Ain’t No Saint
Ain’t No Saint: 40 Years Of John Martyn
John Martyn ain’t no saint. Anyone with the most perfunctory knowledge of his career will know that. Of all pop’s riddles wrapped in enigmas, few come more enigmatic than the former Iain David McGeachy. Over the years, he’s played many roles: husband, father, writer, poet, lover, fighter, guru, drinker, tastemaker; what is indisputable, adore him or abhor him, he remains a larger than life figure who cannot fail to inspire often heated opinion.
The body of work that has been scattered in his turbulent wake has been, at times, simply perfect. At its ultimate, it remains three dimensional, cut glass; blurred and mazy, one great rumination on the wonder of it all, baby. Even in the shallows navigated throughout a five decade career, there has always been something to salvage in the flotsam of au courante production techniques and re-records that dogged his middle period.
Little is straightforward about Martyn: the hellraiser with the honeyed voice; never one to take the easy route, even his adopted stage name came with a twist, when asked at the request of his agent to adapt Iain McGeachy as it sounded too Scottish, the name ‘Martin’ was suggested after the make of his favourite acoustic guitar. McGeachy threw in the ‘y’ to make it sound both posh and American.
There is, of course, the often spun pub argument that if John Martyn had gone after Solid Air and not the song’s subject, Nick Drake, it would have been Martyn as pop’s Chatterton, forever crystallised as late night John, playing his sweet mystical jelly roll blues with his youthful shock of curly hair. Well, John stayed and with that comes the trials and tribulations of longevity; his music may not be well known to the masses but it takes its position just below the radar, a warm (Smiling?) stranger keening to be befriended.
And Ain’t No Saint itself may seem a strange choice of John Martyn track to lend its title to his first proper career retrospective. Some may argue that this is a moderately obscure option when there are the May You Nevers, the Heads and Hearts and the Some People Are Crazy’s to go in front of the titles colon, but this three minute distillation of Martyn is as close as you can get to his spirit on record at the peak of his game. His preoccupations, that of the power of love and the fear of being alone are written large, and with their message comes the essential dichotomy a man often difficult to get near, who has on so many occasions pushed people away while still yearning for love and acceptance. This music is never less than a raga-like rapture, something that flows through the four discs here. “I’ve been lucky,” Martyn states. “When your heart is as soft and warm as wool, then you know you are a true Sufi. That’s one of the things I’ve always tried to keep in mind. Now I’m no Sufi, but nonetheless, we admire all that they have attained.”
Q: Why have you lasted and others haven’t?
John Martyn: “It’s about being difficult to kill. And after that think as much as you possibly can and bugger the rest.”
1: Wanting To Ride The Rainbow 1967 – 1970
Martyn reached his elevated status through years and years of hard work, pure and simple. When Martyn appeared on the scene in 1967, there was something special in the air. Coming in at the tail-end of the folk boom, Martyn’s upbringing in a musical and theatrical household set his course squarely at the bohemian life. The meticulously prepared gig lists of Martyn’s troubadour days in John Neil Munro’s Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story display an endless round of gigs and these are only the shows for which information has been located.
Interested in guitar, Martyn was taken under the wing of Scots folk legend Hamish Imlach as a teenager. “At that time I’d been chucked out of art school for being nasty and silly, and I didn’t have much money, I was earning my money playing darts in those days, making about two quid a day,” Martyn said in 1974. “And took me around to a lot of folk clubs. A lot of them thought it was just ridiculous, mind you, but Bert Jansch was just beginning. I think he had one album out and he was a very ‘underground’ hero, he smoked pot and everybody listened to him. So I just did loads of gigs like that. Everyone in Scotland was very in awe of the London scene…like that was the thing to do if you wanted to make it…that’s where you went.”
Aware of the need to move south in order to make it, Martyn headed to London, lived itinerantly and played Cousins, the much feted folk club in Soho. There he came into contact with the Incredible String Band, whom he’d known in Scotland, fellow travellers who supported what he was doing. Used to spending some of his year with his mother’s family in south-west London, Martyn did his utmost to “become a middle class Englishman for two or three months, and then I realised that there was another side to that which was the pill-droppers who lived with their parents at night in Hinchley Wood or Esher . . . who went out at weekends and took loads of speed and smoked a bit of grass, and went about with loose young ladies. There was a whole kind of movement… Renbourn and all those people, and the white blues thing… Jo-Ann Kelly and that thing. All that comes from the Thames delta. So I was I involved with that for a while. It was a very strong part of my life, a real stretcher for me because I’d led a very closed sort of existence up until then.” The time has still left an indelible impression on him. “I reminisce about the Cousins days often,” Martyn says in 2008. “I have the photograph of the man that ran it on my wall. He was a lovely geezer, Andy Matthews was an absolute stalwart, one of the loveliest men I ever met in my life, the hippest fucker. You talk about musicians being hip, this was an ordinary geezer. He had more bollocks and sense that I ever had.”
