Richard Skinner: John Martyn, contemporary and fellow Island recording artist in those days, yes?
John Martyn: This is true, this is true.
RS: Did you know the man well?
JM: I did, yes. We lived very close to each other. He lived in one part of Hampstead, and I lived just up the road. Um, very quiet, very quiet lad. Extremely personable and charming, when necessary.
JM: Um, Handsome, to a devastating effect.
RS: Yes the pictures, um, quite stunning pictures. I mean there's almost a touch of um, gaw dear me I can't think, of, um ...
JM: Pre-Raphaelite and all that kind of stuff
RS: Yes. The word I wasn't thinking of, but it's a very good way of describing him.
JM: (laughs) Admirable.
RS: Why do you think Nick Drake has become the legend that exists today?
JM: I would imagine because of the quality of the music and his writing. It's just very good music. And he was... and it's very British, isn't it? And that's one of the things I like about it, I think. Dream Academy have quoted him as being one of their influences or at least dedic ...
RS: In fact they dedicated a hit to him, yeah.
JM: Yes that's right. "To the memory of Nick". And I think it's because he's British, that's its secret for me, anyway.
RS: It does seem to have a perennial appeal, because it's hitting new generations. People who are, what, fifteen years younger than Nick are now saying that this man is important.
JM: Yes well it is, it's inevitably good. You can't really say that it's bad music, so therefore it has a certain strength.
RS: What sort of man was he, though?
JM: Um... When I first met him he was rather more urbane than he became. Um. He was always charming, delicately witty. Um. But he just became more and more withdrawn as time went by, in the three or four years that I knew him he became more and more withdrawn. I think he suffered from some sort of depression.
RS: You were saying about ...
JM: We called it melancholia in the Victorian days.
RS: Absolutely right, you were saying about him being eminently British. I mean he went to Marlborough and Cambridge.
JM: (laughs) I didn't [unintelligible] the idea that he was eminently British, the music is eminently British, English actually.
RS: I mean ... But he seems to be a product of the English middle class.
JM: That's undoubtably true, and I think that reflects very well in his music.
I mean, what you see is what you get.
It's all... It's erudite, it's cultured and it's refined. I like it.
RS: Was he a typical singer / song-writer of his period?
JM: No. I have to say that the thing that sets him apart again is his implicit, innate Britishness.
While everyone else on the Island roster who was contemporary with himself, including myself, were having flirtations with American based sounds. Um. In the same way that Elton John was in his, um the first record, what's it called, A man across the water
RS: Across an empty sky, yeah.
JM: Yeah. All very American based sounds, you know, the whole idea was to try and sound like The Band if you could possibly. All this kind of stuff. And he was just very quietly going his own way and producing very, as I say, very British sounds.
RS: Shall we hear another track? This is from his second album [cut-off]
RS: He played very few live performances, John?
JM: Two to my knowledge. One was a Christmas affair given by the Coetry Climats Apprentices, I suppose it was their Christmas ball. That really destroyed him, because I think they would rather have listened to The Troggs.
RS: Or Amen Corner, or something, yeah.
JM: That's right. So I think that was a major blow to his confidence. I remember him being defensive about that for days and days. And then he did another one at the Festival Hall supporting Sandy Denny, and ...
RS: That sounds a bit more like him.
JM: It was a good place for him, but he was cripplingly nervous. I mean he was just... He was just distraught before the gig. It was rather embarrassing in fact, to see him. He was distinctly uncomfortable on stage. I mean the music was fine, but he just didn't like being there at all.
RS: So this is the reason that the man didn't play many more gigs, that it was just destroying him.
JM: I get the impression that it was just costing him too much to go on the stage. It was just like no amount of applause or anything else would ever have paid him back the mental effort and energy that he had to expend.
RS: Did this get worse as time went by? Because you say the man changed.
JM: Unfortunately it did, yeah, he just slipped and slipped further away into himself and divorced himself from the mundane. It's very sad, really. And it wasn't through lack of trying, all kinds of people tried to be friendly, and went out of their way to be nice, but I suppose he'd see through that, you see, being very bright and intelligent. You know "What's in it for you?".
RS: The image of the troubled artist, in a sense.
JM: Oh absolutely, a classic case, bionic stuff, I mean heroic stuff.
RS: Do you think he could have been helped? That the end might not have happened as it did?
JM: (theatrical intake of breath) It's very easy to look back and think of oneself. I mean you look at you own behaviour, I look at mine and think perhaps I should have done more and I think everyone who knew him felt exactly the same way. I mean a [unintelligible] man, and a great loss and stuff. No I think he had his sights set, and that was that. I don't think it was... There was no gainsaying the man, once he'd decided on his course of action he just took it.
RS: Yes. He was prepared not to go on much longer, do you feel?
JM: I think he was just... He found the place was just not good quite enough for him, in all honesty. And whereas a lot of people just harden themselves to the whole nonsense and say "Well alright, well the world isn't exactly perfect, but I'll just get on with it", I think the weight of responsibility and social... and I suppose in every other way just overpowered him. He didn't enjoy life much.
RS: Did he not try going places, being in other areas, you know?
JM: He certainly did. He went to Paris, and spent a lot of time there. He went to the country. He came and lived with me in various locations. And was just distinctly unhappy in all of them. He just didn't enjoy any... I think he distrusted the world. He thought it didn't quite live up to his expectations.
RS: Yes. He is now undergoing a revival, or whatever, of popularity. Do you think there's been anybody, since him, who has touched the sort of genius that he had?
JM: There's no-one covering that particular area. Especially in the last seven or eight years. I mean a sort of coarsening of music has been apparent, to me anyway. And the acoustic guitar, which was his, I suppose his medium, has fallen from favour. With the [unintelligible] of the folk boom, and all that sort of stuff, it's more and more difficult for acoustic instrument players, and people who are based around that to break through. But there is no-one, really, who is doing that. Not that I know of, I mean there may be someone just lurking about, you know. But I don't think so.
RS: Remarkable the appeal of the man. On the sleeve notes it says there that his parents still get letters from people from all the way around the world, wanting to know about his inspirations, about the way he played his guitar. And I dare say it's going to be around for a few years yet, as well.
JM: I would imagine so.
RS: John, thank you for talking to us.
Transcription by Jon Eva from the Nick Drake bootleg CD The Complete Home Recordings.
First published on the Nick Drake Files.