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For a more thorough overview of John Martyn’s long career of musical innovation, so sadly ended by his death at the beginning of the year, I would direct you to my humble tribute article elsewhere on Music Nerds, and also to his excellent official site at http://www.johnmartyn.com.
“Some people keep diaries, I make records,” John said of this one, which he also cited as his favourite work. The pages are torn from one of the darkest periods of his life: the disintegration of his marriage to his first wife and erstwhile singing partner, Beverley, and the crushing divorce which concluded it. JM again: “Grace and Danger was very cathartic, and really hurt. I was really in love with that woman.”
The nine songs are deeply personal, drenched with an overwhelming and very open expression of his sadness, pain, anger and confusion. So much so, that Island boss Chris Blackwell — an intimate friend of both the Martyns — blocked its release for over a year, finding it too disturbing. John was adamant: “I freaked: Please get it out! I don’t give a damn about how sad it makes you feel — it’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.”
Written and recorded during the summer of ’79, the set-up was appropriately intimate, given the nature of the project. Fusing perfectly with John’s awesome voice (its habitual lushness drenched with more emotion than ever) and his ever-innovative guitar work, we have the masterful John Giblin on bass. His work on this album has been compared to that of Jaco Pastorius — and I won’t be the one to argue. The equally esteemed Tommy Eyre provides the keyboards; and, on drums and backing vocals: Phil Collins…
I got into this album four or five years after its issue — by which time, good old Phil had become something of a joke. Even remember arguing that it must have been a different Phil Collins! But no, he it was, also going through his first divorce at the time: and his contributions are absolutely impeccable. Their sharing of the blues and the booze that summer was the founding of a friendship which lasted till the end of John’s life.
There’s some dispute as to whether his weakness for drink and drugs was the cause of — or was caused by — his bust-up with Beverley: a bit of both, most probably. As ‘a portrait of the artist as a screwed-up man’, I rank this record up alongside John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band and Wish You Were Here, or with Neil Young’s most soul-baring songs. Blackwell was correct in his definition, but it’s the very fact that it’s so disturbing, at times harrowing, which makes it so compelling: a man on the very edge, trying his damnedest not to plunge headlong into the abyss.
By his own confession, John was ‘hardly in control’, yet the perfection of the music that came out of the situation is proof absolute of its cathartic qualities. A remastered double CD ‘deluxe edition’, featuring alternate takes and live versions, was released in 2007, but this review will confine itself to the old faithful original issue.
I’ve been listening to it a lot again since the Big Man went and left us.
And it’s helped…
John Martyn — Grace And Danger: Track-by-track review
1. “Some People Are Crazy”
The chiming intro to the first song speaks volumes of the quality of musicianship –- and of Martin Levan’s production — which characterize the whole album. Veteran sessionists John Giblin (bass) and Tommy Eyre (keys) provide an enormity of depth throughout: and I still have to pinch myself sometimes to recall that this wonderfully restrained and sensitive percussion work was served up by Phil Collins…
In comes John’s tenor sax voice, stretching out the words, dripping with emotion. As their rupture became evident; some people stood by him, some people stood by Bev, and everyone had their own “wouldness and couldness” opinions about the break-up:
Some people draw conclusions like curtains:
Ah, don’t they draw them tight?!!
As he hits the bridge, it’s clearly evident that he’s only too aware of what both of them have lost, painfully pointing out that:
This loving kind of business
Might make your poor heart glad:
Yes this loving kind of business
Might be the best thing that you ever had!
And, if there was any doubt as to how much the whole business was screwing him up, the final lines, ‘dazed and confused’, just about say it all:
Some people are crazy.
Some people are just like me…
2. “Grace And Danger”
The title track kicks up the tempo a little: and while none of the musical grace is undermined, the sense of imminent danger comes through loud and clear: “Sort of pretty in an ugly kind of way…” Directed squarely at his estranged wife Beverley, the contradictory sentiments of the title are an expression of the ‘mixed-up confusion’ he was evidently going through:
You want a word from me,
I’ll give you two:
I mutter desperately darling
As you say goodbye,
As I start to cry-y-y:
‘Grace and Danger!’
It’s a double-edged sword which he’s weilding here, though he’s not exactly sure where to weild it. To slash out wildly, or slit his own throat? This ambiguity is inherent not only in the lyrics –- their irony brought about by the bitter irony of his situation — but also in the way he wields his Gibson.
His squealing near-power chords and sustain, ever-changing niggling fill-runs, and a solo so clean-bladed that it dazzles are all backed impeccably by the band. And I don’t detect any overdub trickery here…
Sheer technical excellence and pure gut feeling: “Grace and Danger”, Grace and Danger.
