Interviews are like minefields. Amidst the chummy showbiz chat, there's almost invariably at least one potential hair-trigger moment when someone like me has to ask someone like John Martyn a $64,000 question, and wait to see if he explodes.
Back in my days as a press officer, I vividly recall seeing Meatloaf sling one witless young hack bodily out of an interview room at CBS for tactlessly asking, 'Well. Meat, is it glandular or do you just eat too much?' As a journalist I well remember being told, under pain of death, not to ask John Cale about drugs. And when I interviewed Sir Cliff, he proved so charming that I completely bottled the obvious question about his sexual orientation. So how, I wondered, was I going to tactfully bring up the small matter of John Martyn's missing leg?
In 2003, for those who don't already know, a cyst behind Martyn's right knee burst. It rapidly developed into a major infection, which required the amputation of the lower half of the infected limb on April 9, 2003. Although confined to a wheelchair, Martyn was back on stage just eight months later playing gigs in Ireland and he's never looked back, but still, it's not any easy topic to broach.
I take a deep breath. "So John, how did it feel to lose your leg?"
"I didn't lose it. They cut it off," he guffaws, putting me instantly at my ease.
I've since discovered that Martyn has a wide range of similar quips designed to deflect the pain of that question. For example, during a show at the Royal Court in Liverpool,1 someone called out, "How's your leg John?" Without hesitation he replied, "It's fine, thanks for asking... which one do you mean?"
On another occasion he pointed out that having only one leg has compensations because, "when people ask you to put your best foot forward you don't have to wonder which one.2"
Martyn is a genuinely entertaining interviewee, not only witty but also self-effacing, perceptive and charming. It takes a while to realise that all of these traits combine remarkably well to keep nosy inquisitors like me at bay.
Right now, lots of us are sniffing around him because he's just released Ain't No Saint, a lusciously packaged four-CD set that explores forty years of the work that has made him a favourite not just of critics and public, but of artists as diverse as Beck, Beth Orton and Phil Collins. He didn't start out as John Martyn. He was born Iain David McGeachy on September 11, 1948 in New Malden, Surrey. His parents, both light-opera singers, split up just after he was born, consigning him to a life lived half the year in Glasgow with his Scottish father and grandmother, and half on a houseboat in Surrey with his English mother.
Granny McGeachy, it seems, was the one who devoted the most love and attention on young Iain, but she was also a secret drinker, tippling booze out of egg cups in the scullery so no one would know. At the age of fourteen he had a milk round and Granny McGeachy would wake him every morning at 4.00am with a warming dram of whisky to set him up for the day ahead. Unquestionably, she was motivated solely by concern for her grandson but, by the time he was twenty-one, he would be knocking back two-and-a-half bottles of rum a day, and consuming prodigious quantities of cannabis, cocaine, amphetamine and heroin.
Ain't No Saint, understandably, starts with Martyn's earliest recording, Fairy Tale Lullaby, and the accompanying booklet, although detailed, reveals very little about the man before he first entered a recording studio. I thought I should offer Martyn the opportunity to reveal a little more about the early years that shaped him.
"The first piece of music I can ever remember hearing was one of my aunts singing," he reveals, breaking into a haunting old folk song, 'I know where I'm going, and I know who's going with me...'"
There were also opera arias courtesy of mum and dad, but the melody that really fired him up was Debussy's Clair De Lune, and his love of a well-turned tune has never deserted him.
"My aunts were very important to me," he reflects. "I had no mother, no mother figure, although my Granny did the best f***ing job with me possible. She had six kids before me, you know? She inherited me and she enjoyed it because it kept her sharp. She's done a fantastic job on me."
Before he started performing himself, he discovered rock and roll, investing in Chuck Berry's Memphis, Tennessee, as his first 45rpm purchase. "When I first heard all that shit, man, it was marvellous! Not just Chuck, I mean the whole Chess label was just ridiculous!"
He came to folk via the voice and picking style of Joan Baez before being blown away by British folk guitar hero Davey Graham, but it was a chance encounter over a plate of his dad's famed spaghetti bolognaise that set him on the road to becoming a performer. "This fella called Billy Sinnetts heard me one time in the house and said to my father, 'This boy should be out listening and learning'." It was Sinnetts who introduced young Iain and his dad to folk singer Hamish Imlach.
"I went on the road, carrying Imlach's guitar for him, and pouring his drinks, and for that I was allowed to play two songs a night. I was running about with no shoes on and a white gold-trimmed kaftan that my girlfriend made."
