Oh! How Strange The Loon. Or, John The Baptist by John & Beverley Martyn.

“Lying and poetry are the arts,”

Oscar Wilde, The Decay of Lying.

The week before last, something strange happened to my boring website with boring stories about boring things.  Last week a lot of people read my post about The Only Living Boy In New York.

The reason an unusually large number of people did that was because the current Mrs Middlerabbit was listening to Radio 2 and Tim Booth of the band James was on, talking about it and he said he thought it was lovely, but he didn’t really know too much about it.

She told me about it and I went on the Twitter and sent a link saying, you know, I heard you talking about that and I wrote this thing about it a while ago, here you are.

Anyway, he hated it.  I suppose he’s probably one of these people who talk about positivity and optimism and stuff like that, that happens to other people.  He sent me a reply telling me how I’d ruined Simon & Garfunkel for him and did I do this to all the records I like?  I replied, being a smart arse, quoting Oscar Wilde just because I thought it might bring up a picture of Morrissey in his mind (Mozzer briefly (it was always a brief association, Morrissey and anybody else) championed James in the 1980s) and might bum him out for a minute or two.

What with it being on the Twitters, a load of Tim Booth followers came and had a read of it.  I don’t think they’re into it.  I changed the tag on my Twitter page to “Bum Trip Merchant To The Stars”, only mildly facetiously.

Then I was busy doing other things and didn’t really write anything here until I started getting obsessed by John The Baptist by John & Beverley Martyn and I started writing about it because I often don’t really know what I think about anything until I write it down.  Then, once I’d started getting my thoughts straight, I realised that this record is very similar to The Only Living Boy In New York in that the writer is using it in order to manipulate an audience into thinking one thing when the reality is pretty much the opposite.  And they’re singing it as a duet with the person it’s about.  I wonder how many of these songs there are?  I might have discovered a new genre here: passive aggressive duets in which the subject is unaware that they are the target.  You can put The Ballad of The Band, by Felt in there too.   These aren’t finger pointing songs, these are snidey, ingratiating, weaselly songs that tell you lies and look at you.   Passive aggressive but ballsy.

Autumn’s here.  About a month ago I found myself mildly irritated by the weather.  It looked cold, but wasn’t.  I’m happier now it’s getting properly cold.  With the changing of the seasons comes a change in music.

I often listen to The Kinks in autumn, which, I realise, is at least partially due to their record Autumn Almanac, which I’m a big fan of.   However, it’s not just that because a lot of their records are related to bygone ages and nostalgia for them.   The last couple of years however, I’ve not been remotely interested in listening to them at this time of year.  I don’t know why but it’s alright.

It’s alright because if I’m not into The Kinks in autumn, I tend to want to listen to folk music.  Primarily the folk music of the British isles, even though some of it annoys me enormously.

Diversion – Hey Nonny, I’m A Nobhead.

I didn’t always like Folk music.  For a while I was quite fervently against it.  Prior to that, I quite liked it and after I was against it, I decided I liked it a lot.

I’m not going into all that here: it was a bit all pervasive, the folky-corduroy-brown/orange colour scheme when I was a little kid.  That’s for another day.

What I’m going to tell you about here happened during my I fucking hate folk music phase which coincided with my going out with Clare.

One summer evening after I’d graduated but she hadn’t, she asked if I fancied going to a Folk Night at a pub on Beverley Road called The Bull.  The Bull was right next door to the primary school I’d done a couple of weeks at as part of my PGCE and I knew it.  It was pretty rough.  As I was Clare’s dirty Northern monkey boyfriend who didn’t even know the difference between organic and inorganic vegetables by taste, I’d assumed it was part of my job to be familiar with the locality to a degree that she and her extraordinarily right-on mates weren’t.  As I was very much against folk music at this point (apart from Donovan, which one day I’ll go into) I attempted to use this knowledge to put her off, ostensibly for her and her friends’ safety, but actually because I didn’t fancy listening to a load of fucking ‘Hey Nonny, I love you’ folk music.

