Solid Gone

Chris Barnes
Rock 'n' Reel #31
John Martyn can fall asleep on a razor blade.
Is there no end to this man's talents?
Chris Barnes finds out

It is a lovely, lovely building and -to the somewhat seasoned journalist used to reviewing bands in cellars, carpet warehouses and the function room of The Dog And Spittle- a joy of a place to be. It's Huntingdon Hall in sleepy Worcester, a converted eighteenth century Methodist chapel which, with its horse-shoe shape and very tasteful restoration, is a splendid setting for... er... splendid gigs.

Since discovering the place last year, I can put my hand where my heart should be and honestly say that I haven't been to a duff gig. Show Of Hands? Dead good. The Bushbury Mountain Daredevils? Utterly charming. John Martyn? Well...

The director of Huntingdon Hall recently claimed in another magazine that his venue was a lovely place to see acoustic music - "We have a lot of folk, jazz and a terrific market in acoustic rock." Ideal kind of venue, then, for someone whose music can seemingly be just about anything he fancies it being - trippy jazz, wistful folk, crunchy 'n' riffy, sexy and funky. Ah, labels, labels... who needs 'em? Anyway, you've already guessed that it's John Martyn. Who else?

And tonight1 he's wandering onto the stage with baggy trousers and a cheery grin, and a backing band as small as small can be - a one person backing band, to be precise, and the sum total of the instrumentation is one guitar and one stick. Stick? Yeah, stick. Imagine a head-on crash between an electric guitar and a bass with far too many strings and which can be played two-handed. The net result is a heady musical brew - lots of space, lots of melody and lots of rhythm. Cor, I say to my girlfriend, I haven't seen him this good in ages. Cor, says my girlfriend.

The next day and I trawl through the John Martyn 'Live On The Radio' section on my tape shelf. The highlights are many and varied - individual performances, the songs, the guitar and vocal of the good bloke himself. The big frustration for me, the punter, is always the lack of space for the geezer to do his stuff. Too often the band are just too busy, there's too little space and the person I most want to hear has disappeared into the team.

But not tonight in Worcester. Tonight there's lots of room for the songs to breathe and for the focus to be just as I want it. Blimey, if I hadn't got in for free I would have paid bloody good money for this.

John Martyn never really goes out of fashion. He just sometimes gets more acclaim than others and round about right now is a good time for John Martyn. Acclaim for the low-key gigs, acclaim for the album and, as we speak, acclaim for the gigs on the global summer festival circuit. All of which means that it takes me the best part of a fortnight to pin him down to any particular phone number for more than half an hour - thank god for that nice Gladys at his record company.

I while away the time over the course of the two weeks going through the dusty corners of his back catalogue and smirk to myself. I ponder over a few gig highlights (non-musical). The woman who sat next to me at an early 80s gig who suddenly leapt up in the middle of the show and yelled, "God, you're sexy!" (Aunties can be so embarrassing, can't they?)

At a 70s gig John and double bass player Danny Thompson looking like they've been to three parties before the show. They were obviously very, very tired that night - how on earth did they manage to find their way home? And the number of times I've taken partners to John Martyn shows only to find that he's the one they would rather be going home with.

By the time John and I finally get it together on the phone we've had to settle for an almost painfully early hour of the morning and I feel embarrassed at the indecency of it. I needn't be because I've caught him on a day off and he's obviously thrilled at the prospect of doing little things for a change.

"Good morning, good morning! We meet at last - it's taken a long time for us to get this far, has it not?"
Tell me about it. What's on the agenda today? Anything interesting?
"Good god, yes. I'm just off to buy some potatoes and maybe even a few other vegetables. Shopping for food - now that's something to look forward to - all rock stars enjoy doing it."

High on your list of great things in your life, John?
"Oh, yes. I like it, but not as much as I like sleeping, though. One of the reasons that touring is made bearable is that I have developed this amazing capacity to sleep on a razor blade. Give me just a little bit of space and the tiniest amount of time and I've gone. Solid gone. Anywhere, anyhow, anyplace. Fantastic ability and I'm very proud of it! And good heavens, do the boring bits pass quickly by when you're this skilled."

He's unusually positive about the never ending gig road along which he has surely travelled more than once. But if the usual gigs are bearable, are the out of the way shows any more or less stimulating?
"The low-key shows? Very nice, indeed, but it's only tiny, little things that get on my nerves. A 'for example'... that Gibson Gold Top just weighs a ton and that's about the greatest personal challenge, staying upright for the duration of the show."2

And those old-fashioned wooden guitars, the hollow ones?
"Oh. I still like to get those out and see if I can play the things."

