Meeting John Martyn

Meeting John Martyn. John Martyn: The Last Major Interview

Meeting John Martyn – never mind going to his local pub with him, then retiring to his house for rum and orange juice, was one of the great pleasures, honours even, of my life. John was a heroic person in every sense, not all of them good. He drank and drugged and fought and swore to the limits of anyone’s capabilities, but, Jesus Christ, he could really play. And really sing. And really write. He was as alive as it’s possible to be when the weight of illness and the discomfort is upon you. He didn’t slow up – he still, as I said in WORD’s cover feature – stared people out in the pub, and he could still roar with anger when needs be. But he was excellent, hilarious company and his partner Teresa clearly adored him (and he her).

His home was quiet, is quiet, and warm and cluttered. There were dogs and ashtrays and tellies just like everywhere else. But there were also keyboards and guitars and pictures of friends like Pharoah Sanders and stories of other friends like Nick Drake (“so beautiful”) and Lee Perry (“no man has ever had more fun than us”). To have been friends with characters as diverse as those three seems like tribute enough to me. “There’s stuff I can’t remember,” John said, “but some things are so close.” I will never forget walking out of his house and seeing him sat there, taking delivery of a fresh drink, nodding slightly to the ticking of his huge grandfather clock. “I love playing,” he told me. “I love seeing the whites of their eyes. I can see them loving it. I can see their joy and I get a huge wave of pleasure from that.” Rest in peace John.

We’re in a small pub in Thomastown, Kilkenny, which seems a good place to start. Red wine and rum and Guinness and lager are being thirstily consumed as John Martyn, his partner Teresa, photographer Sham and I crowd around the corner of the bar. To our right, the local postman is engaging Teresa in a conversation about the changeable weather. Apparently it rained early this morning. Teresa makes a joke about running out to get washing from the line. The postman – who, it must be said, has a touch of the village idiot about him – makes some impenetrable remark while, perhaps, looking in John’s general direction. I don’t know if I really thought it, or John really thought it, or if the guy really even thought it, but between us the idea that the postie might have made some oblique reference to John’s physical inability to help with the whole running-outside-and-getting-the-washing-in might have been made. John’s eyes, until now full of good humour, flash with rage. It is, quite honestly, the most startling transformation I have ever seen.

“What did he say?” he asks Teresa.

“Nothing, John,” she says. “He was just talking about the weather.”

“What the fuck did you say,” John asks him directly. The postman visibly shrinks, protesting innocence. John waits for his prey’s eyes to rise up from the floor before staring at him long and hard.

“Ponce,” he spits. The postman flusters and protests, asks for calm. He clearly feels intimidated. Teresa assures John that the man meant no harm; the postman finishes his drink and leaves, trailing muttered (very quietly muttered) claims of innocence.

“Poor soul’s never been the same since his mother’s house got hit by a lorry,” Teresa reveals with a soft smile as she watches the door close behind the postman. John is chatting to Sham, the photographer, like nothing ever happened.

“Shall we go?” he asks, and five minutes later, after Teresa’s helped John into their purple 4×4 and put his wheelchair in the back, we’re racing – and I mean racing – down wet country lanes to their house, a bottle of dark rum and eight cans of Guinness rattling in our boot.

As each year passes (and the speedometer edges towards 80) the fact that John Martyn is not only still around but selling out tours and singing and playing beautifully becomes more and more startling. This is a man whose rampaging thirst for life meant that all the stuff we recognise as good and all the stuff we recognise as bad got hoovered up at the same time and with the same amount of desire; a man who was so unfairly blessed with beauty and talent in his youth that any sort of ageing would be cruel, never mind the heavy-set, wheelchair-bound one he is living. But talk to him and, honestly, none of that matters. All the performing and drinking and writing and falling in and out of love and railing against the music business and fighting and snorting and laughing were wonderfully and terribly tangled up together. And he might be suffering because of some of it now, but he doesn’t seem to actually care too much. His shows sell out, his truly inspired albums, the jazz-folk-soul of Solid Air, Bless The Weather and Inside Out, the country rock of Stormbringer! and the sumptuous, ambient-dub masterpiece of One World, tick over nicely, he is finishing a new album called Willing To Work, he has a new live DVD in the shops and a tour booked in for November. Stuff is happening.

