John Martyn: Talking through Solid Air

Dave Belbin

THE release of One World, coupled with John Martyn's second appearance in Nottingham this year, seemed good reason to renew a slight acquaintance with the man, by the way of an interview for this tome. Tempting as it is to devote the music pages' entire space to Mr Martyn, discretion prevails, so what follows is a match-of-the-day edited highlights, with commentary left to a minimum.

John arrived late, as usual, and in high spirits. The soundcheck was followed by a few autographs, then a handshake and we retired to the sanctuary of the non-smoking quiet room. Nottingham was the last date on the tour, and John was pleased with the way it had gone. "I think there were only two gigs I didn't enjoy... in the light of what happened I regret having got the band together for the Rainbow (Stevie Winwood, Rio etc).1 What happened , I thought we played pretty well, but the critics were a bit unkind. We only had two days rehearsal, I think they came in for some unfair criticism. It kind of destroyed my rhythm a little."

I asked John why he chose to have Chris Blackwell (Island boss) produce the new album. "Well, because he's a personal friend, because I feel confident with him, because he has good ears - he has what I call 'cross-over ears' -he'd as soon listen to Coltrane as anyone else. He knows what people'll dig, right, which is something I've lost sight of. I don't honestly know what's strongest of my material. Something that really knocks me out, other people are... bored by."

I expressed disappointment at some of the songs not included on the album, such as 'Dead On Arrival', 'One For The Road' and the electric 'One World'. "Right, but that's not my decision, man, the producer does that sort of shit for you. But in a way it's interesting, I quite enjoyed it. I think it's a successful collaboration."
On the electric 'One World': "With the Gibson. Yeh, very hard... Well you see, we discussed ways of doing it, and I still do it that way live, but it was very difficult for other people to play on, and the alternative was to do it with just drums and guitar, which I thought was a bit bare."

The cover of One World was John's idea, but designed by a guy called Tony Wright. "He's got a book coming out, I don't know if it's already published - ah man, it's exquisite, I tell you it's really beautiful - not in the least like the cover, you could just about recognise the style, but it's his personal thing; it's very, very good."

I tried to draw him out on the theme of One World - with little success. "I don't think it's a theme that needs expanding on... You either believe in it or you don't - regardless of political boundaries it is one world whether you like it or not, just because people look different on the other side of the world doesn't mean to say that they are different. Because they eat different things, smell different, doesn't mean to say they are different at all, they're just the same as thee 'n me."

The conversation moved to drugs. Mr Martyn has something of a reputation for playing gigs somewhat blasted. I asked him if nefarious stimulants helped him play. "I don't know; I really don't think about it. I don't take heavy drugs now before I play. I used to play on cocaine all the time, but I don't do that now, generally because it's bad for your health over a period of time and I found my health deteriorating. There comes a point where you've got to live, put a stop to it."

We got on to drugs and the music scene generally. "The drugs themselves are neither harmful nor harmless. They're either used or abused. The reason they're abused is because of the intolerable pressures placed upon delicate sensitivities, delicate personalities, by a rather heartless industry, in fact, a totally heartless industry, which is dependent on falsehood for its survival."

"It's like, if you have a bad gig, people in your record company'll say it was great, and if you're a sensitive person and you can see through that, it finally upsets you, the world upsets you, and if you're working hard, like some people have to, then maybe you have to take drugs to see you through and make yourself feel more confident."

"I don't think that a sign of weakness, I think if anything it's a sign of OPPRESSION, a sign that people taking drugs literally cannot stand the world, the real world; they cannot stand the unmodified world, the unamplified world."

"It's not true in my case. Well, it is true sometimes. Occasionally if I'm very unhappy I'll take some horse. But equally occasionally, if you were to offer me some after the gig tonight, if I was on top of the world and I wasn't drunk, I'd probably say 'Yes', because I enjoy it; I actually do enjoy getting high. I don't count this as a drug (referring to the joint in his hand), I don't think it's more dangerous as a drug than alcohol - also, if I have this, I don't smoke nearly as many cigarettes, and I'm a better person. I'm more peaceful; if I drink I'm sometimes very aggressive."

