John Martyn, Superstar!

John Walker
Trouser Press


John Martyn, Superstar!
By John Walker

I once saw a girl absolutely cream some poor bastard with a John Martyn record. He'd whispered some lewd suggestion in her ear and she just whipped around and gave him a tremendous shot in the temple with a copy of So Far So Good. This little scrape occurred in America. In England, on the other hand, it was reported that folk hero Martin Carthy actually kissed his television following a John Martyn appearance.1 The two incidents well illustrate the holding pattern of John Martyn's career: in England they've been listening and in America they haven't.

Yankee Deafness is not a natural affliction; it's just that to have heard John Martyn in the U.S. one would need either Dumbo-size ears or extreme good fortune. The manner in which Martyn has been presented in this country is totally dumbfounding. If he isn't playing for a gaggle of tourists in some tiny club, then he's spirited in to open for some Anglophiliac nightmare in the kind of venue that swallows opening acts live and whole. The fact that the major cultural trust of the American airwaves has steadfastly ignored John Martyn hasn't helped much despite the fact that Martyn's music sounds like the quintessential FM material.

"What makes him any different from the hundreds of others bailing water out of the same boat?" you may ask. Well, for a start he's one of Britain's top guitarists. Bum notes are so alien to him that he's liable to burst out laughing should one be struck. He's a brilliant composer, be it in either a folk or jazz context. On top of it all, he's got a voice that could charm the last drop of venom out of a cobra. When he pushes it his throat rings with the kind of resonance that you get out of a tube amplifier set on ten. He's been compared to late-period Tim Buckley; I think he's got chops equal to Al Green. Buckley could grate on you, but Martyn and Green share a richness (if not a style) that few others can approach. As far as style goes, Martyn is unique, and yet he possesses a familiarity common to all high quality music.

In England, the folks recognize Martyn's talent. They exalt him properly. He plays and they listen. His plan to do four nights at an eight hundred seat club there surely put fear in the hearts of those responsible for crowd control.

In the U.S. John Martyn has a cult, a devout but ununified group of individuals that feel, respectively, that they are the only ones that know. It's a legit misconception because most just stumbled upon Martyn. John Martyn has never gotten the media push. If anything, he's ducked it. He certainly won't compromise his music, and that just leaves the uncompromising man. The only time you can accuse Martyn of selling out is when he plays an English date, and then it's the SRO kind. [standing room only, ed]

This past June, John Martyn made a brief run around the East Coast which seemed nothing if not representative of the J.M. American Tour Syndrome, i.e., John arrives in the U.S.A., at which point a ring is inserted in his nose and he is pulled through a damaging series of under-advertised gigs and promotional interludes. This generally continues until John is a total wreck, at which time he is allowed to return to England.

It should be clear that the average American doesn't stand a chance in hell at catching John Martyn live; therefore, his records are of great import (and 'great import' is about the only way one can describe them since all but the most very recent are apparently out of print Stateside).

John Martyn first hit the boards under the sponsorship of Hamish Imlach, a Glasgow guitarist whose fame pretty much centers around the fact that he spawned the professional John Martyn. If the bios are to be believed, John viewed his music as little more than an elaborate hobby until 1968, when Island Records approached him with an offer to record. No longer an innocent, he was a recording artiste, leaving tangible jackal bait lying around.

Martyn's first record, London Conversation, was a very pure affair. One voice, one guitar; mono mix. Blues from the country, trad folk, no pretensions. A classic example of 'Hey, kid, wanna make a record?' Martyn's voice was young but it had muscle, and his guitar playing was incredibly spry for a relative novice.

The second offering, The Tumbler, sounded positively lush compared to its predecessor, sporting nothing less than a bass, flute, and a second guitar (played by long-time Martyn supporter Paul Wheeler, whose writing collaboration with Martyn, Fly On Home, indicates that he had some influence on John's middle period work). Parts of the album sported a jazzy feel courtesy of Harold McNair's flute work, and the album generally showed Martyn's potential for expansion.

John's next two albums presented him in the context of a husband-and-wife team with Beverley, a union which produced Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin. Both recorded in 1970, the two discs tended to present John and Bev in tandem rather than as a creative team since the two mates each wrote their own songs and offered them in an alternate fashion. Though John played on Bev's and Bev sang chorus harmonies on John's, each had distinct styles that seemed slightly incongruous on record. On Stormbringer! John's best material crackled with tension. Every other note was affixed with a small barb and even the lyrics were often double take material, with lines like 'I'm John the Baptist, and this is my friend Salome' darting out and winking.

Stormbringer! was recorded in the Woodstock vicinity and featured a dazzling group of sidemen. Folks like Levon Helm, Billy Mundi and Herbie Lovell provided excellent drumming which, in conjunction with the famously crisp production of the Joe Boyd/ John Wood team, gave the album a fabulous rhythmic edge. Pianist Paul Harris (who must have been between Ohio Knox and Manassas) pulled off a number of dramatic arrangements that hit like an icy wind on a hot day.

Stormbringer! incited Crawdaddy reviewer Brian Cullman to write, "This hasn't been out long enough to have been neglected yet, but I am writing this out of the dread fear that it just might be passed over. It is the most beautiful, most listenable album to emerge in 1970, and it seems to get better every day." The first sentence was as ominous as the second was true.

The Martyns returned to their native Albion for the recording of The Road To Ruin, and the result showed the distance between Woodstock and Anytown, England. Paul Harris still hovered in the background, but the keynote player was Dudu Pukwana, whose Township saxophone sparked a fair amount of the music to an almost frenetic pace. Though John and Bev were represented as democratically as ever, their respective moods seemed to have shifted. While most of Beverley's songs zipped along like an ignited cat, John's were the essence of tranquillity.

Martyn's virtuoso guitar work stands out on The Road To Ruin, though his more daring electrical playing is inexplicably buried beneath the acoustic guitar on a lot of the tracks. Both the title song and Paul Wheeler's Give Us a Ring give strong indication of Martyn's potential for guitar wizardry. Most of the drumming was provided by pre-Orleans whiz Wells Kelly, and the album marked the beginning of both Pentangle's Danny Thompson and Fairporter Dave Pegg's perpetual involvement as Martyn's bass players.

At some specific point following the release of The Road To Ruin, a new life was conceived and housed within Beverley and it was resolved that the professional John return to solo performing rather than carry on with an implicit trio. His subsequent LP, Bless The Weather, was markedly different from the previous effort. Producing himself, Martyn arranged things in a refreshingly cool way that offered a much more direct vision of his talents. The music was engulfed by the emotional energy of the players and the album is laced with loose rhythms and some brilliantly strange piano work (particularly on Walk To The Water). The climactic Glistening Glyndebourne was the most open-ended production yet, with Martyn pulling the sound of humidity out of his guitar. Bless The Weather ended with, appropriately, a haunting version of Singing In The Rain that totally transcended the renditions of Gene Kelly and Malcolm McDowell.

While Bless The Weather held together like unbreakable mesh, its successor, Solid Air, was as dense as its title. Martyn produced previously unknown sounds by utilizing a vast bank of electronic boxes, never once sounding cheap. By this time, John's vocal style had evolved to the point where he had all the range of a human saxophone and his voice would just liquify and smooth over anything in its presence. Despite his vast range, Martyn could still work wonders with an unadulterated acoustic guitar. A fine example of this simple approach, May You Never has proven to be a real breadwinner for Martyn, having been covered by a number of folks including Linda Lewis and Eric Clapton.

Solid Air gave evidence of John's growing concern with the politics of love, epitomized by the mesmerizing I Don't Want To Know ('about evil, only want to know about love'). These leanings became virtually a divine obsession on Inside Out, perhaps Martyn's finest album. Inside Out featured all of Martyn's best facets - clean sophisticated production, the hydraulic voice, and a good philosophic commitment. As always, there was a fine balance of sounds that alternately soothed (Fine Lines, featuring some heavenly piano work from Steve Winwood) and seared (Outside In, a most forceful instrumental that knew no limits).

