After four decades of raising hell, folk guitar master and genre-bending troubadour John Martyn is still in fine form.
Words Ciarán Tracey
John Martyn comes out of the hotel lift. His journey from there to the bar is more difficult than most people's; doors have to be held, and seats shifted. The man whose pathfinding style and fearless experimentation redefined and blurred the boundaries of acoustic and electric guitar is now finding out what you can do and can't do in a wheelchair. Not all guitar legends have had a leg off, after all.
But that's what four decades of hellraising does. It hasn't dented his spirit one bit though, if you'll pardon the pun. The day after an electric gig at a tiny Belfast folk bar, he's in good form, despite something of a sharp cold. Ever cheeky, ever controversial, he's one of guitar's wild men. He's also one of its most talented.
It's an old adage that the only constant thing is change. Throughout his rollercoaster life, John Martyn has known more of that than most. His music, unsurprisingly, follows suit. Unlike many artists who are keen to move on from their past recordings, Martyn is constantly reinventing them, and as the decades have rolled on, his music has been constantly adapted to move with the times. You almost wonder why he insists on returning to his back catalogue though, when it's largely gold dust to begin with...
"Well, it's necessary," he says after a slug of Bacardi. "And that's why I do it. A song shouldn't have to be this way or that way. You'll notice that most of the acoustic songs get transferred to electric, and I think it helps bring them into a different genre."
Many readers will be familiar with the challenge that faced older artists as they entered the 1980s, with all its flamboyance and huge production values. During that period, Martyn branched out considerably, venturing far outside the folk guitar format. Some of the resulting tracks have remained favourites among his fanbase, so paring them back down again for intimate club tours is not without its challenges.
"How do I condense them? With great difficulty, and some discomfort," he laughs. "I play the same parts on the acoustic that I would have on the original versions. It's more complicated, but only slightly. I turn a lot over to the percussionists and try not to make too many traps for myself."
The eighties were lean times for the softer side of British folk, which had its roots two decades beforehand. "Well I actually gave up playing for a while," he recalls, adding how his friends help him through difficult stylistic choices. "I tend to go around critics, or rather musicians that I like, and play them stuff that I'm doing at the time. On the album that's about to come out, I'm hardly playing any guitar - just some harmonies. But they say they'd like to hear more. When you listen to people other than yourself though, boy, the questions become hard to answer."
So just who are these sages that Martyn relies on? "I ask Danny Thompson from time to time, and then a lovely guitar player called Frankie Asher who's almost unknown. He's from Scotland, and he's actually playing with Fish (ex-Marillion) at the moment." You'd love to be a fly on the wall...
"I don't see myself as being anything other than a working musician. If I wasn't, I'd die. I'd die of sheer fucking boredom. I intend to die in harness, and I will do this until I die. My whole ethos has been of a lonely blues guitar player with his guitar."
English folk's heritage of great guitarists is a rich one. When Martyn began back in the late sixties, there was already no shortage of role models, one of whom was Davey Graham, pioneer of old fingerstyle and DADGAD guitar. "Totally," affirms Martyn. "I haven't seen Davey for 20 years. I love him. He was my hero, and I basically wanted to be him."
And it wasn't just Martyn who felt this way. To many, Graham remains the unsung hero of folk guitar: John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Jimmy Page and many more besides wouldn't sound like they do without him. When then did our John first encounter the great man?
"It was 1965, when Folk, Blues And Beyond came out on the Decca label," he remembers. "He really had swing, and I only just recently sussed out how he does it. I always thought Davey was utterly unique, but there's a guitarist who plays the same sort of bohemian style called Joseph Spence. His vocal would have been almost, but not quite, on the timing of the guitar. That's what makes it swing, and Davey does it naturally."
Some early heroes, however, have fallen by the wayside, such as old inspiration Joan Baez. "She was the first person I ever heard play with a hammer-on. I had the misfortune to meet her once, though, and she's very snotty." He shakes his head into another sip, grinning widely. "And I really hate all those would-be poets who just noodle along. Who's that lugubrious guy? Leonard Cohen? I don't like that stuff. I just think it sounds quite humorous."
"There's a lot of difference between playing to 5.000 people and 100 people, but I decide myself what I want to do. I'd rather have the intimacy, and it makes me feel comfortable. It's like snuggling. Like a spoon in a drawer."
John Martyn is getting older, and his health, like his rogue personality, seems unpredictable. Many people who follow his music are still unaware that John was forced to undergo the amputation of his right leg in 2004, after a burst cyst threatened his life. Now wheelchair bound, he's tried nonetheless not to let it hamper his music. On even a small tour like this, however, the logistical challenges can become considerable.
"I'm getting too tired for it now," he reflects. "Things have changed since I lost the leg. I can just about stand about two hours in the car, and after that it gets torturous. It drains me of energy, and then the performance suffers. And I can't have that."
One thing though is clear. He isn't about to stop. "It's the old maxim - when you retire you die. I'm not scared of dying, just the method of dying I don't mind still touring, but I hate it when I get ill, and I was sick as a bat last night."
Word of mouth meant that everyone at the gig knew the score, and were ready for the slightly ramshackle brilliance that they got. A day later, John isn't quite so satisfied.
"I was in tune, yes. But the tone was not as wide as it should be. It wasn't strong enough. When you get the flu, or anything that gets down your tubes, your lungs deflate. It's like a sink getting blocked, and I'm only on half a lung at the moment as it is."