I tried to get John to talk about Nick Drake, a friend of his and also a person whose three records I probably value more highly than any others. He died three years ago, in tragic circumstances. Unfortunately, I brought him up by referring to an article in London magazine, that John hadn't read, which, by way of a fairly hefty literary analysis drew hints of impending suicide in Nick's work.

"Listen, I don't give a shit about that. I really don't wanna... I'm honestly fed up of the fucking miasma of death as regards rock 'n' roll; it just really pisses me off... Nick Drake was a very sad man; he was very, very talented, and very sad. He was a friend of mine, that's all I can tell you... I'm continually asked questions, and what happens is, precious2 memories are in danger of becoming anecdotes and I fucking don't want that to happen, and I think it's intrusive."

"I've turned down four interviews about Nick in the last three months, which is just great for Nick, right? But it fucking doesn't do him any fucking good now. When he was alive and kicking, no cunt wanted to know about him, nobody wanted to listen to his music, nobody played it on the fucking radio. Soon as he died all the fucking little pseudo-intellectual ponces come creeping out of their garrets in Hampstead and all the rest of it, trying to get hold of his fucking ethos, falling in love with the 'poor boy' image; it's almost slightly punk, it's so sad, it's so sad; and it wasn't affected, it was the real thing. People don't like it; people don't fucking like it; I really find the interest in him after his death disappointing and rather sickening, frankly."

"This whole business about analysing people's lyrics is a pain in the arse, even when they're alive it's a pain in the arse. The whole thing is there if it's on wax; there's no reason it should be transferred to paper. I'm really not into the whole ethos of criticism, I see the music press as a serialised advertisement, even in my case. One has to be very hard about it and retain an air of reality, and it's very difficult. If I believed all the things that were written about me I'd probably have the most incredible ego in the world, which I probably do have, or I'd be suicidal, depending on whether you get a good review. I mean, if you take any notice of that... I dunno, what can I tell you? What can I tell you?"

We discussed John's taste in music, "jazz, folk music, Indian classical music" and Weather Report's last tour. "I thought they were great; little commercial for me, but very good. I thought the presentation was a bit slick." I asked him to explain how. "Like all the enforced dancing at the end of numbers and leaping in the air at obvious points and stuff... I thought they were pandering a little. But I mean, they're my favourite band; there's no way I could ever knock 'em."

John has no immediate plans, other than an album some time and maybe touring with his wife, Beverley, but in two or three years. She has half an album in the can, which is due to be completed soon. I finished by asking if there was anything he'd like to talk about. "I don't really have anything to say that's not been said on the record. When I'm playing music I don't feel I have anything to say through the medium of words, thanks all the same for the offer."

The gig was a slight disappointment. Perhaps the fact that I've seen John play twice previously in the past twelve months, not to mention TV, had something to do with it, but his performance seemed somewhat lack-lustre. I missed the Gibson, which meant no 'One World' or 'Dead On Arrival' and also that the introduction to 'The Dealer' and 'Big Muff' seemed identical with 'Inside Out'. This, coupled with a poor vocal mix and hard floor to sit on, damped the evening somewhat, but there were moments to savour, particularly 'Certain Surprise' and the stormy 'Small Hours'. It would be nice to see John playing with Danny Thompson again, or perhaps even a small band. But no matter, still a million miles from the usual dross. Come again, John.


"Warm thanks to the capable hands of Pete Colman, for taking the photo above."

1 This gig took place November 21 1977.
2 The printed text says 'previous' but my guess is that's a typo.
This story appeared in the 'Gongster Music' section. There was also a review of One World by the same author.
Gongster was a Student Union newspaper from the University of Nottingham and was established 1939. The title ceased to exist summer 1978; Dave Belbin was its final editor.
Photocopy kindly provided by David Belbin himself.