Scotland-born John Martyn has never been a commercial success and that's too bad. It's travesty compounded in the case of Martyn's latest offering, Piece By Piece, because a couple of the tunes here, in the hands of less-eccentric artists, would simply sell millions.
But Martyn wouldn't be Martyn if he was on the radio as often, say, as Lionel Richie. And radio, at least as it's practiced here in the hinterlands (KUFM excepted), just isn't ready for John Martyn.
Sandwiched between the album's peculiar opening and closing songs -the frenetic, Orwellian Nightline and the militaristic stomp of John Wayne- lies Martyn's forte. Set to elliptical, jazz-flavored rhythms, Martyn's blue-smoke vocals wend through a ghetto of shattered dreams and broken loves.
Angeline, a forlorn pleading from an emotionally adrift lover, is Martyn at the apex of his vocal powers; it sounds like Michael McDonald on a reality overdose. In fact, McDonald would probably give up his vocal cords to load up just one his songs with Martyn's passionate phrasing.
And therein lies the key to Martyn's secret. He writes solid stuff, then transforms it into bits of eerie, off-beat rumination with his slurred, bluesy vocals.
Much of Piece By Piece fits that Martyn mold (if it dare be called that); Love Of Mine and Serendipity come highly recommended. But the album's bookend pieces are the album's highlights.
From its rattling guitar-synthesizer outset, Nightline is an harrowing dash into the heart of the 20th century's technological overload, from the frightening invasions of privacy to the luminescent popularity of the nightly newscaster.
Then, at album's end, after he's done overhauling a back-stabbing love triangle in Love Of Mine, Martyn gets political. At least I think that's what he's doing. The song is called John Wayne, and frankly, it's tough on the ears, at least at first listen. But a careful reading of the lyrics, another spin on the turntable, and the message, both hilarious and horrifying, finally clubs even a dimwitted pilgrim.
John Wayne, unequalled rattler of sabers, is a metaphorical Ronald Reagan. Take this, you commies, you socialists, you Khadafy-lovers. "You know you've got it coming/ I'll tell it to you straight/ I'm coming for you very soon/ I'll never hesitate/ l am John Wayne/ I believe I am John Wayne."
You got it yet, pilgrim?
Bruce Cockburn: World of Wonders.
When the best song you've ever written was on your last album, what's to be done for an encore?
This sympathetic review was published in The Missoulian (Missoula, Montana), Friday 23 May 1986.