Spend any time in his company and some things become very clear. John Martyn loves to talk, his accent veering wildly between rough-house Glasgow, suburban Surrey and old-school Tin Pan Alley music impresario. He has favourite catchphrases like “wery, wery” in place of “very”, and “oh, so fresh”, while direct pops are had at The Hun. It is 41 years since the 19-year-old Martyn, born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden in Surrey, moved from Scotland to Kingston upon Thames and released his first LP, London Conversation, yet the first thing that he wants to talk about when we get to his house is his new Nord synthesizer and the lunatic noises he may or may not be able to squeeze out of his Korg Kaoss Pad. His hair has gone white – or gone completely – but his face, fuller than even its previously cherubic state since the loss of his right leg after a cyst burst while recording On The Cobbles in 2003, barely has a mark on it. He looks both ancient and childlike. Martyn may be one of our most cherished folk singers, but his pie-eyed, tripped-out, Echoplex’d-to-buggery hymns to inner space have been a huge influence on a generation of musicians who would rather jump off a cliff than learn how to strum a D-minor. John Martyn is the drunken brawler who was friends with Nick Drake, the sensitive folkie who is friends with the anarchic, free-jazz saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders, the Scottish beatnik-mod who played on Burning Spear’s Man In The Hills album and recorded at Black Ark before Lee Perry’s taste for tape-head cleaning fluid prompted him to burn his own studio down, the bearded acoustic-guitar player who John Lydon, while still a teenage Sex Pistol, adored, a fearsomely gifted blender of folk and funk and jazz. John Martyn is probably the only person who has ever, or will ever, have his material covered by Dr John, Françoise Hardy and Wet Wet Wet.

“It still shocks me,” he says, “how much people get from the records.”

Teresa rolls John into their front room. She lights the fire and the candles, puts drinks out on the low wooden table. There is a rug on the wall, a dog on the sofa and a huge Buddha in the corner; wood spits in the grate and an enormous old grandfather clock ticks and tocks noisily and relentlessly behind us. The kitchen next door to us is a warm jumble of books and papers and strange dolls and tins of stuffed squid – at least 20 of them – ancient postcards and what can only be described as top-drawer hippy clutter. It is as peaceful a place to sit and stare out the window as I can imagine. Next door, John inhales the first in a series of large rum and orange juices – a drink that, miraculously, looks even less appetising than it sounds.

“That’s very soothing, that clock,” he says, looking up and wiping the back of his hand across his mouth. “By about 3am I find myself almost singing along with it. I’m well, you know – very fucking well indeed! Fire when ready…”

Is it true your parents were both opera singers?

Oh yes, light opera, from the days of variety. There was always music in our house. They were on the road a lot, but they split up when I was five. I went to live with my father in a south Glasgow tenement flat. He decided that I would be best educated in what can only be described as the bohemian style, so they stuck me in the folk clubs with all these mad guys like Archie Campbell.

So when your father released you into the Glaswegian folk scene of the mid 1960s, he knew they were dens of iniquity?

Oh, he knew! But he didn’t mind. He was quite happy for me to get stuck in. He never thought twice about it. The clubs wouldn’t start until 11, so most people would roll in from the pub, but I was only a wee boy of 15, so I wasn’t allowed. I got kicked out of art college and even made a living playing darts for a while – I earned two to three pounds a day! The guys from the club came to ask my father if I could go along and he was fine with it. He encouraged it, in fact. He basically packed me off saying, ‘Go on, son, yer on yer own now. The music’s good and you’ll make good friends,’ and that was that! I met The Incredible String Band and Archie Fisher and Billy Connolly. Billy wasn’t a great musician, but he was an awfully funny man – he could make you laugh just by looking at you.

What was that scene like?

“It was full of out-and-out communists, people from the very hard left. But everyone seemed to me to be fired by this incredible honesty, which I found really exciting. There were all these old guys, then I met the newer, younger guys like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. I met Davy through a friend at school. I could not believe what I was hearing when I first heard him play. I was stunned. He was absolutely, completely better than anyone I’d ever heard. No one came close, he was remarkable, so funky. Bert was a fine, fine player too, but he didn’t swing like Davy, but then, no one did. The main venue we went to was the Humblebums’ club, The Glasgow Folk Centre, which was run by these guys Drew and Alan. It was on the fourth floor at the top of a warehouse at 13 Montrose Street. It would be full of people, it wasn’t a huge place, but you’d get 60-odd in there most nights. The first thing you’d see would be Drew with his hand out going, ‘Ten shillings, please.’ I saw Peggy Seeger there; The Incredible String Band almost had a residency.