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The Bull, Beverley Road.  Note Stepney Primary School (with scaffolding up against it) behind, the location of my Primary school placement.  There’s a chip shop to the right of the pub called Smithy’s which some kids used to say was the best in Hull.  That was bollocks though because at that time, it was Cave Street chip shop.  Not now.  Best chippy in Hull is Dundee Street, the proprietor of which used to run the Cave Street one, unsurprisingly enough.

She wasn’t having it – that The Bull was a bit hairy for a bunch of braying southern students who were highly likely to ask about whether the crisps were suitable for vegans – so I gingerly ventured down the ‘Come off itFolk music is a load of shit’ path.  That went down even less well than ‘The Bull’s not a safe place for people as loudly southern and studenty as you are‘ gambit had because she – not being remotely thick – had now worked out that I just didn’t want to go.  She indignantly demanded that I explain myself.

So I told her.  I told her that I wasn’t into fucking Folk Nights anywhere because I knew exactly what they constituted and I thought it was all bollocks.  Naturally, she wanted to know of what, exactly, Folk Nights did constitute and, like the moron I was/am, I told her.

It’s going to be a load of fucking students in long greatcoats with college scarves tossed with reckless, gay abandon over their shoulders, singing songs about how the pit owners’ employees also rented their houses so that if they went on strike or anything, they’d not only lose their jobs but their homes as well.  And they all go, “I was a coal miner in New-castle, fa-la-la-la…

Christ, Middlerabbit,”  she said, scorn all over her face, “God, you just fucking stereotype people, don’t you?  What’s wrong with you?  Why don’t you give people a chance?”  If Tim Booth out of James had been privy to our relationship, he would have had deep sympathy for one person in it and that person wouldn’t have been me.

Diversion Diversion – James.

James were a fairly big deal in the indie world for a bit and obviously inspire a certain amount of loyalty.  The current Mrs Middlerabbit goes to see them live, but it’s not really my cup of tea.  I liked the original 12″ of Sit Down, which is the only one I’ve got.  I didn’t like the re-recording half as much.  Still, that’s my problem.

Anyway, my James story is that one of the kids I worked with at The Odeon was called Simeon.  Simeon’s brother, Saul, was in James.  Simeon was a funny kid; he was a collector.  Up to a certain point, he’d seen every single film that came to The Odeon, and that was about five years after it opened.  He ended up getting the boot because he was selling bent videos of films that were being shown at The Odeon.  You know, “Oh, did you like that?  Do you want it on video?”

He didn’t tell me about it, but I knew he was at it.  I didn’t give a shit.

Prior to him getting caught in the act, so to speak, James were about ready to release their breakthrough album after Sit Down had finally got them into the proper charts – late 1990, Baggy, you know.  It was called Gold Mother and Saul, evidently proud at recording his first album with James, had passed an advance copy onto his dear brother Simeon who promptly bootlegged it and set up his own distribution in order to undercut the shops, who didn’t have it anyway because it hadn’t been released yet.

Simeon didn’t get any more advance James stuff after that.

End of Diversion Diversion.

I knew better than to start defending myself at this point because this was an argument we regularly had – or a variation of one – that I was practically Jack Duckworth (Northern, patriarchal, set in my ways and a dick) and she was, I don’t know who she was in that scenario, but it was evident that I had better not ask if I knew what was good for me, so I didn’t.

Anyway, we went.  We picked up her mates and walked to The Bull.  It turned out that the Folk Night was in a hired room upstairs which I’d never been in and you had to pay to get in which was a mixed blessing.  On the plus side, it would keep the locals out.  The negative side was obvious.  I was always skint and, despite being a student, Clare always had a lot more money that I had.

Naturally, I bought the drinks and joined Clare on a bench right next to the stage, which was about a foot high.  On it there was a kid who was on his knees, clutching a microphone, shouting, ‘That’s How Strong My Love Is’, the Otis Redding song.  He meant it, that’s all I’m saying.  Well, he sounded like he meant it.  Probably a bit too much.

