John Martyn is too tough to be the folk singer you remember from the ‘60s. Enduring several storied decades of music making his legacy continues with a new set of modern classics. By Mitch Myers
John Martyn sits at a hotel bar in downtown Chicago. The 50-year-old Scotsman is relaxing after a weekend of stirring live performances, including a minor spot on the summer’s Fleadh Festival. His face is swollen, and I’m positive that it’s a side effect from decades of serious drinking. Then the singer casually informs me, “I got hit on the side of my head with a baseball bat in New York a few days ago. Mugged just a few yards from my hotel. I wish I felt better, I’m still a bit off.”
Message received: Never assume that you know a man before he tells you his story.
Word came down from several different sources simultaneously: Martyn was making noise again, and the time had come to examine his rich and varied legacy. There was the Fleadh tour, the reissue of three of his classic ‘70s albums and, finally, his newly recorded collection of fascinating cover tunes, The Church With One Bell. For all intents and purposes, 30-odd years of Martyn’s music was floating back into the collective unconscious of American pop culture.
On paper, the Fleadh Festival was an appropriate venue for Martyn to showcase his sterling musicianship and gnarled Celtic roots. Along with fellow Fleadh performer Richard Thompson, Martyn’s career goes back to the ‘60s when they were both under the guidance of Joe Boyd’s Witchseason Productions. Boyd managed England’s finest folk-rock artists, including Martyn, Thompson’s Fairport Convention and Martyn’s good friend, the ill-fated and posthumously famous Nick Drake. Martyn gained fame with Witchseason, but fortune eluded him. He attributes this directly to his former manager.
“[Boyd] just ripped me straight off,” Martyn snorts. “I don’t mind, because I was young and stupid, but it did irreparable damage to my marriage. Boyd exploited English folk music and took me down with it. Joe admitted this to me and apologized, which caught me by surprise. It’s very rarely you get that sort of apology.”
While Martyn didn’t make money with Witchseason, this didn’t prevent him from creating some of the most memorable music in his long and varied career. An amazing singer and eloquent guitarist, Martyn blended a delicate, acoustic folkcraft with the sensibilities of a man valuing the modal style of John Coltrane far more than traditional Celtic ballads. Imbuing his adventurous romanticism with a jazzy inflection that made each note a potentially unique experience, Martyn and his muse have been compared to the likes of Tim Buckley and early Van Morrison.
“I really don’t like being referred to as a folk artist,” Martyn says. “I’m not interested in English folk music at all. People expect some Donovan-esque performer sitting on the edge of a toadstool playing the acoustic guitar. That’s not what you get with me.”
Nevertheless, monumental recordings from the early ‘70s like Bless The Weather, Solid Air and Inside Out (all of which have been recently reissued) are so distinctive that they continue to perpetuate Martyn’s image as a soft-spoken folkie to this day. These albums, initially released by Island Records, also epitomized the confluence and creativity of the then-fledgling record label and its surplus of legendary musical talent. Besides appearances by Thompson and members of Traffic, these albums also feature Martyn’s ultimate counterpoint, the mercurial playing of bassist Danny Thompson. “Danny remains one of the greatest bass players in the world.” says Martyn. “And Island was the original independent record company. Everyone was friendly with each other in those days.”
In 1976, Martyn’s relationship with Island president Chris Blackwell led him to Jamaica. There, he collaborated with reggae group Burning Spear and immortal dub master Lee “Scratch” Perry. “They were just sessions, actually, something to keep the roof over my head,” Martyn recalls. “Problem was, you couldn’t actually get paid. I still love Scratch Perry. He’s his own person and somewhat eccentric. We were both using double and triple echo around the same time. The dub that comes from America is too clean. You must use the old funky stuff—that’s the shit.” Martyn’s mind-blowing use of echoplex and fuzzbox with his acoustic guitar was a marked departure from his tender beginnings and opened another stage in his ongoing fusion of sound.
Martyn’s labors on Island culminated with One World, a now-out-of-print classic that shifted his earlier, crystalline sound into a deeper, more liquid encounter. Accompanied by synthesizers, Danny Thompson’s resonant bass and a superb lineup of Island musicians, Martyn’s expressive voice had matured via a wide range of personal circumstance. There were still moments of joyous sensitivity, but there was also a much darker introspection involved. Listening to his 25-plus albums in chronological order, one can easily trace the steps of a complicated life. Commencing with youthful innocence, Martyn embraced the heady celebration of romantic love, moved on to the joys of parenthood, experienced powerful wanderlust and eventually dealt with divorce and isolation.