No matter what, he just won't give up. Right from the beginning, Martyn realised that the truly successful musician has to tour, and tour hard. In the age of the internet, does he still see it as the case now more than ever?
"It depends, If you're in the pop industry you don't. But I don't see myself as being anything other than a working musician. If I wasn't, I'd die. I'd die of sheer fucking boredom. I intend to die in harness, and I will do this until I die. My whole ethos has been of a lonely blues guitar player with his guitar. I'm a hopeless romantic when it comes to that."
Physical adversity [see Postal Strike boxout] hasn't stopped Martyn using his famous pedals. As a keen user of our floor-based friends right from when they first came out, many of his songs rely on them from beginning to end. He's helped to popularise their sounds and their continued use for over three decades. Given that he's down to one foot these days, do they now have to be somewhere he can reach them by hand?
"A couple of them are on top of my amp, but I'm still able to kick things on the ground. My left foot still works." The type of pedals he uses (delays, reverbs and the infamous Big Muff) aren't usually coupled with the folk guitar, which is usually fussy about acoustic tone. So what of John Martyn the guitarist, as opposed to the songwriter - what's his idea of a really good acoustic sound?
"I like them more mid-sounding than bass or treble. I'm not keen on treble. I'm playing Martins now, and they've given me a John Martyn model. I like to try and get them to give me things, you know?" he laughs. "Finally, there's one with my name on it. The other one's just a very posh model. It's a dreadnought, a Martin Centenary job."
Crammed into a tiny bar the evening before, an eager audience heard him melt through the classics. He's chosen that set-up; it's comfortable to him. It's still somewhat strange though, when you consider that he's even recently played the Albert Hall.
"There's a lot of difference between 5,000 people and 100 people, but I decide myself what I want to do. I'd rather have the intimacy, and it makes me feel comfortable. It's like snuggling. Like a spoon in a drawer. But I don't feel bad in the big places. It's so much easier, and they're better designed. You can go from a whisper to a bellow and they both sound great."
It was a colourful, hot and raw gig. So much so that you imagine that's how it was back in 1969 when he was in the middle of the original folk revival. What are his memories of those heady days? "It was a bit like that, actually, on a good night. A lot of the people that went there were just socialists. They weren't music lovers as such, and the clubs were the places where they gathered - the Reds. I'm a socialist myself, yes. But nowadays I try to avoid all contact with politics and just concentrate on being a good Buddhist."
That's not to say he hasn't written the occasional political song in his long career. Glorious Fool was, after all, dedicated to no less a world figure than Ronald Reagan. "It was, yes. I've written anti-war songs too. Don't You Go and One World were two. But these days I've been getting more spiritual. The new album is largely acoustic, and mostly about me getting my leg off."
Martyn is no stranger to sadness, from the relationship battles in his life to the friends he's met and lost along the way. Few stories could be sadder than that of winsome English folk icon, Nick Drake, to whom the epochal Solid Air was written. "Nick Drake was a different kettle of fish," he recalls. "His was a case of acute depression, even manic depression. He was only 26. We just had a mutual love of music, and that was it really. I wanted him to know he wasn't alone. It didn't make the slightest bit of difference. He went and did what he did anyway. It was like pissing in the wind."
"It's been a very long process convincing the powers that be that I needed a titanium model of prosthesis. It costs a fortune. The government, rightly so I suppose, probably thinks I'll melt it down and sell it or something."
Then there's Phil Collins, whom Martyn accompanied through both their divorces. "That was a time of profound sadness, coupled with resignation. It was unpleasant. Everyone puts Phil down for being pop. That's bullshit. He's a genius, a total natural musician. I don't give a tits what anyone else says."
It was a tough time, and one in which Martyn found himself on the cusp of being raised into rock aristocracy. It never truly happened in the way it did for Collins and Clapton, despite 1981's Glorious Fool album with them. But it was therapy. Luckily some of his relationships have proven happier. Like that with his musical soulmate and bassist extraordinaire, Danny Thompson.
"We met in '69 I think, at a jazz festival somewhere. The Newport Jazz Festival I think, and we had a bloody good laugh. We're very similar characters, and we used to be mistaken for brothers all the time."
Why was that then? "Because we're nuts, that's why. I don't know who's more full-on, him or me. He's not drinking any more, so he's calmed down a lot."
Listening back to Martyn's classic tracks, few would have made the impact they did without Danny's soft low strings to float on. So how much did Danny's work influence John's own approach?
"Not much, because the tunes were mine," he counters. "He didn't influence me like that. But he did support me in every way, and contributed a great deal to everything I did. An enormous amount. Instead of playing a root note, he'll play something that seems almost unrelated to the tune. But it's always the right place at the right time. He just swings."
And just in case we forget, there's that voice, too. Meandering in the lower registers like a saxophone, like his percussive guitar technique and pioneering use of delay and FX, it too has equally been imitated, but never equalled. We all know by now how his words bleed into one another, his vocals existing in the unique place he calls between the music and the lyric. How did that trademark slurred style come about?
"It was probably just the drink," he laughs. "No seriously, I wanted it to sound as musical as possible, and to avoid it sounding like anything else." No one could accuse him of that. Sat there in his wheelchair, even minus a leg, he's like a king on a throne. After so many years in the industry he's still rosy faced and game for a laugh despite everything that's happened to him - no one comes close. "I'm not a very ambitious man. All I want is to be good." What does good mean though, to an old rogue like Martyn? "Look it up in the Bible - not bad," he jokes, downing the last of the Bacardi. John Martyn, still playing, recording, innovating and joking; not bad at all.