13 Oct 1973
He's in London, which he doesn't like much, to do interviews, which he can cope with, and talk about his new album and upcoming tour. We didn't talk about either very much.
Instead, we talked about his motivations, his hopes, his attitudes, his development.
There's a track on the next album, Inside Out, called The Glory Of Love. It's a title that just about sums up the man and the life-style he's developing.
John used to be something of a wayward character, liable to sudden outbursts of rash behaviour but recently he's cooled out and calmed down. And, you better believe it, he feels a whole lot happier for it.
He sees the new album as "a progress report". An end of term assessment of his move towards becoming what he sees as the ideal man. Someone he calls "a scholar and a gentleman."
That term is one he often repeats. He used it to describe Hamish Imlach, the Scottish folk singer who encouraged him so much during his early days of performing.
"A lovely man. He used to take me round on gigs with him and I'd get to play at them. He gave me a lot of encouragement," says John. But Hamish, he adds, is still singing the same songs today, which is a pity. No progress.
And progress is one thing that John Martyn has done. From his first inspiration to play guitar -"It was hearing Joan Baez's record of Silver Dagger, I've never liked anything else of hers"- to the present day, John's work has been moving forward and outward. It now covers a wide span and the new album should stretch his achievements even further.
After mastering to his personal satisfaction the finger-picking styles Baez's record had inspired him to emulate, John moved into electronics.
"I wanted to play horn really, to get that natural sustain of a note but the discipline and time that learning reeds required I couldn't really face. It takes at least two years to develop an embouchure and I didn't think I could afford that."
Then John was in a hurry. Nowadays? Well he doesn't really think he's going to reach his peak until he's about 35.
"That's when I think I'll be blowing really well, that's when I'll be the guv'nor." A refreshing, unhurried and modest approach, I guess.
On the new album there're a lot of new Martyn compositions (apart from The Glory Of Love) and on the sessions he used the likes of Traffic's Steve Winwood and Chris Wood, Remi Kebaka, Danny Thompson and Stones' horn man Bobby Keyes. "He just staggered into the studio after doing some over dubs with the Stones and said 'can I blow' and we said sure, and so he's on the album."
That's the loose kind of feel that Martyn has worked for on his albums in the past. British musicians haven't, he once said, got the right approach to music for him to really play as he would wish.1
But he's found a few. Danny Thompson, for instance, who'll be touring with John in Britain and in the States later in the year, has clearly had a profound effect on John both as a person and a musician.
Inside Out, says John, is a sort of concept album. Few of the songs are 'conventional.' The title track is a long extended piece.
"The first part is very manic, the second winds down. The first part's wild, the second slow and peaceful."
The cover best illustrates the mood of the track. Two shots of John in profile.
One on the front cover, one on the back. On one the head is full of sunny scenes, the outside etched with streaks of lightning.
On the other the stormy weather's inside, the sun is outside. The music draws in jazz and blues and ties the threads in a loose, flowing knot of sound. At times it's rather like Santana's last album...2 brilliant, in other words.
Basically, says John, the album's about love. That's what inspired the album and that's the mood that pervades. Good vibes. Just so the album doesn't get too heavy or preachy Martyn slipped that Glory Of Love on the end – just like he added Singing In The Rain to Bless The Weather the album before last.
The last one, says John, broke even for him in Britain and made him a few thousand dollars in the States and that's why he's going back. He's not particularly interested in the bread, he says, and you can believe him.
He'll give it all up if the album doesn't sell well because he needs the feedback from people. He needs to know that what he's saying is being heard.
If it doesn't sell, he says, "I'll probably pack it in and become a social worker. At least you know you're helping then."
But I doubt if he'd stop playing. I think he likes gigging too much, especially if it's with Thompson.
"I'm just beginning to learn why I'm playing. I'm a talented man and I can use that talent in music. And music is an emotional communication. It can be used for good."
John's vocals have generally taken a back seat to his accomplished guitar work. Now, says John, "my vocals are used as more of an instrument."
His lyrics are kept simple and his words are chosen for their multiple meanings.
"For instance, if you're sitting with four people in a room and one of them says 'Isn't it cold in this room' you'll get three different interpretations. One person'll think he means the mood in the room is cold because of the people in it, one'll think it means the room is coldly decorated and one'll just think it means it's draughty. One word but three meanings."
John has said many things on the album -dictums for how life should be led if you like- and now he's trying to live up to them. They're based around a belief that present society's rotten and the only way it's going to be changed is through a change in the attitude of people. An angry young man advocating peace.
There's violence in his music, sure, but it's purely a vibe from the sequence of notes John puts together, with, it must be said, some care. He feels that "a record is such a permanent statement" and such statements should not be made lightly.
Down in darkest Hastings John, with Beverley and his two kids -boy 5, girl 2- tends to closet himself. He doesn't read the music press, doesn't buy many records ("only jazz imports") and listens to pop music only very occasionally. It's something he finds to have very little intrinsic value.
"I'll listen to a group just once to make sure I was right the first time I dismissed them."