Now then, the Gold Top Les Paul with its distinctive tight, fat sound, warm and clear - one of the reasons that the new album, 'The Church With One Bell', is so inviting. Or it is rather the playing thereof that makes the album so inviting. Well, what else do you expect from him, huh? Curiously though, as a collection of cover versions, the songs were drawn from a list knocked up by his record company and not selected directly by John himself.

Part of the ensuing artistic challenge was that he was not wholly familiar with the songs as they were written, and thus wasn't hindered by the existing shape of the arrangement. In a nutshell then, perhaps an unlikely but wholly welcome artistic success?
"There's a great spiritual simplicity in this record which is reflected in the fact that it was rehearsed in three days, recorded in five days and mixed in three. I really like the fact that it sounds plain and simple. It has that kind of production because we didn't spend months on it."

Ever fancied doing a studio album with too much guitar playing on it? I try vainly to talk him into the idea but I can see I'm on to a loser from the very outset.
"If anything, this collection of song is more of a singer's album than a guitar showcase, and I am trying hard to be a better singer. I'm pretty pleased with what I've achieved on this album, despite the fact that the recording actually interrupted sessions for the next album. I actually dropped what I was doing and started dealing with a whole new set of songs... a whole new sets of lyrics which, in some instances were being sent to me on the day of the recording. It made singing with my eyes shut a bit awkward, because I had to keep squinting at the lyric sheet."

Just in case you're not familiar with the smokey majesty of Martyn's music and think that he's jumping on some kind of bandwagon, more than one journo has suggested that he was doing trip-hop years before it was patented. You've heard all the stuff about his 'pioneering work with the Echoplex'; you've heard all the crap about his stoned bedsitter singer-songwriter albums - but why not go back and listen to his work as a cohesive whole? There's old wave, there's new wave, and there's John Martyn, I think to myself as I watch him on Jools Holland's TV show, sandwiched between the hapless and the hopeless.3

A pretty daring selection of tunes 'The Church...' is, too. Elmore James, Portishead, Ben Harper, Randy Newman, Dead Can Dance and Bertie Brecht. All kinds of everything in fact, except Dana.4 Just about what you'd expect from John Martyn.
"I think we altered most things, not simply in an attempt to make them mine, but because it felt right to change them. I think the result is a set of tunes which are reflective, which are spiritual, and that may have something to do with the fact that I'm more or less fifty now, and I am beginning to see things differently. I'm not quite the party animal I once was... I do try and pace myself better than I used to."

The woman at the record company says very nice things about him. Over the phone he is witty, warm and jolly with a laugh which would persuade me to go for a beer just about any time. For a moment or two I think I'm intruding, that he has very important things to do and I'm stopping him from so doing. I move to conclude our conversation with a query about the long-time fans.
"Of course there 're plenty of people who want to shake my hand and buy me a drink, and that's really lovely, you know... but it's not always a good thing for me to get drawn into that, and I do enjoy the moments when I can slip away and find a little space for myself."

To go and get the potatoes?
"Oh yes, indeed. That in particular."

It suddenly occurs to me, whilst listening to The Church With One Bell, that it would make equal sense to dream up a corresponding album in which all these songwriters cover John Martyn songs.5 Yeah, it'd be difficult because they're not all living, but surely there's a way round that slight problem. Maybe Beth Orton is right and Martyn is The Guvnor, but hey... no, let's not get into that label nonsense again. Serves no purpose, right? Right.

Slip away and find a little space? He's been doing that in his music for years. Not really part of the mainstream, not really part of the fringe, not really belonging to any particular time or style. He's just John Martyn. Cool.

And on the night of the Worcester gig, with his stripped-down band, in a lovely environment, he's just John Martyn. Great.

muffnote:
The magazine is dated "Late Summer 98". Rock 'n' Reel | For the very best in Roots, Rock, Blues & Beyond, advertised itself as 'The Value For Money Publication' featuring the 'UK's Largest Review Section'. The issue had The Mavericks on the cover and originally cost £ 2 or $ 4. The magazine was based in Cleator Moor, Cumbria.

1 muffnote: This gigdate is difficult to pinpoint and the same goes for the date the interview took place. The combination of Jim Lampi touring and Huntingdon Hall leads to a concert date of 31 October 1997, so nearly a year before publication... Church With One Bell was released 23 May 1998, so the interview could well have been held in June.
2 muffnote: Much later, after his amputation, John held the Gibson partly responsible for the developing of the Baker's cyst.
3 muffnote: Chris Barnes is probably referring to the Later episode of 1 June 1996.
4 muffnote: Irish singer Dana won the 1970 Eurovision Song Contest with a song called All Kinds Of Everything.
5 muffnote: This is the first mention of the idea of a cover album. Big Muff followed a few years later. Eventually the project materialised June 2011.