State Of Grace

Richard Smirke
The Big Issue North
John Martyn

portrait picture

State of grace
Legendary singer-songwriter John Martyn has survived years of booze, drugs, heartache and the loss of a leg to hit 60 with his career rejuvenated and a new mellow mood, says Richard Smirke. Now he's touring his 1980 album Grace & Danger.1

"I was something of a hoodlum, yes," laughs a severely understated John Martyn when asked about his wild, infamously debauched past, which for decades encompassed chronic alcohol and drug addiction, endless womanising and a constant supply of headaches, heartache and, presumably, gargantuan hangovers, for everyone in his life.

"It's a remarkable feat of endurance that I'm still here. I'm missing a leg, I've had f**cking double pneumonia twice, I've been shot a few times, stabbed four times - I must just be very difficult to kill. When it's my time it'll be my time. And it hasn't been mine yet. But if it was tomorrow I wouldn't worry too much. I've had a right good laugh."

Having turned 60 earlier this year -a milestone marked with "a p**s-up and a giant cream cake"- the legendary singer-songwriter and guitarist remains in high spirits, if not good health. Currently struggling with his seventh prosthetic leg following a series of major operations in 2004, which resulted in the amputation of his right leg below the knee, Martyn has been largely wheelchair bound since 2006. By his own admission he is "grossly overweight" and is still struggling to recover from a serious lung infection that he contracted last year.

"I'm getting older so the thing that's going now is my lungs," he states from his cherished Irish farmhouse home in Thomastown, Kilkenny. "I've also got bad arthritis. I hurt after I play. But it's nothing that will stop me going until I drop or my finger..."

The conversation trails off at this point, not for the first time in the interview. Ten long seconds pass before we return to more stable ground and Martyn warns of the dangers of mixing prescribed medication and alcohol. I'm unable to ascertain whether his frequently slurred, rambling speech is the result of ingesting such a chemical concoction or the half bottle of Bacardi that Martyn later claims to drink every day. Whatever the cause, the man undoubtedly remains a fascinating mass of contradictions, truths, half-truths and outright lies, with his passion for music, love, life, drink and drugs (although only cannabis nowadays) seemingly undimmed by years of hedonistic abuse and faltering health.

"It's funny, you're either straight or you ain't and I like being out of my head," he states frankly. "Jesus, you're here for having a good time, not a long time, you know? And every time you get high you'll see something from a slightly different angle than you would if you were straight. Your senses are amplified. It's an essential applicator for me."

Having started out playing folk clubs in his native Glasgow,2 Martyn -born Iain David McGeachy- moved to London in the mid-1960s and rapidly became a fixture on the Soho music scene thanks to his distinctive, technically accomplished guitar playing and wounded, soulful vocals. Hitching a ride with Chris Blackwell's then formative Island Records label, he went on to release some of the most influential and best loved albums of the late 1960s and 1970s, pioneering a unique blend of jazz, folk and blues through records like 1967 debut London Conversation, 1973's Solid Air, Inside Out (also 1973) and One World (1977). The 1980s and 1990s saw sales and audiences decline, with patchy, AOR-inflected albums and an inconsistent [sic] live band, but the pas decade has seen a resurgence in his popularity and critical reputation, culminating in a lifetime achievement gong earlier this year at the Radio 2 Folk Awards,3 where he was joined by his old pals Phil Collins and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones. A career-spanning 4CD retrospective, Ain't No Saint, was released in September, while contemporary artists The Verve, Paolo Nutini, Portishead and Sister Bliss (whose 2001 track Deliver Me features Martyn's vocals) have all called him a major inspiration.

"I do feel sort of vindicated," he states in reference to his lifetime achievement award and the MOJO Les Paul Award he also received this year.4 "It's not something that I ever expected. I didn't even know that they existed. But I was delighted. Well, one would be: my living has not been in vain. See, I told you I was good. Told you I could play, didn't I, didn't I, didn't I? Some people like me, mummy. Some people like me," he mock pleads.

Reflecting on the renewed interest in his career, this November sees Martyn once again hit the road to play a series of shows based on his acclaimed 1980 album Grace & Danger. Recorded over the course of a week in summer 1979 following his traumatic split from first wife Beverley Kutner and featuring backing vocals and percussion by Collins (who was simultaneously going through a painful divorce), the album was initially shelved for 12 months by Island boss Chris Blackwell because of its bleak subject matter and achingly personal lyrics. Blackwell eventually relented and the record has been a favourite among Martyn fans ever since.

"They kept asking me about playing it and I kept on saying it would be too miserable, it will be too miserable. But people really wanted to hear it. I never listen to my own stuff so I dug it out and, of course, it isn't too miserable. It's actually quite jaunty in places. So many people get divorced, fall in and out of love - it's a common experience and when you hear it demonstrated as heartfelt, people identify with it."

series of portraits

"I've got bad arthritis. I hurt after I play. But it's nothing that will stop me."

When asked what his main memories of that time are, Martyn is characteristically blunt. "Extreme misery. I think I overdid it at the time - a bit too hard on myself... Nearly all of my albums are a diary or pastiches of entries in a diary. It's all very personal stuff, really."