It would appear that by this time, even John was feeling grim about the lack of sufficient public feedback. In an interview with Geoff Brown in Melody Maker,2 Martyn threatened to give up performing for social work if Inside Out failed to sell a requisite number of copies - not for the money, just for the assurance that people were listening to the music.
In late 1974, Martyn released Sunday's Child, an album which scored an easy ten out of ten at every conceivable point of judgement. While it contained more and shorter tracks than was usually the case, not a gram of quality was sacrificed. The opener, One Day Without You, rocked like a wave, pushing and pulling as it swept the listener along. My Baby Girl featured Beverley singing harmonies again as well as Danny Thompson playing bass lines with the confidence of an astute lad opening a Chinese puzzle box; every tongue and groove fit perfectly, but you could never trace the steps backwards. Martyn's version of Spencer The Rover should be used to restore inner harmony to victims of psychosis. As always, Martyn takes the traditional and transposes it into a cerebral massage, this time utilizing Thompson on a droning bowed bass that serves as the perfect counter-point to Martyn's bowed vocal chords. The final cut, Call Me Crazy, oozes like petroleum leaking in rhythmic droplets into a bucket, with John insistently intoning, 'What could be sweeter than love... what could be sweeter than you and me.' There's not a trace of deliberate seductiveness there, the total openness of the mood would render it obscene; still, play it for two potential lovers and it's an offer neither can refuse.

Thanks to a dearth of promotion and a distribution set-up that must have relied heavily on the mentally handicapped ('Now, Jimmy, I want you to take this box of records and... Jimmy? Take this box and... Jimmy! Are you listening to me?'), Sunday's Child entered most emporiums with only three out of its original four corners intact - sold like a hot baby to gypsies. It's enough to make a grown man cry. On top of it all, Martyn nearly did himself in touring to promote the album and a projected year's rest period stretched to an unsettling eighteen months.

In the midst of the last set of tours prior to the break, John recorded his own Live At Leeds (and his version of Magic Bus makes the Who sound like a bunch of... just joking, heh heh), which, for reasons to be explained, John distributed himself out of his country home.

Disconcerting was definitely the word when John Martyn's next release turned out to be a Greatest Hits3 package offering no new material save for an edited version of I'd Rather Be The Devil taken off the live album.4 After a year and a half of waiting, most Martyn admirers were going through an agonizing withdrawal which most likely would have killed them all were it not for the fortunate fact that Martyn's records hold up after an infinite number of playings (artistically, that is; physically, they wear out just as fast as any other vinyl platter). Fortunately, the situation was somewhat assuaged by John's return to the stage, which at least indicated that there was still life in the old boy.

'So nice to see our John again' - Paul Wheeler, quoted on the cover of Bless The Weather.

John Martyn is a man who very much wants to keep things in perspective. In theory, family, health, and sanity come before music. Music takes precedence over its own exploitation. Therefore, family, health, sanity, and music are all regarded with more reverence than the concept of exploitation. And exploitation is pretty hard to avoid on a three week promotional tour that coincides with the release of a 'Best of' album. Touring to promote a 'Best of' album?! Seems a bit redundant. It's not surprising that John Martyn harbors a notorious dislike for 'The Biz' that pushes him through a succession of related indignities that run the gamut between sharing a doorless toilet stall with fifty other club patrons and putting up with being put up in hotels that only Tom Waits could enjoy.

John's notably low tolerance for interviews was no doubt compounded by the fact that his recent period of inactivity reduced the number of specifics that one could inquire about, guaranteeing an additional glut of redundancy in the form of trivial questions.

I just tossed them out and John knocked them down. Favorite music? Joe Zawinul, Martin Carthy, Davey Graham, and the music of Bulgaria. Beverley? Her solo LP should be finished by the end of the year; produced by John. Burning Spear? John played a bit of guitar on their Man From The Hills LP which went uncredited. And that's it for trivia. In fact, I heard him answer virtually an identical set of questions during a phone interview that followed mine. Then, one more time up at WBAI. He should just have the answers printed on a card that he can carry around like a deaf-mute. (Common knowledge: John co-authored and played on one track of Paul Kossoff's solo album Back Street Crawler and is represented on the Over The Rainbow compilation recorded at the final night of London's Rainbow Theatre.)

Since most of the interviewers were long-term fans as well, being interviewed probably meant getting a goodly amount of well-intentioned advice from people who can't comprehend an attitude that doesn't reflect any measurable concern for commercial success. Not, at least, for big commercial success of the sort that comes from scoring with the massive youth of America. During my interview with John it became apparent that I was much more concerned about his career than he was. (Replaying the tape, I listened with horror as I heard myself suggest that Martyn endorse the Echoplex. Endorse! My God, did I say that?)

