We’re Steering Unsteadily…
We’re steering unsteadily along narrow corridors on an upper floor of a London hotel, John Martyn cheerily pointing the way with a tumbler of brandy and port. I’ve got one hand on his wheelchair, one on the handle of a swing door. There’s a wheezy cackle in his throat that makes a rich baritone sound like it’s fighting through radio interference. “Sorry mate, I don’t have a reverse gear, I can’t go back… ”
Martyn’s musical journey was similarly plotted. When, last November, we finally made it to his cramped hotel room to conduct what would become one of his last interviews, John was far keener to talk about his next record than to revisit musical memories. You’re only as good as your last song, he told me, and clearly meant it. Yes, he was off to the Barbican that evening to play his way through Grace and Danger, the 1980 album that chronicled the collapse of his marriage to former wife and singing partner Beverley. So raw and revealing were the songs that Island Records boss Chris Blackwell initially refused to release it. But 28 years on, it would be like singing someone else’s material, Martyn told me, an experimental evening of cover versions.
In my bag was a vinyl copy of Stormbringer, the first John and Beverley Martyn record from 1970. I’d intended it as a memory prompt, but thought better of it as John took a hit on an oxygen machine that had accompanied him since a bout of double pneumonia earlier in the year.
From the sleeve of the album stares a cherubic faced minstrel. The man beside me was bald and bloated by booze. Along with a leg, he also seemed to have lost a lot of consonants. His sentences were formed from a tumble of vowels and a volley of chuckles. Stormbringer stayed in the bag.
Instead, we talked about an album he was “three vocals” off completing and a possible collaboration with his hero, saxophonist Pharaoh Sanders. He said playing live kept him going. John seemed to treat self-pity with the same disdain he reserved for nostalgia.
“If I die tomorrow, I’ve had a good laugh,” he chuckled, adding he was just glad that he’d lost his leg (infected after an untreated cyst burst) so late in life. So late? He was only 60 when he died on Thursday. Any regrets about the way he lived his life? The question prompted an almost shouted “absolutely not!”
John knew his music was a fine blend of tension and bliss, of grace and danger. Hear the way he snaps at his guitar strings to create a taut tapestry on which to lay words of love and tenderness. Listen to Live at Leeds, hear how on stage buffoonery with bassist Danny Thompson gives way to sensitive musical union.
He didn’t make beautiful music because he drank, nor did he drink to make the music better. The songs and the booze were facets of a delicate ecology, one he shared with no end of great artists, musical or otherwise.
According to many of the reports of his death, John “battled” with drink and drugs problems. He couldn’t see it like that. He once said that if he’d had more self control he would have been richer but would also have made a lot of dull music. On Thursday night, I, like many others I suspect, put on Solid Air and raised a large glass.
1 February 2009
John Wilson is a presenter on Radio 4’s Front Row.