"I try to put my soul into everything that I play, which is probably a good thing. It makes you feel better and people like you. When you mean what you're singing makes a big difference, I think."

These days, Martyn lives in secluded rural bliss with his long-term partner and spends his spare time fishing, bird watching and, when his health and schedule permit, working on his long-awaited new album, which he claims just needs three vocals added to it and then it's done.5 Despite the disappointments and heartache he has endured throughout his colourful life, he proudly remains an incurable romantic and has few regrets about how things have turned out.

"It would be lovely to be a little bit richer, but f**k it - I probably would have died younger. I'd have probably just spunked it up the wall and been a right nuisance," says the forthright singer.

Remaining ambitions generally consist of "breathing another day", he heartily jokes, although a mooted collaboration with his hero, tenor saxophone veteran Pharoah Sanders, is something that the 60-year old is highly excited about.6 Having outlived many of his peers and repeatedly defied doctors' prognoses and warnings, making predictions about Martyn's future has long proved to be a futile business. Numerous biographers, journalists and music fans have also tried to get to the heart of this complex, contradictory figure over the years, to little avail. Unsurprisingly, Martyn offers no conclusions of his own during the course of our 40-minute interview, but a closing anecdote about working with reggae legend Lee Scratch Perry does offer some insight into what occasionally fuelled the wild, unruly behaviour of his past.

"He's as mad as a rat's arse but you've just got to be able to understand him," states Martyn about the infamous Jamaican-born musician. "I remember, he was going particularly over the top at one point - wearing a white jockstrap with strips of gaffer tape around him, tree hugging and talking to the plants and stuff like that. I said to him: 'Scratch, it ain't bugging me at all but people are beginning to think you're a bit f**king cracked now. You'd better take your foot off the accelerator a bit. What's up? Don't you like people?' He said: 'No John. I'm keeping them away from me.' And I think that's probably what I do, as well. Just be so f**king mad and be so slightly different from the rest of us that the arseholes just leave you alone. They don't understand, you see. And what they don't understand they can't f**k with."

John Martyn plays the Lowry, Salford on 16 Nov.

living room picture
Released in 1975, Sunday's Child represented a return to roots for Martyn after the experimentation of previous albums. Now he's touring 1980's album Grace & Danger.
Live photo's: Les Linyard.

Words and music
On Phil Collins
[Grace & Danger] was the very first time I ever worked with him. I didn't know who he was, you see. He just appeared and we immediately became friends. He was going through a divorce at the same time; I think that might have helped. But I ended up shacking up down at his place and rehearsing during the evenings. He was just a very sweet man and I really value his friendship.

On the music industry
Most of the people I've met have been wonderful but A&R I think are just a f**king plague. It's a horrid part of the industry. It ruins people because people actually believe it when one of these pricks tells them that they're no good. And if your confidence is not great -especially if you're a shrinking violet of any description- you can be destroyed.

On playing poker
I went pro for two years because I didn't want to play anymore and I did nothing but play poker and I lived the life of Riley - cabs everywhere, lovely hotels, great company, all the booze I can handle and at the end of it I still had £2,500 in my pocket. It was fantastic.

On quitting drink
I like it too much. I'm something of an alcoholic, I think. I'm not really sure. I've been described as one. I don't drink as much as I used to - you can't. As your body gets older it won't stand for it.

On the origins of his bad man reputation
I've never suffered fools gladly and I don't like bad manners so I used to come to people's rescue. If ever anyone was being bullied I'd kick the bully up the bollocks. I really hate bad manners. I like people to hold doors for ladies. I like all the good things in life. I like being kind to women - women are to be worshipped and adored, not to be f**ked with.

On Pharoah Sanders
Pharoah Sanders is probably the world's best saxophonist of all time - people talk about [John] Coltrane and Charlie Parker and everybody else but I think Pharoah Sanders did more. He certainly did more to open my mind and my heart than any other musician I've ever heard.

On Chris Blackwell and Island Records
I would have signed to another label and I would have done the same thing but I wouldn't have been nearly as well tolerated and mollycoddled, I suppose - encouraged and indulged, shall we say. It was like having a rich sponsor. He was very, very good.

1 The Grace & Danger tour took place in the course of November 2008 and was to be John's last.
2 John was not born in Glasgow but in New Malden, Surrey.
3 The Radio 2 Folk Awards were presented at The Brewery (London), Monday 4 February 2008. John played Over The Hill and May You Never.
4 The 2008 Mojo Honours List winners were announced 16 June 2008, also at The Brewery, London. John won the Les Paul Award.
5 Heaven And Earth was eventually released May 2011.
6 The project with Pharoah Sanders never happened, unfortunately.
This interview, one of John's last, was published in The Big Issue North. I had to guess the release date. This weekly magazine started in December 1992 as a Manchester supplement within the London-based Big Issue. The following year, it became an independently produced magazine, with staff based in Manchester, Liverpool and other northern cities. After thirty years, May 2023 saw the end of this regional charity magazine for the homeless, the national edition being continued.