The guitarist John Martyn has swapped hellraising for Buddhism. He explains his change of direction to James McNair
John Martyn's four-decade career has certainly seen its share of alcohol-fuelled misadventure. He once awoke to find that Pentangle's double-bassist, Danny Thompson, had nailed him under a carpet; his pancreas burst in 1996; and in July 2002 he was forced to don a neck brace after a head-on collision with a cow. When I interviewed him about 1999's Glasgow Walker album, he was nursing a dislocated shoulder after a fall. Since then, he has broken an arm and several toes.
"Most men would be dead having done what John's done," the folk singer Ralph McTell has said. But more recent events suggest that this maverick hedonist isn't indestructible after all. In April last year, surgeons in Waterford, Ireland, had to amputate his right leg below the knee. On hearing that sad news, one suspected the demon drink was again to blame. But this time it wasn't. Or, at least, not directly.
"Basically, it was down to an undiscovered cyst," Martyn says, "a horrible ganglion thing. For three years, I ignored it, but things came to a head when I got an electric shock from a mic-stand. The cyst popped, and all the synovial fluid caused my leg to swell up to twice the size. At that point I knew I'd best go and get the damn thing off. It was", he laughs and begins singing, "'Every time we say goodbye/ I cry a little.'"
As evinced by BBC4's upcoming documentary Johnny Too Bad, such black humour is a source of strength for Martyn. The film follows the 55-year-old pre- and post-op, sitting in on sessions for his 22nd studio album, On the Cobbles, and using archive footage to tell the story of his esteemed, protean career. One of the most touching images is of Teresa, Martyn's Irish girlfriend of six years, pushing him through the countryside in a wheelchair. Martyn has the couple's Jack Russell, Gizmo, on a taut lead, and the creature is striding ahead. "Mush! Mush!" shouts his master.
Born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, Martyn is the son of two light-opera singers who divorced when he was two. He was brought up in Glasgow by his paternal grandmother, Janet. Having made a name for himself on the same London folk-cellar circuit that was frequented by Bob Dylan and Bert Jansch, Martyn became the first white artist signed to Chris Blackwell's Island label, in 1967.
The albums London Conversation of that year and 1968's The Tumbler were pure folk albums, but Martyn had a restless creative spirit, and his subsequent albums took in jazz, dub, blues, Latin, ambient and trip-hop elements. He is probably best loved for 1973's Solid Air, a sublime proto-chill-out record. Conspicuously, Martyn has never really enjoyed mainstream success; though it's difficult to fathom exactly why, his stylistic changes, hedonism and reluctance to play by record-company rules are probably contributing factors.
I meet Martyn and Teresa in Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, at their local pub; then we retire to their pretty, bric-a-brac-strewn cottage. Although it's only 2pm on a Thursday, a bottle of red wine is immediately uncorked and decanted into generous glasses. I'm also plied with tea and cake.
Martyn, a warm, grizzly-bear-sized man with silver hoop earrings and soulful blue eyes, occasionally grimaces in the direction of his new prosthetic foot. Once settled in his armchair, he is understandably reluctant to leave it. "Teresa!" he calls. "Come and roll me a joint, honey child!" As we chat, his accent flits between broad Glaswegian and cockney. He even throws in a bit of Jamaican patois, a throwback, perhaps, to the sabbatical with Lee "Scratch" Perry that inspired Martyn's druggy, dub-influenced classic One World in 1977.
Ostensibly, we've met to discuss On the Cobbles, a fine record imbued with folk, jazz and blues, whose guest contributors include Paul Weller, the gospel great Mavis Staples and the former Verve guitarist Nick McCabe. But, as Martyn is the polar opposite of the promo-embracing artist, it initially proves difficult to draw him on that subject. "The new album is the best I could do at the time," he offers, under duress. "I mean, my foot was hanging off, purple and yellow. When I become a sane man again, maybe I'll have a different take on things, but at the moment I think the whole record sounds too clean." When I ask if we can talk about the lyrics, he replies: "Look - I'll make a deal with you. "Let me play you 10 minutes of brand-new music, and then you can ask me whatever you like, OK?"
He picks up his trusty Gibson SG, and I'm asked to cue up some backing tracks on his hi-fi. He proceeds to add live lead guitar and vocals to the as-yet-unreleased "Took All My Colours" and "Paddy Ronan". It's a one-on-one concert; a magical 10 minutes.When he hits a rare bum note, my host raises a hand and says, "I beg your pardon."
Martyn, a brawler and no angel in his youth, has mellowed in recent years; the Zen Buddhist faith he adopted in the late 1990s has changed his outlook on life. "That's how it affects me," he says, pointing at a Buddhist plaque on the wall that reads: "Soft answer turneth away wrath."
"I still don't suffer fools gladly, but I've learnt to bite my tongue. I've always had that touch of superstition, or religion, if you want to call it that, so I can't not believe in a Creator. The birds sing too beautifully and the trout are too speckled."
Two songs on the largely upbeat On the Cobbles show Martyn in a reflective mood. The first, "My Creator", is a balm for the senses, Martyn's molasses-and-gravel voice gently soaring alongside tenor and soprano saxophones in sublime unison. "It's one of the sweetest and most contemplative songs I've written," he says, "but it isn't finished yet. When I die, it will be; until then, it's a work in progress. I'll keep changing the words and the melodies."
And what of "Ghosts", with its lyric: "I meet them in the guise of friends/ And they all know my name"? Given that his friends included the late Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff, the brilliant young guitarist in Free, it's hard not to freight that line with starry-eyed significance. Did inklings of his own mortality get him thinking about absent friends? "Yeah... Some ghosts are more important than others. I'm not going to see Lord Johnson the 23rd walking around with his head under his arm, clanking chains - I'm going to see friends. Sometimes, I even see my own ghost in dreams. He doesn't say anything to me; he just stares at me blankly. I mean, how rude can you get?"
"Watching the BBC film was weird," he adds. "There's footage of me as a little boy and as I am now, and because I've put on three stone since all this nonsense happened, I thought, 'What's happened to me?' When I could still play guitar standing up, I'd sweat out 11lb a night, but that's not going to happen any more. You can't mess with Father Time, can you? He's going to catch you, whether you run fast or slow."
'On the Cobbles' is out on Independiente. Martyn plays the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham, tonight and tours to 16 May.
'Johnny Too Bad' is on BBC4, 28 May 2004.