SO THERE was I, one o'clock in the morning, getting into a vicious Hell's Angel rhythm, occasionally putting the book down to examine the current metamorphosis of my carefully cultivated Sonny Barger leer in the mirror. I was just working up a fine sense of righteous brotherhood with the Outlaw Bikers, when uninvited and unprovoked the first evil tremors of a full scale assault of Bad Conscience forced me to take up my present position behind the loathsome typewriter.
Actually this attack of conscience was hardly unexpected; after all it's been five days now since I saw John Martyn at York University and not one word have I committed to paper on the subject. The trouble is, every time I try to visualise or recollect the events of last Friday my head fills with weirdness and horribleness, for although the actual gig was wondrously fine it was surrounded on all sides by heinous calamities, events so terrible and bizarre they almost totally pervert my remembrances of that night, and utterly erase the fond memories of John Martyn's superb performance.
However, major and minor tragedies and strange notes aside, the fact remains that John Martyn played a diverse and radical range of material with considerable elan, feeling and skill, and that's what counts. And he played solo with no good buddies to lend musical or moral support, not even Danny Thompson.
Martyn is very into the concept of Artist As Lonesome Wandering Minstrel - a fact that may or may not have influenced him in choosing Wizz Jones, an old friend, for the support act. Wizz seems to be the epitome of the "pick up thy guitar and walk" troubadors, playing a pleasing blend of folk and blues (more blues than folk, thank you God). This does not mean Martyn is returning to his folk roots in a musical sense, far from it, as for most of the set he concentrated on his later material - or, at least, numbers I presumed were of a more recent variety.
For truth to tell I had never seen John Martyn before Friday, neither had I heard any of his albums, so I'm in no position to put any vintage on his material, or for that matter to say whether John Martyn Solo Performer is any more or less interesting than John Martyn Group leader. But that's neither here nor there anyway; the truth is John Martyn writes intriguing songs and presents them very entertainingly.
I wouldn't presume to put any label on his music and, as the man himself adamantly refuses to do so, I guess that just about takes care of that. Martyn is primarily concerned with breaking down barriers, drawing on varied influences and styles to create One, a "whole" that is very much more than a sum of its parts. By using all manner of electronic skullduggery he creates swirling, cosmic scenarios as a backdrop to his unique vocals, sometimes in the form of free flowing and fluid glissandos, sometimes in strict synchronisation with the vocal pattern. The mechanically induced distortions and warping of his guitar sound, often almost beyond the point of recognition, were sometimes beautiful and sometimes overbearing, but always provocative.
I was going to ask him what FX he used, but on reflection I figured that that was a little like asking a magician how he works his illusions. The only negative criticism I feel able to make is that Martyn occasionally conceives more ideas than he brings to fruition, but that's a small price to pay for such a colourful imagination.
The only musical parallel that springs to mind, for anybody interested in such matters, would be Tim Buckley's Starsailor album -a much under-estimated album of jazz improvisations- a similarity heightened by the fact that Martyn uses his (more limited) voice in much the same way as Buckley did.
Before seeing the show I had, for some strange reason, labelled John Martyn as a folkie, and was prepared to dislike him on general principal. However, I've seen him now and I sincerely believe that there isn't a singer-songwriter in Britain who can hold a candle to him in terms of innovation and imagination.
This review was printed in the NME of 26 February 1977, on page 42.
Scan kindly provided by Fraser Townley.