Sober, wiser, more than a little weather beaten, John Martyn has survived 20 turbulent booze fuelled years pursuing a romantic image of the lone folk troubadour. But the ‘rebel stand’ is still firmly intact, as Mark Cooper discovers.
Tucked behind a small doorway not too far from the King’s Road, the Chelsea Arts Club retains much of the Bohemian air of 1960s World’s End. The West End establishments may pride themselves on the gentlemanly hush of quiet conversation and the discretion of waiters gliding about with silver trays, but here the packed bar is the heart of the place and the clientele make no attempt to whisper or maintain an orderly decorum. As its name suggests, the members of the Club are drawn from the artistic professions and the casual attire of the drinkers enables writers, painters and directors to happily rub shoulders with the technicians of the arts and media.
Pride of place in the bar goes to a pool table around which four gentlemen of varying age are currently locked in combat. The loudest of the four shimmies somewhat theatrically around the table grinning widely at his successes and openly lamenting his false shots. John Martyn is a long time regular at the Chelsea Arts Club where he frequently stays during his London sojourns. Most of those at the bar clearly know him and are no doubt used to seeing Martyn in full flow, voice raised in a torrent of jokes and giggles, accent careering between his native Scots and all manner of mimicry.
Yet this evening Martyn’s customary flow is positively restrained and his normal role as life and soul of the party has been replaced by an amiable but low key bonhomie. During the last 20 odd years, John Martyn has assaulted most of Britain’s stages with performances whose turbulence and tenderness has frequently been fuelled by large intakes of booze and whatever else he could lay his hands upon. Emerging from the folk scene of the late ’60s alongside singer songwriters like Al Stewart, Ralph McTell and Mike Chapman, Martyn soon abandoned acoustic dexterity first for an Echoplex which enabled him to improvise against a wall of echoing sound and, during the ’80s, for an electric guitar and a full fledged band. The John Martyn of his new album, The Apprentice, is closer to funk than folk and bears little resemblance to the teenager who first made his name with folk blues covers and self penned tunes with titles like Sing A Song Of Summer. Now 42, Martyn’s singing style has evolved over the years into a slurred growl that swoops and soars around the melody with a jazzer’s improvisatory glee. That voice and his constant touring have long established Martyn as a solid concert draw, yet such are the sales of his 21 albums that they have rarely troubled even the lower reaches of the chart. No matter that his May You Never was covered by Eric Clapton and his 1981 LP Glorious Fool was produced by Phil Collins, John Martyn remains a cottage industry whose career has proceeded oblivious to the vagaries of fashion.
This evening’s mellow Martyn probably has more to do with his changed habits than some sudden onset of fortysomething maturity. Critics have always likened Martyn’s vocal approach to that of a drunk, and the man himself has never been scared to enjoy a drink before his adoring audience. Long before Shane MacGowan’s songwriting became inextricably associated with his drinking, Martyn and his ’70s partner, double bassist Danny Thompson, were raging across Britain, turning in shows that combined slinky delicacy, walls of sound and the kind of threatening repartee that clears pubs near closing time. Martyn’s music may have gathered intensity over the years but during the ’80s his hedonism had begun to get the better of him.
In a pub next door to the Chelsea Arts Club, Martyn cradles a soft drink and explains his new regime. He is portlier than in his carefree youth and his face still bears the evidence of his old habits. “I live an extraordinarily healthy life these days, drinking orange juice and swimming 40 lengths in the morning. When I stopped drinking recently, I was a chronic alcoholic, two bottles of rum everyday and still going. I’ve had a few relapses but waking up every day with a hangover had become unbearable. When you have to have three large ones to straighten yourself up before you can face the world, you’re in trouble. But ‘alcoholic’ is the last word you use about yourself, when you finally realise that you have a problem. As soon as you finally admit to yourself that you are dependent and that’s what’s holding you together, then you can either do something about it or carry on and die.”
Martyn’s music has swung savagely between the tender and the turbulent, ever since he first sought to free himself from his initial incarnation as a semi-hippy folkie. An only child, his parents separated soon after he was born and his childhood was divided between his native Scotland and his mother’s home in Kingston Upon Thames. He started playing the guitar at 17 and, helped by the traditional singer Hamish Imlach, launched himself on the folk scene a couple of years later. Heavily influenced by the folk blues of the likes of Robert Johnson and Skip James, Martyn soon moved down to London and became a fixture at Cousins, the Greek Street club that was then the home of London’s acoustic scene. The first white artist to sign to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, then a reggae based label, Martyn’s first album, London Conversation, was released in February 1968. His guitar style was always highly rhythmic and while his first songs were playfully summery in keeping with the mood of the times, the experimental atmosphere of Cousins encouraged him to begin experimenting with the loop effects of the echoplex.
