Grace And Danger
Grace And Danger.
When JOHN MARTYN died in January, the outpouring of tributes was phenomenal, with musicians and fans bidding farewell to “a friend”, an “older brother” and a part of their life.
Mat Snow remembers his time with the shape-shifting folk magician and tries to understand what was lost.
HE WAS 60 YEARS OLD, WEIGHED over 20 stone, was wheelchair-bound after his right leg was amputated at the knee in 2003 following a burst cyst, had already been hospitalised recently with a severe bout of double pneumonia, and had only stopped drinking on January 5 this in an attempt to get fit enough to tour.
So why did it feel such a shock when my wife gave me the news of John Martyn’s death on January 29? And why did I feel so sad?
Yes, I’d met him, escorting his party at last year’s MOJO Awards, and two years before had spent consecutive afternoons delighting in his anecdotes, candid self-appraisal and warm companionability interviewing him for this magazine when, like his close friend Phil Collins (see over), I was both charmed and perplexed by his split-second switches back and forth from Home Counties saloon-bar to Sauchiehall Street pub cludgie (“I can do Glasgow or Cockney,” he chuckled. “When I came back down here, a Scottish accent wasn’t the most acceptable thing in the world. People would think I was Andy Stewart!”).
But beyond those personal contacts, to be a fan of John Martyn was to experience a rare kinship; it was as if his music had held your hand through some of life’s toughest and tenderest moments, sound tracked and shaped the most intimate stirrings of the heart. To read all the messages of condolence and reminiscence on his website, and the tributes that poured into the MOJO website and those newspapers that noted his death, is tocommune with two generations – parents and children – united in the loss of no mere respected musician but a close friend, a “surrogate” or “older brother” (to quote several of the hundreds of fans): a loved one.
A tiny sample: “I was heartbroken.., it feels like there’s a chunk missing”, “I have told my daughter to put my Bless The Weather CD in my coffin”, “John Martyn’s music has partly built my soul”, “at the Barbican a few weeks back, never seen so many grown men cry”, “listening to John’s music working as a district nurse contributes to positive energy I take to my patients”, “I’ve lost a best friend”, “I saw John in November – he played the whole of Grace &Danger which first introduced me to his music; now in my mid-forties and smarting from my very own divorce, he got to me all over again”, “he always seemed to be a troubled soul; perhaps that’s what drew so many Glaswegians to him”, “he sang of loss and that’s what made him real”… And this, from former prisoner Erwin James, recalling the time John Martyn played the high security Long Martin jail and sung his song made famous by Eric Clapton, May You Never: “Those lines meant so much to us, the down, the defeated, the betrayed and g the betrayers – an anthem for relationships, a hymn to friendship and love … As he sang, the depth of our exposure was near tangible. Even Crusher looked like he was going to cry. When he finished we stomped, yelled, whistled and cried for more.”
Teenagers and grown men; divorcees and mothers; district nurses and dangerous prisoners; even rock journalists. What was it about John Martyn that touched us all so deeply?
FIRST, HE SANG ALL HIS LIFE OF LOVE. Despite his turbulent decade-long marriage to Beverley and bitter divorce in 1979, then the death in 1995 of his estranged second wife Annie, his faith in love, the bond between two people who choose each other, was religious in its constancy and intensity.
“If you kissed the sun right out of the sky for me/And if you told me all the lies that I deserve/ And if you laid all night in the rain for me /Well, I couldn’t love you more. He sang on Couldn’t Love You More, his 1977 song that he revisited time and again in the studio and on stage. “Bless the weather that brought you to me/Curse the storm that takes you away,” he sang in 1971. “Wave after wave I watched it just to watch it turn/ Day after day I cooled it just to watch it burn…”
Sun. Rain. Wave. Storm. The sleeve of his 1973 album Inside Out pictures the elements which for John Martyn had more than metaphorical weight: on the front, silhouetted against a burning summer sky, his head frames a lightning storm; on the back, the image is reversed. This dramatic duality – duel, even – between cosmic benediction and fury gave poetry to the swings of his moods, and expressed his sense of oneness with the natural world.
“My father taught me to fish and shoot, the manly pursuits,” he told me in 2006 of finding himself after the age of 30 recoiling from killing a living thing. The natural world remained in his blood. After his amputation he yearned to swim in the waters near where he lived in Thomastown, Kilkenny with his beloved partner Theresa Walsh, and spent his last years bird-watching from their house through a big picture window onto an area of gar-den left wild to attract migrant birds.
