Battered And Bruised... But Still Standing

Adam Lee Potter
Scotland on Sunday

It is an irony that, in a month when Scottish singer John Martyn appeared to be climbing back onto an even keel, at least artistically, more problems should plague his private life. Martyn was involved in a car crash last week as he returned to Scotland from his home in Kilkenny, in an attempt to salvage his finances after one of his homes in Roberton, Lanarkshire, was repossessed by the bank and put up for sale. He escaped with a broken nose and whiplash after the car hit a stray bull, but his finances do not appear to have come off so lightly. Such a dramatic turn in the musician's life, however, is nothing new.

Earlier this summer I met up with Martyn and my impressions were of someone who was upbeat, in creative mode and ready take another shot at life. He is a sprawling maverick with a gravel-slide voice and bluesy guitar copied by Eric Clapton, idolised by Phil Collins and revered for his gruff love ballads. He was tipped for megastardom but, unlike his two legendary disciples, he all but disappeared, sidetracked by drink and drugs, botched love affairs and a lusty appetite for violence.

Indeed, he makes for an unlikely pin-up with his rum punch morning breath, stoved-in red onion face and ballooning waistline. But the magic is still there. At the improbable age of 53, he intended to be on the comeback trail with a fresh record label and another album to promote.

Reformation had not, however, been absolute. His management company had warned: "For Christ's sake, see him in the morning. You may not get much sense out of him in the afternoon." So when he arrived at London's Chelsea Arts Club and immediately ordered a double Bacardi and Coke, telling me he had already had two to keep his agent -who apparently had a mild sore throat- 'company', I was slightly apprehensive. It had just gone noon.

Martyn is probably best-known for his song May You Never, which contains the line 'May you never lose your temper if you get hit in a barroom fight, may you never lose your woman overnight'. He started drinking at 14 when his alcoholic, Glaswegian grandmother would wake him for his 4am milk round with a dram of whisky.

By the time he was 21, he was downing two and a half bottles of rum a day, washed down by cannabis, cocaine, amphetamines and heroin. When his 26-year-old musician friend Nick Drake, about whom he wrote Solid Air in 1973, killed himself a year later, Martyn fell apart. He spent a year busking in Jamaica, stubbornly refusing to record the follow-up album that could have made him a household name.

His singer wife Beverley Kutner -the mother of his two children- retaliated by walking out on him, and he became notorious. Not notorious, sadly, for his music. He was thrown out of a hotel after he was found lying unconscious in his trashed bedroom. His bass player had nailed the paralytic Martyn under the carpet. "I stopped short of throwing the telly out of the window," he admitted. "I was probably too drunk."

Nowadays, Martyn is more like an enigmatic recluse. "My parents split up just after I was born and I'd spend six months in Glasgow with my Scottish father and six months on a houseboat in Surrey with my English mother. A friend of mine told me, 'You're just trying to keep people away from you.' I think that's true. I put on accents, I put on a front, because I'm a very private person. That's what I'm about. I hardly let anyone get close."

"It was an odd upbringing. I was educated in Scotland and my grandmother brought me up. My whole family drank. My grandmother used to drink secretly in the scullery. Out of egg cups so you'd never see her with a glass in her hand. The bottle would be hidden."

He admitted that the excess that ended his marriage and thwarted his career almost killed him. When he finally checked into rehab last year, doctors warned him that if he drank again, it could kill him. "I still drink but I'm much more moderate with it. And hardly at all before a gig. I'm more likely to sip a good old mug of Lapsang."

What a man who used to drink half a bottle of rum for his breakfast means by "hardly at all" is, of course, open to question. Martyn carries on: "A lot of the bad boys come to hear me play because of the way I look. At some of my gigs, there's this rogues' gallery. Three rows deep, nothing but tattoos and broken noses. Hard men."

"So why haven't I had the vast success I deserve? Why am I not Eric Clapton or Phil Collins? I wouldn't want to be. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't mind a yacht, a mansion, maid servants. But I don't care enough. I just love to play, to perform. The adulation. Let's be honest - I'm 53 years old. What could I spend it all on anyway?"

And, with that, he dabbed politely at his lips with a linen napkin, shot me yet another schoolboy's wink and headed back to the bar for a top-up.

John Martyn plays The Liquid Room, Edinburgh (0131-225 2564), October 18; Music Hall, Aberdeen (01224 641122), October 19; Renfrew Ferry, Glasgow (01698 265511), October 20.

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