Were you all a gang?

No! Nothing like that. We all knew each other but there was fierce competition, everyone had their own thang. It really was like A Mighty Wind, that was spot on actually, I laughed my head off when I saw that!

John decided he was a beatnik. “That meant I never wore shoes and I never had a guitar case,” he says. “Real beatniks would steal a mail sack from a postbox to sling their guitar into. My thing was to look as dishevelled as possible, as if you’d been fucked, fingered and found out and thrown in the street twice. My speciality was looking weathered! Not easy when you’re 16.”

Slightly confusingly, John was also a mod, the proud owner of two Vespas and a young man whose head had been seriously rearranged by Booker T & The MG’s Green Onions, and would spend Saturday nights looking smart and out with his girlfriend earlier on and then “appear all messed up” at a folk club later.

“I spent all the money I had on American singles. Mods took over the record market; it was, ‘Goodbye Vera Lynn, where do we go now?'”

John got introduced to Hamish Imlach, a Calcutta-born raconteur and blues guitarist, and the teenager became his guitar bearer.

“I would spend the afternoon with him getting him drinks before and during the show,” he says. “For that he’d allow me to play two or three songs of my own. That made me a few bob and I might get a booking off it. To be honest, I got as many kickings from those gigs as I did bookings. I’d play Jitterbug Swing by Bukka White, no one had heard of the slide guitar in those days, I seemed a bit advanced to them. I was the fucking man and I started to get a following. I’d go to somewhere like Sheffield, somewhere I’d never been before, and there’d be 150 people. That was big time.”

Did you think you could do this for life?

I never thought about it as a career, I promise you I never once thought about it like that. There was no back-up plan. I never gave a flying fuck about anything, all I knew is that I was out of the system, I was free and that was good enough. I’ve remained free ever since. By 1967 I had to move as there was not enough work in Scotland. My mother was still alive then and she lived in Kingston. I had a great deal of affection for her and I loved the English lifestyle in the Thames Valley, it was so different to Glasgow. I dossed down in Trafalgar Square for a while, then moved to Kingston. It was quite rural then, very peaceful and there was far less violence. In Scotland I always had to carry a knife as there’d be some fool who saw you get paid and challenge you in the car park. The folk clubs were as full of pricks as anywhere else in those day, in Glasgow you were either violent or a pushover, and I don’t like being taken advantage of. I was earning £11 a night, which was good money in those days. My stepfather was a janitor in a big block of flats and so he used to look after the big boilers that ran all the hot water around the building. He let me stay there for nothing. I put a palliasse and a blanket down and that was my pad. I met John Renbourn around then too, there was this gang of kids who smoked weed and took speed, they opened me up a bit. Then there was Geoff, a meths drinker who had this barge on the Thames called the Kingston Folk Barge. His missus was as bad. He used to charge two-and-six to get on, but if you got up to play you could get on for free, so I started playing there every Saturday night.

One day I met this guy there called Theo Johnson, who said, ‘Son, do you want to make a record?’ and I said, ‘Of course I bloody do!’ By the following Tuesday he had me in a meeting with Chris Blackwell and we were like (clicks fingers). That was it. I didn’t audition or anything, he just took Theo’s word for it. I remember he liked Fairy Tale Lullaby. Chris gave me £181 and I went to this drummer called Dave’s studio in Putney to record London Conversation. Took me a whole afternoon to record that one.

You were the first white artist to sign to Island.

Apparently so! But it meant nothing to me at all. I had no clue what else was going on, who was on the label with me; all I knew was that I might be able to make another album. I remember asking Chris about some cash for the next record, The Tumbler, and he said, ‘What about if I buy your publishing rights?’ That was no good to me; if he owned my publishing I’d never get to be a player and that’s all I ever wanted to be.

Did having a record out change much?