“I had a long-tailed tit. Very rare. Wonderful thing. Never thought I’d see one,” he told me at the MOJO Award ceremony. Though it seems a stretch to picture the ’70s and ’80s hell-raiser and fight-starter mellowing into a twitching Bill Oddie, the nature boy was always there, and consciously so.
From the ear-ringed Arcadian shepherd lad of his finger-picking folkie youth onwards – and despite 1965’s Anglicising professional name-change at the start of his career from lain David McGeachy – the Surrey-born John Martyn publicly foregrounded the horny-handed authenticity of his Scottish up-bringing by his father and grandmother in pointed contrast to the hardly less important influence of his mother’s beatnik, showbiz circle in suburban Middlesex, where he stayed in school holidays. (His mother had abandoned him in divorce, as had those of John Lennon, Jimi Hendrix and his friend Eric Clapton; one can find an intensity of conflicted feelings about women in the music and lives of them all.) John Martyn’s feelings for – even identification with – land, sea and sky are the essence of his art. Critical discussion of his growing generic embrace of folk, blues, jazz, soul, funk, reggae, electronica, classical, AOR, trip-hop etc misses the point: these are means, not ends. In the ’70s, the woody buzz of his sibilants was no mere `Zum-merzet’ folkie technique but a deeply felt evocation of the earth – the drowsy bumblebee browsing in the wild flowers of the wood. John’s voice, the thumb riding the top string of his Guild acoustic, Danny Thompson plucking his double-bass Victoria’ behind him – this is music of gnarled roots, rough bark and waving boughs. When Tony Coe’s saxophone solos sinuously through the weave in Solid Air – John’s 1973 song to his deeply troubled friend and fellow artist Nick Drake who was to live just another year – you think not of the maker of Five Leaves Left but of the shadowy but richly tactile and safe earthly place that was to elude him.
So too John’s famed loop-and-layer Echoplex guitar. Listen to the song Small Hours on 1977’s One World: recorded outdoors in the dead of night by a flooded gravel-pit lake, this is a vision of serenity triumphant, blessed with a sense too of holy mystery absolved of fear; its eight minutes have a tranquil intensity to match that of Sibelius in his Fifth Symphony, a work inspired by the flight of swans over a lake in Finland.
Yet, as we all know, John Martyn was that rare beast, a Buddhist roaring boy. That he was, until January 5 this year, such a heavy drinker cannot be ignored as a factor in his life and music. Though he seldom fluffed and never lost his dexterity, pitch and timing, clipped precision was never John Martyn’s style. Yet in song he never played the drunk nor found, like, say, Tom Waits or The Pogues, a theatrically romantic anti-heroism in the bottle. But the music floats on liquid, whether runny honey or some stronger amber nectar; it’s often heady, too, with a fragrant something smuggled in – the basic tracks of One World, for example, were recorded with John and some of his fellow musicians and technicians under the influence of opium. The drugs and drink, like the funk that gave heft and bounce to songs born of his grounding in folk and finger-picking, were part and parcel of the expression in his music of the body as well as the soul, an indivisibility that only grew as he swelled over the decades from fresh-faced Dionysus to twindling Silenus.
Such is the swirling grain of his music right up to his final recordings and performances, and so too the man. His fighting-drunk days far behind him, the John Martyn of his last years was physically no advertisement for the distilling industry, but the pub and bar were places of companionship for him, the toast a warming human ritual. Many are the stories his fans have posted that pay tribute to chance meetings with the Big Man (a title earned in drinking circles; John, his weight aside, was no titan), cheery chats over a tipple. He drank more than he should, and when I interviewed him I became his tacit conspirator in concealing from the solicitous Theresa just how much hard stuff he was putting away. When her back was turned in his hotel lobby he pressed a twenty into my hand and whispered to me to get him a treble. Later, when he returned to the hotel after two hours of reminiscence in a Notting Hill pub garden, he left his full water-bottle on the table; I took it in case I got thirsty going home that summer’s day – it was, as I discovered with my first swig, neat vodka.
How to resolve the question of an artist but also a family man willing to pay the price of drink as a fuel, if not to creativity, then to self-belief and social ease? Perhaps you don’t; you avoid it with a joke. “I promised my manager I wouldn’t get legless,” he jested when wheeled up to collect his MOJO Award last year.
