April 30 2004
ARE you the man with the amazing dancing bear?”
“(Singing) Simon Smith and his amazing dancing bear. I’ve done that many times.”
It’s an old Alan Price song. It’s an odd start.
“The last gig I did in Nottingham was around ten years ago and it was at the university and there was no PA. I had to run around to hire one. God bless ’em. All the punters, who had been standing in the rain helped me put the PA up. That was a buzz and half, man. It did me brains in.”
John Martyn is in a feisty mood. It’s in the middle of the afternoon but with the slurring I suspect he may had a few beers. It could be his natural state — alcohol was one of his vices.
“Still is,” he says.
It’s still got you?
“No, it hasn’t got me I’ve got it. In fact...”
I can hear him asking his girlfriend to pass him a lager.
“I’ve been to AA meetings and all that stuff, blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.”
The chances of him giving it up were seriously reduced when he had to have a leg amputated below the knee two years ago.
All he was doing was fixing an amp.
“I made the classic mistake of holding on to a piece of metal when I turned the amp on. BANG! Volts through my bod. I flew off the back of my chair.
“I had this thing called a Baker’s cyst on the back of my leg. The shock triggered it all and my leg swelled to twice its size. I had to have a piece of it off to save my life.”
Doctors told him the cyst had been there for seven years. He had never noticed it before.
“Unless you’re a complete narcissist it’s impossible to see the back of your leg. I’m too ugly for that.”
He adds: “I remember doing two gigs in Cambridge and I just kept falling over and everyone thought I was drunk which I wasn’t. It was the cyst.”
He laughs when I ask how much it has changed his life.
“Put it this way, I’ve got a man here manipulating my prosthetic. He just burned a piece off and drilled a bit round. You have to adjust your foot with an Allen key. It’s cool though. You get about, man. It’s a bit painful at times but it’s nothing to worry about. It’s better than dying.”
And on stage?
“Sometimes I sit down, sometimes I lean against a Marshall amp, sometimes I might fall down... who knows?”
The Scot now lives Kilkenny in Ireland.
“Because I fell in love with an Irish woman.”
Are they married?
“Oooh, don’t be silly.”
You once were, though.
“Yeah, I discovered that it was not for me. I don’t think I’ll ever get married. Ah — I might, I suppose.”
“Oh there’s loads of ’em.”
Any doing music?
“Strangely no. It’s computing, drama... they can sing and play but they wouldn’t dream of taking it seriously. I think they’ve learned the lesson of my particular experience.”
Martyn began his career aged 17, influenced by traditional Scottish folk and American bluesmen Robert Johnson and Skip James.
After moving to London he became one of the most original advocates of a folk-rock-jazz fusion, working alongside Bert Jansch, Ralph McTell and Al Stewart.
Vocal acrobatics, guitar overtones and jazz arrangements merged for his classic album Solid Air in 1973.
Martyn has never been afraid to embrace different genres, toying with eastern mysticism, disco-soul and electronic new-age with varying degrees of success.
“I’m really in to hip-hop. I’m mad for 2-Pac. I like Outkast, it’s a real fusion of nonsense. It’s funky stuff. I play hip-hop and John Coltrane.”
Is he a fan of the new acoustic movement?
“It’s bull. All they do is thrash away on C, F and G with the odd A minor and they don’t play. Very few guitar players play with both hands today.”
So he’s not keen on David Gray and...
“Now you’re talking. Davy Graham?”
“No, no, no, the only one to listen to is Davy Graham. Write this down. D-a-v-y. G-r-a-h-a-m. He is the best acoustic guitar player I’ve ever heard in my life. John McLaughlin doesn’t sing, though when I first heard him play I wanted to cut my hands off. It was so beautiful. But Davy Graham...”
We let him go as the drilling starts up again on his leg.
“Tell the people of Nottingham they’re going to listen to lovely new songs. On The Cobbles is a nice album but I’m well ahead of that now. It was written two years ago. I’ve been writing ever since because there’s nothing else to do, you see.”
He doesn’t go out much?
“No, I stay in and play.”
I read he was a mate of Phil Collins and Eric Clapton — don’t they all get together?
“They’re good friends but I only see them every three years or so. I don’t really hang out with musicians. Mostly I hang out with villains. They’re more honest than most people I meet.”