Tuesday 04 Feb 1986
John Martyn - 20 years a troubadour
By DAVID BELCHER
AT the other end of the telephone line things sound to be getting seriously out of hand. There's a choking wheeze, intermittent snorts and could that heavy thudding be a palm slapping a thigh? John Martyn is more than amused. John Martyn is delirious. John Martyn's laughter has reached such a clip that one begins to fear for his throat.
And that's not all... think of the headlines... Herald Man's Howler Sinks Local Hero's World Tour. Eventually the gales of mirth subside. "I think," he gasps between sobs, "That that would the worst thing I could imagine." And then he starts laughing again...
This is probably not the way in which one generally thinks of John Martyn, committed folk-jazz-blues troubadour and intense guitar virtuoso. And should he really be so obviously enjoying himself as he prepares to start a world tour which will mark his 20 years as a paid professional in the music business mill?
The question which provoked the fit of merriment may provide some sort of an answer. Do you ever, I had idly wondered, regret not having the sort of vast audience which, say, Duran Duran have? A silly question.
For almost all of his 20 years, and umpteen-odd albums he has achieved everything which flash-in-the-pan, drop-in-the-ocean popsters never will: critical acclaim, creative success, artistic innovation, the regard of his peers, an audience loyalty which grows with the years (if you haven't got your tickets for his show at the Pavilion on Sunday already, you had better be quick in getting to the box office).
But some things must have changed surely? "Nothing has really changed, technology maybe" (and here Martyn insists on a hefty plug for Glasgow's recently-modernised Ca Va Studios -"world-class"- wherein he recorded his upcoming album for Island, Piece By Piece).
"I enjoy the whole thing more. I'm more mature, audiences are bigger, my repertoire is higher. I've got 160 songs. And, at last, I've learned to play with a band," he concludes disingenuously. The band on this occasion is drawn from both Edinburgh and Glasgow, and comprises David Cantwell, Alan Thomson , Foster Paterson and Colin Tully. They'll be on the road in Europe, America, Australia and Japan for the next six months.
Have such touring rigours and the machinations of the business changed him or his approach?
"I don't think so, no. I'm an idealist, a romantic, I don't believe in compromise, and so that brings pressures in the music business, in any business... but so what? I've not changed, never felt I had to. If you're taking a moral stance, it will always get you into trouble. Be a bit uncomfortable, but you stick to things. 'To thine own self be true and that'll be cool' and all that. And don't take yourself too seriously."
Martyn has been resident on his native heath for the past five years. What do Moscow (the Ayrshire original) and Roberton (by Biggar) bring to Nassau in the Bahamas, practically Island's recording HQ staff holiday home?
"It's colder here and the rum's more expensive... really, I moved back up here to get away from the Home Counties. Scotland's much more real."
"Eh... Sting's done everybody a favour by upgrading the market with his Blue Turtles jazz thing 1. Very brave, very clever."
"I'm going to get better... keep practising" (splutter, giggle).
A final question begins to form. This rock/pop thing is around 30 years old, I hear myself saying with an odd feeling of walking on thin ice. Where do you reckon it'll be in 30 years time.
A moment of silence... a cough, a laugh... and he starts singing... he's singing Happy birthday, dear rock/pop, happy birthday to you.
Don't take things too seriously. Many, many happy returns, Mr Martyn.
1 sitenote: Sting | The Dream Of The Blue Turtles, released 12 July 1985.
This story was published in the Glasgow Herald of Tuesday, 04 February 1986.