(Laughs) No! I gave one to my aunt, one to my mother and one to my father and boasted about it everywhere but nothing changed in my life. But it was still so good you couldn’t believe it, it seemed unreal. Not that I deserved it – I don’t deserve anything, but it felt like it was meant to happen. After The Tumbler came out I started travelling more, the gigs got larger and more prolific, but there was no real budget increase. I got maybe £200 for that one, though I had to give some of that to Al Stewart, who produced it! (Laughs out loud for some time) I constantly malign him and he’s never done anything to me in his life. I like to needle him when I can; he’s such an easy target! But suddenly I could play 200-seaters in Belgium, I’d never even thought about leaving the country before. The idea that someone would pay you and give you a hotel and a plane ticket was just incredible. I did think then, “You know what, there might be something in this…” It would keep me alive at least.

Were you looked after when you travelled?

No! I had a knife in my pocket, a Fender amp in one hand, the two pedals, the fuzz and the wah-wah, three leads and a guitar. The left-hand side was very heavy. Unless you’ve run at full pelt down a train platform carrying a Fender Twin reverb, having been up all night, you’ve not lived, let me tell you! I loved it. It was cool just running around. No one came with me, it was a fresh time. I used to get on a train or a plane and roll joints on that old waxy toilet paper and just sit on the toilet and get high. It was a nice way to travel, I tell you.

In 1969 John met Beverley Kutner, who’d previously been part of The Levee Breakers as a teenager, they made a single with George Martin, and been a solo artist on Deram, where she’d released a single, Happy New Year, that featured Jimmy Page and John Paul Jones. Bert Jansch had taught her to play guitar.

“We were on the same bill at the Chelsea Art School,” he says. “There was Jackson C Frank, Beverley and me. I just hopped up off the floor and played some really flashy things that made people shout out for me. We started talking after the show and she found out where I lived. Then she came round and gave me a big kiss on the lips. As soon as she did I was like, ‘Uh-oh. This is it…’ And it was and I was gone. Was it the great love story of our times? I don’t know, she took me so much by surprise. She took me by surprise every day. I was slightly weirded out by the fact her manager [Joe Boyd] thought I was an idiot, but I had my own contract with Island anyway, I wasn’t a passenger.”

The pair moved to Woodstock for three months and recorded Stormbringer! with Boyd. It was initially to be Beverley’s own album.

“Yeah, except I wrote most of the songs,” John says. “But we worked together well. That was a great time. Every Thursday this purple helicopter would turn up and Jimi Hendrix would get out on the green across the road. I would always go over to talk to him. He was just there to lig, really. He had no idea who I was, but I knew who he was. Bob Dylan was up the road; The Band too. Jimi’d just turn up and play with whoever. He’d stay for a few hours then get back in the helicopter and leave. It didn’t seem strange then. At that age nothing’s hard, nothing’s difficult.

I really mean that. I was, what, 21, 22. Life was so simple. Even if you were completely and utterly wrong about something, you could make it OK; you could always insist it was them that were wrong because nobody else was anywhere near as cool as you.”

After the album was released, the pair moved to Hampshire, living on their wages from Witchseason, Boyd’s production company.

“It was a bit of a cop-out moving to the country,” John says, “but we had a happy time. We were part of a big family and I was made to feel special, like a king, there was an element of patronage with me. Chris Blackwell was a lovely man, still is as far as I know. The support was very strong, I was nurtured. I think the late ’60s and early ’70s was, for a musician like me, a golden age. We were allowed to do whatever we wanted. There just weren’t that many bands, you could get noticed, get some attention. If I wanted to do it, I could do it. And anyone on Island was a friend of mine.

Like Nick Drake?

Oh Nicky, Nicky, Nicky. Oh dear me, yes.

Were you aware of him before you met him?

