This man is a walking, playing bag of his own

Chris Salewicz
New Musical Express
This Man Is A Walking, Playing Bag Of His Own
(And it's not the letters page, it's the forgotten genius spot)
How to stay sane and live with your talent in a greedy, pigeonholing music business...
"ACTUALLY," ADMITS John Martyn, as he gives in to one of the great groundswells of spluttering, infectious laughter that carry along his speech, "I see myself as a dignified observer of the music business. I feel a bit like a voyeur sometimes. I just flit in and out. I really" -now he's offering great howls of very honest laughter- "don't want much to do with it."

"It's very sad really: I would like to be known for something that was worthwhile. However, my desire to be known in this manner isn't sufficient for me to make a bastard of myself doing it. After all," he shakes his head, "people do tend to lose their dignity in the music business."

Martyn pockets his packet of skins, finishes his glass of Beaujolais, and leaves the Reading University Union wine bar to join in on the last twenty minutes of his old bass partner Danny Thompson's solo set that precedes his own hour-long show.1

If you made it past the headline and have read as far as this sentence it's quite possible you may be thinking of packing up about now. After all, John Martyn's just some boring old folkie isn't he? A slightly dated ethnic tunesmith who always gets cuts from his latest album played on the John Peel show, announces a string of university tour dates and then disappears again.

John Martyn's not exactly hea-vee, is he now? Not like the Pistols or Zeppelin...
Well, sorry, you blew it. You've branded yourself as that animal that is one of Martyn's own pet phobias: the musical categoriser. "The people that do that just don't know you," he sighs. "I've had folk rock, pub rock... It really pisses me off. And you don't have any control over it: people who say that are just not familiar with the music; if they were it would become self-evident that you shouldn't... stick it in a box."

(Oh, and incidentally, John Rotten went backstage after Martyn's Rainbow gig a couple of weeks ago to tell him how much he digs his music.)2 No, Martyn is a great deal more than just a 'folkie', and his music transcends almost all the barriers you might care to erect.

Not that John Martyn has anything against folkies. On the contrary, it was in the folk clubs of his native Glasgow in 1964, under the guidance of his mentor, singer-guitarist Hamish Imlach, that the sixteen-year-old Martyn began working on the unique blend of guitar and vocal style that he has subsequently developed and rarefied, and developed and rarefied again.

There existed in the folk clubs he claims, a camaraderie, a true love for and belief in your fellow man, that he has experienced only rarely in the more brutal world of rock music. "I haven't been to a folk club for about five years now. And they are," he agrees, "really odd. I don't like them that much now."

"But, at their best, at their hippest," he offers his ultimate seal of approval, "There were the first places you could go in this country and smoke dope. And between the musicians there was much more of a vibe than I've ever found in the rock scene. There's a cut-throat element that comes in when you become a professional rock musician. The amounts of money involved are so large that people think they can get away with more. And consequently their morals break down in their proceedings with other human beings."

"The way people behaved them selves when I played the folk clubs was really much nicer. That was also because there was a left-wing tradition in folk clubs when I was playing them in Scotland. They had almost a common political cause as much as anything else."

THAT, THOUGH, was then, and since around '71, when Martyn moved to London [sic] and cut Bless The Weather -his fourth album and the first he produced himself- folk has been just one area of John Martyn's musical life. Certainly his folk days alone can't account for the huge variety of influences in his music, or the wide and expansive mood in his work which osmoses both a steamy sensuality (shades of Tennessee Williams) and, paradoxically, an almost Calvinist purity and beauty (a legacy of his Scots upbringing surely). Nor can his folk days account for the density of the Terry Riley influences on records like Solid Air or (to quote Brian Blevins' liner notes on So Far So Good) the Bessie Smith / Skip James vocalese he first employed on that record, "slurred and straggled to the point of effacement, becoming another part of the instrumental mix."

"I'm much more interested," he says, "in the soul and in tone than in agility and precision. Using my voice as tone is as important -perhaps more important- than singing. On the guitar I'd rather hear one note played with soul than a whole lot from which I personally can't discern much emotion."

Folk aside, Martyn's early influences include Chuck Berry and the Chess bluesmen, whose work he reverently collected, and to such peripheral folk artists as Bob Dylan, and Them era Van Morrison as from listening to his personal first guitar hero, Davy Graham.
John Martyn likes listening to Wayne Shorter, to reggae (especially Toots and the Maytals), and to folk music, of course. He doesn't listen to very much rock - "I listen to Cajun music for rock'n'roll. Or Freddie King." He listens to Gavin Bryant plus other curios on Eno's Obscure label, and to Arab and Indian music. He also used to get off on early Stones and Johnny Kidd and the Pirates. He must, he says, get round to going to check out the re-formed Pirates.