John was just being roused from an unrefreshing four hours sleep when I arrived at his hotel. The couple in the next room had "fallen passionately in love for about two hours and then had a huge falling out for two more," infringing heavily on John's valuable rest time. Understandably, John wasn't exactly gushing with anecdotes, and the presence of both his road manager and an Island chaperone made me a little apprehensive about broaching a couple of subjects, but only a little.

Like most of Martyn's yankee listeners, I'd often felt that his stolid cult status could only be attributed to lack of company support. How did John feel about Island? After being encouraged by Island's rep to be 'totally candid', John's totally candid response was that he had "no feelings about Island in America," though he liked Island in general and expected to get a gold watch from them soon. As for Live At Leeds, the story that had filtered over from Britain was that the set featured some blue patter that had Island biting its nails and while they had licensed and pressed the disc, the chore of distributing it had been dumped in John's lap.

"Everybody thinks that was very heavy. It was not heavy at all, I just went to Chris (Blackwell) with the record, he said 'Great, but it's not time for a live album.' I said, All right, let me put it out from my house, then.' He said, 'O.K., we'll press it and you can put it out from your house.' Nothing more complicated than that, beautiful. I made more bread out of that than I have out of any of the other ones." Adding, with a smile, "I blew it very quickly, but I really did make more bread out of it."

I mentioned the rumor of 'certain factors' regarding Island's alleged cold feet, which seemed supportable in light of said label's handling of Derek and Clive Live, the legendarily obscene Peter Cook-Dudley Moore creation which Island leerily released in a white sleeve smothered in with warnings to the effect that exposure to the record could leave a child warped as a seventy-eight left in the desert sun. Martyn's foray into verbal porn, a brief discourse on how Ravel's Bolero was designed "for nothing else but fucking," is kitten-tame by comparison. Well... "That may be the reason, but, quite honestly, they don't have to give me reasons for anything like that. My relationship with Chris is so casual and friendly that I don't really worry about it. He lets other people take care of his business, I'm sure, and I let other people take care of mine. I pay a guy twenty five percent of my entire earnings to think about this shit, I don't concern myself with it. My business is to play and to write - that's it. Percentages are percentages, and whatever things are excluded and included or totally precluded has got nothing to do with me."

Disgusting though it may be, it can't be denied that most of the people who closely follow developments in the musical arts have mentally confused good promotion with success. Deep down, there may be some legitimate basis for this assumption in regard to commercial success, but John is really only concerned with artistic success. As far as he's concerned, the cultural comptrollers can go copulate with a tone arm.

"I'm not about to fucking go get my hair done twice a day and wear high-heel boots to go running about and chasing people round the FM stations. But if they want to listen to me, if they say 'Come play for us,' I will go and play for them if it's physically possible."
"No one will be happier than me if I have a hit, it would be wonderful, but I'm not about to break my ass looking for one. I've seen too many people do it." And, and... "And die. Die. D-i-e, die. It's final, very final, death. I mean, it comes to us all in the end, but I'm not really rushing towards marrying mine."

Another good way to stay alive is to avoid unnecessary violence. I'd read an interview in which John had indicated admiration for the pacifist philosophy expressed in Aldous Huxley's novel Eyeless In Gaza,5 and certainly that wasn't far removed from the spirit of his own music. I asked if John truly subscribed to that way of thinking. "I couldn't honestly say that I live a non-violent life. I try to, but it's impossible in my situation."
"I think everyone has violence in them mentally. At the moment I'm just trying to get rid of the physical bit, and if I get rid of that I'll be quite happy."
I'd figured that John's days of putting the boot in were years behind him. Turns out that other people think much worse, that they view John as 'some posing little elf at the bottom of the garden' just because he sings about love. I really can't see John Martyn as a posing little elf anywhere. I mean, if you were after Donovan... But John? More like Jesse James with an olive sprig stuck in his boot. Still, John's a bit edgy about being misinterpreted and he was still smarting a bit from a letter received the night before which read, in part, 'If your travels across topographic oceans take you to the seas of infinity in New York City, think of love, emotion and flight. I'll be there. Call me.' Well, some things you just have to nip in the bud, and John had decided that his next album would offer a more polarized view of things.