Speaking with Martyn, one is reminded that we’re all just the sum of our experiences. Clearly, time, booze and heartache can make a man cautious. Discussing his current tour, Martyn describes the price of his minor celebrity. “I love playing, but I try to arrive about two minutes before I start and leave two minutes after I’m done,” he says. “No disrespect, but people just keep saying, ‘How was it knowing Nick Drake?’ And I’m like, ‘Please, he’s dead. He was my friend. Have some respect and leave me alone.’ It’s so intrusive that I’ve refused to talk about Nick Drake for the last eight years. I end up saying, ‘If you paid half the attention to him while he was alive, he’d still be here. You killed him, man. You ignored him. He was too good for you.’”
Still, none of this would matter if Martyn didn’t possess one of the classic singing voices of this half century. His “I Don’t Want To Know About Evil” has been covered by both Beth Orton and Dr. John. Martyn still receives royalties for Eric Clapton’s version of the starry-eyed ballad “May You Never,” and he has even played with musicians like Phil Collins, who worked on several of Martyn’s recordings and produced his 1981 album, Glorious Fool. “I’m hoping to do another record with Phil soon,” says Martyn. “He wants to do a ballad album. I don’t understand why people put him down—the cat can play the balls off of almost anybody.”
Martyn’s subsequent work in the ‘80s reflected a man entering a less than idyllic middle age. Drinking, divorce, physical injuries (in 1982, he accidentally impaled himself on his backyard fence and punctured both lungs) and an unsettled recording status led to a half-dozen discs of sensuous peaks and difficult valleys. His celebrated voice was much harsher than before and he had moved exclusively to the electric guitar. By the early ‘90s, Martyn had reached an artistic nadir and was struggling to rediscover his lost art. In 1993, he did what all prolific artists eventually do: He revisited the work of his past. No Little Boy is a powerful record displaying Martyn’s formidable vocal prowess and the much-requested songs he had all but disavowed. “I did that album because the songs had changed so much from their original form,” he says. “I like closing patterns in my life and starting again.” The 13 moving recreations clarified that it’s still the singer, not the song, that matters most in this world.
With a new record deal that included the purchase of a church in Scotland where he now resides, Martyn is both energized and inspired. On The Church With One Bell (Thirsty Ear), Martyn reveals himself as a talented interpreter with roots in jazz and the blues, as well as empathy for contemporary ethno-pop and trip hop. Covering songs by Portishead, Ben Harper and Dead Can Dance, as well as Reverend Gary Davis, Elmore James and Lightning Hopkins, Martyn asserts himself as a definitive blues belter with particularly soulful expressiveness. “I’m on the cutting edge of new wave-jazz-folk-funK fusion!” he exclaims. “I decided I was getting a bit wimpy about eight years ago and thought it was time I changed my vocal style. I sing out more with the diaphragm and less from the nose and the throat. Consequently, I’ve become louder and deeper.”
Louder and deeper, indeed. During his recent gig at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen, every inch of Martyn’s massive frame shook violently as he roared through a definitive set of old and new standards. Wearing sunglasses and playing a 1954 Les Paul with trebly restraint, he shreds Harper’s “Excuse Me Mister” with sultry vocal excess. His exodus into timeless blues standards is fueled by a well of sorrow that renews itself effortlessly.
“I like doing as much new stuff as I can.” Martyn explains. “The thing is, there’s a demand for older material. One time, this woman came bursting into my dressing room after a show and screamed, ‘Seven pounds fifty and no fucking “Solid Air”? It’s a disgrace!’ I said, ‘You want your money back?’ And she said, ‘No, I don’t want any money. I wanted “Solid Air.”’ I have to contend with that.”
Martyn wrote “Solid Air” with Nick Drake in mind. It’s a ghostly invocation that captures the spirit of two sensitive artists, one dead and one very much alive. When Martyn sensually slurs the opening lines of his evocative ode, the patrons at The Beat Kitchen burst into greedy applause. Martyn’s eyes are shut tight and he’s sweating profusely as he gives away another little piece of his soul. His voice slides up and down, howling and growling and gaining power with every verse. “You’ve been taking your time/You’ve been living on solid air/You’ve been walking the line/You’ve been living on solid air/Don’t know what’s going wrong inside/I can tell you that it’s hard to hide/When you’re living on solid air.” It’s a damning legacy, but Martyn has learned how to endure. He just keeps his eyes closed and continues singing his ass off.
“I’m not a folkie—I’m funky!” he emphatically reminds me as we say good-bye. “Keep that folk stuff away from my name. I’m begging you.”