Singer Seeks Love, Honesty

Tony Palermo
Pittsburgh Press
Singer Seeks Love, Honesty


"If I have a bad night playing a gig and the audience loves me anyway -calls me back for three encores or something- I'm terribly disappointed with that crowd," said singer John Martyn, poking his index finger through the air for emphasis. He'd just finished a short set to start off Traffic's show at the Arena two weeks ago,1 and he had a lot on his mind.

He continued, "I love the fan who comes up to me after a poor performance and says, 'That was garbage, man. Pure garbage.' That guy's being honest with me. And that's what it's all about - honesty."

He was a friendly enough Scotsman, this Martyn was, but his beliefs had a fierceness which immediately put me on the defensive as if I were the cause of the human indignities he then began to enumerate: people starving while astronauts prance around on the moon; married couples continuing to stick it out when the flame has obviously died and their hearts are elsewhere; children, "the most precious things in the world," being mistreated and taken for granted. He elaborated many miseries - all the result of misplaced priorities and dulled emotions.

His solution to the whole human mess? Love and honesty.

"Well, I guess you can't argue with that," I said, wondering if he was also in favor of apple pie, motherhood and the New York Yankees. But he was insistent and many of his points well taken.
"Love and truth is all I try to get across lyrically in a song, as simply and directly as I can," he noted. "At one time I was very wordy. I enjoyed fooling with similes, metaphors and hidden meanings. But I was being misinterpreted too often, so I gave it up. Now I just express myself through music. Too few people realize the power of the musical note."

His musical notes are VERY powerful, I discovered. On Solid Air, his latest album, for instance, Martyn runs the folk gamut from soft, contemplative ballads to upbeat tempos with hardly an emphasis on any of the adornments (vibes, organs, tenor sax, guitars) that dot his music.

Each is present only in fleeting wisps, replaced as quickly as it appears. Your impression of the 'whole' of each arrangement is your most valid one.

But whatever the mood, the emphasis is on soulfulness and honesty - the essence of valid music in John Martyn's mind.
"Eighty per cent of today's musicians feel absolutely no responsibility for the music they put out. They're pretentious, insincere. They pander to what people want to hear," he contended.

Can't say I dug his statistics, but I had to go along with his basic premise... until he listed some of the biggest 'panderers':

Ian Anderson (of Jethro Tull): "A terrible person. Tull's music is horribly pretentious."

Elton John: "Nice guy, but a clown, a musical idiot."

Yes: "Too slick, cold. No emotion. Did you know Rick Wakeman has his hair done every day? Buys three new pairs of shoes a week? All those music degrees - hah!"

Paul Simon: "A middle class bourgeois. Takes him eight days to lay down a rhythm track. If he can't go into a studio and lay it down -boom, boom, boom- then he's got no soul. 'America' bah!"

Wow. Some of Rock's best heads chucked down the drain in a mad flurry of insults!

Thank goodness not all the industry's 'staples' are sellouts. According to Martyn, Stevie Wonder's lyrics are "beautiful" and Joni Mitchell's got the right idea with her lyrical philosophy, "it you feel it, you've got to scream it out." (Listen to Ludwig's Tune on her For The Roses LP.)

John Martyn is a disturbing person. He makes you wonder: must folks critically evaluate every musical performance they attend or are they allowed to enjoy themselves, too? Is perfectionism necessarily a sign of pretentiousness? If a lyricist can't write about alienation and deprivation, must he keep his mouth shut?

But John Martyn also makes you think: why should 'love and honesty' be equated with apple pie, motherhood and the New York Yankees?
Better they should be equated with reality.

1 Thursday 1 February, Pittsburgh Civic Arena. "Two of those groups, Traffic and Free, and singer John Martyn appeared at the Civic Arena last night for Pat DiCesare productions and drew a crowd of 13,219, almost all teen-agers."
This early and remarkable American interview saw the light of day in The Pittsburgh Press of Thursday 15 February 1973.