The Thinking Man’s Drinking Man
The Thinking Man’s Drinking Man.
He may have left behind the wilder excesses of his hellraising days, but John Martyn still counts a Bloody Mary as breakfast.
In another life, in, now one comes to think of it, another millennium, I was scheduled to interview John Martyn, the mercurial, maverick, mellifluous Glasgow-bred singer-songwriter, who has been described as “a male Billie Holiday”. Back in the 1990s, Martyn was living on the outskirts of Biggar in a hamlet called Roberton. It was not the easiest of places to find, nor did it seem an appropriate haven for a musician the very mention of whose name inspires awe among his devotees, of whom, I guess, I am one.
Martyn had a house there, nearby which was a church he’d converted into a recording studio. The silence was eerie. Like the midnight traveller in Walter de la Mare’s poem, I knocked and knocked. If Martyn was in residence, he must be dead, I surmised, or dead drunk, either being quite likely given his legendary consumption of alcohol and illegal substances.
Later, I discovered that he had forgotten all about our rendezvous and was in Paris at the very moment I was chapping at his door in deepest Lanarkshire. Harsh words were exchanged on the telephone, mostly by him. With impeccable illogicality, he seemed to think it was my fault he’d hopped on a flight to France. Four lettered oaths were uttered, dark threats swapped. For a decade, I listened to Martyn’s music with stinging ears. How could someone who sounded so sweet and sensitive be such a boor?
Older, wiser, with fewer expectations, I arrive in Norwich, at the hotel where Martyn is resting, along with his tour manager; his band; Theresa, his partner for the past six or so years; and George, his mate from his schooldays, ahead of the third gig of a short tour of the boondocks. John, says the tour manager, is running a wee bit late. I can expect to be kept waiting 10, perhaps 15 minutes. No problem. George, who has left his sick wife in Cornwall to “look after” his old mate, is plotting the route to the University of East Anglia, where tonight’s gig is to be held. It is, I learn later from Martyn, to be “a sitty-doon affair”, ie a concert. George says that since Martyn had his leg amputated he has put on a “shitload” of weight, because he has been unable to exercise. Currently, he reckons, he weighs in at 20 stone plus. Yet he insists on walking on and off stage, something he found difficult even in the days when he had two legs. The affection and concern in George’s voice is apparent.
Minutes fly by like deadlines and an hour passes before I finally meet Martyn. He is outdoors in a wheelchair. He is a Desperate Dan of a man with a hairy chest and a rampant beard, garbed loosely in black like a satanic judo player. In one ear he has a big ring. Round his neck he wears a string of chunky beads which look like chestnuts. If he uses an aftershave it is Eau de Brewery. Theresa and I attempt to lift him up a couple of steps into the hotel. She is Lara Croft, I am Woody Allen and Martyn sounds mildly alarmed as we go nowhere fast. While Theresa goes in search of muscle I hold on grimly to the chair to prevent it tipping over while Martyn cracks jokes. The only exercise he can take now, he says, is swimming, but because of his lost leg, he goes round in circles . Ho, ho, I go, and hang on. Help arrives not a moment too soon.
A drink is called for, it being well into the afternoon. Martyn elects for a large vodka, diluted with tomato juice and enough Tabasco to set off a small nuclear explosion. Half the glass disappears with his first draught. “Breakfast,” he says, with the air of man who couldn’t look at a fried egg . He looks tired and older than his 56 years. Without alluding to our previous abortive encounter, I mention Roberton. “Lovely place,” he says. “I actually sold it because of the amount of cocaine I was consuming.”
In truth , the house was repossessed after Martyn woke up one morning to find his then manager had not being paying income tax on his behalf. It was confirmation of his darkest fears about the industry, about which his favourite quote comes from Hunter S Thomson: “The music business is a long and shallow money pit where pimps and thieves prosper and good men die like dogs. There is, however, a downside.”
If only, says Martyn, he had stuck to drinking coffee, he might have been as rich as, if not Elton John, then perhaps Van Morrison. But he is not very materialistic. His tastes are simple, as is his lifestyle. In Ireland, where he has been for the past six years, near Kilkenny, he lives modestly, enjoying the pubs and the fly fishing. In his pomp, he could consume two bottles of Bacardi a day, one before a gig, one after, washed down with a few chemical cocktails. These days he can’t compete with that. “Otherwise I’ll be in trouble.” He sounds regretful, like a retired boxer half-eager to climb into the ring again.
Same again? He does not demur. Alcohol is in his genes. His grandmother was a secret tippler, drinking from egg cups in the scullery of her southside Glasgow flat. He was 14 when he was inducted, woken at 4am to do his paper round, “the only real job I’ve ever had,” with a dram of whisky. His parents were both singers in variety shows, he recalls, giving a sample of their repertoire. They were divorced just after he was born and his father was given custody. Martyn spent six months in Glasgow, living at his granny’s, six months on a houseboat in Surrey with his mother. The story is fresh in his mind because he’s been reliving it for his biography . How painful has it been for him to revisit the past?