3. “Looking On”
Beginning with Giblin’s billowing bassline; Tommy Eyre’s piano and John’s guitar chime in together, almost discordantly, quickly joined by some sublimely subtle cymbal and snare work from Mr Collins.
“Looking On” — an Outsider, helplessly observing the disintegration of life as he’d known it: not crumbling, but tumbling down all around him. There’s absolute incredulity in the opening line –- not only in the question posed, but also the spaced-out, shell-shocked, way in which it’s delivered:
What kind of love is this?!!
The sprawling freeform jazz phrasing can only have resulted from a 4am session and godknows how many bottles of Scotch. (Hey — I’m guessing here, but very probably right!) The playing is of the very highest quality imaginable. Something about the way that each of the musicians seems to be doing his own sweet thing, but never loses the others, incontrovertibly compounds the distress and disorientation of the words and of the vocal — particularly as Martyn deliriously loops the title line over and over at various points, in place of a chorus; in turn in bewilderment, panic and anger; completely out of emotional control: “Just lookin’ on, lookin’ on, lookin’ on, lookin’ on…”
It’s tempting to cite the entire lyric, so full of deep, dark poetry is it: but I know it’ll only get edited!
Totally, utterly alone to try and pick up the the shattered pieces, ditched by his ‘friends’ as well as his woman, desperately, hopelessly searching for a glimmer of hope in this surreal, existentialist gloom… What kind of love, indeed,
To come stealing in, with an innocent grin
To leave you staring at the empty ceiling,
Feeling absolutely nothing
And just lookin’ on… ?
4. “Johnny Too Bad”
A cover of an old ska/reggae song by The Slickers “(with additional lyrics ‘translated’ by John Martyn)”, there can be little doubt that ‘Johnny’ actually is John himself.
Walkin’ down the road with your blade in your hand,
‘Johnny too bad,’ that’s what they say…
With his raunchy, swaggering, overloaded guitar riff, an impeccable solo which should’ve been three times longer, and that raw-throated, echoey vocal, he’s clearly recalling himself cockily strutting through the Glasgow of his youth; where, “you went out and kicked a few heads, or you were looked on as a pansy.” There’s a definite sense of his dangerously pent-up aggression as he spits out the lines:
With yer lickin’ an’ a-stickin’
An’ your switchblade a-picking:
An’ with your runnin’ an’ a-shootin’
An’ yer lootin’ an a-tooting:
I, for one, would not have messed with the guy as he “go walkin’, go talkin’!” Yet, there’s also the warning that it can’t go on forever: “One of these days, you’re gonna make your woman cry … Ooh now Johnny, where you gonna run to?” A question to which Johnny Martyn could have had absolutely no answer at the time…
Its enormous swankety-skank is deftly reiterated by the other players: his bandmates are his gangmates here — ‘mean and moody’ is understating the case. A great finisher for the first side of the record: and, man, I’m s-o-o-o glad I got to see him play it live (albeit with other henchmen) –a real belter!
5. “Sweet Little Mystery”
If John Martyn always wore his heart on his sleeve, here he had it pinned in place with a six-inch nail. Still holding out for a reconciliation, in oozes his voice, following the prettiest of intros:
Just that sweet little mystery that breaks my heart,
Just that sweet little mystery makes me cry.
Oo that sweet little mystery that’s in your heart,
It’s that sweet little mystery makes me try.
There are those who accuse Phil Collins of dragging John into syrupy AOR (he produced the subsequent Glorious Fool LP: received with considerable critical acclaim, but cries of ‘sell out’ from many fans). I personally don’t think that John –- always an inveterate experimenter — ever got pushed anywhere he didn’t want to go musically. And anyway, that voice of his could always put the majority of middle-of-the-road crooners to shame…
“Sweet Little Mystery” is undeniably tender and romantic, in a bittersweet sort of way: but what else could you really expect under the circumstances? It is soft rock, but with a razor-sharp edge, both lyrically and musically; saving it from the saccharine:
It’s not the crying in the depth of the night
That keeps me hanging on,
Just waiting for the end:
It’s that sweet little mystery…
For a wonderful contemporary live version of the song (and irrefutable proof of Phil Collins’ contributions), check this out:
6. “Hurt In Your Heart”
Never has a guitar wept more gently than one played through John Martyn’s echoplex and pedals: and never did his echoplexed playing sob more inconsolably here. Although very similar in sound to “Small Hours” from his previous release One World (another highly recommended record), there’s no ‘chill-out’ factor here, only empty-hearted pain.
Show me a sign,
A word or a line,
One stitch in time,
To save this poor heart
There’s an eerie fragility to Martyn’s playing and his voice (if you cry along, you won’t be the first –- or the last). Yet another majestic solo, played on his heartstrings as much as those of his guitar. The band’s contributions echo the suffering: an(other) awesome melodic fretless bassline from Giblin, Eyre’s electric piano tingles all cold sweat and goosebumps, and Phil Collins quite obviously hurting just as much as John: both of them trying to make some kind of sense out of their messed-up situations.
The refusal, or unwillingness, to accept that his marriage really was all over is self-evident. ‘It’s just a bad dream, and everything will be alright again when I wake up…’
When that hurt in your heart has gone,
I’ll still be your friend:
Right to the end of our river…
…Hope you’ll remember all the love
(All the love, all the love…)
Researching this review, I found an extraordinary 2007 version of this song on YouTube, with John (by then wheelchair-bound) performing and talking about it, and some astute comments from the presenter –- if you can decipher the Scottish accents…
7. “Baby Please Come Home”
What can an incurable romantic do, finding his romance to be incurably broken? Beg. Plead. Beseech. Implore. Supplicate…
Intoning the words of the title over and over, it’s as if he believes that by saying it often enough, his wish will come true. Or, at least, he really wants to believe it… The entreaty is mingled with expressions of remorse, as well as a sense of disbelief that things have actually come this far. His very real feelings of loss –- and of lostness — are perfectly evoked in the simple beauty of the lyric, and in his spine-tingling delivery of it:
I just can’t stand to see you go
And I swear that I don’t know
Just what made me hurt you so,
What made you want to go…
His two exquisitely understated solos (middle and fade-out) also come across as humble offerings of the olive branch, and the accompaniment is –- as always — exemplary.
Try to put the things we’ve done
Back where they belong:
That’s in the past-
I need our love to last…
8. “Save Some For Me”
The curious pinging sounds which open this song could be a synthesiser, or maybe percussion, but I’m pretty damn sure that they actually came from Johnny’s guitar. His voice chimes in to their accompaniment: “Save some … Save some!” Bass and drums slap in together, and off it takes: “Oh won’t you save some … for me!” The piano part, to begin with, is limited to a few frilly fills; though there’s a sparkling solo later on. Some fine Philsetto backing vox in the chorus, too.
The jolty uppish-beat rhythm of the song seems to indicate that John’s finally starting make out a little light at the end of the tunnel, as do the sentiments of the lyric:
Every day I wake up,
Now I feel a little better,
‘Cos the way I live I’ll never be alone…
Nevertheless, you can’t help but get the impression that there’s a bit of façade building going on here: trying to build himself up by putting down his ex. Elsewhere on the album, he’s more than ready to forgive and forget. Here, he’s uncharacteristically cynical as he splutters out observations such as:
I felt you like Ophelia in a repertory failure,
Demented in a theatre absurd!
Oh but I saved some:
You didn’t get it all,
‘Cos I save some for me!
He also recognises that he wasn’t entirely blameless in the past, sneaking in a passing reference to his cheating “on the side”. But, at the end of the day, who are we to judge? After all, the man was clearly just trying to “Get it, get it on!”
9. “Our Love”
Oh baby: take a look,
Take a look in your heart for me, baby.
Baby take a look, take a good look, baby,
Baby take a look in your heart.
“Our Love” was many things, once upon a time — all of them sweet and wonderful. So where did it all fall apart; how is it that “Now I find I have to search my mind to find the smallest trace of you in me”? And just how is it that the world and his wife seem to have the right to stand in judgement of something so profoundly personal?
People go talking,
But they don’t talk to me:
I know they just don’t see
Martyn exploits his extraordinary voice to the full: from treacle-tongued evocations of the good times, then dredging his soul to raw-throatedly recall the experiences which had “made a man from a boy, and made a woman from a little girl…” Ten years, two kids: all gone, just like that.
Phil Collins’ hypnotic “baby-babies”, bobbling round in the background, accentuate the sensation of divorce disorientation which he was sharing with John at the time. Eyre and Giblin -– needless to say — are both faultless, once again.
I’ve always found it kind of perverse that this track features a co-writing credit for Beverley Martyn. Given its content (not to mention the fact that she wasn’t even speaking to John), it’s hard to imagine them sitting down to compose it together… Perhaps some of the love metaphors had been hers in another lifetime? Maybe the melody?