John Martyn | The Simmer Dim

9 Jun 2008
Written by: 
John Hillarby

19 hours of midsummer daylight
138 sandy beaches,
567 square miles of islands,
900 amazing miles of coastline,
46,000 gannets,
200,000 puffins, and
the odd herring or two.


1 baby,
560 stamping feet,
1 guitar, and...
John Martyn.

Add plenty of humour and banter, bring slowly to the boil and then simmer gently for 73 minutes with an appreciative audience.

The Garrison Theatre on King Harald Street, Lerwick has 280 seats and we join John on a foggy 12th August 1980 for an intimate and memorable solo gig courtesy of the Lerwick Folk Club, tickets were just £3!

Lerwick is the chief town of the Shetland archipelago and the most northerly town in Great Britain. It is situated on a natural harbour on a sheltered stretch of water between the Shetland mainland and the island of Bressay (Bressay Sound) on the eastern coast of Shetland. The name comes from Old Norse Lervik, meaning 'muddy bay'. The town developed from a small 16th century fishing village offering port and curing facilities to Scottish and international fishing fleets, becoming the centre of the North Sea oil boom in the 1970s. Modern day Lerwick is a fascinating blend of old and new, and equally fascinating is its weather.

In midwinter there are less than six hours of daylight; at midsummer nearly nineteen hours plus five and a bit hours of a surreal twilight; The Simmer Dim as locals call it. Shetland summers are breezy, bright and idyllic. The winters are punctuated by hurricanes and storms, a boisterous and unsettled climate where no two days are the same. John Martyn is equally unpredictable, occasionally boisterous and always emotional as he blends the old with the new, and the acoustic with the electric! John's live persona often came as a surprise to an audience seeing him for the first time, perhaps expecting the sensitive shy artist he appeared to be on some of his albums. Far from it! John is in love with life, enjoying it to the full, lively and quick witted, he soon builds a rapport with his audience through conversation and humour without overshadowing the emotion and overwhelming compassion of his music, music that gives his audience a glimpse of the inner John, the real John Martyn.

John starts the gig with a 'Hastings song' Over The Hill, the last train from London down to Hastings arrives at the break of dawn, and from the carriage windows John could see his own house just over East Hill. Spencer the Rover is a traditional song which John picked up from Robin Dransfield, then put through his own arrangement and, with the help of the Lerwick audience John gives a unique performance of One World with the audience providing the heartbeat by stamping their feet! This flowing seascape is Johns expression of his wish to live in a harmonious world, an ideal integrated society with a perfect social, legal, and political system; Utopia. A song inspired by the world and yet sadly and paradoxically in sharp contrast to reality.

Some of us live like princes
Some of us live like queens
Most of us live just like me
And we don't know what it means
To take our place in one world
To make our peace in one world
To make our way in one world
To have our say in one world

Johns unique vocals have a depth and humanity that summons up the compassion and warmth in us all for our fellow man, a warmth that is so often buried in the pressures and responsibilities of everyday life.

With the audiences feet tiring John segues One World to Anna, the title song he recorded for the 1978 road movie In Search Of Anna that tells the story of a newly released convict called Tony, trying to pull his life together. The intense and exquisite Couldn't Love You More is followed by Big Muff, Certain Surprise and Dealer, with the charming Certain Surprise eliciting an unexpected response from at least one member of the audience! Seven Black Roses documents John's genius on the guitar having been written in the mid 1960s specifically for the folk club circuit. Acknowledging one of his musical inspirations, Davey Graham, John explains, "If you couldn't play Anji you weren't in the fucking running, couldn't get a gig, so I invented a guitar instrumental, which is very very impressive, its for people who own clubs, its really a kind of musical joke, it's a very visual guitar solo."

A nine minute daydream, Outside In, with soaring guitar explorations and exaltations is John's penultimate song before he closes the set with May You Never. Beautiful in its time defying simplicity, May You Never bobs and weaves as John expresses a touching weakness and vulnerability.

May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

You're just like a great strong brother of mine
You know that I love you true
And you never talk dirty behind my back
And I know that there's those that do.

Oh please won't you, please won't you
Bear it in mind
Love is a lesson to learn in our time
Now please won't you, please won't you
Bear it in mind for me.

As the sun dips below the horizon, the enchanting summer sky changes from a deep blue to a rich turquoise close to the water. Sit back and enjoy the undeniably gifted John Martyn as he delivers a captivating and delightful performance, at times poignant, at times amusing but always entertaining and heart wrenchingly honest.

The magical Simmer Dim.

John Hillarby

Related to: