addiction and womanising to punch ups and near bankruptcy.
Still, thrilled as he was by the award, Martyn’s contrary enough to insist he doesn’t actually like folk. “They always put me in the folk rack,” he sighs. “I’ve dabbled with the odd song but I don’t like that finger in the ear stuff. ‘Fancy a pint of real ale?’ No, I don’t… just go away! I’ve never been the morris dancing type, I’m a funky not a folky!”
Even so, it was two largely folky albums on the Island label that made his name, 1971’s Bless The Weather and its 1972 follow up, Solid Air, which included his signature song, May You Never. They paired his unique, slurring vocals with effects drenched guitar on gorgeous, emotionally raw songs. Nothing sounds like them and they should have made him a star.
Martyn is sanguine about it. “Lack of success really doesn’t bug me at all,” he insists. “Clapton calling from Antigua, Phil Collins flying in from Switzerland to shake my hand is f****** wonderful. That means more to me. I’ve never had a career plan. I like serendipity, I like things to happen by chance. For years I didn’t even use a setlist. But I’ve never starved, I’ve never really been short of money and I’ve always had fun, I’m doing what I love.”
Martyn’s two best albums were to come before his golden age ended, 1977’s funky One World, which included a collaboration with reggae legend Lee Perry, and 1980’s Grace And Danger, a beautiful, harrowing work about the breakdown of his marriage to singer Beverley Kutner. The latter’s fate was typical of Martyn’s luck. Island boss Chris Blackwell found it so disturbing he shelved it for a year. When it did come out it was widely praised but didn’t sell.
Meanwhile Collins, who drummed on Grace, used it as a blueprint for his own divorce album, Face Value, which sold millions. Martyn’s lack of success may have been partly down to his taste for drink and drugs and his distaste for the music industry. It all sparked some legendarily bad behaviour with his long-time collaborator, double bass player Danny Thompson. Martyn recalls: “We’d check into a hotel drunk and Danny or I would slam a load of money on the counter and say, ‘That’s for the damage’. The receptionist would always look bemused and say, ‘There isn’t any’, then we’d say, ‘There f****** will be!’ There always was too.”
When we meet in Brighton, Ireland based Martyn is about to go on tour playing Grace and Danger in its entirety. Doesn’t he find it strange to be playing something so personal 30 years on?
“I don’t feel nearly as grumpy about life as I did then,” Martyn says. “I was distraught at the time of writing . . . but now? It doesn’t have me reaching for the razor blades.”
There was a point just after Grace when Martyn almost looked like success was within his grasp. His music became more commercial and two albums even sneaked into the Top 30, but many fans thought he’d lost his way. Martyn denies any plan to be a star, saying: “Nothing could be further from the truth. You’re missing the point of music if you think like that as an artist. I never had career ambitions at all. It was the managers who felt like that. I ended up doing all kinds of things I didn’t want to do for all kinds of people I didn’t want to do them for.”
Warming to his theme, he adds: “Managers are mostly bumbling philistines who put money before all else and don’t understand the power of music or what it is to be a musician. I spent the Eighties working my way out of contracts where no one understood where I was coming from. They saw this gravy train, climbed on and thought if they paid me £ 100 a week that was fine but it wasn’t because I was earning two grand a week. I don’t like getting f***** over. I don’t want to be hoist by your petard. If I’m going to get f***** over I’ll be hoist by my own, thank you very much.”
Yet Martyn doesn’t seem bitter despite the fact the Eighties and Nineties were tough. Not only was he still not selling albums but he was also no longer making good ones.
Throughout the interview, Martyn downs several drinks to combat flu but his mind and memory are razor sharp. He’s amusing, self-mocking company too as his accent slides from Surrey, where he was born, to Glasgow, where he was raised. If nothing else he admits he’s lucky to be still going, unlike his friend Nick Drake about whom he wrote Solid Air. Drake died of a drug overdose in 1974, depressed and frustrated at his own lack of success.
Martyn says: “I don’t think anyone realised how troubled he was, how severe his mental illness was. Poor Nicky, none of us knew what to do about it. It’s odd how huge he’s become since. And he’s a gay icon now, he’d be appalled by that!”
These days, despite being dogged by ill health, Martyn is still making plans. He’s almost finished a new album, called Willing To Work and is due to record with his hero, the US jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders.
“Losing a leg has slowed me up a bit,” he notes drily, “and it’s turned me into a fat git now but I’ll keep going. I’m a hard person to kill.”
12 December 2008