As most of you will know by now from assorted news and blogs and what-not, noted singer-songwriter John Martyn has passed away. A colleague mentioned this to me on seeing the news and asked if I'd heard of him.
"Heard of him?" I retorted, "I've supported him."
And oddly, this statement turns out to be true. Let me reminisce a moment...
In 1990, I returned from my first two-year stint in Indonesia and was living in a series of crapulous bedsits in Oxford while justifying my pointless existence on the grounds that I was 'a graduate student'. I had just scraped together enough dosh to pay one year's fees at a college which I knew would have me (I knew and had played gigs with my prospective supervisor), and supported myself thewhiles by a fissile mixture of TEFL and semi-professional music. I was for a time in a band that played for 'drinks and tips' at a muso pub down Cowley Road, at 'folk evenings' MC-ed by a chap called Frank Underwood whom I had known on-and-off for a few years. The next few years saw me yo-yoing between Oxford and Central Java on 'fieldwork' (usually arranged by getting TEFL jobs at places desperate for native speakers).
Frank's main paying gigs at this period were as part of the duo 'Mortlock and Underwood', Mortlock being a folk fiddler of considerable skill and charisma. Alas, in a rock'n'roll style breakup Mortlock threw his fiddle down on stage in front of a large crowd, called Underwood a few unparliamentary things and stormed off, leaving U grinning desperately at the audience and saying "Yeah! Baroque'n'roll!"
He now had the problem of how to do gigs for which 'Mortlock and Underwood' were booked, and asked me to fill in as an ersatz Mortlock for a while.
Thus in summer 1993 I came to be on a beach at Hastings playing to an enormous crowd at a free festival, immediately before the headline act, which was - I'm getting there - John Martyn.
There had been many acts before us, over the period of about 4 hours; and free drink provided to performers throughout. This is often a mistake, and with a heroic drunk like Martyn it was quite disastrous. The man - genius though he may have been - could barely stand up through his set. I watched from the side of the stage, beer can in hand, willing him to get through the set. He just about did, but there was a palpable sense of "WTF?" among the crowd, hundreds of whom had come down from London and elsewhere specially to see JM perform. I think the people who appreciated it most were those as sloshed as he was.