Oh no, no way. I met him in Cambridge at a party in Cherry Hinton, where the folk festival was. He was still studying then. I didn’t know it, but he was recording with Joe Boyd for Witchseason, but we ended up coming out almost simultaneously. I met him again about a year later when Five Leaves Left popped out and I thought it was so beautiful. I first heard him play blues at another party. He played very good blues too, but there was no evidence of his songwriting skills then. I’m sure he was at it, but you’d not have guessed it. We came from different backgrounds entirely, but there was no difference between us. He liked my music and I liked his. To be honest, me and Nick didn’t have much to do. I was only working five or ten days a month and he was doing zilch, so were weren’t overworked! It was so awful what happened to Nicky. Good musicians like him, and Paul [Kossoff, Free guitarist who died two years after Drake] are special, they should have been treated as such. But I think we liked each other as neither of us were good at joining in. I have always been self-obsessed, maybe he was too. I like the idea of being the solo artist; I like the idea of the lone piper, the hobo, all on his own just expressin’ hisself.

In the early 1970s you toured America with big rock bands, were they tough crowds?

I loved it. I mean, everyone was coming in when I was on, but I loved that. Play for 20 minutes every night, then it’s grab the money and run. Can’t beat it! The first few times I went it was with Free, Traffic, they were a little messed up in the brainbox I do recall, and Eric Clapton, he was very kind to me. And Yes. And they were all equally fucking beautiful. Apart from Yes. Sounds tough, doesn’t it? I had a lot of time for fun. One night I broke Paul Rodgers’ leg. We were having a laugh, honestly, there was no fighting, just playing, but it seemed I leant just a little too heavily on him. We were like a pair of fox cubs. He was in plaster for 14 days, but he never held it against me. That band were amazing, Free really were the best rock and roll band I ever heard.

So what was wrong with Yes?

That tour was a nightmare, a fucking nightmare! Luckily a really good friend of mine used to fly into the shows and we used to pick up all the women, then raid their dressing room and drink their rider while they were on stage! I hated that band. They were snotty, horrible people who thought they were intellectuals. They were hot from the university circuit, just hateful. I quite liked the drummer, Alan someone-or-other [White], but the guitar player [Steve Howe] I never could stand at any price. They came from Scarborough or something [actually, London] and played Beach Boys covers, then they got into this “the frogs in the forest are flying away” shit and it was just horrible. And they didn’t give a fuck about me, they didn’t listen or care about what I was doing. It was very disheartening, but I’d go on and play another show to 200 people in a small club and they’d love my ass and pay me twice as much as those tight-fisted mother-fuckers from Yes ever did. They were huge venues too, the smallest one was about 20,000 people! With Free it was fun, but with Yes it was terrible, murderous. If you played your ass off you might win two or three of them over, but it was brutal. Funny now, mind…

What did fans want from you?

Mad things. There was a chick who came back once – she was covered in warts, head to toe, she was very pretty too. I felt sorry for her. She wanted a laying on of hands. So I did. And you know what? It fucking worked! She came back to see me a year or so later and they’d all gone.

Did they want to talk about the songs?

(Laughs) No! The Japanese brought presents, but no one ever wanted to talk about the songs or the lyrics, not ever. They wanted to talk about taking me back to their bedroom. They’d take me back to the local boozer for a sharpener, then back to theirs.

Did you have a pick-up line?

I didn’t need one, really. But I did used to say, ‘I like you, can I buy you an ice-cream?’ That never failed! That was the best line ever. The girl would burst out laughing and you were in.

You had the Jesus hair and cool voice and the Echoplex prop, it was a good package.

I was so blessed to be a sex god (laughs out loud until hoarse). It’s such nonsense, really. I was just born fucking lucky!

Were the 1970s, and some of the 1980s, really a constant round of boozing, drug-gobbling and random upendage or does it just seem that way?

That’s about the size if it, yes. I think that’s been true of musicians since the year dot. But with me drinking was before, during and after. The folk clubs were like that too. I remember being on tour with Bert Jansch as my support act in Australia once. We had a vodka-drinking competition that ended up with me breaking his finger, but that sort of thing happens, doesn’t it? And it was only his little finger – Bert’s my friend, I’d never want to really hurt him. I promise you it was an accident. There have been occasions when things have got a bit out of hand.

I interviewed Pentangle last year and they told me that when Danny Thompson left them to play bass for you things got really out of hand.