Inspired by reports of his performances at Cousins and a demo tape, Chris Blackwell signed Martyn to Island Records, where he became one of their very first non-Jamaican signings. Martyn soon appeared on record, be-denimmed, sitting amidst Blackwell’s chimney pots attempting to have his London Conversation. In the year of Pepper, Their Satanic Majesties, Are You Experienced and The Doors; of Coltrane’s passing and Harold Wilson defending the ‘pound in your pocket’, here was a debut album as fresh as a daisy, unfinished, saccharine almost. And if album opener Fairy Tale Lullaby, the first song he’d ever written, doesn’t move you, then you’re probably not ever going to get the man. This album and its jazzier follow up, The Tumbler, another innocent, slightly naive work, settled Martyn on Island Records as part of Joe Boyd’s Witchseason stable alongside those at the very forefront of the underground in London in the late 60s.
The pair of albums he made with his then wife, Beverley, are often dismissed as being below par, but here is where some real magic lay. Stormbringer!, recorded in Woodstock with members of the Band dropping by, was like an early dream come true for the 21 year old. It provided a drop of the bucolic post motorbike accident Dylan lifestyle for the young couple. Returning from the states, even though it sweetly eulogised Primrose Hill in possibly Beverley’s best contribution to the duo albums, The Road To Ruin marked the need for the Martyns to flee London. While not moving exactly to the country itself, the seaside resort of Hastings on England’s South Coast became their rural idyll.
Q: Most people speak very fondly of you
JM: “Fools. All of them fools.”
2: Head And Heart: The Imperial Phase 1971 – 1978
It was his output in the early 70s that came to define John Martyn. As beguiling as any of Martyn’s phrases vocally or acoustically, the slide of Danny Thompson’s upright bass at the opening of Bless The Weather ushered in a remarkable period of productivity. Working with Pentangle member Thompson, Martyn’s music exploded into a cosmic galaxy. Often associated with the wee small hours, it became a code word for mellowness.
Bless The Weather struck out in the new direction of ‘funky folk,’ as Martyn described it. This was a different sound; a dash of Imlach, a smidgen of Pharoah Sanders. Martyn was pictured through blades of grass washed by a burning sun. He’s almost Jesus-like, his thorny crown all around his sweet face; talk of walking to the water made some of his fans disciples. Yet, there was always the showmanship, the crowd pleaser, hence after the way, outness of the free-jazz influenced Glistening Glyndebourne, you’d be confronted by the sweet coda of Singin’ In The Rain.
The impact of Coltrane’s former sideman, Sanders, on Martyn is deep and long lasting: “You wouldn’t even know it because all I do is tiddle about on the acoustic guitar like a wanker in the corner. I was a Brighton art centre boy.” The sustain that Martyn used was a nod to Sanders. “Yes, and I failed miserably!” But a section of Martyn’s audience at the time wouldn’t even have known who John Coltrane was, let alone Sanders.
John Martyn’s albums then set their own micro-climates: With the title track, Don’t Want To Know and his ‘greatest hit’ May You Never, Solid Air from early 1973 is the recording that unites the casual and the committed, the trendsetter and the naysayer. His second release of that year, Inside Out is often cited as Martyn’s favourite of all his works. 1975’s Sunday’s Child is laid back, friendly and approachable and contains one of the sweetest songs of fatherly love on record, My Baby Girl, written for his and Beverley’s then four year old, Mhairi.
Although he was making consistently sweet music, Martyn was burned out. Seeing too many of his friends passing (from Harold McNair to Nick Drake to Paul Kossoff) and frayed by the machinations of the business, Martyn needed a break. He repaired to Jamaica, at the suggestion of Chris Blackwell, where he found a soul mate in the good, if randomly eccentric vibes of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
Unlike many of his peers, Martyn escaped relatively unscathed from the Stalinist revisionism of the punk movement due in part to his seemingly bottomless capacity for hellraising and the fact that many of the new movement‘s players and commentators had but a handful of months previously, been skinning up and noodling out to his sound. But he didn’t just survive; he created an album that many believe to be his masterpiece. One World is marks the end of Martyn’s chapter as the vibey mystic. Whereas Bless The Weather struck his template, and Solid Air was his first classic, One World, as a full on sensory experience is, for many, John Martyn’s definitive statement. Recorded across a lake at Chris Blackwell’s in Berkshire, it was the last gasp of the ‘getting it together in the country’ era. Although his position frequently alters when asked this question, when interviewed for this set, Martyn stated that One World, both album and song, are his all time favourites. He is also amazed by the ubiquity of the phrase ‘one world’ today. “I see all of that now, but back in the day, no-one was using it. I was a touch early and I’m glad about it.”
Martyn ended this phase a mixture of belligerence and beauty. As his music was sweeter, he continued to bend the expectations of fans turning up for gigs in three-piece suits (“I like going onstage looking like this, it really fucks up people’s expectations of a long haired guitarist in a kaftan”), telling Australian radio that his wife was dead, overcoming the prejudices of American arena crowds supporting Eric Clapton, whose cover of May You Never had provided a flip to Martyn’s accounts.
Q: Are you amazed you are still here?
JM: I’m amazed almost every bleeding day.
3: But Is It Jazz? 1979 – 1987
There was no questioning the influence of jazz on John Martyn. Had it not been for his hearing Sanders, he would not have gone off into the realms of Bless The Weather, with the ever present guitar effect, the Echoplex, attempting to emulate Sanders’ sustain. His music turned ever jazzier for the release of Grace and Danger, coming as it did in a sleeve that could easily have graced an ECM record. Now, there were more pressing matters to worry about than the cosmos. Out of a strict touring schedule, Martyn saw his relationship with Beverley fall apart. Grace and Danger reflected this. Here be difficult music, wrapped in a silky sheen.
Genesis and Brand X drummer Phil Collins was invited to play on the album and from thereon he formed a long-lasting friendship with Martyn. “You never know quite what you’re going to get and sometimes that can scare people” Collins reflected in 2008. But what he got was a drinking partner, a confidante and a collaborator, who raised the musicianship on the album. Chris Blackwell was deeply affected by the record knowing both parties well and delayed its release for over a year.
The move to Warner Brothers in 1981 marked a new era of commercialism for Martyn; an out-and-out assault on the ground occupied by his recent buddies Collins and Clapton. Glorious Fool was an album that felt like the future, an assured step into the new decade with a bright Phil Collins production, then white hot through his Face Value album, in many ways the sister record to Grace And Danger. In small print on the sleeve of Glorious Fool, Martyn trumpeted that “the record comprises the liveliest songs possible from the entire chorus repertory… Forward.” It was suggested at the time that the immediacy and sensuality of Martyn’s vocals were dimmed by the orchestrations and attempts at commerciality. Its 1982 follow up Well Kept Secret was described by The Rock Album thus “the general tone is cluttered and unsuitable to Martyn’s moody, jazzy style.” It remains Martyn’s highest chart placing and is very much of its era.
What was unusual was that, for the first time in his career, his 1984 return to Island, Sapphire seemed, if anything, a little routine. Martyn was happier being seen as coming from the jazz side: He said in 1984, “I guess I’m a little arrogant, but then anyone who’s played jazz guitar and hasn’t got some sort of arrogance in them is obviously a lemon!” And then, Piece By Piece was his best and best selling high period 80s album, with its appearance coinciding with the mass marketing of CD. It was his 20th year as a performer.
Q: Do you have a favourite tune?
JM: I like all them, unfortunately, I’m not being vainglorious or blowing my own trumpet, I actually do like them all for one reason or another.
4: A Little Strange 1987 – the present
On Friday 10th April 1992, John Martyn took to the stage at the Old Frog in Newcastle Under Lyme. It was the night after the Conservative Party had won their third successive election victory, and Newcastle, the adjoining town to Stoke-on-Trent was the sort of place that a lamppost with a red rosette could have been elected. The atmosphere was electric, charged and remarkably drunk. The club’s ‘backstage’ was up a staircase at the back of the audience. Martyn wandered down right in the middle of his crowd. Virtually every male of a certain age (and number of pints) hugged him delaying him getting to stage for what seemed an eternity. His delight in his crowd and the material was never more evident that night, when just him, his acoustic and his effects unit assuaged many a fevered brow. Although on record the music got smoother, live he could still whack up his effects, alternate between band and solo performance and head off into that rapture. Although there was a variance in his live work, Martyn agrees that “sometimes I’m very good, indeed.”
Although few will make claims for his albums on the Permanent label, The Apprentice and Cooltide rank with his best, he was still creating music with an eye to the present and still working with a certain level of (albeit left-field musical) stardom. There was magic amid the muck of the 90s re-records of his material that made up the two works, Couldn’t Love You More and No Little Boy. Martyn had his time in the limelight all over again with the release And in 1996, his most contemporary sounding album ever. Signed to Go Beat, Martyn was feted by the trip-hop community. Suddenly Beth Orton and Portishead were ready to praise him. Sunshine’s Better became something of a chill-out hit and actually was compiled by Michael Caine to play at his dinner parties, on his compilation Cained. I kid you not.