Oh, he’s really good, isn’t he?” Clare said.

I just looked at her.

For fuck’s sake Middlerabbit, can’t you try and enjoy yourself?

That’s not folk music, is it?” I asked, floundering, “That’s soul music.  Well, it was.  Before he emoted it to death.

She kicked me and stared back at him, lips turning blue from being tightly folded in on themselves.  He was rolling around on the barely elevated stage by this point.  I tried not to look at him which wasn’t easy because he was about six inches away from my face by now.

After he’d finished shouting, he called for a towel from the stage.  Miraculously, someone provided one for him.  A freshly laundered white one.

He thinks he’s fucking James Brown, this kid,”  I muttered to Clare, who ignored me.  The kid spent the rest of the evening walking around, looking for plaudits with this towel around his shoulders, like a squash player or something.  I wasn’t too into it.

There was a compere and he introduced the next act, which consisted of three students wearing greatcoats and college scarves idly thrown over their shoulders.  One of them had an acoustic guitar and he stepped up to a microphone and spoke to us.

This first song we’d like to sing for you is about how how the mine owners used to also rent out houses to miners which prevented them fighting for their rights.  Thank you.”

Then he began to sing, “I was a coal-miner in New-castle, fa-la-la-la…

I looked at Clare and twitched my eyebrows, lips folded in.

She glared at me, then shouted, “Christ Middlerabbit, why do you have to be such a fucking cunt?”  Then she walked out for a fag.

I gave her a minute for the nicotine to get to work and joined her.

Sometimes I fucking hate you, do you know that?” she said.

Only sometimes?” I asked, evidently with a greater sense of positive anticipation than was socially acceptable.

She just glared at me.

We didn’t have long to run after that.

End of Diversion.

Anyway, not long after that, I realised that I quite liked quite a lot of folk music – traditional stuff, you know.  Even if I retained some aversion to the “I was a coal miner in New-castle, fa-la-la-la…” thing.

As autumn turns into winter, I regularly turn to Anne Briggs’ first album from 1971, which is my favourite album to listen to when it’s snowing.  Apparently her second album’s the best one, but I’m not really into it.

Check that out.  Bert Jansch’s is more celebrated than her version because he’s an astonishing guitar player and the kid Anne got in plays it sweetly enough, but he’s no Bert.  I prefer this one, even though Bert’s my main man generally.

Anyway, I found that I quite liked quite a lot of folk music, but I have quite specific tastes in that genre.  Fairport Convention, I struggle with, even though I like some of the Sandy Denny stuff.  Maybe it’s girls who I enjoy doing folk music more than blokes.  I don’t know.

Anyway, this autumn, I’ve found myself a bit obsessed with the song  John The Baptist, by John and Beverley Martyn from 1970.

I have a couple of John Martyn records.  Actually, having had a look at my records, I’ve got quite a lot of John Martyn records, but only up to Solid Air, which is his (relatively) famous one, and that’s from 1973.  I don’t have any other Beverley Martyn records which probably isn’t too surprising because she’s not made very many.

John Martyn was a funny kid.  I say funny, but I get the impression that he went from being funny-ha-ha, to funny-definitely-not-ha-ha pretty rapidly.  Let’s have a look at him and Beverley, shall we?

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From left: Beverley and John Martyn.  There’s a lot going on in this photograph although, to be fair, Exactly the same things are  going on it that were going on in every photograph of the pair.  

In later years, Beverley described John as Luciferian and I think that’s about the most spot-on statement I’ve ever heard.  Look at him.  He’s a beautiful boy, isn’t he?  All blonde, tumbling curls and beatific expression.  Tragically, he’s also a cunt.  A violent, abusive cunt.

Look at Beverley Martyn.  In every photograph I’ve ever seen of the pair of them, she just looks blissfully happy to be around him.  In the one above, she clings to him, eyes tightly shut, chin pressed to his shoulder and he looks like he’s recently gotten over the idea that he doesn’t deserve this kind of devotion and has now decided that he does and he likes it, even if he manages to look slightly bashful about it.

