This morning’s sad news of John Martyn’s death reminded me of a particularly colourful encounter I had with him, back in what they call the day, which I wrote about in my regular Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before column in Uncut in July 2004 and re-print below.
Leeds: February, 1975
A day of mayhem starts pleasantly with lunch at the Savoy with Billy Swan, who’s had a hit recently with a great record called “I Can Help”. Over generous portions from the most expensive menu I’ve ever seen, washed down with a couple of bottles of wine that each cost more than I earn for a week’s toil for what used to be Melody Maker, Billy tells me fantastic stories about growing up with rock’n’roll in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, where he used to see Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich in local beer joints.
By the time we get to coffee and brandies, Billy’s on an hilarious roll. He finishes with a flourish: a story about Phil Spector driving Billy, Kris Kristofferson and Carly Simon up to his Hollywood mansion and playing them rough mixes of John Lennon’s Imagine, which Spector had just produced.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Billy says with a smile I can still remember. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
There’s still some brandy left in the bottle when I have to leave. I’m due in Leeds later today to interview John Martyn, who’s meant to be recording a live album that night at a show he’s playing at the university. We get to Leeds around seven in the evening, and drive onto the university campus, where someone helpful in a very short skirt shows us to Martyn’s dressing room.
I knock on the door, provoking a great bellowing from inside. I push the door open and walk into the smallest dressing room I’ve ever seen, before or since. Martyn’s slumped in a corner, looking like he’s been drinking since the dawn of time, or slightly earlier.
“Who the fuck are you?” he wants to know, bubbles of spit in the corner of his mouth.
“I’m from Melody Maker,” is all I manage to say before the breath is knocked out of me when some fucking oaf blindsides me, smashing me into a wall before trying to hang me from a coat hook.
“If you’re Chris Welch, I’m going to fucking kill you,” I am now being told. Turns out the bearded balding maniac I’m staring in the eye is virtuoso bassist Danny Thompson, now playing with Martyn after years with folk supergroup Pentangle.
Danny’s about to introduce his fist to my face when Martyn gets unsteadily to his feet and punches the bass player in the region of his kidneys. This makes Danny grunt, but doesn’t put him down.
“Let him the fuck go,” Martyn tells Thompson gruffly. “He’s not the one you want.”
Danny lets me go and retreats to the other side of the small unpleasant room, which I now realise is stocked with so much booze it looks like an off-license store room or a bootlegger’s lock-up.
“Sorry about that,” Martyn says then. “He thought you were someone else.”
I can hear Thompson sort of growling, and decide on the spot that if the belligerent fucker comes at me again I’m going to stick a finger in one of his eyes – I’m not fussed which one – and we’ll see where we go from there.
Martyn then claps me somewhat thunderously on the shoulder, offers me a drink, which I accept, no point holding grudges, and knock back quickly before accepting another one.
I remind Martyn that I’m here to do an interview with him. He seems to have a problem processing this when the dressing room door flies open and this sort of scruffy fucking troll staggers in, swigging vigorously from a bottle of crème de menthe. This is former Free guitarist Paul Kossoff, who will apparently be playing tonight with Martyn, Thompson and drummer John Stevens.
“Who’s this c***?” Kossoff asks Martyn, pointing at me.
“He’s from Melody Maker,” Martyn tells Kossoff. “But he’s not Chris Welch.”
Kossoff looks at Martyn like he’s being spoken to in a language he doesn’t understand and heads back out the door.
I’m still trying to get Martyn to sit down and talk when about 15 minutes later, the dwarf-like Kossoff returns, bleeding from the nose and lip and wailing like the recently bereaved.
“Fuck’s going on now?” Martyn ask, which provokes a tale of considerable woe, Kossoff now telling us he’s been set upon by homicidal students from whose clutches he has been lucky to escape with his life. Martyn’s on his feet in a flash, Danny Thompson, too. The bassist snaps an arm off a chair, brandishing it like a club. Martyn’s got a bottle he might break over someone’s head.
“Show us these fuckers,” Martyn tells Kossoff, who leads us out of the building, into the student’s union bar.
“That’s the one!” Kossoff now shouts, finger accusingly aimed at a skinny little twat, holding his girlfriend’s hand like she’s about to run off and looking at us fearfully as we approach like he thinks he’s about to be kidnapped by a death squad and driven off to a dank room in a remote location where terrible things will happen to him.
“He’s the one that hit me,” Kossoff fairly shrieks.
Martyn, moments ago ready for havoc, pauses now.
“He’s not a fucking GANG,” he says of the trembling student. “What’s going on?”
Turns out Kossoff’s drunkenly groped this bloke’s girlfriend and the bloke’s given Kossoff a shove that’s sent the guitarist tumbling down some steps. All talk of a gang attack is pathetic bollocks.
“You c***,” Martyn shouts at Kossoff, smacking him extremely hard in the face. The short-arsed former guitar hero is further surprised when Danny Thompson fetches him what I’m delighted to describe as a pretty painful thwack to the side of the head with the arm of the chair he’d snapped off in the dressing room.
This makes Kossoff cry like a girl, at which point Martyn and Thompson stalk off, laughing like people who are mad.
The next thing you know, these people are all on stage and for an hour and more the music they play is incredible – but, hell, you can hear that for yourselves on Live At Leeds, the ‘official bootleg’ album that Martyn first makes available only by mail order before Island finally release it properly.
Back in the band’s dressing room, after the show, I’m sitting with Martyn, finally getting around to the interview, when Paul Kossoff walks up to Martyn and breaks a beer bottle over his head, glass shattering everywhere.
“Everybody OUT,” Martyn screams, grabbing Kossoff in what looks like a near-fatal head-lock. “I’m going to give this c*** the kicking he’s been asking for.”
The room clears pretty sharpish at this point, and several of us stand in the corridor listening to Martyn and Kossoff go at it like rutting elks, the most alarming sounds of destruction and violent combat coming from the other side of the door – a symphony of bone-cracking, head-banging, furniture-breaking, glass-shattering detonations. This goes on for a while, then Martyn opens the door, blood all over the front of his shirt, holding Kossoff like laundry, which he then drops to the floor and kicks.
“Shall we finish that fucking interview now?” Martyn asks me, and minutes later he was waxing lyrical about the influence of Davy Graham on his music, as if this sort of thing happens every night when he’s on tour. Which it probably does.