Martyn’s subsequent records, the well chosen covers album, The Church With One Bell, Glasgow Walker and On The Cobbles saw Martyn return to locating the heart of the tune rather than the style of production. His voice rang clear and true throughout, even in his slurriest, freeform moments. Martyn moved to Ireland at the turn of the 21st century. The lifestyle agreed with him greatly. “I adore it, people are so ready with a smile, they are so cool and sweet, they call me John, they don’t give a fuck, ask me silly questions, really down to earth,” Martyn laughs. “I’m with geezers who are usually 20 years older than me, which is becoming increasingly difficult! There’s a real sense of parish and sense of community. They tease me a great deal.”
The loss of his leg in 2003 would have halted a lesser performer. Seeing it almost as a minor inconvenience, he continued playing live and recording, venturing out from his settled Irish life to play his repertoire. “When my leg came off I thought I’d better be an amputee and willing to work. I saw myself on one of those skateboard things that you fly about the streets of New York on with a duffed-up persona.” The vogue for playing albums as a whole in concert in the 00s saw Martyn reviving Solid Air, the one fans and new generations keep coming to.
Long overdue, John Martyn was an obvious choice to win the Lifetime Achievement award in 2008. Although often having little to do with folk at all, his root style will forever be that, still a jazz man at heart, he tells the BBC’s earnest interviewer that Jan Gabarek and Pharaoh Sanders still light his candle more than folk turns. “Time is becoming more precious to me, so I prefer to use it well rather than badly,” he states. “That’s the rule of thumb. We’re all getting older.” At the time of writing, Martyn is putting the finishing touches to his new album, his 23rd, as yet untitled, which he ranks among his very best.
Q: I’ve loved your stuff since I was 11
JM: Oh dear. It will wear off, love. I’m about to pollute you again, because the new one is very nice indeed.
So many old friends in one place, then. Some in new and unheard versions. Compiled by John Hillarby, here is a journey straight into John Martyn’s musical soul. Whether you were there in Cousins, a fellow traveller in the 70s, an ardent admirer of the smoothness of his later work or simply finally bludgeoned into it by the repeated re-offering of his material, this collection offers a remarkably comprehensive overview of the great man. “It is my avowed intention to die in harness,” Martyn said in February 2008, “but not for a good while yet.” He knows little beyond performing and writing. “I don’t really care about the rest of all that bollocks,” he told me this April. “It’s nice to be recognised in the fullness of one’s twilight years as one drifts towards the sunset alone. I intend to hammer straight through. My new album is sounding really very nice.” It is an obvious question to ask, when looking at a retrospective marking 40 years in his career and 60 years on the planet: Does Martyn have any regrets? “I could have been nicer to some people and more understanding. Mostly I was a victim of my own circumstances. I stumbled from one circumstance to another. I never really considered much, that’s the truth, I didn’t. I’ve never been a great calculator, I’ve never been that way inclined. I don’t think anything I’ve done has been by design, quite sincerely. Nothing.”
Default or design, the show will always go on, and John Martyn will be part of it, saint or no saint. “If to lose is to win, I’m a winner, if to sin is to sin, I’m a sinner,” Martyn concludes. “Of course I’m not a saint. I’ve tried to get out the way of putting too much shit on people. I can’t think of anything I’m really ashamed of. I say that with a degree of incredulity. I got drunk a couple of times. Apart from that, no. It’s fairly cool.”
Leigh On Sea
The following paragraphs also formed part of the extensive booklet.
“Love finds a way, just let it stay
From day to day, just let it flow, just let it grow
It will get you together
Let’s get it straight: it’s love not hate
Don’t fuss and fight, let’s get it right, let’s get it together.”
John Martyn 1973
“I often thought of faking my own death and watching the record companies fucking drum up all the shit they can…”
John Martyn 2000
“The whole affair has really been about fun and will continue to be.”
John Martyn 2008
The post-millennial phrase ‘there’s a lot of love in the room’ seemed appropriate as John Martyn was revealed onstage to collect his lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in February 2008. Now a big bear of a man, confined to his chair, he seemed genuinely touched and possibly slightly bewildered to be the centre of so much attention. The award was presented by Phil Collins, and Eric Clapton sent in the message that Martyn was “so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable.” It was the first major award John Martyn had won in his 40 year career. Afterwards, his long serving band of Alan Thomson, Spencer Cozens, Arran Ahmun and Martin Winnings were augmented by John Paul Jones, from Martyn’s one time contemporaries Led Zeppelin, on mandolin to play versions of Over The Hill and May You Never from his landmark album from 1973, Solid Air. With typical understatement afterwards, Martyn confessed “I was a bit scared. Auntie Beeb in all her glory – I was almost overwhelmed by the sense of occasion.”