01 May 2001
After thirty years away from it all, Beverley Martyn is making music again. She speaks to Bob Stanley about her music, friends, enemies and looking after Nick Drake.
It takes some doing, especially when you think of such lost souls as Jackson C. Frank and Vashti Bunyan, but in a crowded field Beverley Martyn remains one of the most enigmatic folk singers of the late '60s. Only odd facts seemed to be known: she released a pair of pop singles on Deram, added her clear, English tones to Simon and Garfunkel's Faking It ('Good morning, Mr Leitch...'), recorded two wonderful Witchseason LPs with John Martyn, and then disappeared into thin air. As is often the case, Bev was just down the road the whole time - in Sussex for the last 30 years - and is now happy to play any time she's asked. Her first album in nearly three decades, No Frills, has been well received and now, sitting in a Brighton café, she is happy to join the dots.
Growing up in Coventry on a diet of Buddy Holly and The Everley Brothers, Beverley realised her calling one night in 1963. 'I remember my mother calling me into the front room saying, "Here is a nice Jewish boy for you". It was Bob Dylan in a play called Madhouse On Castle Street and I thought, Wow, who's this? He looked incredible, like Huckleberry Finn.'
At 15, Bev got a grant to study drama in London (her classmates included Francesca Annis, Richard O'Sullivan, and part-time drummer Mitch Mitchell) and soon she was frequenting folk clubs and hanging out with her first boyfriend, Bert Jansch, who gave her guitar lessons. By '65 she had her own jug band, The Levee Breakers. 'I used to go to Dobell's and buy Jim Kweskin records and these old, rare American jug band albums. Klaus Voormann saw us at a club in Tooting Bec and got us a deal with EMI.' One unique sounding single, Baby I'm Leaving You, came out before Parlophone said, Ditch the group. 'They wanted a British Cher. Bert said to me: "No way! They'll turn you into something horrible."' By the time Denny Cordell approached her at Les Cousins with a production-management deal, Jansch's opinion wasn't as highly valued. 'I was very young. He was juggling about five women at the same time and I didn't realise!'
The fast-talking Cordell cajoled Beverley into writing her own songs and late in 1966 she had the first release on the Deram label - a Randy Newman song called Happy New Year, coupled with her own barnstorming Where The Good Times Are. The raucous backing was provided by Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins. 'Those songs were quite gentle to start with, Jimmy turned them into pure rock! He was interested in my guitar tuning and when I told him Bert had taught me he really wanted to meet him. That single didn't sell but it was a musicians' record, people seemed to know me on the scene.'
Fans included Paul McCartney ('He stopped talking to me after I said he'd put on weight, not surprisingly...') and new beau Paul Simon who was, 'Great fun, very East Coast.'
Joe Boyd said, Stay away from him,
Within months Bev was playing the Monterey festival: 'The star attractions were asked to bring a guest - The Mamas And The Papas picked Laura Nyro, Paul took me. I played three songs, one backed by Lou Rawls' band, and then I spent this fantastic summer going all over America with Paul and Artie playing acoustic gigs at these enormous venues. At one point Paul said, "We can't get you a green card so maybe we should get married." But I said, I'm really young! What should I want to get married for? I know it sounds ridiculous now.'
Before they split in San Francisco, Paul got Beverley into the studio where she recorded some unreleased songs as well as adding her tough to Bookends. 'I don't think Danny Cordell was that bothered any more, he'd just done Whiter Shade Of Pale.'
Beverley came back to the UK to discover her mother had died while she'd been in the States. 'I just changed then. It really shook me.' Joe Boyd met Bev in '68 and began recording her for what eventually become Stormbringer. 'Joe kept bringing Nick Drake round trying to push me into friendship with him, but he was always so shy.' In any case, she'd just met a guitarist called John Martyn, who had taken a shine to her. 'Joe said, Stay away from him, he's Glaswegian! But we began writing together and it just became John and Bev...'
Stormbringer, recorded in New York with a line-up including Levon Helm on drums, was released in 1970. It made John and Beverley the king and queen of the UK folk-rock scene. Bev's smokey voice and songs like Tomorrow Time and John The Baptist created a blend of English folk and vague Americana that still sounds warm and open - heck, these kids were newlyweds. 'We had a flat in Hampstead, Nick Drake lived just down the road. He never cooked so he'd come round for meals, babysit, play cards. John didn't mind leaving us, he knew Nick would never try to pull me! We loved him to pieces."
A second album with Joe Boyd, Road to ruin, included Beverley's super-atmospheric Auntie Aviator, but 'Joe Boyd was pissed off because John wanted more and more control. I just got pushed further into the background. He didn't want to do gigs with me. Then I had another baby. Joe went back to the US to work on Rainbow Bridge and said, "Look after Nick for me, Bev." So I had two babies and John and Nick! I wanted to do my own album and John said, "They only want one of us and that's me." He started putting me down, giving me abuse. I lost my self worth, I was just thinking, Am I rubbish?'
The couple moved to Hastings and John's Bless the weather took off while Beverley sat at home. 'Nick would come and stay sometimes and we'd write together, but there was nobody there for us after Joe left. One night Nick and John went out, I don't know where, and when they came back Nick said to me: "Can't you see what he's like? I'll take you away." I just thought this is too weird, I'm going to bed. And in the morning Nick left. I had a bad feeling. When we got the phone call I just went to pieces. I took it very badly and got very ill.'
Beverley finally got away from John after getting a court order to keep him out of the house, but piecing her life and music back together took years. With help from Art Garfunkel and fellow Dylan obsessive Wilko Johnson she eventually began to write new songs and record some demos in the '90s, finally releasing the acoustic No Frills this year. 'Now I can laugh about my breakdown, the kids say, "Mum went mad listening to Bob Dylan!" I'm a strong woman.'
No Frills is out now on Voiceprint.
Published in the 'What Goes On' section. The reporter does not seem to know that No Frills was released on Mystic Small Productions a whole lot earlier than we are led to believe, in 1998 to be precise. The album was recorded live in the studio; Spenser Martyn did the mix.