John Martyn

John Martyn

The great Scottish singer songwriter and guitarist John Martyn died today, aged 60.

Paddy Kehoe met John at home in Thomastown, County Kilkenny in April 2004, at the time of the release of his last studio album. See also below a second questionnaire style interview from 2005 and a short appreciation of his work. He’s been on the phone all day, everyone from The Guardian to the Manchester Evening News to the Basingstoke Echo has been speaking to him as his first tour since 2001 approaches. The 56-year-old musician tells it in his own way, how he ‘copped a huge belt’ off his guitar amplifier, thereby damaging a cyst at the back of his right knee. A serious infection subsequently set in. ” My leg went, he gives a mock dramatic shriek, “big and red and horrible.” I said to the guy, ‘listen, I think you’ll have to amputate here.’ He says, ‘I think you might be right.'”

Inevitably, a lengthy British and Irish tour was cancelled. As you read, he will be rehearsing with his band, preparing for at least 16 scheduled, long-awaited gigs. “The whole idea is to get myself back in shape,” he says. “If you’re bedridden for two years, it puts the weight on you. ”

The forthcoming On the Cobbles is his 22nd studio record in a lengthy career, which has veered from lissom jazz folk to full-on rock. Thirty years after they first saw the light of day, albums like Bless the Weather and Solid Air still ooze an ethereal, yet organic power.

The mid-period Grace and Danger, released in 1980 is a timeless, emotionally scarred classic. More recent albums like And and Glasgow Walker weave rich, idiosyncratic tapestries of sound. The new album is dedicated to the surgical team at Ardkeen hospital in Waterford, where his right leg was amputated below the knee in April 2003. “Awful nice people, nurses, doctors, really sweet, ” he says. He spent seven and a half weeks in hospital. Morphine helped to ease the pain and during the recovery period, his partner Teresa Walsh would drive him out to Dunmore East. They would order crabs and mussels from the bar. “Teresa could go for a swim and I could just sit and eat my mussels and watch the world go by.”

Complications in the ensuing months necessitated five further operations. Eventually he sat into a wheelchair which he still uses occasionally, even though he loathes it. He is currently getting used to a prosthetic limb, but he’s a slow healer. “Because I drink too much and always did. I’ve given the body a fair belting over the years. I’m not exactly young anymore either.”

Naturally, he came across far worse cases than himself in Ardkeen. “This guy’s face was smashed to bits. 17-year-old, a souped-up Fiesta, rolled it at 110 miles, smashed himself to pieces, poor motherf*****. He could not wait to get back so he could buy another one and do the same thing again.” John has had physiotherapy, but not recently, by choice, it seems. “You’re in the hospital yet again. I’ve this natural aversion to small, square rooms. . .” He pauses mischievously: “cells, for instance.” Another ripple of laughter breaks out around the room, as Teresa pours us coffee.

Before the amputation, he was entrusted to an expert in the field who told him that the art of prosthetics was ‘proceeding by leaps and bounds.’ Martyn feigns mock offence, was the man taking the mick or what? You really can’t avoid the word-play. He felt particularly frustrated about three months ago when his leg started bleeding. “That’s a really annoying thing, no pun intended, but it’s like taking two steps forward and one step back.”

April sunshine spills on the grass outside the cottage, but because of his aversion to the wheelchair, he doesn’t get out in the fresh air much. But the keen fisherman aims to get back fishing. However, the River Nore which flows close by wouldn’t be his first choice. “I actually prefer little small streams where I can catch sea trout, ” he says. The tenor Ronan Tynan comes from nearby Johnstown, and anyone who knows his story of survival against the odds will be aware that he had both legs amputated below the knee. Martyn thinks he’s a ‘a lovely singer’ and there’s a copy of his video in the house.

Western Samoa, of all places, comes up in the jokey banter, one of the few teams Scotland managed to beat, he notes. A former rugby player himself, he watches the big games on the TV, which is apparently rarely switched off. “That’s the horror of being trapped, ” says John, who is not a natural TV person. More of a natural Glaswegian, methinks.

