Around about 1999/2000, Belfast-based film producers Lyn and Eleanor McMullan began to film many feet of footage of the musician John Martyn playing with his band of the time, whose members were: Spencer Cozens, keyboards, Aaron Ahmun, drums, John Giblin, bass, and Jim Lampi on that peculiar twelve string guitar-like of his called the Chapman Stick.
Much of the McMullans’ work subsequently appeared on a 2001 VHS, called Tell Them I’m Somebody Else, a fine testimony to the great Scot whose real name was Iain McGeachy. The talented guitarist, songwriter and deeply expressive singer died in 2009, aged 60. Much too young, but what a musical legacy he left, ever since his London Conversation debut in 1968. Island Records’ Chris Blackwell had recently signed up the raw recruit, the first white artist to record for Island.
That film Tell Them I’m Somebody Else combined concert footage and interviews conducted with the musician at his partner Teresa Walsh’s home near Thomastown, Co Kilkenny. Martyn, who was in or about 50 years of age as filming began, was in reasonably good health.
That is to say he was not yet the wreck of a man whom the BBC would film – ill-advisedly, it seems now on reflection - in a later documentary. But in Tell Them I’m Somebody Else those leisurely armchair dialogues at home were personable, revealing and frequently funny. There was nothing invasive or prurient.
Much of these conversations remain in the newly re-edited film, One World .. One John. I wonder though, was the “hobbies” question a bit mischievous. I mean, with any hardened musical survivor of the seventies - and indeed knowing what we know about John and his sybaritic ways and baaad company. . .well asking about hobbies is definitely a leading question. It's like asking one of the denizens of Withnail and I about their hobbies.
Sitting by the window, relatively content in Thomastown, where he spent his last years, Martyn suggested that hobbies were not really his thing. They led to anoraks and trainspotting, he opined. But being a generous man, he reflected a bit further on this, recalling how “deeply wounded” he was when a balsa aeroplane he once constructed ignominiously expired before take-off. That mock-sincere, arched eyebrow is a kind of tonic.
But then he goes off on a riff on his passion for fishing which was too fundamntal to him to be a mere hobby. His spontaeneous few words on his passion for angling is really quite beautiful, transcendental. No wonder he embraced Buddhism, it suited his way of looking at things, he tended to look at different angles. On a more serious note, his pronouncements on the inherent corruption of the music industry through the years do make one sit up and listen. You feel he should know, he was so long in the game. And how we was content with his guitar style, it did the job, he didnt see how it could improve. He readily admits he was no John McLaughlin or John Scofield.
Anyway, this new film One World . .One John is, as we said, a new version of Tell Them I’m Somebody Else. Much remains from the original, like the balsa plane story, and the larking about at rehearsals in that old church he bought in Scotland. Most importantly, the new film has a series of top-notch musical performances. There's a delicious reading of She’s A Lover, which segues into Solid Air and a heartfelt, mature I Couldn't Love You More.
In there too is Martyn's solo performance of the blues traditonal number Cocaine Lil, and his deep-delving, studied meditation of the 1941 standard, You Don’t Know What Love Is. John had previously recorded the de Paul/Raya composition with the Guy Barker Quintet for the soundtrack to the Anthony Minghella film The Talented Mr Ripley.
A taut and loose – well, you know what I mean - version of Lookin’ On sees John distracted, slow to enter with his furtive guitar into his band's wonderful palace of sound. But this wandering, jazz-inflected classic boils on, with John's little glissandos now on board. First heard on the great Grace And Danger album, Lookin' On got different, experimental treatments in almost 30 years of its performance existence. But somehow thsi version shows John at his most daring. Playing it cool and minimalist rather than rocking out on the solo, he hits a kind of creative peak.
Incidentally, fans of Martyn's music should get themselves to Thomastown on the weekend of September 15 and 16, to hear some if not alll of John's final band (Cozens, Thomson, Ahmun, Winnings) perform in the company of special guests who will interpret the great master's songs.