“Not painful at all really. I’ve had a very lucky life. People used to feel sorry for me because I came from a broken home, as it was called in those days. It was great. I didn’t have any brothers and sisters to wreck my train set or annoy me. I was very happy and I was brought up by my granny and grannies are awfully good at bringing up wee boys.”
Glasgow in those days, he remembers, donning rose tinted specs, was a “wonderful” place. He was a mod, wearing a parka and driving a scooter. He was also a bit of a “hard arse” and not averse to a “square go”, there being plenty of gangs to accommodate him. “And every Friday and Saturday,” he says with a beatific smile, “I went out with girlfriends.” But what really got his juices flowing was music.
“I used to run home, literally, from school at lunchtime so I could practise for half and hour. I couldn’t put it down. It was my only hobby, really. And when the mod thing began to wear off I discovered the folk clubs. That’s where I really cut my teeth.”
Another top up? Martyn insists not. In just five hours he has an audience to entertain. As if by osmosis, Theresa delivers a pint of Murphy’s. The conversation drifts on to the subject of Jimmy Shand, arguably the greatest accordionist ever to emerge from Auchtermuchty. “Ach, I liked all of that stuff,” Martyn says. “Still do. Callum Kennedy … Andy Stewart … The White Heather Club. The dancers all poncing about. And that’s just the geezers! It’s so Scottish. It’s just unique. You don’t get it anywhere else.”
For which there may be a very good reason. It was not a route down which Martyn himself was inclined to go. In the beginning, he was inspired by fellow singer songwriters such as Tom Paxton and Bob Dylan, playing in clubs while working a succession of temporary jobs. The first of his records was made at the request of a man called Theo Johnston whose previous experience in the music business was an album of bawdy rugby ballads. “I liked him. He was a real hustler. He went all the way to Czechoslovakia to get married on a scooter.” Martyn has a masterful way with anecdotes, though the details often vary. In another version of the above, for example, Poland substitutes for Czechoslovakia. Have his tales grown in the telling over the years?
“No need to,” he insists. “I don’t need embellishment. I’ve been nailed under the carpet. Literally true. I’ve been nailed under a carpet.” The occasion in question concerns Danny Thompson, a bassist with Pentangle, the original so called folk supergroup. Drink and perhaps other substances had been taken. Martyn, who was marginally drunker than Thompson, woke to find himself nailed under a carpet. He remained trapped there while Thompson, “a cruel and wicked man,” ate breakfast in front of him.
Such hellraising days seem far distant, especially here in East Anglia. Whatever became of Danny Thompson? Double hernia, says Martyn, wiping a crescent of cream from his beard. When he called his wife at New Year she told him that he was walking about the garden dressed like Noel Coward with “bollocks the size of grapefruits”.
Martyn himself, of course, has not had his troubles to seek. In 2002, while back in Scotland trying to sort out his financial mess, he escaped with a broken nose and concussion when the car he and Theresa were travelling in smacked into a bull. Then a cyst on his right leg, which he’d ignored for a number of years, burst. The leg was infected and the nerves were shredded. The prognosis was not good. It was amputate or die. He spent two years virtually bed bound and it looked like he might never play in public again. What kept hope alive was the response of his fans.
“When I was really ill I got quarter of a million hits on the website. All wishing me well, saying we love you and get well soon, et cetera. It’s comforting to know that. In fact, last week I had a fellow who had made a pilgrimage from Carolina to come and see me. I gave him a cup of tea and he went off very happily. It was very odd.”
It does not seem so odd, however, when you listen to Martyn singing and playing his Les Paul guitar. At his best, on the 1973 album Solid Air, and May You Never, his best known song, his liquid, hypnotic voice adds another wonderful instrument to the orchestra. Where Martyn is concerned, categories such as folk, jazz, blues, rock and pop are redundant. He cussedly refuses to dance to anyone’s tune. His admirers are legion, including Eric Clapton, Phil Collins, Dr John and Paul Weller; judging by the esteem in which he is held his influence is huge but unquantifiable. When Solid Air was released to loud hosannas he resisted rushing into a follow up, which could have made him a household name, and spent a sometimes hairy year busking in Jamaica. Consequently, he says, his career trajectory has taken him “from obscurity to oblivion”.
His has been a life much travelled and you can bet there are a few bends in the road still to go. At last, though, there is contentment in his personal life. In Theresa, it seems, he has found a partner who has the temperament to ride out the storms. His wife, the singer Beverley Kutner, walked out on him, a victim of his rock’n’roll lifestyle. With her he had two children and adopted a third, a boy. Why? “Ach, I just fancied it.”
It is perhaps fair to say John Martyn is impulsive by nature. He is a sweet, modest, gregarious man, who has written a few timeless love songs. The fact that he is a professional musician is purely accidental. “I didn’t set out to be one,” he says. “They came to me to record an album and I thought, ‘Why not?’ Since then I’ve carried on because I’ve had no desire to stop.”
May he never.
The Sunday Herald
22 May 2005