In the end, though, as all art must, the complexity/ simplicity of his music comes from the complexity/ simplicity of Martyn himself. One doesn't like to labour the point -I seem to recall alluding to it in my Burning Spear piece- but the sense of fulfilment you get from any art is in direct proportion to the fulfilment of the artist creating it.
IN WHICH case John Martyn would appear to be a positive argument for both the single parent family unit and for swapping the stresses of an urban life (Glasgow/ London) for the repose of the English seaside and country (Hastings and then Heathfield, Sussex).

Martyn was born in 1948 in Scotland [sic], a Virgo. The Celtic poetic spirit, he admits, has wrought its mark on him: "Much against my will I do think it's important in me. It's unfortunate because I detest racism, and I think nationalism's terribly dangerous. But I'm terribly proud of my heritage, just the dichotomy of the soul."

At the age of five his parents split up, his mother returning to her native England while his father remained in Glasgow. For much of his childhood, Martyn spent his school holidays with his mother; which accounts, he says, for his lack of a Scottish accent.
Did his split family render him a psychological mess?
"I wish I could say that it had. I think if anything it did me a great deal of good. I felt quite privileged I seem to remember. I had a very good childhood."

In 1968, having moved to London to play the English folk circuit, he was the first white man to sign with the fledgling Island Records, then still based on the profits from the bluebeat label. As he has with Robert Palmer and Jess Roden, Island boss Chris Blackwell has paid close personal attention to Martyn's career. "I think Chris takes a personal interest in my affairs in the way that a friend would. But there's something slightly disparaging about talking about it like this, it's almost like..."
"Yeah, to a certain extent I suppose I've found myself a rich patron. Actually," he covers himself, "I don't think it is patronage. I think if it was unfeasible business-wise he wouldn't be doing it."

Indeed, Martyn's sales record should give Island nothing to worry about. Each album he's cut, he claims, has sold between thirty and forty thousand copies: "Enough to get by on. It trucks along. Everyone's happy. Always pays for itself in the end. Might take a year or two but no-one gets done."

The Live At Leeds album Martyn put out two years ago independently of Island did not, incidentally, mask any disagreements with the label. On the contrary, the record, which Martyn sold by mail order from his home, couldn't have been sold without the company's co-operation. "They pressed it for me... I went to them and said I wanted it as my next release and they said they didn't think the time was right for me to do that. So I said 'Okay, if you don't want to put it out let me make ten thousand and put it out myself'.
And they said 'Okay, and furthermore we'll press it for you and make the label'."

After making two solo albums for Island, London Conversation and The Tumbler -and two more with Beverley, the singer he married- Stormbringer (at Woodstock in the summer of '69) and The Road To Ruin, Martyn tired of London and moved to Hastings. After four and a half years of the capital he was glad to leave. "Have you seen those speeded-up films of bees and wasps returning to their hives on which you can see their flight paths? Well, I felt you could do the same thing over any row of houses in London - this great zipping to and fro, I couldn't live in the city again."

Martyn now lives in Heathfield in Sussex. As neither he nor Beverley drive this occasionally causes his manager the odd problem. Managing a dignified observer has its price.

FOR THE purpose of this article Martyn and I met three times over the past nine months, twice at Island Records offices in Chiswick in West London and once at Reading University where I accompanied him to a gig at the end of the month. Martyn is a very energetic, warm and likeable person. Unlike many musicians who often display the verbal hesitancy of people more used to communicating with their instruments than with their tongues, he is both garrulous and articulate, expressing himself frequently very humorously in complex sentence constructions. He'd probably make a good writer. With his ruddy cheeks and penchant for tweed and corduroy suits he recalls characters from Thomas Hardy novels. Indeed, he seems to rather enjoy occasionally slipping into the role of benevolent country squire. Certainly he's a testament to the benefic effect of living in the country.

Tricky one this...

Realising that greater success could interfere with the exceptionally pleasant quality of his life, Martyn has never had any desire to make it bigger than he is in terms of crowd-drawing, record-selling status. As an artist he's evolved organically: "It's always seemed natural. My whole career has always been a series of very happy accidents. I've never premeditated it. Never. Obviously there are days when you wake up and think 'Oh how uninspiring', but other days you think 'It's really not too bad'."

Being a free person, someone who owns himself, has always meant far more to Martyn than the concept of superstardom. He is utterly bemused by musicians for whom financial success is the only criterion.