Luciferian.  I’ve not heard many people described thus, but I think she’s hit the mark squarely there.  Lucifer being the fallen angel, of course.

Around the time that the photograph above was taken, or shortly afterwards to be more accurate, John gave her a black eye for, apparently, ‘flirting’ with Bob Dylan while they were recording the album from which John The Baptist is found – Stormbringer!

At this point, while Bryan Adams claims he was buying his first real six string (cheers), Beverley Martyn had gone to upstate New York with noted producer du jour Joe Boyd to record an album with some American musicians, and also with her husband John, who was going to be her guitar player on the album.

John had put out a couple of albums by that point and hadn’t really decided who he was yet.  Some might argue that he never really decided.  I saw him live in the early 90s and he spent at least half the time talking and I couldn’t work out where he was from.  It turned out that he’d been born in Glasgow (went to the same school as Moors Murderer Ian Brady, fact fans) but spent a lot of time in London with his dad after his mother abandoned him, so that accounted for his wandering accent, I suppose.

Once in New York, John started taking over, much to the chagrin of Joe Boyd.  Boyd was taken with Beverley and didn’t rate John so much.  In fairness to Boyd, John’s albums up to that point had been quite derivative and I don’t think he showed too many signs that he would develop into anything very interesting.

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John & Beverley Martyn: Stormbringer!

 

On Stormbringer!  John wrote six of the ten songs, Beverley the remainder.  It’s a great record, perfect for autumn days and pots of tea with the smell of a baking wet dog in front of the fire, in between watching 1960s kitchen sink films on the telly.  Like a lot of albums, I found one song I really liked and, eventually, the rest of it revealed itself to be fucking ace.  I often need one song on an album and I’ll hammer that until I’ve driven everyone daft.  Eventually, I get sick of replacing the needle and give the rest of it chance.

John The Baptist was that song and, today on my walk, I listened to it about fifteen times in a row.

The first thing is, it’s not a difficult song to play on a guitar.  A lot of John Martyn songs have quite complicated fingerpicking patterns going on – and the notes are put through an echo effect as well, which makes it difficult to get the hang of.  Not this one though.  The guitar is big and booming – all chords, no picking.  Not whole chords though, just fragments of them with a certain amount of droning open strings going on.

Actually, that’s how I play it, but I don’t know if it’s right.  It might be in a different tuning on the record, but if it is, I don’t think it matters.  It’s the sort of playing that’d probably get you told off if you had a guitar teacher because it’d be a lot harder to play the full chords than the fragments.  It’s fun to play though and I can more or less get away with singing it because John Martyn’s a bit of a mumbler.  Expressive though.

There’s quite a lot of piano there too.  This album had a musical arranger – Paul Harris (who later played on Voulez Vous by Abba)  which I’d be surprised if John Martyn was too happy about, but who knows?

The drummer is Levon Helm from The Band, who I don’t like at all.  Their concert film The Last Waltz is my friend Moggy’s favourite concert movie.  I fucking hate it, me.  Especially Robbie Robertson who looks like an untrustworthy Sheriff’s clerk in a Spaghetti Western.  Anyway, even though I don’t like The Band at all, I quite like Levon Helm’s drumming because – like most of my favourite drummers – he lags behind the beat ever so slightly and his rolls and fills might as well appear in the dictionary under the word languorous.  On this, he’s unobtrusive but perfect.  Not metronomic or flashy, but I’m glad it’s him playing on it.  Wheezing.  That’s what the drums sound like.  He does that hi-hat thing that makes his kit sound like some steam powered Heath Robinson contraption.

The bass doesn’t do anything too exciting, but Levon’s right foot does that lolling triplet thing here and there and sounds like simultaneously like it might fall apart at any second and rock solid.  Which is perfect for a song about this, isn’t it?  It’s precariously balanced, even though the result’s a foregone conclusion.

