No longer the drunken reveller, John Martyn is writing songs that equal the finest from his heyday, says MARK EDWARDS.
'There's nothing like a slap round the kipper with the fickle finger of fate to show you how much you actually like breathing,' says John Martyn, reflecting on the time, four years ago, when -as he puts it- 'my pancreas exploded'. You can't blame his pancreas. For close to a quarter of a century Martyn had been as well known for his serious drinking as for his innovative melding of folk, blues, jazz, dub and a subtle, very English funk - a sound that reached its widest audience when Eric Clapton covered Martyn's gorgeous ballad May You Never.
In particular, Martyn's tours with the bassist Danny Thompson were notable for what we might politely term their drunken revels. On one occasion, Martyn recalls waking up in his hotel room to find Thompson had nailed him under the carpet. At a gig in Bolton the pair decided to remove one garment of clothing each between every song, ending the gig stark naked. The alcohol didn't seem to impair the music. Martyn remembers one gig in Spain where he was so drunk he fell off the stage: 'I still got three encores.'
But since the slap round the kipper, he has cleaned up his act. The post-explosion Martyn has produced two albums that rank with his finest work - The Church With One Bell, an album of cover versions that came out in 1998; and Glasgow Walker, a new album of (nearly all) his own songs, which is released later this month. The Church With One Bell exists because Martyn wanted to buy the church next door to his house. His record company, Independiente, said they'd buy it for him if he recorded a covers album.
The surprising range of sources (from Billie Holliday to Portishead via Elmore James, Randy Newman and Dead Can Dance) makes more sense when you realise that the songs for the album were actually proposed by the record company, Martyn selecting the final running order from a long list they provided. The resulting album stands as strong evidence of one critic's claim that Martyn is England's finest blues singer. His voice, with its trademark slides and slurs more reminiscent of a saxophone player than any other vocalist, reached a new peak on this record. His interpretations of Strange Fruit, God's Song, Glory Box and Death Don't Have No Mercy are so personal, it seems strange he hasn't ever made an album of covers of his favourite songs, rather than his record company's.
Martyn makes room for two cover versions on Glasgow Walker, You Don't Know What Love Is and Julie London's Cry Me a River; but he's writing now as well as he did in his 1970s heyday when albums like Stormbringer, Bless the Weather and Solid Air established his reputation as one of the most distinctive talents to emerge from the late-1960s electric-folk scene. The album also marks a departure, in that it's the first album he's written on a keyboard, instead of his trademark guitar. During a phone conversation with Phil Collins, his erstwhile collaborator, Collins suggested Martyn simply must try a new synthesiser, the Korg Trinity. 'So I dashed out and bought one,' says Martyn, 'and three years later I'm still playing Chopsticks.'
Arduously picking away at the keyboard with one finger, Martyn came up with the haunting melody that underpins Field of Play, one of the standout tracks on Glasgow Walker, and a piece he describes as a first world war melody. In contrast, So Sweet, with its African-sounding chant, is more like something you would expect to hear on the Real World label. The lyrics, as so often with Martyn, revolve around relationships. 'That was a friend of mine who packed it in with her boyfriend and said how sweet it was to be free, and I said don't you find it a bit painful? She said, yeah - but sweet.'
Martyn's favourite song on the album is Wild Flower, a typically romantic piece ('My resolve is weak, sometimes staggering from street to street. But I still love wildflowers, and I still love my rose'). 'I must confess I prefer writing love songs to anything else,' he says. 'They come easily to me. I don't know why - it's not as if I'm an abnormally loving person.'
The Cat Won't Work Tonight, however, is not a love song. It's ... well ... who knows? It began life, Martyn reveals, 'when the guy who was producing the record was wondering why the f*** didn't I get on and do some work. So I started thinking about the word 'work' and who works and who doesn't. It's so obscure, nobody will understand it at all'. Somewhere in the middle of the song, the 'Cat' starts to assume the characteristics of a real cat. And the song ends with the sounds of milk bottles breaking. 'I like the milk-bottle solo,' laughs Martyn. 'It knocks all the other milk bottle solos into a cocked hat, really. It's world-class milk bottling.'
Glasgow Walker is released on Independiente on May 22;
John Martyn begins a UK tour in Brighton, June 1.