Life Can Be A Long…

Life can be a long and winding road. John Martyn rarely gives interviews but he shared some thoughts with Ian Black.

It’s been a long and winding road for John Martyn, now 47, a road full of cut-de-sacs, blind alleys and sudden bursts through onto broad and sunlit musical uplands. His music, like his voice, meanders muzzily and then suddenly stabs with poignancy — a chord, a phrase or an entire song emerging fully formed as though from a long-maturing chrysalis.

He doesn’t often give interviews and when I asked hint why he decided to do this one, he shrugged and said: “The record company.” The record company in this instance is Go! Discs and the new album is entitled And. They might be doing the world a favour because the music is [me and mellow, touched with that ever-present nuance of Celtic sadness, and there are phrases that stick.

Track three is called The Downward Pull of Human Nature and contains the line, “Did you ever look sideways at your best friend’s wife?” Says Martyn: “Yeah, that’s the one that cuts most people. Now I know something about you that I didn’t know before. You have, haven’t you?” And he laughed that characteristic guffaw, his huge 6laft frame heaving with mirth.

He’s got a gig that he wants to get to in Cork, and he’s flying there in an hour. He’s anxious to get on with the music, his defining characteristic, but he also wants to talk about the album. Doesn’t he want to take a few months and work on being as famous as he should be? “Naw, (the Glasgow accent hasn’t softened much despite decades of world travelling). Basically I just want to keep cool, carry on living in a style to which I’m entirely unaccustomed, generally have a good time and keep playing, that’s what makes me happy. I love to hear the boys play. I still love it. I love to hear myself play. The gilt has not worn off the gingerbread on that one.”

When I said that I thought that the album’s first track Sunshine’s Better sounded a bit like Gallagher and Lyle, a bit Mark Knopfier-like, as his voice is mixed much further up than usual and the whole thing has a much more commercial feel, he made a long “Eeeeeeeh?” interrogative sound and went on: “Really, well it’s all in the ear of the behearer, isn’t it? I haven’t met Mark for ages.”

He made And in Chicago, and is thinking of going back there to do another, but there are some sombre thoughts mixed with the musical excitement. “In the evenings when I wasn’t recording — I used to start at midnight, a kind of Chicago haekshift — I used to go and play with Buddy Guy and Willie Kent and the Gents, all the local blues boys. I met Willie Dix and it was great. I must confess I had a great time, mixed mostly with the black community there and I don’t care what anybody says, what they have there is undeclared apartheid. That’s what it is, there’s no disputing it. You can feel the war impending, some kind of new civil war. I don’t know if it will happen in my time but you can feel it.”

“Every white guy that! talked to —mostly high-earning, high-income guys, producers — they don’t have much sympathy for the blacks at all, they just don’t. They use them as cheap labour for sessions.”

Martyn started his musical Life at seventeen, as a folkie, taught to play by the recently deceased and much-missed Hamish Imlach. He was going solo at seventeen and at eighteen made his first album, London Conversations, in 1967, his angelic features peering out from a London rooftop. His latest cover has heavily bearded in shades and a suit and shirt. He has been put in more musical pigeon-holes than there are pigeons and still refuses to categorize or define what or where else he’s at.

When he went electric in 1973 with Solid Air, it occasioned a Low of almost Dylanesque proportions. It’s a cracker, dark, eerie and mysterious with Danny Thompson’s bass mixed right up. He said: “I was actually very shy and retiring and ever so sweet and gentle until I was twenty then I just got the heave with Donovan and Cat Stevens and all that, terribly nice rolling up joints, sitting on toadstools, watching the sunlight dapple through the dingly dell of life’s rich pattern stuff. I am not really that nice and I consciously turn away from all that. It coincided with my first divorce (he’s had two, no wife currently) when I decided to change my life entirely. Part of that was learning to play with a band which was very good for my brain. I got into that quite strongly.—The 1970s anthem May You Never is on Solid Air and he answered a question for me. “It was written for Nick Drake (a record la¬bel partner). He was sad for a long time before he died, a manic-depressive chap.”

He is planning a musical and literary reunion with Danny Thompson. “Aye, Danny and me, the dreadful duo. People used to run away when they saw us coming. The joke at the time was that we used to keep each other insane. We’re going to do a book on that period and that madness, maybe for the millennium. Danny keeps saying, ‘Don’t you die on me till it’s done’.”

He has no plans to die. “Alcohol is my drug of choice these days – the odd pint and there might be a double rum before I go to bed.” He laughed: “Apart from anything else it’s perfectly legal, readily available and they can’t lock you up for it.”

Ian Black
The Sunday Times
4 August 1996