Anyway, none of that’s all that important because what is important here is the singing.  John sings the verses, Beverley only really sings “Everything’s alright” during the choruses as John mumbles “Aaaaaallllrrrriiigght“.  She even sings the chorus all the way through the second verse.  They sing in the last verse in harmony which is a repeat of the first verse.

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Salomé With The Head Of John The Baptist by Caravaggio.  I love Caravaggio because he makes me feel a bit sick, I suppose.  Like Saint Sebastian in Hull Ferens Art Gallery with all the arrows sticking out of him and like Caravaggio’s Doubting Thomas.  Urgh.  I can’t take my eyes off them.  Amazing stuff.

The story goes that John The Baptist had criticised the Tetrarch, Herod for marrying his brother’s ex-wife.  Herod, apparently, wasn’t arsed because he quite like John The Baptist and enjoyed listening to what he had to say.  But his new wife wasn’t happy about his forgiving nature and forced her daughter, Salomé to manipulate him for her own ends. Salomé was one hell of a dancer and, after she danced for Herod, he was so impressed he said he’d give her anything she wanted in the kingdom and she demanded the head of John The Baptist on a plate because that’s what her mother wanted..

The song’s about the thoughts of John The Baptist around the time that he has a price on his head and his perspective and, frankly, it’s a bit odd, given who’s actually singing it, and to whom he’s actually singing it to.  The titular loon in the title of this essay is John Martyn because, well, because he’s off his tits.  And not in a good way, either.

Before I start breaking anything down, I should point out that I suspect that John Martyn’s take on John The Baptist and Salomé was primarily developed from the Oscar Wilde play, Salomé, which takes one or two liberties with the source material, although some of it is entirely taken from the biblical text.  Wilde’s Salomé wants his head for herself though.  She’s painted as the epitome of manipulative sexuality, which is where Martyn is coming from.  And guess who’s playing the part of Salomé?  Hmm.  Hands up everyone who thinks they might have an idea where this is going?

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Aubrey Beardsley’s illustration of The Dancer’s Reward.  Totally different from Caravaggio of course, but I love them equally.  He was an aestheticist, Beardsley.  Again, amazing stuff.  Still visceral, but bearing no relation to the likes of Caravaggio.  I’m coming round to the idea that I enjoy being confused.  As an aside, Aubrey Beardsley was one of the faces on the cover of Sgt Pepper’s… I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty confident that he would have been one of Lennon’s choices.  The Salomé illustrations are far beyond anything Lennon could have produced, but some of Beardsley’s other works show the influence on Lennon’s illustrations from around the time of …In His Own Write and A Spaniard In The Works.  

Martyn’s John The Baptist is fully cognisant of the situation, including what’s going to happen and yet…  Well, it’s odd because it’s not that he’s not bothered that his head’s going to end up on a plate, it’s that he seems to be quite looking forward to it.

He introduces the two characters in the first verse and immediately makes it explicit that Salomé wants his head and his heart.  These were a big deal, symbolically and thematically in John Martyn’s world, the head and the heart and the separation between the two.  He even wrote a song called Head and Heart, (I’ve put a link inn but I’m not a big fan) the year after this album came out.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with him from 1973.

“…I’m really hung up on heads and hearts.” 

Interviewer: You think they’re completely separate?

“Yeah, I genuinely do. I mean, obviously they fuse together in your life, but they’re two quite different things…”

It’s pretty explicit, isn’t it?  This is three years after John The Baptist, remember.

Initial reactions, to me, are heart reactions. I wouldn’t trust head or heart finally, though. The closest I can get is that I use my head to temper the judgments of my heart…  the most important things to me are my childrens’ smile and my woman’s love. The head is totally divorced from those....”

Obviously, John Martyn spent a fair amount of time thinking about, as he called them, the head and the heart.  Morrissey later, was similarly wrapped up in the dichotomy between what he described as the mind and the body, which is pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?