Long haired and shoeless, Martyn would sway back and forth on his stool, pealing off notes and rocking back and forth like a man possessed. His songs revolved around personal relationships and celebrated the virtues of love with ever increasing aggression. The music already owed a lot to jazz improvisation but he saw himself in a long line of rambling men that stretched from the blues to new British troubadours like Bert Jansch. “I’m still living that life,” he cheerfully admits. “I love the idea of the travelling singer, it’s half the reason I’m still doing this: the man with his guitar against the world, the lonely beacon, the railroad tracks running into infinity, a guitar and a gunny sack… I’m still right into that. The band doesn’t actually change that because once I’ve established their territory, I’ve got this wonderful space to roam in. The band actually give me more freedom. If necessary, I can take my hands off the guitar and listen.”
Martyn’s fascination with electric sound soon distanced him from the singer songwriter scene. In 1969 he met and married Coventry singer Beverley Kutner and the pair recorded two albums together: Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin, the first recorded in Woodstock and betraying the obvious influence of The Band’s Music From Big Pink. The Martyns joint efforts made them the royal couple of the new folk optimism as the cover of Road To Ruin attests: “We think we can safely say quite categorically (emphasis) that this music has nothing to do with dying or anything like that,” explained the rear sleeve, signed ‘Lots of love – John and Bev’. When Beverley retired to have the couple’s children, Martyn recorded two solo albums, Bless The Weather and Solid Air, which remain the foundation of his enduring popularity. The voice was smokier, Danny Thompson’s bass weaved its way around his guitar lines, and while the sentiments remained sunny, the music had acquired the smoky haze of late night jazz sessions. His lyrical sentiments remained endearingly cosy but on stage he was becoming louder and louder, egged on by his friendship with fellow carouser Thompson.
“When I started, it was the era of the singer songwriter when people would say, Oh what a lovely line! when they listened to songs. I still appreciate that in others but for myself, I prefer the noise. I could have been a, perish the thought!, a Cat Stevens or a Paul Simon or something like that, but the idea of going out and singing the same thing the same way every night always horrified me. I was actually very shy and retiring and ever so sweet and gentle until I was 20 and then I just got the heave with Donovan and Cat Stevens and all that terribly nice rolling up joints and sitting on toadstools watching the sunlight dapple its way through the dingly dell of life’s rich pattern stuff. Back then, everybody expected you to be like that; it’d be, Oh, this is the guy who wrote Sing A Song Of Summer, he must be a really nice guy. I’m not really that nice and I very consciously turned away from all that around Inside Out. It was a rebel stand.”
Inside Out gave the echoplex its head and while Martyn celebrated love with his customary fervour, it was with a raw emotional aggression that had lost all trace of the twee. Island and fans of the cosier Martyn of the haunting Solid Air were understandably taken aback but he has never pretended to make music for anybody but himself. “There’s always been this kind of, what on earth is he doing? Right from the start it was, well, he’s alright but it’s a bit off the wall, isn’t it? attitude. The music’s never quite fitted the Cat Stevens model because you can’t sing the chorus, can you? The ballads like Sweet Little Mystery get very enthusiastic audiences singing along but the problem is I always want to go off on something else and then they get put off and stop singing. People like the ballads but it’s always been either full on or full off with me. All my songs have always been utter misery or lunatic belligerence. I actually think those two sides are a racial trait in the Scottish.”
Inside Out found Martyn baring his soul with a ragged intensity matched only by the likes of Tim Buckley. The following Sunday’s Child was a mellow celebration of domesticity, complete with a song to his baby daughter and a picture of Martyn fondling her curls on the rear sleeve. Meanwhile, he and Thompson continued to career round Britain, both of them sliding deeper into booze and drugs. “Most of the time with Danny, it was a prerequisite for going on stage that you had to be loaded. The justification that we used to use was that it would open your mind and then you’d play better. With hindsight, I’d probably say we were getting out of it to have fun and perhaps to hide our insecurities. I don’t believe in acting like that any more but I do believe that without having belted various mind expanders and uppers and downers, I wouldn’t have come up with the same stuff.”