Martyn's first solo gig came about entirely by accident when Josh McCrae was booked to play at Langside Hall, directly opposite Martyn's home in Glasgow. "Josh got so drunk he couldn't stand up," Martyn recalls. "I literally lived seventy to eighty yards away from the gig..."
The hundred-strong crowd, however, was suitably impressed by Martyn's brief debut, which included his renditions of such classics as Candyman and Cocaine, along with one of his earliest compositions, Run, Honey, Run, which would eventually turn up on his debut album.
By 1967, Iain had moved to London and adopted John Martyn as a stage name. Just as his first gig had fallen in his lap, a record deal materialised out of nowhere.
"I used to sing on the Kingston Folk Barge, which was run by a couple of meth drinkers, on a Saturday night," he reveals. "It was half a crown to get in but free if you sang a couple of songs, so I sang." A Barge regular, Theo Johnson, was taken by Martyn's songs and introduced him to Chris Blackwell, head of Island Records. "The next thing was I met Chris Blackwell and we recorded the entire first album, London Conversation, in one afternoon in a little two-track studio on Putney High Street for about three hundred pounds."
In a recent interview with Music Week's Christopher Barrett,3 Blackwell said, "I really liked the purity of John's music and his voice. The roots of my interest in music was jazz, but I always admired musicianship above all."
London Conversation was well received and, though it didn't set the world alight, it established Martyn as a songwriter to be reckoned with. The follow-up, The Tumbler (1968), found Martyn introducing jazz influences to his material, and his marriage to singer Beverley Kutner led to the pair recording two acclaimed albums, Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin in 1970.
A turning point, however, came with Bless The Weather (1971), when Martyn used an Echoplex echo device to loop his acoustic guitar, to stunning effect, most memorably on the instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne. The idea was revolutionary and the sound was breathtakingly new but, once again, Martyn puts it all down to serendipity. Asked what inspired him to put electronic effects onto an acoustic guitar, he replies, "I couldn't afford an electric guitar! I bought a little pickup, which cost fifteen quid rather than three hundred quid for a Gibson, you know? That kind of money was outside my budget."
He concedes, however, that even though necessity was the mother of invention in this case, once he realised the potential, he went for it. "Once I started renting the effects pedals and stuff, it became a different thing. I was influenced by the jazz saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and I really wanted to be able to sustain my guitar to at least six or seven seconds and put a lot of registers in there."
Although he was on a creative high, Martyn's personal life was a mess. His drug consumption was prodigious; he embarked on an affair with singer-songwriter Claire Hammill while he was married to Beverley; he insulted his audiences and picked fights with promoters, musicians, journalists and pretty much anyone who got in range.
One of his friends at this time, the DJ Jeff Dexter, told me, "We shared a lot of things, women, dope, slept in each other's houses, and I was going to be his manager at one point, but he could be a very difficult man, very temperamental."
However, as is so often the way with creative individuals, his emotional highs and lows frequently provided material for his songs. "We were in a pub in Hastings one night," says Dexter, "and this guy said to him, 'Man, I love your wife, she's really beautiful'. John flew into a rage and was going to kill him but I told him he had to control his temper."
A few days later, Dexter woke in the middle of the night to find that Martyn had broken in through his kitchen window. "He said, 'I've written this song about you'. Then he dragged me downstairs and played May You Never for me. You know that line, May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar-room fight? That's where it came from." 4
May You Never, probably Martyn's best-known song, appeared on the 1973 album Solid Air, whose title track was dedicated to another friend, the singer-songwriter Nick Drake. "I got to know Nick because he and I were managed by the same guy, Joe Boyd. I loved Nick's music, and he was a well-mannered decent man, gleeful, never said a bad word about anybody, not a bad bone in his body."
In November 1974, when Drake died at home in his sleep, after an overdose of Tryptizol, Martyn was distraught. "The worst thing was that what killed him was dreadful depression, manic depression, which is a terrible thing, to watch someone like him go down and you can do nothing for it."
Another member of Martyn's extended family throughout the 70s was the legendary bassist Danny Thompson, a man whose life was also blighted by drink and drug problems. On one celebrated occasion, after a fistfight with Thompson, Martyn passed out on a hotel room floor. Waking some hours later, he found himself nailed underneath the carpet, with only his head sticking out. From this position he was forced to watch Thompson order and eat a leisurely breakfast.
It's hard to imagine that drink and drugs were not equally involved in the bizarre catalogue of disasters that have befallen Martyn over the years, which range from being mugged in New York to being shot (twice), breaking his shoulder (twice), puncturing a lung, and breaking his nose when his car collided with a bull.5
Through it all, Chris Blackwell's faith in his artist -whose record sales never remotely approached his critical acclaim- was unwavering. Indeed, Blackwell played a pivotal role in the recording of Martyn's 1977 album One World, which was recorded at the multi-millionaire music magnate's country house, Woolwich Green Farm in Theale, Berkshire.
"Blackwell's house was beside a lake, so we shipped the speakers out on a punt into the middle of the lake and recorded," Martyn has said. "It was very nice and created an interesting sound. If you listen very carefully, about two-and-a-half minutes through the song Small Hours, you can hear a train going by, very cool."
"By this time I viewed him more as a jazz artist," Blackwell recalls. "I consider Small Hours to be one of the best tracks I ever worked on. I think it's just magical. It was recorded outside at about 4.00am; you can hear the geese in the background."
Excellent reviews helped One World achieve a first for Martyn - the album actually went onto the charts, although it peaked at a humble number fifty-four.
By 1980, Martyn was divorced from Beverley and staying with Phil Collins, who was himself going through a divorce. That year's album, Grace And Danger, was a harrowing account of a man in the depths of despair. "All divorces are horrid," he says, "but I was probably the guilty party. When you live on the road, man, you're not going home for months at a time, literally months. You don't see the kids, there's only the phone and there's nobody for company."
As the 80s and 90s slipped by, Martyn continued to produce valuable and critically lauded work but, almost inevitably, he slipped increasingly into the netherworld occupied by those artists who, although beloved by critics, somehow can't excite the mass public.
As the new millennium dawned, however, his fortunes seemed to take a turn for the better. He and his girlfriend Teresa moved to Kilkenny in Ireland and in 2001 he actually
nibbled at the fringes of the singles chart, reaching number thirty-one with Deliver Me, a collaboration with Sister Bliss.
Mind you, it's not all been a bed of roses -he checked into rehab in 2001, crashed his car in 2002 and lost his leg in 2003- but he has toured relentlessly and this year he's been rewarded with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards plus a Mojo Les Paul Award.
How, I ask him, does he feel today?
"Generally pretty good. I love living here in Ireland. I've cut back on the drinking. I used to drink two-and-a-half bottles of Bacardi a day! I drink about a quarter of a bottle at the most, these days. You know, when I was really ill I got quarter of a million hits on the website. I have to have wheelchair access at gigs, and that can be a drag, but I get used to it."
And those awards, do they matter?
"I couldn't believe the awards. Mostly you get them when you're dead! So I was delighted I got them when I'm still on my own one leg."
For the past four years he's been working on a new album tentatively titled Willing To Work, about which he says, "There's one song on there called Heaven And Earth which I'm really pleased with. It's a love song- a very good love song."
Willing To Work should appear later this year, by which time he also hopes to have completed an album in New York with his hero Pharoah Sanders. "That was the last time I cried - when I got a letter saying it was possible to work with him. I'm writing the music even as we speak. Every night I play his records and I play along on my guitar deciding what keys he likes, so I can write something beautiful," he chuckles throatily before adding, "Probably just two really, really long buggers."
There's also a November tour coming up during which he will play most of Grace And Danger and, of course, that four-CD set, a treasure trove of riches from his lengthy career. What does he think of it? "I haven't heard it. I don't even know what's on it. I leave those decisions to other people."
If that seems a strange attitude, bear in mind the words of the man who looked after Martyn's career for so many years. "John Martyn is real and so is his music," says Chris Blackwell. "That will always stand the test of time even if he probably damaged himself in the process. He was never a person who was into the concept of a career. He just loved to live life and play his music." □
Thanks: Assistance with this feature was provided by Hans van den Berk of the excellent John Martyn website Big Muff, which can be found at www.johnmartyn.nl
1 16 May 2004.
2 Haven't found that one yet.
3 Solid Gold, Music Week 21 August 2008. A lot of quotes come from this article.
4 I will get into this claim later.
5 Not quite. John broke his neck when the car he was in collided with a cow.
I had completely forgotten about the credit. The assistance was specifying the date of the amputation, for the rest Johnny Black made heavy use of the collected interviews and the two biographies that existed at the time.
This was printed in Rock 'n' Reel of November/ December 2008 (page 31-33), so it was a very late interview. The issue had Pink Floyd on the cover and cost £4.25.