"I've met people," he tells me, glancing round the walls of the Island office at the posters of famous, and some not so famous, rock stars, "Who've gone and mortgaged their houses for another chance at yet another tour with yet another band. Really sweet lovable people attempting to project some ludicrous idea of success. Very bad, very bad..." he shakes his head, "Wanting success more than a roof over your head seems pretty weird to me."

"Someone was saying to me 'What would you do if you stopped making records and doing gigs and stuff?' And I would actually go back to the folk clubs. Because I'm sure that even with no marketing, no records, and no publicity, if people dig you enough they're going to come and see you. The trouble is you get used to a certain standard of living. I like real coffee -ridiculous- pound for pound it's almost more expensive than dope these days."

To the question of whether he has never felt the inclination to involve himself in any of the Macchiavellian drives for success favoured by a certain breed of musician, Martyn tells me that, if he ever has, it's the one he's now in the middle of. Later he tells me he's pulled it off: "I got a manager to pull me together. And I avoided signing a contract with him. Avoiding the contract was the truly Macchiavellian thing... I couldn't be more happy, though. I got a deal which says I can do what I want on payment of twenty-five per cent of everything I own, but I also get the chance of doing what I like and gigging and recording when and where I like."

Does this mean he's going to work more or less?
"Oh, almost certainly less," he jokes. "I'd love to be a millionaire. I'd really love to be one. But the trouble is," he leans over on his couch towards me, "You've got to try so-o-o hard. And unless you start with a great deal of money in your progress to being a millionaire and are able to do it by financial wizardry you invariably have to trample on a few people to get there. I can't even add up let alone get into all of that."

Perhaps it shows a certain confidence in yourself that you're prepared to stay at this level...
"Oh yeah. I have faith in myself as a melodious person. I'm sure that there'll always be someone who can give me a few bob to go and sing for them."
But you're never fuelled by paranoia at your current inadequacy which then drives you on to a higher level?
"But you can always do that, can't you? That's the one where you can never stop. I've heard guitar-players and I think 'Oh, fuck me. I should give up'. But there's always someone better than you or someone that you dig more. That's the whole point. You've just got to learn to live with yourself. In the end nobody's better than anybody else. They're all just different."

THE REASON you haven't heard too much about John Martyn of late is because, in keeping with a philosophical stance that is outside the norm of both that of the music business and that of Western capitalist society, he took a sabbatical for the whole of 1976. Feeling locked into the record - tour - record - tour syndrome and realizing he had gone beyond a point where the nervous energy manifested on the road could be converted into creative energy at home or in the studio, he opted to spend every penny he possessed -seven and a half thousand pounds, to be precise- in ensuring he gained a finer perspective on what he was trying to do with his life and his music.

"Very few people can do that. I find myself very, very privileged to be able to do that sort of thing. Cost me all the bread that I had but," he laughs, "It was worth it, I tell you. Beautiful. Very good for your brainbox."

His connections with Island assisted him in passing four months of that year in Jamaica: "I was in rags and tatters. Emotionally I was a bit fucked. Nervous exhaustion and all that. Nothing wrong with me-e-e eeee!!!" he burst out, guffawing. "It was a great experience to he able to go somewhere that beautiful and have nothing to do."

"I honestly believe that I would have been completely round the bend had I not gone and done that. I just woke up one morning and thought 'Well, why do I feel this shitty? I shouldn't feel this bad'. At that point I had more money than I'd ever had before. And I found that I was probably unhappier than I'd ever been in my life. So there you go: air tickets immediately."

"But the music business is bound to do your brain in. Just the whole travelling aspect, for example. Even if you weren't involved in something as ludicrous as getting up and singing about yourself."

Getting the beer can through the phaser

Did he find he was damaging his music?
"Not exactly my music but my health. But it was damaging my music in as much as I didn't write anything for about eight months, which freaked me out." So freaked out, in fact, that when he put down his guitar towards the end of 1975 he was unable to pick it up again for three months.
"I'm feeling very good about the whole business now, though. In fact, it's funny: my own head is definitely a bit more... lively, since going out and doing a few gigs."

Whilst in JA Martyn passed the first few weeks coming down from Europe and absorbed a little local colour. He was particularly impressed with a tale he heard about a legendary local figure known as Countryman.
Countryman spent some considerable time building a house for his wife and himself by the beach where he lives and fishes. One day, Countryman's wife decided she would like to own a radio. Next day when she went out Countryman sold the house, bought her a radio, and then set about building yet another house. "And you can actually do that. Just go and catch a fish when you're hungry. As long as you don't get bored with fishing and fish to eat and sun and sea and sunshine then you're alright."