He returned to live performance with two sold out gigs at Connollys of Leap in County Cork last November. A big ‘Welcome Back’ banner greeted him and special ramps were built for wheelchair access. He was quite terrified at the prospect, but, once again, everybody was very nice to him. “All the girls came out in their Sunday best and were flying about and kissing me while I was playing and stuff,” he recalls.

“They treated me like royalty, man. I didn’t realise how much people liked me. It wasn’t the most powerful music that I ever played, but it was delightful.”On the Cobbles features Mavis Staples from the Staples Singers on the final track, Goodnight Irene, recorded in Chicago. “She waltzed in and sang it and waltzed out, ” says John. Nick McCabe, former guitarist with The Verve does ‘a great job’ on a track called Walking Home.

Paul Weller plays guitar and sings vocals on Under My Wing, co-written with Martyn. “He’s a really sweet geezer. He’s a Mod, he’s got the Mod ethos. He’s very full on, he likes to get a thing done, which is great. It makes me work, cos I’m the laziest mother f***** in the world. It was like, go in, write the song, record it, have it mixed at the end of the day. That was tricky, but it was a great challenge.”‘ He has made a couple of guest appearances with Weller. “He’s huge, he imitates the crowd’s chant: “Well-ah , Well-ah, Well-ah.’ But for the next few weeks at least, all the chants will be for the doughty Scotsman with the bluesman’s wail.

Also, from April 2005 in the RTÉ GUIDE, just a year later. . .

Q&A The Final Say Paddy Kehoe

John Martyn, Singer and musician

Where are you?

Anywhere, at any given time. At this moment, Kilkenny.

Favourite items of clothing?

Djellaba, dhoti, three-piece suit, things mostly oriental.

Favourite drinks?

Guinness, or any good rum.

Ideal meal?

Home-cooked Jamaican.

Favourite holiday?

Life. Sorry it’s a bit hip, but there you are.

If they were making a movie of your life, who would you like to see in the starring role?

Me, of course. But if not, Ken Dodd.

What were you like in school, hard-working or not?

Not hard-working, didn’t need to be, too brilliant.

Who was your first kiss?

Phyllis Jackson, when I was growing up in Glasgow. I was ten, she was nine, she was in my class in school. The kiss? It was wonderful.

What was the first record you bought?

High Heel Sneakers, Tommy Tucker.

Your favourite three films?

Harvey, with James Stewart; The Wizard of Oz; A Beautiful Mind.

Your favourite books?

The Wind in the Willows, it’s a lovely thing, it’s so allegorical, so anecdotal and so beautiful; JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. Along with Catcher in the Rye these are landmarks of American literature.

Most embarrassing performance?

Too vast a choice.

Who would you like to give a good slap to?

Myself, or someone evil.

Who makes you laugh?

Children generally, and if not them, politicians.

Your greatest fear?

Be fearless, or otherwise be stupid.

Your worst habit?

Thinking, it is my worst habit, I do it all the time, it’s very difficult to stop.

Current burning ambition?

My next breath. I’m doing you up here, aren’t I? My next breath, I mean it.

Summarise yourself in a few words.

Interesting to some.

What is the greatest piece of music ever composed?

This is very difficult. . . Debussy’s La Fille Aux Cheveux de Lin (The Girl with the Flaxen Hair.) That, or silence. I could quote you, but music is always comparable – ‘compared to what?’ If you want, a single note, a single note has everything in it.

What is the worst piece of music ever composed?

Too numerous to mention.

Are you a soap or documentaries fan, TV-wise?

Documentaries, almost entirely history. I like the classical period, I like the Greeks and Romans. If you’re brought up learning Latin, you enjoy that period.

What do you value most in people?

Their love.

Recall for us your own best performance?

I once played a blinder with a dreadful flu in Toronto, 20 or 30 years ago. I thought I was gonna die, I was in an altered state of mind. I was so bad I was hallucinating before the gig, I had to be persuaded to go on the stage. I went on and God just smiled on me, and made me play real good. They wouldn’t let me off the stage, it was very cool.

Favourite sporting moment?

Scoring the winning try for the South of Scotland, against I can’t remember, when I was 16. I was fly half, I was the f***er who hung on to the side of the scrum and did my very, very best to annoy the opposing scrum half. I’d jump on him before he got the ball away.

If your house was on fire, and everybody was safe, what possessions would you take with you?

One of my favourite Tibetan (Buddhist) knives, which you take on a journey; a small, very beautiful netsuke (Japanese) Buddha which I can put in my pocket; The Complete Robert Burns .

Person you would least like to go on holiday with?

The choice is so huge, it’s a close run thing between Robert Mugabe and Idi Amin.

Whose phone number would you like to have?

Elvis Presley – I know he’s alive and he’s bound to have a phone.

What’s the best thing about living in Thomastown, County Kilkenny?

Waking up.

What is the worst thing about living in Thomastown?

The incredible amount of juggernaut trucks horsing through there every single moment of the day. They don’t belong there. If you spend one day in Thomastown, you will know exactly what I mean.

Any plans for another album?

I’m nearly finished the new one, and after that it’s purely a matter of business. I’m aiming to have it out for the beginning of the tour.

The Legacy

John Martyn did magical, practically inimitable things with his guitar, and almost never used standard tuning,  as a solo performer certainly, after the early late Sixties material. He characteristically used atypical tunings which pushed him and the ensuing songs such tunings prompted into richer musical landscapes. The albums Bless the Weather and Solid Air, from the early Seventies, best exemplify this musical facility. Add in the intricate finger-picking and the smoky, flute like barrel of that voice and you have a fresh phenomenon, operating somewhere in the intersection of jazz and blues. He was a kind of Picasso of music really, working best when following his own course, and keeping an eye off chart potential. Real fans always knew instinctively when an album was closest to the best of his capabilities.

There are so many singer songwriters now that it’s ridiculous, and, sadly, the vast majority play a guitar style that is miles inferior. Any musician who knows Martyn’s work, even vaguely, will corroborate this. Martyn was from a school of musicianship that expected rigour, style and indeed elegance. He looked to a disparate bunch of influences – Gary Davis, Phaorah Sanders, Davy Graham. In the mid to late Eighties, the musical geniuses who comprised the band Weather Report, influenced much of his mid-period sound.

Other key albums include the extraordinary paean to his first marriage, 1980’s Grace and Danger and the often overlooked Glorious Fool which followed it. That record featured Phil Collins contributing some marvellous vitality and zest on drums and vocals. In 1996 John released And, a record which married restrained jazz lines, reasonably straight ahead pop ballads, high powered funk and a kind of refined trip hop. It was followed by And Live .. .arguably his best live album, although Philentropy would be high on the list too.

And was a huge critical success, greeted generally as a return to form. John played a (Dublin) Olympia performance at the time which was nothing short of mind-blowing. Similarly his appearance on Later With Jools Holland that year, performing Step It Up and A Little Strange jammed up the BBC switchboards as callers made known their appreciation. This particular version of Step It Up features on the four CD boxed set Ain’t No Saint released late last year. Selections were done by John Hillarby, who has done such sterling work on the website, In terms of studio albums, Glasgow Walker followed And. The record featured arguably one of his very best songs, Wildflower, interpreted in an arrangement and intricate rhythm of utter delicacy.

If ever you wanted proof of musical high soaring, this was it. John’s version of Cry Me A River was a luxurious and opulent creation. On the soundtrack for The talented Mr Ripley he sang a rich, deeply felt version of another old classic You Don’t Know What Love Is, accompanied by the Guy Barker Quintet. This version also featured on Glasgow Walker.

John Martyn had been working in recent years on an allbum which, all of us hope, will soon see the light of day in some shape or form. The record even had its title, Willing to Work, but remained unfinished at the time of his death. nevertheless, one suspects that there has been enough work done with his marvellous band (Alan Thompson, Spencer Cozens, Arran Ahmun,) and others over the past four years to leave us a wonderful afterthought, a gift that will endure. I have a feeling it will be a masterpiece. In the meantime, If you want to listen to just one track from late period Martyn, check out the eight-minute My Creator from his last studio album, On the Cobbles, released in 2004.

Paddy Kehoe
RTE Website
29 January 2009