In terms of this song though, John’s Salomé wants both his head and his heart.  That’s the Oscar Wilde influence coming through if you ask me.  Biblical Salome didn’t want his heart.  Mind you, Biblical Salomé didn’t want his head either…

Still, bearing in mind that this is a duet and John Martyn is John The Baptist and his wife is Salomé that, in itself, puts an interesting perspective on events.

Second verse and any doubts you might have had about whether Martyn took his inspiration from the Bible or from Wilde should immediately be put to pasture.

She dances for me in the midnight moon,” is the first line.  In Wilde’s play, the symbolism of the moon was profound, “Look at the moon! How strange the moon seems! She is like a woman rising from a tomb. She is like a dead woman. You would fancy she was looking for dead things.” 

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Stefan Herheim’s production of Salomé.  Note the Moon taking up a significant section of the stage.

According to Sarah Berhardt, who would have been the star of the first performance of Salomé, Wilde told her that “The Moon is the star of the show,”, although Wilde had a tendency to say things that sounded good and not actually believe them “Lying and poetry are arts after all…”). Salomé is, pretty much, compared to The Moon all the way through the play.  Martin only touches on it the once, but it’s enough to shine (moon)light on his inspiration clearly enough to recognise that The Bible doesn’t really come into it.  This is about a woman with power over men.  Power and lunacy, in terms of the etymology of luna-tic.

Salomé’s not described at all, except in terms of her wants and her actions.  John The Baptist is described only in terms of a heart and a head.  And what the head is doing – repeatedly – is grinning.  Like a lunatic.  Yeah.

If you see me smiling an you wonder why, you can bet it’s a private joke between her and I…

And when my head’s cut off and I’m lying on the plate, I’m going to grin and tell myself, it’s been a lovely wait,

He’s saying she’s a witch, isn’t he?  She’s bewitched him to the extent that he’s not even bothered that she’s going to literally separate his head from his heart.  Not bothered?  He’s laughing about it.

In a way, we might view that as being quite sweet.  You know, death’s alright as long as I’ve known her, sort of thing.  Quite romantic in a trite, teenage sort of way.  And that’s what I thought it was about for a long time.  Until I gave it a bit of thought that is.

Remember what Martyn said three years later, “I use my head to temper the judgments of my heart…  the most important things to me are my childrens’ smile and my woman’s love. The head is totally divorced from those....”

Martyn’s telling us that his heart is a great big softie and he has to use his head to calm it down. Salomé – Beverley – wants his head, but only removed from the rest of his body.  She wants his untempered feelings without his pretty head getting in the way.  And that’s not from The Bible or Oscar Wilde.

The chorus consists of Beverley singing, “Everything’s alright,” which sounds like it’s a kind sentiment.  You know, “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.   There, there.” But it doesn’t sound like that to me.  It’s not going to be alright, is it?  He’s getting his head cut off because that’s what she insists on.  That’s not what alright is, is it?

You know when you make some prediction and it goes to shit and somebody throws it back in your face by repeating what you said, but with a sneer; that’s what this sounds like to me.  Beverley Martyn, of the kind face and look of utter devotion towards her Luciferian husband, sounds cruel as she sings “Everything’s alright,”  Increasingly so as it goes along, to be honest with you.  She sings the whole thing with shit on her lip, so to speak, but not all the way through everything: sometimes she sounds kind.  It’s subtle.  I think she put it in.  Playing a part in someone else’s play, which she could do and he either couldn’t or wouldn’t.

The interesting thing about the line and her delivery of it is that I can’t work out what it means.  If I’m just hearing things, that’s one thing; if she is doing it and she chose to phrase it that way, is it a sort of cry for help?  If he told her to do it, does that mean that he’s trying to paint her slightly blacker with her own voice?  Or what?  I don’t want to know, I suppose, because I gather my brain digs the effort it puts into futile activities.

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Cheers.  Yeah.