After a while, though, Martyn found he was able to look a guitar in the face again. The Island connections were utilised. First, he played on a couple of tracks on Man In The Hills with Burning Spear.
That wasn't however, necessarily the cosmic experience one might envy: "I found it basically unfriendly. Just the general vibes that you had to go through were fairly suspicious. Mind you, I was meeting them under very odd circumstances, 'Got a gree-yat guitar player for you here, mon' And I walk in and they're all very small. And I'm standing there with a white suit on which probably looks arrogant. And wearing ear-rings, watches, the whole number. They're going 'Fuckin' 'ell, what's this?' And I'd got a phaser and they'd never seen one before. One of those, you know?"

More conducive to JA-style Happy Vibes was his work with one well-known producer, who for obvious reasons must remain nameless, who wondered if Martyn would prefer to be paid in money or in blue films. He also tells a tale of another well-known artist delivering an album to his label only because he needed a lot of cash very quickly to pay off the cops who were about to bust him.

His time spent working with Lee 'Scratch' Perry was the most interesting, however: "A very good producer. I saw him make three hit records in three hours. In fact," he laughs, "I played on two of them. No playbacks. Not allowed to listen to playbacks. Just press it. There was a Max Romeo one... ah, I've forgotten, all local hits. No hit records over here. If you get four thousand singles sold in Kingston you're on the way. Because what happens is that they make the records downstairs and press 'em up and sell them in a little shop above."

"Also, they work a lot on advance orders. 'Dillinger's in the studio. You want a copy?' Lee Perry's advice as to how to play on one track was: 'Look up a nana'. And 'look up a nana' is what you do when you're a naughty little boy and you look up your grandmother's skirt. Which I thought was very good. But there was a great communication problem with him because he's very difficult to understand. Such a broad accent."

Although his year off solidified rather than loosened John Martyn's wish to remain outside the music industry, he also appears to have come to a decision that he perhaps has a certain duty to give his art to as many people as he can. But if only it was possible to get up there onstage and totally liberate yourself from the sound of ringing cash registers...
"I quite fancy", he admits, "Being... well more well-known, I suppose. Not rich and famous but I'd like a few more people to listen to the music. It is a very good feeling when people stand up and clap."

Certainly that feedback's necessary to prevent the ego from cannibalising itself.
"Yeah" he nods, "the confidence you get from playing in front of an audience and having a good gig is very valuable. Not just at the gig but because it can actually vibe you up for two or three days. And then it gives you more confidence in your writing which is where it's probably most useful."

"I used to say that I wrote exclusively for myself but I've since found that's not true. You do, in fact, write for your audience. Not consciously, of course. And you've got to give value for money. It's weird but when it comes down to it that's what it's all really about."

Obviously the year off has done you good.
"Certainly. Mainly in that I'm a little bit cooler than I was. I'm feeling very good. The great thing about time is that it's such a healer. Just a having the time to sit back and not doing anything..." he sighs quite blissfully. "I wonder how these guys who do business -you know, heavy business types- operate. They must get screwed up as hell. I suppose it accounts for my values somewhat."

"Actually, I didn't realise until this tour just how radically my attitude has changed. Definitely for the better. I feel so much lighter about the whole thing now, I feel I've got it in perspective. I'll certainly never again be able to justify flying about at such an absurd rate. I'm a bit like a junkie - it's only when you stop that you actually realise you're hooked on the stuff. Nowadays I don't do it unless I can have a good time."

"It's strange to even talk about it. It's much nicer to play. I tell you: if I could get beamed to gigs instead of having to schlep up and down motorways and eat lousy food, I'd be doing five a day."

IN THE Reading Union late-night bar an earnest young thing approaches John Martyn after the gig to tell him she'd enjoyed the show. "Keep on strumming," she chortles cheerily as a farewell.

Martyn's face drops. "Keep on strumming.' Did you hear that? KEEP ON STRUMMING!!" His manager thoughtfully thrusts a glass of port and brandy into his hand. He gulps it down and leans against the bar: "God! Well, at least it lets you know what you're up against."

1 This was the concert of Wednesday 23 November, 1977.
2 The show at the Rainbow with the Gong rhythm section and Steve Winwood; 21 November 1977.
This story was published in the Christmas edition of the New Musical Express, 24 December 1977, on page 25 and 26. It featured photographs by Pennie Smith.
The magazine had Ian Dury on the cover and originally cost 36p.
In the same issue John got a spot in a feature 'Fifty good reasons why 1977 was a great year for rock and roll'. He can be found on #23: "JOHN MARTYN for One World and for always being a good folk."