John Martyn's Grace and Danger

Brian Cullman
Musician #33
John Martyn's odyssey through the British folk and blues scene into an honest and inventive personal music climaxes with a fresh and self assured new album.
Grace and Danger
By Brian Cullman

Years ago, when John Martyn was recording an album in Woodstock, Bob Dylan reportedly stopped by a club there to see him perform. Dylan was in sneakers and overalls and wore glasses and a small beard, and when they struck up a conversation between sets, Martyn had no idea who his admirer was until Dylan mentioned how much he'd enjoyed Martyn's strange rendition of his song, Don't Think Twice, It's Alright. At which point, in awe and confusion and unbridled exuberance, Martyn hugged Dylan, picked him up and began shaking him in the air, shouting, ''Bob Dylan! Bob Dylan!"

While some regard this form of behavior as natural to someone with John Martyn's natural Scottish enthusiasm and high spirits, there are others in the music business who consider such behavior to be POOR FORM, and who might justifiably feel that such lack of decorum might not be conducive to establishing one's self as a credible and marketable act. After all, the primary reason that Paul Simon was chosen to host this year's Grammy awards is that during his long and prosperous career within the music industry he has never once picked someone up and waved them about in the air.

Born in Glasgow [sic], John Martyn moved to London in the mid-sixties and quickly established a reputation as a solid folk and blues performer, playing in a full chorded jazz style that Davey Graham and Bert Jansch and Martin Carthy were then popularizing (and that Bruce Cockburn and the aforementioned Paul Simon have both adopted). The scene in London was both insular and expansive; despite the success of the Beatles and Stones, playing music had not developed into THE MUSIC BUSINESS. Everyone who was playing knew everyone else who was playing, and they wound up playing with each other, trading songs, trading records, part of an active community. At least, in the haze of memory, it seems that way.

Everyone listened to everything, adapted it, worked within it. When you walked past the houses in Hampstead, you could almost hear people listening. The Incredible String Band was trying to put together a world music: a blend of Eastern rhythms, blues chords, odd meters and Celtic harmonies; Fairport Convention was electrifying traditional British music and finding traditional sources in American rock and roll; Pentangle was improvising jazz styles out of some of the same traditions, weaving formal and polite tapestries like a British version of the Modern Jazz Quartet; Ian Whiteman was forming the Habibiya, a group dedicated to the pursuit of Islamic trance music.

John Martyn grew out of this scene, adapting his guitar style to encompass the playing of Mississippi Fred McDowell, Hamza El Din, Brazilian players like Chico Buarque and Milton Nascimento, Django Reinhardt, Robbie Robertson, and the unknown and often un-named players playing scratch guitar on old reggae and ska records.

In 1970, when I lived in London, John Martyn's house on Hampstead Heath seemed to be the center of the world. Richard Thompson would be over, tuning the oud that hung on the wall by the window; Nick Drake sat huddled in the corner smoking; Andy The Greek, proprietor of the club Cousins (and the man for whom Martyn wrote May You Never) followed his stomach from room to room, looking for chocolates; Mike Heron, of the Incredible String Band, came by and wrote Cousin Caterpillar in the living room; Art Garfunkel, a longtime friend of John's wife, Beverley, called with regards and news. What I was doing there is still somewhat of a mystery.

Friends who have travelled in the mid-East report that Saudi Arabians who own Cadillacs love to photograph Americans standing next to one of their cars. "Here is my American car... and here is an American," they say, passing the photo around. It gives them endless pleasure. In 1970, there was still such a reverence for American music -for blues and jazz and Bob Dylan and Louis Armstrong and Charlie Parker and Martin and Fender guitars and Kansas City and New Orleans and Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly (everyone still sang with an American accent)- that an American who actually knew and liked your music was a very valuable possession indeed. The photographs were passed around: "Here is my music... and here is an American standing next to it!" That at least seems a reasonable explanation as to why, as a kid in London, I was treated with undue kindness and courtesy.

John had already recorded two solo albums (he was, in fact, the first artist signed to Chris Blackwell's Island label), but the first albums I heard, and the first records of his released in America, were Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin, both recorded with his wife Beverley. Both albums were dominated by John's full-chorded guitar and Paul Harris' delicate piano, and both hearkened back to the first albums of The Band in the way they treated rock and roll as a logical extension of folk musics, and in the way they used acoustic instruments backed by a muscular, almost R&B-based rhythm section.

John had begun to electrify his guitar, putting a pick-up on his old Yamaha and plugging it into a fuzz box, a wah wah pedal, and a tape delay, creating a wash over which he could play small (repeated) stinging leads while immersed in his own rhythm, his own percussion formed by the tapping of his left hand on the neck. It sounded like a miniature version of the Mahavishnu Orchestra with Robbie Robertson on lead.

In the process, he began experimenting with his voice, singing more conversationally and yet paying less and less attention to the words, transforming what had been a slight but pleasant tenor into a smokey and much deeper instrument, slurring and winding his way around phrases, searching for an emotional depth behind and beyond his lyrics.

By their very nature, these experiments excluded Beverley, and after the two joint albums, John and Beverley pursued their music separately; John still had an active following as a solo performer at clubs and universities and could make a good income; playing with Beverley necessitated a backing band, which was costly and unwieldy.

