"Don't Want To Know" /
As the record reviewer for my college newspaper, I bagged a continual stream of free LPs I wouldn't have even heard about otherwise. One of the best surprises was John Martyn's Solid Air, a moody folk-jazz record that was so good, I couldn't believe I'd never heard of the guy before--or ever heard much about him again.
Well, I read Martyn's obituary today -- dead at age 60, a complete physical wreck thanks to years of heavy drinking -- and while it doesn't make much of a ripple in the general world, I'm sad. Like his friend Nick Drake (the song "Solid Air" was written about Drake, before his untimely death), Martyn was unfairly pigeonholed into 60s folk-rock. But where else would you put him? His lyrics were more impressionistic than Dylanesque-clever, his songs tinged with jazz and reggae when everybody else was aping the blues. Then there was his soft husky high tenor, mopey and fretful and slurred with pain. Not for everybody, I guess, but when it worked, it was a seductive formula.
All the obits mention "May You Never," the Martyn song beatified by an Eric Clapton cover; lest you think John Martyn was a one-hit wonder, here's another track worth remembering. "Don't Want to Know" is a melancholy minor-key samba, the dogged iteration of a stubborn romantic. "I don't want to know about evil / Only want to know about love," he declares from the start, and then he repeats it right away. It's like he's sticking his fingers in his ears, singing la-la-la to block out the crap he doesn't want. Which, of course, makes us more aware of that evil than ever.
That's the chorus; the verses are one long complaint about modern life, soaked with self-pity and paranoia: "All around the cold is glistening / Making sure it keeps me down to size . . ."; "I'm waiting for the planes to tumble / Waiting for the towns to fall / I'm waiting for the cities to crumble..."; "All around that gold is glistening / Making sure it keeps us hypnotized." Standard-issue protest rock stuff.
What makes it work is the way the waves of misery keep cresting and falling, with shivering electric piano trills making icy echoes and a flicker of Latin percussion whispering underneath his acoustic strums. (And this song doesn't even make the most of his inventive guitar playing, his greatest contribution to music.) Every syncopated hiccup of his rhythm seems hobbled with regret; he may say he only wants to know about love, but does he ever describe a single detail of love? No. Still, it's such a richly-textured tone poem, it transcends all his morose maunderings. All this crap is happening, weighing him down, but pure music prevails.
I gather there was nothing fragile or ethereal about John Martyn; he was a self-destructive egotist, a train wreck from the get-go, and probably it was his own fault that he never became a bigger star. Still, you look at clips of him performing -- fat and bloated in his old age, down to one good leg -- and when he starts to play the guitar, it's like the angels are singing.