Friday, January 30, 2009

"Don't Want To Know" /

John Martyn

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.

Don't Want To Know sample


Anonymous said...

Far from unknown in Europe, its only here in the US he is an unknown. In the UK his legacy is as great as any folk musician ever.

Holly A Hughes said...

Well, that's the US's loss. But I wonder why -- there's nothing in Martyn's music that American fans wouldn't love. That sort of thing is always a lottery, though -- maybe he just pissed off the wrong people and they never promoted him right. Same thing with Richard Thompson, I guess (Thompson played on this album too), though finally Thompson's getting more respect over here.

Dave K. said...

I'm really glad you featured Martyn in your blog. He was a wonderful talent. His self-destructive tendencies certainly played a role in limiting his success. But I think his music, like Thompson's, was a little too left of the mainstream for American Radio. The mix of jazz, blues and folk was perhaps too heady a brew for the average American listener. He was never a star in the UK either, but I think he was accorded more respect and recognition. I really don't think he ever aspired to be a star. In my humble opinion, your judgments in your last paragraph are somewhat harsh. He may have been a stubborn and unrepentant sinner, but I don't think he was much of an egotist. I also think there was much fragility expressed in his music. He really wore his heart on his sleeve.


Holly A Hughes said...

Sorry if it came off as harsh, I didn't intend that. Martyn could well have been wounded and insecure -- I really don't know much about his life, I've only strung together impressions from a few accounts. He did later express regret for the number of people around him who were hurt by his self-destructive behavior. I think we tend to forgive people for being difficult if they are gifted -- but if you're the one trying to live with someone like that, it hurts you all the same. Quite a riddle, how to reconcile the sensitive talent with the selfish human it's wrapped inside.