1975’s Live At Leeds captures the pair at full throttle and was followed by a four month trip to Jamaica to enable Martyn to clean himself up. He survived various racial confrontations, played with the likes of Burning Spear and collaborated with Lee Perry. The trip undoubtedly inspired his version of the self-mythologising Johnny Too Bad which finally emerged in late 1980 on Grace And Danger, his emotional account of the collapse of his marriage. “I’m an emotional fool,” he laughs now. “I’m not a sweatshop writer who tries to sit down and write three hits by tomorrow. I know it’s a cliche but I genuinely have to say that I believe you do your best work when you’re the most screwed up. My best records are definitely like that. Grace and Danger is my ‘Oh dear, my baby done left me, Come back please, baby baby’ record.” The Martyns’ close friend Chris Blackwell found the record so harrowing that he held up its release for a year.
Martyn’s muse has always swung between celebrations of love and domesticity and strutting funk workouts like Johnny Too Bad. The division runs throughout his work and points to a profound tussle in the Martyn psyche. “Both sides are rather sweet in their fashion,” he claims. “If I had to choose, I’d choose the gentle one but I find both ends of the spectrum quite happily encapsulated in this little organism. I don’t want to be able to control my moods. I probably am a little schizophrenic, exacerbated by all the raving over the years. I’m either John Wayne the bully or John the daddy and lover. But I have enough self control and if I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting. I’d probably be a great deal richer but I’d have had far less fun and I’d be making really dull music.”
Grace and Danger initiated Martyn’s relationship with Phil Collins who drummed and sang on the sessions in the midst of his own marital break up.”We were both going through the same emotional trauma so there was vast amounts of going down the potting shed together and weeping. We’d both have these horrendous phone calls; I’d phone Beverley my ex-wife and it would be ‘Aaargh!’ and then it would be Phil’s turn. We were both making ourselves terribly miserable and then playing and singing about it! Sob!”
The end of Martyn’s marriage and this newfound friendship surely influenced his next moves. His music had long since lost its folk trappings but his long term relationship with Island perhaps contributed to the endurance of his image as a hippy folkie. Now he signed with Warners, got Collins to produce 1981’s Glorious Fool with a funky but commercial sheen, formed a band and took to wearing suits on stage. “Even today there’s still a split in my audience; there’s still a section that want me to go back to what I was doing 10 years ago. When I first got the band, I got terrible letters. The suit was seen as the main culprit but the resistance just made me more ornapcious, as the Scottish say, more curmudgeonly.”
Glorious Fool and the follow up Well Kept Secret were both relative successes without quite transcending Martyn’s cult status. Driven by new management, he found himself doing the promotional rounds in America and hating it. “I went round America doing the whole schlep, four interviews and two radio stations a day. It was like they’d tamed the pirate. I felt like I’d been nailed to the floor and I hated all that corporate insincerity. Nothing used to infuriate me more than playing a mediocre gig and finding the record company backstage going ‘Fantastic!’ And wanting to shake my hand.”
Martyn escaped and, after releasing 1983’s live Philentropy on an independent label, he found himself back on Island. Yet despite collaborating with Robert Palmer for Sapphire and getting the full marketing treatment from the new look Island of the mid ’80s, including such ploys as ‘Classic John Martyn’, the first ‘commercially available CD single’. Martyn’s career and his drinking were on the slide. Island dropped him in 1988, rejecting the tapes that form the backbone of The Apprentice and Martyn briefly went back to solo touring.
Today, the recently cleaned up Martyn seems to have recaptured his old optimism, even as he reluctantly acknowledges that his crazy days are probably behind him. The Apprentice is undoubtedly his best record since Grace and Danger and suggests that he has finally managed to integrate his solo talents with a band format. Martyn remarried in 1983 and long since moved from Sussex to rural Scotland. “I’d get further away it I could. I live in a tiny village with no pub and no shops and a population of about 70. I’ve got a studio and I potter around the garden, cook a lot and fish. At home I listen to black music, Jonathan Butler, Bobby Brown and Alexander O’Neal. But there’s basically no difference between the person I am on stage and off, except the volume’s up a bit on stage. At home in Scotland I still walk around humming and whistling and dancing and banging on windows. I’m known for it up there. Ah, here he comes, they say wonderingly. I was described the other day by someone’s child as ‘That man who’s always singing…”‘
Q magazine No.44
1 May 1990