26 Nov 2005
The drinking, the drug taking, the divorces, the bankruptcy, the broken neck, the affairs and the loss of his leg. But John Martyn's lurid personal life is still leaving room for some sublime music...
IT IS far from unusual to discover whole fathoms of deep blue sea between the artist and their art. Nothing, however, quite prepares you for John Martyn. One of the few musicians actually deserving of oft-used terms such as "one-off" and "unique", Martyn is a treasure. Grabbing a foothold in the rather earnest mid-sixties London folk scene, he soon grew out of its limitations and immersed himself instead in jazz, blues and dub, pushing his guitar playing and his voice, stretching his capabilities. The result -best heard on spectacular seventies recordings such as Bless The Weather, Solid Air and One World- is the kind of music that renders the written word pretty much obsolete. The art at its best is magical, unerringly beautiful, feather light and somehow pure. The artist, however, resembles someone who failed the audition for Auf Wiedersehen, Pet on the grounds that he erred a little on the rough side.
Sitting in a beer garden in Thomastown, County Kilkenny, drinking lunchtime double vodkas mixed with cider, it is clear the years have not been kind to Martyn. Now 57 and tipping the scales at almost 22 stones, his huge face is scarred and his fingers look like link sausages. A pink abscess pokes out from under his shirt. When he stands up and leans on his walking staff, he looks like a white Solomon Burke after a long stretch in Barlinnie. Shall we tot up the misfortunes of the past decade alone? He suffered a broken neck when a heifer smashed through his car windscreen, broke his toe stumbling drunk on stage (he played on), split his head swimming underwater and, finally, lost his right leg in 2003 when a cyst burst and septicaemia ravaged his body. He now wears a prosthetic. And that's before we even start on the drink and the drugs.
"I could see it coming," he says of the amputation. "I had myself resigned to it well before it happened." Is he one of those typical middle-aged men who won't see a doctor until blood starts seeping out of his ears? "Well, yes, but it wasn't that bad, I just thought it was a pain in the back of my knee. What can I tell you? I was very angry for a while, very pissed off that it happened to me, but the initial shock wore off and I'm cool."
In truth, the new leg has been a disappointment. He is on his ninth prosthetic and has put on six-anda-half stones in the past 18 months because he can't exercise. He is constantly at war with his absent limb. "F*** me, it's still painful. You can still feel your toes and everything, it's very odd. It still catches you by surprise in the middle of the night. 'Ha ha, still here!' But it could have happened when I was 15 and changed my life entirely. Even if I popped my clogs tomorrow, I've had a wonderful time. I can't argue at all about the way that life's dealt me."
You could argue the toss on this one. Martyn moved to Thomastown with his girlfriend, Theresa, a few years ago, after bankruptcy forced him to leave his previous home in Roberton, near Biggar. Clearly not a rich man, he displays only a little hard-earned bitterness towards the industry. The move to rural Ireland has, he claims, led to a life that is lived at a "slower, sweeter pace". "I'm becoming more and more withdrawn from the world. I have a lot more peace and composure. I like being on the road still, but I prefer doing sweet f*** all, listening to the trees."
You would not necessarily associate composure with Martyn. Born Ian McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, in 1948, his parents divorced when he was still a toddler and he was raised by his grandmother in a sprawling, 13-room tenement in Shawlands, Glasgow. He regards himself as "total Scottish. There's no getting out of that one". It was an almost Victorian upbringing, old fashioned with a strong work ethic. He learned how to fight, which he blames on Glasgow but which probably goes deeper.
In conversation, Martyn is an odd mix. He expresses his love of Chic Murray and The X Factor alongside his desire to send the royal family to Elba. At turns sweet, tough, slightly terrifying, very funny and highly intelligent, above all, he tends to elicit sympathy. He was vulnerable long before he needed help walking. What Ralph McTell, the musician, identified as the 'deep hurt' in his music and character stems from his parents' divorce and his subsequent farming out. "I'm very sure of that," he agrees. "Although I don't care what anyone says, a good gran will beat a good mother any time. They have all the experience, they're not learning on you."
His parents were light-opera singers, all "hampers and stage make-up", and never rated Martyn as a vocalist, his slurred, honey-and-gravel stylings too much at odds with 'proper' singing. They thought he was a trickster. He inherited, he says, a sense of decency from his father and a wandering morality from his mother, not to mention a colossal capacity for alcohol. "I don't analyse it," he says. "It runs in the family for a start - from my grandmother on down. My old man went at 84 and he was still drinking big time. The lifestyle got a hold of me, I suppose. You have a drink before the gig to set you up, then you have a drink to celebrate the gig, then you have a drink in the morning to liven yourself up, then you have a drink on the plane... It's all soundchecks and aeroplanes and hotels. There's literally nothing else to do. You can read the paper, but that loses its charm after a while."
Although he is now somewhat bruised and battered, largely as a result of the way he has lived his life, Martyn is defiantly unapologetic. "I'm not nearly as wild as I should have been, really. Could have had more fun. A lot of people who drink should be ashamed of it, and a lot of people who f***ing don't drink should be ashamed of it. If you want to kill yourself, there's a thousand ways to skin a cat. You're going to go one day."
His music has constantly battled for a little elbow room amidst his lurid life -the drinking, drug-taking, two failed marriages, numerous affairs and children ("I don't think anybody regrets that")- have done their best to dampen down its glory, but have failed.
There was a point following the release of the sublime Solid Air, in 1973, when Martyn could feasibly have reaped significant commercial rewards by imitating its formula. Instead, he followed it with Inside Out, an experimental, bewildering and sometimes brilliant foray into the furthest reaches of his musical mind. "It wasn't what was required," he laughs. "I have no regrets about that. I'd rather have the respect of my peers. I'm very happy there."
Lately, his muse had faltered a little. His 2004 album, On The Cobbles, made while he was ill, was hailed as a return to form but he dismisses it as "bitty, literally cobbled together. I didn't like it". He is tidying up the next record, Willing To Work, which he will release himself in the spring of next year using the internet and a distribution deal with a record label. "I'm working at home with the computers, it saves me a lot of grief. I literally do it in the front room, pottering about."
A wonderful guitarist, on a good night in concert he remains compelling, still open to extemporisation and creative restlessness, he has finally found a "soulful" way to play his best-known song, May You Never, to his satisfaction. He calls it a "lollipop", a sweetener to the audience. All his music is work in progress. "If you listen to any song I do now, it's different to when I wrote it. I like to convince myself that it's better. That might be a delusion, but I don't think so. I can neither read nor write music, so everything I do is by ear. I get bored by the fifth time I play something so I wander off. I just want to be free. It's much nicer to be free."
John Martyn is performing at the Bein Inn, Glenfarg, Perthshire, from tomorrow until Thursday.
His first five solo albums are reissued this month by Universal.