My favourite line of the song is relatively inconsequential in the scheme of things.  In the third verse, the point at which he’s pretty much run out of things to say about it, he’s describing a ‘Wanted’ poster on the nursery wall.  (The nursery wall?  Why that?  I think by this point he’s given up on the Salomé metaphor and has just slipped into describing his own domestic set up – one that he didn’t have much to do with.  Beverley stayed at home and did the traditional thing while he went on tour and fucked about).  Anyway, my favourite line is “With the revelation started and my face just lightly haunted…”  I like the “just lightly haunted” line.  It appeals to me, even though it was probably only there to rhyme with ‘Wanted’.  And that’s another thing about this song: some of the lyrics are absolutely perfect.  “I see myself on the nursery wall on the poster reading wanted,”  I like that he’s used the definitive article and the word reading, instead of saying, or labelled neither of which would have been as good.   On the other hand, “…In my very heart,” I don’t like his use of very.  It does show us that he was set on using the word heart though and , as we’ve heard, that was important to him.  Or at least it intrigued him.

The last line before the repeats of the chorus and the first verse (which Beverley harmonises along with, again with palpable cruelty in her singing sneer) is, “…and I know in my very heart, I committed no sin…

That’ll be sinless John Martyn who told his wife Beverley, “You’ll never get away from me. I will hunt you down and kill you and whoever you are with.”

She did a midnight flit in 1979, ten years after they recorded this song, taking their children with her, under police protection to live on benefits in Brighton.  Let’s have a look at Beverley Martyn now.

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Beverley Martyn, 2014.  Compare and contrast with 1970.  This is a photograph of a woman putting on a brave face.  This is not a lightly haunted face.  Note the head attempting to disappear into her shoulders, the reticent smile of a woman who’d learned to be careful who she was smiling at, and the generally haunted demeanour of a beaten and battered human person.  I know it’s probably not the done thing to say nowadays, but when I first saw Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, I’d been trying to find it for years and had it in my head that it was going to be about a cow.  You know, a bovine.  A moo-cow.  When it became apparent that there weren’t going to be any moo-cows in it, I forgot about the title until the very end of the film and, involuntarily, I said to myself, “Poor cow,”, meaning, “Poor woman,” and I thought.  “Ah!”  Beverley Martyn is a poor cow, so to speak.

That’s the face of a woman who’s been through too much.  That’s not the face of a witch.  Of a person who can drive a man so insane that he wouldn’t mind getting his head chopped off for her.  Let’s see the back cover of the album that this song’s on.

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Beverley & John Martyn, 1969/70: It’s not about ageing, it’s about losing the ability to relax because you’ve had to be on your toes constantly for ten years.

 

When I think about people who are abusive, I don’t just think about violent people, I think about manipulative people too.  And the problem with being manipulative, unlike being violent, is that, sometimes, it’s seen as being reasonable.  Pop music’s supposed to be manipulative.  It’s supposed to make you feel better – or worse, possibly.  Either way, you feel something.  And that’s what entertainment’s for isn’t it?  It’s how advertising works but more than that, it’s how a lot of living things survive, so it can’t be all bad.  Unlike violence, which is a bit more black and white.

Bearing that in mind, what does the writer and performer of John The Baptist want us to think?

Personally, I think he wants us to think: isn’t John lovely and I’ll tell you why.

The song’s John The Baptist.  The first line, sung by John Martyn is, “I’m John The Baptist.”    I think we’re being encouraged  to think of John Martyn as John The Baptist, do you?  As this is a John and Beverley Martyn record, who do we suppose might be Salomé?  Take your time, everything’s alright.  Cheers.  And what’s the story? Salomé’s so sexy and mental that she wants to have it off with John and then have his head off as well.  What does John want?  Any normal man would be kicking off wouldn’t they?  Probably give her a black eye for that, right John?  No.  Lovely John doesn’t mind that he’s going to get his head chopped off which means that Bev, I mean, Bev, I mean, Salomé, is so sexy that he’s happy to die after her dancing because he’s dead romantic.  Unless he’s only happy about it because she’s some sort of witch.  You know.  Evil.  Mental, at least.  Anyway, have you seen the back cover of the album?  Yeah, Bev looks a bit soppy, but look at John.  Look at John with the sun giving his already golden curls the appearance of a sort of halo.  And look at his lovely face.  If one of the people depicted was recently recovering from the other one giving them a black eye, let’s face it, it’ll be John.  Because he’s lovely.  And, at the end of the Oscar Wilde one, she gets killed.  He could have taken his revenge, but chose not to.  Why not?  Because he’s lovely, isn’t he?  Well, no.  It’s just all about him.  Like Beverley Martyn’s album where her guitarist took over because he was her husband and that meant he could.