Towards the end of my allotted interview time, John asked if I knew where he could find the Hell's Angels, who were, he said, his only friends in New York. I was anxious to pursue this since the Angels aren't exactly known for their peace conferences, but the subject was somehow lost in the scurry to get John up to a radio station for yet another interview. There, John told an interviewer, "When the new album comes out, I think you'll find that some of the songs are heavy and angry, probably a bit vehement. I'm beginning to lose patience with the world. There are a lot of turkeys about and they keep making the same fucking mistakes, like believing in violence and that kind of shit. I mean, it just goes on and on. Of course, that has to do with the governments of the world and the whole concept of nationalism. It's very fine to be proud of your traditions. Nationalism has a place in the cultural heritage of a man and the cultural soul of a man, but I don't believe it has any place at all in the actual business of day to day living. I'm a great believer in one world, just one world. I don't believe in passports or taxes or any of that shit. I believe in one world, that's it."

"There's one world, one system; one world, one love. I mean, fuck, I'm waiting for the Martians, really, that'll pull us together. A fuckin' few Martians come down and waste a few, you know, 'Take that, motherfucker!' Wham Bam! We'll all fucking pull our socks up sharp. Yeah, a belligerent Venusian or two... that would fuckin' sort us out, I'll tell you."

Peering out at the motley crew assembled before him, John gives the perfect greeting: "Hello, cruel world." It's his last night at Kenny's Castaways and his last night in this country.6 Deaf in one infected ear and out of his mind with homesickness, John tosses down one in a long line of vodka and oranges. Contemplating the empty glass, he allows that "the second set should be interesting," and the comment sets off a wild roar from an assembly that seems to possess all the sensitivity of a fraternity during Pledge Week. Any second you expect them to start chanting 'Chug-a-lug!' Stating priorities, John smiles sadly and admonishes, "No, that's no big trick, that, believe me, that's no big trick."

By the start of the second set, it's clear that John's mind is on the hearth. "Well, everything's wonderful. I'm going home in six hours' time, isn't it wonderful?" You can sense that all he sees is the green, green grass of home sprouting out in the middle of Bleecker Street. "I tell you, every time I get back, I feel fuckin'... it's like 'Daddy's gone a-hunting to buy a baby bunting...' " His voice trails off... "I tell you, it's serious stuff..." Much more so than he's letting on.

That's why I so want John Martyn to make it big over here. Not for the prestige. Not for the money. I just want him to be able to do exactly as he pleases, and that's the kind of power that major success can afford you. I'm sure that John would say that he can do as he pleases anyway, and I guess that's true. Deep down, I guess I just think that people would generally be better off if they were aware of what this man can do.

By the time this reaches print, John Martyn's new album should be available. It's called One World, and my memory of the title song suggests a piece of music powerful enough to fuse this planet back together. It's just the force of reason. Hell, one of the last images I have of John Martyn is him standing at the bar picking the thorns off a rose. I saw him put the rose back into its vase, but I honestly don't remember what he did with the thorns. And now you have been warned.

1 Chris Nickson calls this an apocryphal story from the mid-seventies (in his Electric Folk story from Discoveries), but in his biography Solid Air he claims Carthy admitted its truth.
2 John Martyn Inside Out, 13 October 1973. "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.'"
3 So Far, So Good (released March 1977).
4 From a live tape allright, but not from the original album.
5 John Martyn Inside Out, from Melody Maker, 13 October 1973.
6 19 June 1977. John played three consecutives nights in Kenny's Castaways. Each night consisted of two solo sets, with Bridget St. John, Dick Morrisey & Jim Mullen as supporting act.
The interview took place in a hotel 'somewhere on the east side', according to John Simon Peter Walker. This must have been in the first week of June 1977 (shortly before the WBAI radio interview of June 11th) so there were six months between writing and printing.
This was printed in Trouser Press #24, December 1977, on pages 21-24. The original copy had Elvis Costello on the cover and cost $ 1.25 and 75p in the UK.
Trouser Press was published ten times a year by Trans-Oceanic Trouser Press Inc, New York.