[John Martyn on On The Cobbles]

Paddy Kehoe
RTÉ Guide

He's been on the phone all day, everyone from The Guardian to the Manchester Evening News to the Basingstoke Echo has been speaking to him as his first tour since 2001 approaches. The 56-year-old musician tells it in his own way, how he 'copped a huge belt' off his guitar amplifier, thereby damaging a cyst at the back of his right knee. A serious infection subsequently set in. " My leg went -he gives a mock-dramatic shriek- "big and red and horrible." I said to the guy, 'listen, I think you'll have to amputate here.' He says, 'I think you might be right.'"

Inevitably, a lengthy British and Irish tour was cancelled. As you read, he will be rehearsing with his band, preparing for at least 16 scheduled, long-awaited gigs. "The whole idea is to get myself back in shape," he says. "If you're bedridden for two years, it puts the weight on you. "
The forthcoming On the Cobbles is his 22nd studio record in a lengthy career, which has veered from lissom jazz folk to full-on rock. Thirty years after they first saw the light of day, albums like Bless the Weather and Solid Air still ooze an ethereal, yet organic power.

The mid-period Grace and Danger, released in 1980 is a timeless, emotionally-scarred classic. More recent albums like And and Glasgow Walker weave rich, idiosyncratic tapestries of sound. The new album is dedicated to the surgical team at Ardkeen hospital in Waterford, where his right leg was amputated below the knee in April 2003. "Awful nice people, nurses, doctors, really sweet, " he says. He spent seven-and-a-half weeks in hospital. Morphine helped to ease the pain and during the recovery period, his partner Teresa Walsh would drive him out to Dunmore East. They would order crabs and mussels from the bar. "Teresa could go for a swim and I could just sit and eat my mussels and watch the world go by."

Complications in the ensuing months necessitated five further operations. Eventually he sat into a wheelchair which he still uses occasionally, even though he loathes it. He is currently getting used to a prosthetic limb, but he's a slow healer. "Because I drink too much and always did. I've given the body a fair belting over the years. I'm not exactly young anymore either."

Naturally, he came across far worse cases than himself in Ardkeen. "This guy's face was smashed to bits. 17-year-old, a souped-up Fiesta, rolled it at 110 miles, smashed himself to pieces, poor motherf*****. He could not wait to get back so he could buy another one and do the same thing again." John has had physiotherapy, but not recently, by choice, it seems. "You're in the hospital yet again. I've this natural aversion to small, square rooms..." He pauses mischievously: "cells, for instance." Another ripple of laughter breaks out around the room, as Teresa pours us coffee.

Before the amputation, he was entrusted to an expert in the field who told him that the art of prosthetics was 'proceeding by leaps and bounds.' Martyn feigns mock offence, was the man taking the mick or what? You really can't avoid the word-play. He felt particularly frustrated about three months ago when his leg started bleeding. "That's a really annoying thing, no pun intended, but it's like taking two steps forward and one step back."

April sunshine spills on the grass outside the cottage, but because of his aversion to the wheelchair, he doesn't get out in the fresh air much. But the keen fisherman aims to get back fishing. However, the River Nore which flows close by wouldn't be his first choice. "I actually prefer little small streams where I can catch sea trout, " he says. The tenor Ronan Tynan comes from nearby Johnstown, and anyone who knows his story of survival against the odds will be aware that he had both legs amputated below the knee. Martyn thinks he's a 'a lovely singer' and there's a copy of his video in the house.

Western Samoa, of all places, comes up in the jokey banter, one of the few teams Scotland managed to beat, he notes. A former rugby player himself, he watches the big games on the TV, which is apparently rarely switched off. "That's the horror of being trapped, " says John, who is not a natural TV person. More of a natural Glaswegian, methinks.

He returned to live performance with two sold-out gigs at Connollys of Leap in County Cork last November. A big 'Welcome Back' banner greeted him and special ramps were built for wheelchair access. He was quite terrified at the prospect, but, once again, everybody was very nice to him. "All the girls came out in their Sunday best and were flying about and kissing me while I was playing and stuff," he recalls.

"They treated me like royalty, man. I didn't realise how much people liked me. It wasn't the most powerful music that I ever played, but it was delightful."On the Cobbles features Mavis Staples from the Staples Singers on the final track, Goodnight Irene, recorded in Chicago. "She waltzed in and sang it and waltzed out, " says John. Nick McCabe, former guitarist with The Verve does 'a great job' on a track called Walking Home.

Paul Weller plays guitar and sings vocals on Under My Wing, co-written with Martyn. "He's a really sweet geezer. He's a Mod, he's got the Mod ethos. He's very full-on, he likes to get a thing done, which is great. It makes me work, cos I'm the laziest mother-f***** in the world. It was like, go in, write the song, record it, have it mixed at the end of the day. That was tricky, but it was a great challenge."' He has made a couple of guest appearances with Weller. "He's huge - he imitates the crowd's chant: "Well-ah , Well-ah, Well-ah.' But for the next few weeks at least, all the chants will be for the doughty Scotsman with the bluesman's wail.

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