And that’s the bottom line: the inspiration for this record, as we’ve gathered, was Oscar Wilde’s Salomé.  This isn’t called John The Baptist and Salomé, this is a song about John.  John The Baptist as played by John Martyr Martyn.

I quoted John at length, talking about the dichotomy he felt between the heart and the head.  I suppose the only excuse for this sort of manipulative behaviour is that it came from his head and not his heart.  Some might say his head was broken because his mother abandoned him and I can dig that.  The thing is that, sometimes, on some of his other records, John showed he had a kind heart, or kind bits of it at least.

It’s tempting – and fun! – to imagine that people consist of one overriding personality trait and if we’re playing that game, we might call John manipulative and self-absorbed and maybe that is all he was, but I don’t think that’s true.  I think he has other records that show a deeply sensitive and caring nature, expressed beautifully.  He’s not all bad, but I don’t know how it works out in the end.  You know, genius musician, amateur human being.

John The Baptist, then.  Yeah, if you like, John.  But not really, eh?

John committed many sins.  Even his most fervent admirer doesn’t shy away from his abusive nature.  Some might justify it by relating to how his mother abandoned him and he didn’t trust women after that, and maybe it’s relevant.  I don’t know.

As I said at the start of this post, I get obsessed with John The Baptist from time to time, especially in autumn and I think this might be why.  It’s a song by an abusive man about a manipulative woman and what an unnatural perspective she’s given him on the imminent separation of those two major parts of the body that he spent a lot of time wondering about – before and after this record – his heart and his head.

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John Martyn, around 2009-ish.  Not quite so angelic.  You can’t see here, but at this point he’s had to have his foot amputated due to a burst cyst.  He wrote an album about how upset he was by the breakdown of his marriage to Beverley Martyn  in the late 1980s.  I’ve never heard it, not least because he got his big mate Phil Collins in to produce it.  I’ve heard little bits of it on YouTube.  Don’t bother is my advice.  The Phil Collins connection doesn’t surprise me.

He broke her heart.  And her head.  Physically and mentally.  But don’t worry because like the song says, everything’s alright.  Even though it’s not and it can’t be ever again.

John Martyn drank himself to death in 2009.  Beverley Martyn appears to still be struggling to find herself amongst the wreckage.

And, in a way, that’s the other big difference between the biblical version and Wilde’s: at the end of Wilde’s, Herod declares her to be monstrous and orders his guards to kill her, which they do by crushing her with their shields.  You know, things that are supposed to defend you.

Which is about as close as I can get to amalgamating Oscar Wilde’s and John Martyn’s takes – John was supposed to be her protector; to defend her but instead, as we can see, for whatever reasons, ended up pretty much destroying her instead.

It’s a brutal irony – for Beverley at least.

On a final note, I think John was right about one thing: he was a lunatic.  What he was wrong about was in deciding that he was John The Baptist and Beverley Martyn was, in any sense of the word, his Salomé.

John Martyn might well have lost his head: he was a strange loon alright, but that had happened long before Beverley arrived on the scene.  She was no-one’s Salomé.  On the other hand, John Martyn was nobody’s idea of John The Baptist either.  If he was anyone, he was Oscar Wilde’s version of Herod.  Which means that he showed he had a bit of heart after all.  In the end.  Even if the end result wasn’t always quite so lovely in terms of its execution, unfortunate a choice of word as that may be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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