And so he’s gone. But more than just in spirit,
1 April 2009
“HE WAS ONE OF A KIND”
Friend, collaborator and producer PHIL COLLINS remembers the laughter and tears of 30 years of working with JOHN MARTYN.
IN 1978 I received a phone call from producer Martin Levan asking me to come to a studio in Holborn, central London, where John Martyn was about to start a new album. Though Peter Gabriel in Genesis had always been a champion of John’s music and the One World album was already a favourite of mine, I hadn’t yet met him. I arrived at the studio to find my Brand X partner John Giblin on bass, and the late, great Tommy Eyre on keyboards. John claimed recently that he hadn’t heard of me, only that I was a good drummer. This made our friendship even more important to me then and now. We just sat down, started playing, and became friends. Those sessions produced Grace& Danger, arguably one of John’s finest and most intimate albums.
One night during the sessions we decided to go for a drink. Ever a dangerous idea during a session, especially one of John’s, but off we went. Randomly choosing a local pub, inside it was like a morgue. No atmosphere at all lots of elderly people, each at their own table, barely talking. Clearly it had been this way for years. A dusty old ship’s piano stood against one wall. While the landlord poured our drinks, John whispered that if we worked as a team we could have Tommy playing a few pub songs in no time. I was to be in charge of lifting off the flowers, Giblin in charge of the stool, John in charge of opening the piano lid… Despite the landlord warning us of the police, we got Tommy seated and playing within seconds. Suddenly all these voices that hadn’t been heard for years, started singing along – Daisy Daisy, My Old Man. The landlord withered us with a look but couldn’t do anything about it. Tommy kept on playing. With the place ablaze with humanity, we returned to the studio. I have never forgotten that night… The Grace &Danger line-up of Giblin, Eyre, John and I also went on tour, playing colleges, universities, clubs, even The Old Grey Whistle Test. It was a fantastic band and some of the happiest moments of my playing life were on-stage with John: Lookin’ On, Sweet Little Mystery, Hurt In Your Heart, Baby Please Come Home… so many more.
John and I were both going through painful divorces and had every reason to bond. He would come to my house near Guildford and stay for a few days. We’d drink, make tearful phone calls, get hung up on, drink some more… And so it would goon, both of us in tears… Because of our friendship, I was asked doesn’t do justice to John’s songs or craft. It’s a bull in a china shop and l apologise to him. However, recording it did draw us closer as friends. Trouble was, he lived upstairs at the Townhouse Studios and the studio started to become his home too. The engineer and I would often be putting tapes away at 2am when John would return in his dressing gown, wanting to record a vocal. Off came the coats, back out came the tapes.
We stayed in touch. A few years later I got a call from John asking me to produce another album. Now living a quiet life in Switzerland, I said that it was not really possible. He suggested he come over and stay… John had a reputation for staying but not going, and I remember shouting “NO! Stay there and send me the songs you want me to play or sing on.” I recorded my vocals at home, then hired a studio and played some drums. That album became And.
We worked this way a few times. He revisited his catalogue on No Little Boy, wanting to perform his old songs the way he might have performed them if written today. He asked me to chip in with some vocals. No Little Boy stands out as a wonderful example of his soulful spacey style. It remains my favourite. John also covered one of my songs, Can’t Turn Back The Years, sending me his version for approval. As I listened to it I realised he’d cut out the chorus and made the song his own, without regard for normal song writing behaviour. It was beautiful nonetheless. He’s recorded it again and gave me the files for his next album to add some bits and pieces. They’re on the table in my studio as I write this.
John was full of contradictions. He’d introduce a song on-stage while lighting a joint, have a drink, swear about whatever came into his head, then start playing the most beautiful laid-back sensitive groove. He’d have a south London accent talking to me and on arm-pence switch to broad Glaswegian talking to a Scottish pal. He could be incomprehensible after a coupled drinks yet incredibly articulate demonstrating what* wanted from you musically. Despite relying on a wheelchair at home and on-stage, he carried on as if nothing had happened. But as he gained weight he outgrew the prosthetic legs that were being made for him. As each one arrived, he’d find he’d put on moor weight and couldn’t use it. Yet Danny Thompson told me recently that he had got this under control and was looking forward to walking on-stage again very soon. John was uncompromising, he was unique he had a big heart. He was one of a kind. I love: and I will miss him very much.