Hellraiser John Martyn has played with the best and influenced them all, but a lifetime achievement award still came as a shock. He talks to Pierre Perrone.
When I ask John Martyn how he feels about the Lifetime Achievement Award his friend Phil Collins presented to him at the Radio 2 Folk Awards on Monday, he guffaws endearingly. "I thought someone was taking the mickey, I really did. I thought it was a mistake," the singer-songwriter and guitarist insists. "I didn't set out to achieve anything, I really didn't. I was driven. I'm still driven. It wasn't like a great mission to save folk music. It's not like that. I was enjoying myself, and still am."
Unlike most previous recipients –Bert Jansch, The Chieftains, Fairport Convention, Christy Moore and Pentangle among them– Martyn is far from your traditional folkie. Musically, he's closer to Paul Brady and Richard Thompson, who've both been lauded at the Radio 2 awards. But, in one sense, he belongs in the folk tradition because his repertoire and his guitar technique have been taken up by so many singers and musicians. "The back-slapping I do on the guitar is common now. It's been all over the world, man."
He'll even (jokingly) take some of the blame for the current crop of wandering minstrels. "KT Tunstall is nice," he muses. "Of course it is [my fault]. There are so many singer-songwriters, it's ridiculous. Every ruddy kid has a guitar and a demo. I've only myself to blame."
Martyn was a hellraiser through much of the Seventies. This big bear of a man could drink anyone under the table – and often did. His drug consumption was prodigious; he was also a notorious womaniser and had an on-off affair with singer-songwriter Claire Hammill while he was married to his first wife, the singer-songwriter Beverley Kutner. Martyn insulted audiences and often fought with promoters, musicians, journalists and pretty much anyone who came within his circle.
His antics included threatening journalist Allan Jones and fighting with his friend Paul Kossoff backstage at Leeds University in 1975. Martyn had taken the former Free guitarist on tour with him, ostensibly to get him off heroin, but Kossoff didn't make all the gigs. After a particularly boozy session, tempers flared and Kossoff broke a bottle over Martyn's head. The latter retaliated and the fight escalated, and culminated with Martyn kicking Kossoff as he lay on the floor of the dressing room.
In the beginning, however, Martyn was rather quieter. Born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, in 1948, he spent most of his childhood in Glasgow, where he was brought up by his father and grandmother after his parents divorced.Both his parents were light-opera singers, and Martyn turned out to have a fine voice. But it was his guitar playing that drew the most appreciative comments. More interested in Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Jansch and John Renbourn, as well as the acoustic and electric blues The Rolling Stones were listening to, he gravitated towards the Scottish folk scene. By 1967, he'd become John Martyn and was in London, appearing at the famous Soho folk club Les Cousins, where Paul Simon, Al Stewart, Roy Harper and Ralph McTell made their names. After hearing his composition "Fairy Tale Lullaby", Chris Blackwell signed him up to Island Records.
Martyn remembers his early years at Island with great fondness. "It was wonderful. I really miss that kind of camaraderie. You don't get that any more. I think it had to do with the fact that Chris is something of a philanthropist. He has very good motives; he actually cared about the people he recorded."
In 1968, Martyn met Kutner, a singer-songwriter who had appeared at the Monterey Pop Festival the previous year. The couple recorded two albums together, Stormbringer! and The Road to Ruin (both 1970), but Martyn really found his direction in 1971 with Bless the Weather, especially on the instrumental "Glistening Glyndebourne", when he used a device called the Echoplex to loop his acoustic guitar to stunning effect. "I hear it used everywhere now," he says. Back then, Martyn was ahead of the technology but his use of echo and delay has resonated through the decades, inspiring U2's The Edge and, of course, KT Tunstall.
Jazz had also been seeping into Martyn's music, and these strands came together on Solid Air in 1973, notably on the title track, dedicated to his friend Nick Drake, who died the following year. Solid Air also featured Martyn's best known song, the insightful "May You Never". The album became a touchstone for his fans. Martyn revisited it last year, playing it in its entirety. "It seems to be the most popular of my albums. I don't know why."
He received his biggest royalty cheque after his friend and occasional collaborator Eric Clapton covered "May You Never" on Slowhand in 1977. Martyn has recorded with the best of his generation and the next – Clapton, Steve Winwood and David Gilmour, of course, but also Phil Collins, Paul Weller, Kathryn Williams, even Sister Bliss. His influence is acknowledged by everyone from Beck to James Yorkston via Beth Orton.
But all that hell-raising of the Seventies and Eighties had taken its toll. By the time the harrowing Grace and Danger appeared in 1980, Martyn was divorced and staying with Collins, who was himself going through a divorce. "I love Phil Collins. We're obligated to doing at least one more song together. I thought [the albums they made together, Grace and Danger and Glorious Fool] were very good. The critics didn't like them, said they were too poppy. I don't see what they see."
In 2004, Martyn was the subject of a BBC documentary called Johnny Too Bad, after his cover of the Slickers' reggae classic. Last year saw the publication of Some People Are Crazy: The John Martyn Story by John Neil Munro. Now, he says, he's going to write his autobiography. "That would be far more fun. My recollection is very good, sometimes too good."
Many expected Martyn to become another casualty of rock. He'd tried but failed to help both Nick Drake and Kossoff, who died of heart failure in 1976 on a flight to New York. "If you don't care for people, you are a lesser person, if you don't do the right thing in these circumstances, you aren't part of a decent society." His own life has been struck by tragedy: he had to have his right leg amputated below the knee in 2003 after a cyst turned septic, and uses a prosthetic leg. "People have been cool to me and I possibly didn't deserve it," admits the singer. "It's remarkable that I'm still alive."
The Radio 2 Folk Awards will be broadcast on Radio 2 tonight from 7pm in an extended edition of 'The Mike Harding Show'
This interview was published in the 'Extra' supplement.