04 Sep 2008
Next Thursday, John Martyn – the legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist – turns 60. It is a landmark many thought he’d never reach.
Since releasing his 1968 debut album London Conversation, the Surrey-born, Glasgow-raised maverick has pioneered a unique and influential blend of jazz, folk and blues.
When he received a Lifetime Achievement gong earlier this year at The Radio 2 Folk Awards, his old pal Phil Collins and Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones joined in the celebrations. While many former associates have fallen by the wayside, Martyn survived, although he has paid the cost for his rough and rowdy ways.
In 2004, as the result of a burst cyst, his right leg was amputated below the knee. Subsequently, his weight has ballooned to a far from healthy 20 stone. Resting up in his Irish farmhouse home in Thomastown, Kilkenny, Martyn –born Iain David McGeachy– is philosophical about this lost limb.
"It only affected me getting in and out of bed, cars, and theatres," he says. "I wasn't too pleased about it, but whatever happens to your bod, happens. I'd have died if they hadn't cut the leg off. My blood would have been poisoned."
Martyn’s drink-fuelled, sometimes violent exploits are as notorious as his music is revered. As he recounts past war stories, his capacity for survival is remarkable.
"I'm not a violent man," he insists. "but sometimes it just happens. I’ve been mugged in New York and luckily I fought my way out of it. I've been shot a couple of times as well, but I just lay down and pretended to be dead."
Despite all of his close shaves, John finally thought his time had come earlier this year when he caught pneumonia and spent a delirious two weeks in hospital. Having recovered, he has had to change his lifestyle.
"I drink in relative moderation and don't smoke dope," he smiles. "Being overweight is bad for the heart and bad for the lungs but, well, people die every day."
So how come he has survived?
"I guess I'm hard to kill," Martyn shrugs. "I really love life and recently I've got back to doing the things that I loved as a child – looking at birds and foxes in the back garden."
While recording in Woodstock in 1970, Martyn became friends with Jimi Hendrix who had a house in the area.
"He was quiet as a mouse, nothing wild about him at all – apart from the music," he says.
Later, John tried but failed to wean his pal, Island Records cohort and Free guitarist Paul Kossoff off heroin. Unlike Koss and Hendrix, who both died in their 20s, John lived to tell his extraordinary tale. And in the mid-1970s, Martyn was one of the first British musicians to go to Jamaica where he worked with reggae genius Lee Scratch Perry.
Onstage he remains one of the greats, a true Brit original still excited by new challenges, such as a forthcoming recording with his hero, tenor saxophone veteran Pharoah Sanders.
"I was dumbfounded when I was asked," John admits. "There's nothing better in music for me than his album Karma, so I have to work really hard to get a theme we can do together. It's lovely news for me, a wonderful thrill."
Before then, Martyn and his wife Theresa will celebrate his 60th in private. No doubt there'll be a "special" cake and a few "moderate" (by his standards) drinks.
"I have to get ready for my 70th now," he says. "In The Bible it says you live three score years and 10 – so I'm not done yet. I'm going to give it my best shot for the big seven oh!"
We would hardly expect anything less.
Ain’t No Saint, a four CD retrospective, is out now. He tours the UK in November.