Mean Fiddler, Dublin
April 7, 1998
On a warm spring night in Dublin, a man is walking with concentration, but without purpose, the hood of his odd, patchwork jacket pulled up, a hint of belligerence in his gait. He doesn't invite gestures of concern (although he's attracted his share of nutters), but he is absenting himself from what he calls 'the scene of the crime'.
As John Martyn stalks the night between his two sets, his audience seethes restlessly in the crammed Mean Fiddler. Jovial, mostly under the influence, unaware that Martyn has left the building. It's a gig-routine thing.
"I used to hang with everybody, but it's dangerous because you get drunk."
Clearly refreshed, he sits in the shambles of his hotel room and looses a wheezing Tommy Cooper-style laugh.
"Everyone wants to buy you a drink. You go to the bar in the interval and they won't let you pay for anything, but they won't let you alone. God bless 'em, it's sweet, but I like to be isolated."
It was not always thus. In the '70s, the Martyn/ Danny Thompson (his then bass player) axis hi-jinxed through thousands of venues fuelled by a love of mischief and liquor out of proportion with their acoustic duo status.
"We used to fight and everything. It was terrible. Great fun though. We'd order an alarm call at 6.30am and then take the phone out of the wall. And Danny would pretend to be my manager -he was a flash dresser- and he'd say, Do you realise my boy's supposed to be in Paris now? I demand a refund! We'd only be going to Bolton. And in America of course, we were unstoppable - I was Sir John Martyn."
Despite a 30-year career of firsts -first white artist signed to Island Records, first acoustic player to strike a Faust-like bargain with the echoplex effects unit, first generally available CD single (Angeline, 1986), he's continued to exist on the periphery of public consciousness, the knighthood on hold and his sideline status unaffected even by Clapton's cover of May You Never. Fellow musicians, on the other hand, know enough to pay their respects.
"Sadly, I have become (he puffs himself up in the chair) The Don. That was wossername, that girl, quite successful now... Beth Orton. She had a bottle of champagne in one hand and she said to me, You're the Don. At that point I thought, I suppose I must be. On the rare occasions I go out and listen to solo performers, a lot of them use that backslap thing which I kind of invented. So I'm proud to hear that and I get a lot of respect from younger musicians, which is a gas."
The gig is a monument to misery, with enough classics (Sweet Little Mystery, Solid Air, a silly Bontempi waltz version of May You Never) to keep traditionalists in check, but also a surprising number of songs from his recent covers album, The Church With One Bell ("Spiritual covers," he admonishes. "Get it right."). It's at times screechingly loud, and those expecting a folk gig will go home having had themselves a nice new pair of ears ripped. The audience accepts a like-it-or-lump-it evening and requests are cheerfully ignored. Tonight at least, the aforementioned nutters (mocked earlier in a surprisingly top Welsh accent: "Fifteen pound and no fuckin' Solid Air!") have business elsewhere.
Call Me Mister1 and He's Got All The Whiskey from The Church With One Bell are despatched beautifully; there's a fine version of Fisherman's Dream; Sunshine's Better is a silky charm; Johnny Too Bad roars and stomps, and having spent the night slapping his guitar around, Martyn makes friends with it again in time for Portishead's stately Glory Box. His voice by turns tickles the top of the scale and then, with a wheezing bellow, swoops to rattle the walls with barking bass. It's as if he's swallowed a saxophone quartet.
Given the nature of the set, it's surprising to hear Martyn talk about a new original album in sunshiny terms.
"I just want to happy.2 I'm fed up with being miserable." He hesitates. "But there's a melancholy streak in my nature that will undoubtedly lead me back to ballads. When we play them, I continually get, If it wasn't for your music, I wouldn't have survived this time that I had in my life. It's a real compliment. I like that." ****
1 Excuse Me Mister. Do you have the time?
2 One tends to assume a 'be' was overlooked here but I decided to keep the quote as is because it is repeated in a bigger font.