Ha! Well, yes. We tried to out outrage each other, but it was always good fun. He nailed me under a carpet once after we’d had a few. I woke up and thought I was dead. But Christ it was good fun. One afternoon in Hastings, after a morning in the pub, we bought some Mateus Rosé and decided to go for a swim. We tied the bottles to a rock under water so they’d keep cool and then had a swimming competition, which I won. But the prize was the wine, which had now swung out under some bigger rocks. So I dive under to get it and get my chest and back ripped to pieces by these little bastard sea creatures that lived on the rocks. We had to flag down a car and get me to hospital, luckily, a tiny little nun driving a Mini pulled up almost straight away. It was only when I got in that I realised that I was naked and bleeding and really quite pissed. We both were. But that’s the sort of thing that happened a lot with Danny.

Who was the more unpredictable, Danny or Lee “Scratch” Perry?

(Long patois-based excursion into oddness) Definitely Lee! I first went to Jamaica in 1976 as the music industry was driving me totally insane. I actually didn’t pick up a guitar for three months, but after that I wanted to play again and had some incredible fun with Mr Perry. We got loads done, recorded tons of stuff at Black Ark, but you’ll probably never hear it until I’m dead and buried! I even played on a Max Romeo hit, but I can’t remember for the life of me what it was called, he’d cut three hit records in a single afternoon. Lee was into the echo thing like I was, he loved to perform the dub. We had the same need for space in our music, but it still had to have a great big bitching anchor. He’s a bad, bad man, but I love him.

You were born to tour, weren’t you.

Probably (laughs). I loved it; I still do. I remember the beginning of every tour, my fingers would split as they’d been out of action and I’d have blood all over my guitar. My health has let me down, losing the leg didn’t help. Actually, I didn’t lose it, it was cut off. But apart from that I still love it. I had a couple of twitches. Me and Beverley moved to Hastings when the kids were young and I didn’t tour then, I stopped for medical reasons for a while, but the road is addictive. Especially for me, I started young and solo, so I was hooked by the age of 22. I had a bit of success and could buy myself a shoe or two, a couple of nice guitars. I felt important; it took me years to realise I wasn’t and it was all a bit stupid. But the truth is, the only things I’ve ever really been interested in are staying alive and playing really good.

John and Beverley split in 1980. John retaliated with Grace & Danger, a break-up album of such white-knuckle intensity that Chris Blackwell didn’t want to release it.

“He said I’d gone ‘jazz’,” John says. “Then they offered me a tiny amount of money for a new record. That was that, but I bear no ill will.”

Soon afterwards, John went back to Glasgow to look after his ailing father. The terms of the divorce settlement meant he had to earn nearly £300 a week before he saw a penny.

Can there be any such thing as a “last tour”?

Not for me, I shall die in the harness. I doubt I could live from my record sales alone and I love playing. I love seeing the whites of their eyes, I can see them loving it, I can feel their joy and I get a huge wave of pleasure from that.

There’s a theory that people get emotionally frozen at the age they become famous, so Michael Jackson will always be six, Neil Tennant is a mature 30, Van Morrison is a grumpy, pudgy 16-year-old and you’ll always be 19…

Oh, that’s definitely true! I’ll never get beyond 19. The body crumbles, you get weak, but I have the same attitudes I always did. I was a fairly concrete young man. I had it all together and I knew exactly what I was doing. I haven’t changed much really. People don’t change. I have my moments of self-pity, I’ve been through the wars a bit. And that cow going through my windscreen didn’t help. That nearly did for me, I tell you [John was driving drunk with no lights on down a country lane when a heifer flew through his windscreen, “Very heavy they are, but it died and I didn’t!” he said shortly after]. And the leg is a problem. It’s taken two years for the prosthetic part to be correctly made, so I’ve been chair-bound or bed-ridden for all that time. But I love life. They shove me about and I get on with it and it’s terrible bad for the dignity, but when you get past that you see that people love you for who you are and that you would do just the same for them. That’s a good realisation.

A good friend of mine is convinced you are the most rock and roll man who’s never been in a rock and roll band. Is he right?

Ha! Ha ha ha! Probably. I’ve been fairly full on through the years. I’ve certainly had my moments, as it were.

What has living full on taught you?

It’s taught me two things. One is that I honestly believe no man who has ever lived has had more fun than me. The second is that living full on is the best fucking way to do it and I would absolutely do it all again in a fucking moment! (Laughs so loudly that he drowns out the clock entirely).

Rob Fitzpatrick
29 January 2009

Rob re-published this articles as a tribute to John on 29 January 2009.