31 Jan 2009
I first met John one sunny afternoon in 1977. I was watching tv in the living room at Hamish Imlachs place in Motherwell Scotland. The door crashed open and in walked this tall hyper young guy in his late 20's, wearing a well tailored suit (quite impressive then, as we were all slopping around in jeans & baggy things) and asked me "Who're you?" - "Well, I'm Phil, who're you?" - "I'm John, pleased to meet ya." It's strange how time distorts things but that's how I remember it, although we later often argued about our different versions of the event and the length of time we'd been friends.
I was soaking up music like a sponge and there I was, unbelieveably sitting face to face with a musical legend, I'd seen John a few weeks earlier on BBC television doing all that innovative and boundary pushing music with his incredibly slurry soulful vocal, acoustic guitar and echoplex. In essence he was working out a whole load of personal troubles through his music, a fact of which at that time I wasn't aware. He had his cutting edge albums Bless The Weather and Solid Air behind him and Eric Clapton had just recorded May You Never, things were looking up and I was hooked on his One World album. Over the following months when John wasn't down in London or on tour, we'd meet up at Hamish's place and have some pretty whacky weekends in the flat at Motherwell cooking curries, fooling about & telling tall stories, or if Hamish had any gigs, we'd pile into my old Landrover and off we'd go... 3 Men & Some Dope, (sure there's a title for a book there!).
John was always 'pushing it', like the time when Hamish had just come back from Hong Kong with a bottle of high percentage spirits/ liquor (probably formaldehyde) that had a preserved lizard in it. A game of 'dare you' ensued and sure enough 'mad Martyn' was the first to try it... Hamish and me watched in a sort of queezy anticipation as John took a few chugs out of the bottle with the lizard kissing his lips... Yuck! I think he held it down for all of 10 seconds! This crazy, extrovert edge to John's personality was a trademark throughout his life, it made for a lot of fun but coupled with his single minded stubbornness it would often land him in some sticky situations. I quickly realised that he had a penchant for 'going over the top' and I also learned when to leave him alone.
It was all around this time (1979-80) that John was working out the frustration and hurt he obviously felt with the breakup of his marriage to Beverley (Kutner, whom I never got to know) that he released the album Grace And Danger. It knocked me out from the first time I heard it, it felt like John had reached a pinnacle or some special secret level of musical maturity in pouring out his soul that non of 'us/ we others' ever would attain. I distinctly remember John, Hamish and myself going for a few beers in Motherwell and seeing Phil Collins's Face Value on sale in a record shop window, John said to me "See him, he's a smart boy." Now all these years have passed and I've finally taken on board exactly what John meant. I thought then as now, that Grace And Danger and Face Value were 'sister' albums almost like sister ships, both destined to sail separate courses but with their component parts sharing the same foundry.
I started touring in Europe late 1980 and saw very little of John during his Glorious Fool and Certain Surprise days except occasionally when I was playing in Scotland or staying with Hamish. Sometime during 1984 he was performing at the "Zeche" in Bochum Germany1, not too far from Düsseldorf where I lived at the time, so I went to the gig and fate threw us together again. John asked me to call him next time I was in Scotland which I duly did, this led to numerous nights spent in the cottage near Lanark enjoying the Martyn's hospitality (which was second to none), jamming and recording on an old Fostex 8 track that he had set up in his middle room. I went up there one day and found John struggling for breath and bandaged up, evidently he and his new wife Annie (Furlong) had been up the burn (stream) skinny dipping. Something had disturbed them and in a panic to cover up his modesty, he'd spiked himself on a fencepost and damaged some ribs! He was also later to flatten his thumb and break a finger or two with a lump hammer whilst installing a stove in the old place. That was typical of John, he seemed to stoically bear serious physical damage, self inflicted or not, as though he didn't really care! He was getting himself into all kinds of trouble but always seemed to come out the other side almost unscathed! He was very single minded with a mean and moody streak which could sometimes literally turn people off, but he was always soft as a lamb with me and always full of encouragement and support.
He invited me to tour with him in Germany and in the U.K. too, opening the show in such venues as Ronnie Scott's and the Liverpool Philharmonic etc. We only ever fell out with each other once. We were performing in Ayr Scotland, and John was under pre-gig stress and he chewed me out about nothing really, so I told him to 'stick' his tour which led to a 24 hour non-talking communication blackout. I remember sitting in our individual dressing rooms and the tour manager running back and forth with messages because "we weren't talking." The following morning he phoned and invited me to breakfast as though nothing had happened, what a pair of babies!
1996 wasn't a particularly good year, Johns private life was topsy-turvey and Hamish Imlach died on new year's day. We'd both lost our shared best friend, musical mentor/ father, the suddenness of it all was numbing. I was spending Christmas with family and friends in Yorkshire, so I immediately drove up to Motherwell to be with Hamish's family but called in at John's place first. I really wanted some support, but on arriving at the cottage it was obvious John had taken the news hard. We spent a couple of hours talking and he decided that he didn't want to come with me to Hamish's place, couldn't face seeing the family and the state they might be in. As far as I know, he just holed up there for the next couple of weeks or so until the funeral, for which he managed to pull himself together and to attend. I think he never really managed to fully accept the loss of Hamish and his other friends Paul Kossoff and Nick Drake even though he always put on a brave face when asked about them.
A year or so later he invited me to tour with him on what started out as a solo tour but developed into a trio as the whole thing progressed.2 I was introduced to Jim Lampi, a lovely guy who plays and is a master of the Chapman Stick and also to Spencer Cozens (piano & keyboards). Soon after the tour, John moved to Ireland to start a new phase in his life. I saw the BBC documentary about him and the amputation, but sadly we'd lost touch over those last 10 years with just the odd message passed between us through mutual friends. Looking at some recent vids of John performing live I still see the complicated person that I knew and loved and I can also see Hamish in there too.
It feels like I've lost a brother who I haven't seen in a while.
Phil, Jan 2009
1 Possibly the gig took place 21 April 1988.
2 October-November 1997.
This story was originally published on Phil Shackleton's own website www.pjsmusic.de and slightly edited.