A few get through though. He admires Santana's guitar playing -"He plays from the heart"- but is extremely suspicious of anyone who needs the help of a guru to realise themselves.
"There's been so much written in the past about peace and love that you really shouldn't need a guru. You only need to be able to read."
There're a few real song writers left in Britain. Nick Drake, he says, he used to like and Robin Williamson of the Incredibles.
A line in one of Robin's songs -"opinions are like fingernails"- was one of the best analogies he can remember reading.
"You know how you change opinions. You bite your nail or change your opinion and a new one grows underneath."
And opinions are something John has aplenty and verbalises forcefully, even libellously.
The music business, for instance, fills him with loathing. Agent after agent is called a "leech" and "parasite" - the disgust is real. Another sip of vodka clears away the foul taste of the promoter's name.
"The music industry is top heavy," he says with the look of a man who'd like to do some pruning, "and it's strangling the music."
Couldn't you use it's organisation for your own ends?
John gives an "are you kidding?" look.
"No, man, no way. You can't use things for your own ends cos when it comes to it, you just don't sleep well. You'll get rich perhaps but it's a vicious circle you'll find yourself caught up in. I know an awful lot of rich pricks and man are they unhappy."
John wants no part of business. That's why, he says, he's never signed a contract. "If you can't work on a handshake and a straight look in a man's eyes, then I don't want to work with you. It's back to the 'scholar and gentleman' idea again."
"The fact I'm a professional musician is an accident. I didn't set out to be one. They came to me and asked me to record an album and I thought 'why not'. Since then I've carried on just because I've had no desire to stop."
He's also carried on because he wants to communicate with people and at some later stage he'll probably use other means of getting his ideas across. Like novels.
Aldous Huxley. We talked about his novels, especially Eyeless In Gaza because the pacifist philosophy that Huxley propounded in that book is one that John's striving for.
The scene in which James Miller is addressing a meeting and invites a heckler to physically assault him so that he can prove that 'turning the other cheek' does work is precisely where Martyn believes pacifism can work.
But his calm approach to life was stretched to the limit by tours of America. He's done two now. The first was with Traffic.3
Martyn's still not sure how to describe the feeling.
"Not wonderful… but exciting. On the Traffic tour I had a 25 to 30 minute spot and because of playing in vast 20,000 seater places, I couldn't do acoustic because no matter how good the p.a. was they'd never be able to hear me. So I had to play electric, which just showed one side of me."
"I enjoyed it more from the point of view of fulfilling an ambition and getting experience… I want to get as many experiences as possible."
The tour did 35 dates in 39 days and at the end John was very, very tired. He just wasn't used to the pace of travelling in the States.
The album was still selling well and, after eight days holiday, he was back on a 747 for another tour. This time though it was a solo tour. He'd get to play longer sets, some one-nighters, some short four-night residencies, some colleges, and the usual round of Max's and Troubadour clubs.
That tour lasted six weeks. He was almost a gibbering wreck by the time he returned. But things that happened on his return gave him such a boost that he's glad it was so hectic. He'd lived "three years in two months."
The clubs he found "a bit industrialised," peopled by music businessmen. And he found very little folk in colleges there.
"What there was, was pretty degrading." Americans, he says, have such a hard-assed attitude to beginners that when some young kid gets up to do a floor spot they jump on him and squash him.
British folk clubs aren't for John nowadays. He likes the "silence and concentration of concerts," the chattering and chug-a-lugging in dens of folk don't lend themselves to either.
And TV? He's done two Old Greys. "I didn't like the first one,4 the second felt more comfortable,5 the third one should be better.6"
One of the songs he played on TV was Glistening Glyndebourne, and it was one of [the] best live sessions heard on the programme. The song, says John, came to be written when he was on a train which passed through Glyndebourne just as the opera house there was emptying.
"At this small country station hundreds of people in evening gowns and dinner jackets poured onto the train. It was so formal and I think music should be informal. So I just wanted to do something that was very loose. It's different each time I play it."
John thinks he's a lot of things. At one point he said "I'm something of a hedonist," at another "an angry young man" and he knows what facets of his character he'd like to see changed ("I'm an intellectual snob - that's one I'll have to kick up the arse").
There's a lot outside of himself that he'd like to see changed too. Like politics.
("I really believe that for Nixon suicide is the only honourable way out.")
"We'd still rather believe Edward Heath than Jesus Christ. The only politics that work," says John Martyn, finishing off his vodka and orange with a decisive swig, "is the politics of love."
And Amen to that.
This classic interview was published in Melody Maker of 13th October 1973, on page 55.
1 August 1973, John told Jerry Gilbert so (Sounds, Music On Impulse From John Martyn)
2 Caravanserai, released October 1972, was also a more jazzy album.
3 First two months of 1973.
4 18 Jan 1972, Bless The Weather and Glistening Glyndebourne.
5 13 Mar 1973, May You Never and Rather Be The Devil.
6 With Danny Thompson, recorded shortly after the interview on 16 Oct 1973.