Bless The Weather and Solid Air, released within a year of each other, started to establish John as more than a guitarist singer-songwriter; he was becoming a stylist, using the guitar for punctuation, building from rhythms in some of the same ways Van Morrison and Tim Buckley and his friend Nick Drake had, singing from the belly of the song, from deep inside. He was also beginning to be recognized as a writer; America perpetrated a miserable cover of Head And Heart (which nonetheless paid the rent) and Eric Clapton recorded a mawkish version of May You Never (which paid several rents). But it was the song Solid Air, written for Nick Drake, that started to define the sound that still graces Martyn's records: a sinuous, lightly slapped guitar line; Danny Thompson's sliding acoustic bass skirting both the guitar and vocal, answering both; light, icy electric piano; understated percussion, sitting just behind the beat; and John's vocals: slightly off-handed and casual, as if he had to finish a drink or a cigarette before the song could really begin, growing increasingly dark and smokey, until the words whisper and glide into each other, into pure sound, pure emotion.

You've been getting too deep
You've been living on solid air
You've been missing your sleep
You've been moving through solid air

— John Martyn © 1973 UFO Music

"I'd like to do an album of music rather than an album of songs."
— John Martyn 1970

Released in 1973, Inside Out was that album, a floating, open-ended song cycle that took all of Martyn's experiments one step further than they'd ever gone: his singing was slurred to the point where most lyrics were all but unintelligible. The songs seemed to have emerged out of solid air there at the sessions, and the guitar playing, for all the odd rhythms and sleights-of-hand, was the most open and vulnerable it had ever been.

I couldn't understand the album when it came out; I missed the 'songs,' missed the folkish elements of Solid Air and told him so. But he clearly loved the record, and he was right, going back to it; there is a freshness, a sense of something very new being invented, being formed there in the studio.

Sunday's Child was a less experimental, more 'song-oriented' album, graced with gorgeous ballads: a wonderful bluesy love song, One Day Without You (which Ian Matthews promptly covered), and a spare, haunting version of Spencer The Rover, a traditional ballad.

This was 1975. With eight records behind him, Martyn's career was at a virtual standstill. Successful in Europe, he was still virtually unknown in America, where Island's promotion of him was erratic, and where his touring was misguided, at best. One night he would be playing Madison Square Garden, opening solo for Yes and bringing a house of 30,000 people to its feet;1 the next night he'd be off in some squalid folk club, playing to 30 or 40 students or stalwarts who would earnestly request James Taylor songs.2 It was enough to drive a man to drink. As a matter of fact, it did.

To get through any number of dismal tours, John began drinking heavily and indulging in excess, earning himself a reputation as an erratic and troublesome performer who might go through an entire set of odd electronic gyrations for an audience composed of folk purists, treat rock and roll fans to an evening of traditional and acoustic ballads, talk in Celtic tongues, and occasionally fall over drunk. Island had recorded a live album at Leeds, which shows the other side of the coin: Martyn in front of an enthusiastic crowd, backed by Danny Thompson on bass and John Stevens on drums, in fine voice and in full control, weaving intricate patterns. For some reason they decided against releasing it, so Martyn pressed it himself (with, apparently, Island's help and blessings) and distributed it from his home in Hastings.

One World, Martyn's last record, released in 1978, was produced by Island president Chris Blackwell, in the hopes that this would finally establish John as a major artist in America. A moody and meandering album, it almost insured the opposite: despite several beautiful songs and delicate instrumental passages, it was insular, self-reverential, and weary - the perfect cult album by the perfect cult artist.

Grace & Danger, Martyn's newest album, is exactly the opposite - fresh, open, and self-assured, it draws on all his past work and reassembles it, re-shaping the sound in small ways, and re-shaping the sense behind the sound, as if, after all this time, he remembered why he began listening to music and playing music in the first place. With Martyn leading a quartet that features Tommy Eyre on keyboards, John Giblin on bass, and Phil Collins on drums, the record has the strength and directness that only came through in performance and on the live album in the past. His voice is less slurred, more evocative and horn-like than before, and his phrasing is both more natural and more startling in its rightness (the way George Jones3 and Smokey Robinson make every turn, every breath seem just right, just so).

Mining the same territory as Dylan's Blood On The Tracks, it chronicles the deterioration and disintegration of Martyn's marriage with a heartbreaking simplicity. Martyn's songs and music have always conjured up and evoked a dream world, a world of spirit and half-light, so to hear him confront the loss of a dream and see what is left at the back of the heart in full light of day is a chilling and sobering experience. The second side of the record, from Sweet Little Mystery through Our Love, is the most difficult, most fully-realized work he has ever recorded.

Our love
Once was deeper than the darkest blue could be
Now I have to search my mind
To find the smallest trace of you in me

— John Martyn © 1980 UFO Music

The new album may or may not make him a star over here, but that's not the point. Anyone who can look their past and their life squarely in the face and sing with their eyes wide open can probably do anything in the world they want. Grace and danger to you, John.

A dreamer confronts the daily world (picture Andrew Putler)

1 18 and 20 February 1974.
2 For instance, the Wilkes College gymnasium on 15 February and The Joint in the Woods, Parsippany on the 21st.
3 George Jones: Texas born country singer, 1931-2013, who had 150 hits but also a bumpy reputation for boozing and not showing up. He was married to Tammy Wynette first half of the seventies.
This interview was published in Musician, June 1981. The magazine was based in Gloucester, Massachusetts and the issue had Robert Fripp and Joe Strummer on the cover and originally cost $1.75.
Brian Cullman is a prolific writer, also making music and he used to visit John's house in Hampstead in the seventies.

Related to: