John Martyn lights up a 'funny cigarette' on stage at Bristol University Students Union in 1978; in the 2009 New Year Honours List he was awarded an OBE
The story goes that when John Martyn and his giant double-bass-playing sidekick Danny Thompson were on tour, they used to call into whatever local pub was nearest the gig early doors and placed 50 quid on the tab. The barman would say something like: 'What's the 50 quid for?' and John would say, 'To pay for the damage.'
The barman would look somewhat confused and say 'What damage? There isn't any damage,' or words to that effect. Then John would flash him a cheeky smile and utter the immortal punchline: 'Not yet... but there f***in' will be!'
MACHISMO AND MISCHIEF
I like this story a lot because it perfectly sums up the elemental contradiction that co-existed in the heart of the man and his music – machismo, bravado and mischief, always tempered with regret, a certain soft-hearted sentimentality and, some would say, even a hint of good old fashioned chivalry.
It's this instinctive insistence that man's natural destiny is an endless cycle of sin and repentance, brutality and tenderness, recklessness then regret that fuel his best loved songs such as the boozer's hymnal May You Never. But before we get to that, there's this. My first encounter with Mr Martyn. It goes like this. He walks up, shakes my hand and says:
"Christ I'm in a bad mood..."
He shuffles about a bit uncomfortably, then says: "Look, I've gotta get out of here. Gotta get my head together. Give me ten minutes. No, look, eight minutes. Look, take my watch. Time me. Eight minutes. I'll be back..."
He unstraps his watch. Hands it over, turns on his heels and stalks out of the hotel lobby. It's quite a nice watch, but not that great.
Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr John Martyn has just left the building and the prognosis, doctor, knowing what we do of the man, is a mite, shall we say, bleak?
But would you believe it, 12 minutes later he returns, a little chastened, reclaims his watch and says, through a sheepish grin: "Sorry. Hard day. Hundreds. No, thousands of interviews. Ideally I'd like my music to speak for itself but... I can understand where you're at man... I always wanted to read about... y'know..."
He trails off.
Steve edited NME from 1992-2000, the Britpop years, launching NME.com and reviving the NME Awards. Previously he was Assistant Editor on Melody Maker. Among his many adventures he has been physically threatened by Axl Rose, hung out awhile with Jerry Garcia and had a drink or two with Keith Richards.
There's an awkward silence. Then he suggests we go to his room for a smoke, which we do. He rolls a big spliff, turns on the telly, switches channels to the racing, turns the sound down, cracks open a lager and, at long last, begins to relax.
"I've never lied in my music," he mutters, laid out along the sofa, largely hidden in a cloud of pungent smoke. "Never. I've told the odd white lie in my personal life to avoid aggravation with the woman I happened to be living with at the time, but artistically I think integrity is important."
"I like to write ambivalent lyrics, lyrics that are open to... one hopes not misinterpretation, but I'd like a multi-lateral interpretation of the lyrics. I'd like the same song to be angry one night and compassionate the next – that's the measure of a song's breadth and of the emotion that's in the performer. For me, music is an emotional communication, and should be used as such."
"I don't premeditate any of my writing. I think that would be a wrong thing to do, morally and artistically. My style is my style. I don't like fashion. Successful singles are fashionable – my music is stylistic."
Stylistic's one way of putting it. Another would be bloody marvellous. And the most marvellous example of all would be the album we're here to celebrate, Solid Air. It came out on the Island label in 1973, the title, we found out much later, an open letter to his labelmate Nick Drake who was undergoing some problems, psychologically speaking, and would attain sainthood of sorts 18 months later at his parents' home in Tanworth-in-Arden, overdosing on antidepressants.
Solid Air is truly a beautiful piece of work, the rare kind which won't be put into any particular box without a skirmish. I guess you'd say its roots are in folk but if they are, they're richly dusted in jazz, blues and electronica which, of course, hadn't even been invented yet.
The title track, Don't Want To Know, Go Down Easy, Easy Blues and The Man In The Station are a masterclass in the chilled-out, John's slurred vocals as much a part of the instrumentation as a vehicle for delivering the lyric – a journey taken by another celebrated man's man, Tim Buckley. Over The Hill is fresh and jaunty, the prance enhanced by contributions from pals Fairport Convention, while the cover of Skip James' I'd Rather Be The Devil and Dreams By The Sea are gruff, verging on rock, John creating multiple rippling textures from his echoplex – one-man jam sessions that he habitually expanded during his raucous live shows.
Priced £23.99, the 180g re-release of Solid Air is available to order online from www.classiclps.co.uk
And then there's the aforementioned May You Never, John's signature song, a prayer offered up to Bacchus about never losing your temper in a bar room fight or losing your woman overnight.
When I was growing up, Solid Air was an album that sat easily in the emerging pantheon of singer-songwriter classics alongside James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, Joni Mitchell's Blue, Nick Drake's Bryter Layter, Cat Stevens' Teaser And The Firecat and Neil Young's After The Goldrush.
Thirty eight years on it sounds the most contemporary of the bunch with nary a hint of the hippy-dippy ephemera that dates the rest of them. On the day I meet John, though, he has more on his mind than reminiscing about the halcyon 70's or the possibilities offered by a distant brave new decade. The year is 1981 and there's a rampant dragon to be slain.
MUSIC AND POLITICS
"Margaret is a dead loss," he growls when the stoned conversation turns to the incumbent PM, Margaret Thatcher. "She's taken the milk from the kids, she's got three million unemployed, she's the worst advert for feminism I ever saw. I mean, I couldn't sleep at night if I were her. She denigrates the word 'woman'. She's not a woman, she's a machine. She hasn't got the brains of a carrot..."
"They threw eggs at her in Glasgow. It was a waste of damn good eggs as far as I'm concerned. They should have thrown rotten fruit. She should be pilloried. Bad politicians should be pilloried. There's no such a thing as an honest politician."
A limited edition pressing with replica original Island Records label and original gatefold sleeve, it's perhaps a surprise this set hasn't made it to premium vinyl before. After all, with lots of acoustic instruments and quiet vocal passages –all skilfully captured by producer/ engineer John Wood- it's a collection of songs just made for the 180g format. Not surprisingly, the original Island pressing and '80s Island reissues also sound pretty darn fine, but this [copy] remastered from the analogue master tape, is the best there has been. HFNews
Sound Quality: 90%
If I could see through the smoke, I'd now be witnessing his hackles rise:
"I'm an apolitical person. I detest politics. I've never used my vote simply because I refuse to vote for the lesser of two evils. I mean, basically all you're doing is voting for the stars of the debating societies of 20 years ago."
"If everyone abstained, every single man and woman, ad said: 'Listen, I've had enough of you', that, to me, would be a really strong political statement. I don't think anyone should vote in the next election. Nobody."
It's a conversation I can imagine still having with John this very day, but sadly he passed away in 2009 of double pneumonia. He'd lost half his right leg to an infected cyst by then and put on a ton of weight, the only physical resemblance to the rascal who created the fantastic Solid Air being the wicked twinkle in his eye.
He was still doing his thing till the end though, releasing idiosyncratic LPs and touring. As he told me back in those far off days: "I think I'll play till the day I drop."
Most of the quotes used in this review are from Steve Sutherlands interview A Fool's Time For Glory?, Melody Maker 03 October 1981.
Material kindly provided by John Neil Munro.