Monday, 30 March 2009

Unquiet Men: Martyn, Mailer, Zevon, Clarke

I've become quite a fan of John Martyn's, albeit very belatedly, since the poor beggar had to die first to stir me out of 25 years of paying the barest attention to his musical gift. What finally grabbed me was BBC4's very fine documentary about Martyn, made in 2003-4, first aired a couple of years ago, but screened again in recent weeks to mark Martyn's passing in February. BBC4, it should be said, have set the bar very high for excellence in the making of docs about rock, and the Martyn film is among the best for the advantage of access to its subject, not least at a time in life when he was about to suffer the amputation of one of his legs. As the doc showed us, 'health problems' dogged Martyn through his life, because he habitually raised hell: he wasn't sufficiently kind to himself, and - though ostensibly genial and lively as a person on top of his creative gifts - he wasn't always kind to others either, including loved ones.
In the doc Ralph McTell spoke feelingly about the emotional content of Martyn's music, and Martyn confirmed the intention, speaking of 'an intrinsic sadness in any creature.' Fine words. But McTell also winced when he referred to some of the things he wished he didn't know about Martyn's personal life, and wasn't going to share with the viewers. And Martyn's ex-wife and collaborator Beverly, mother of his kids, was also on hand to prick the mood of male soulfulness: 'You can sing the blues and make people cry', she remarked with a certain rising anger, 'but it's what you do as a human being that counts.'
Of course, the lives of many eminent creative men are littered with instances of dismal and disreputable behaviour, domestic heartbreak and discord; and critics and biographers tend to require that these be dragged into the complete reckoning of the individual. And readers, listeners, audiences - they, we, want to know this stuff too, understandably. We're only human, right? So are our heroes - human, all too human, whatever their access to higher powers.
Martin Amis once (in the mid-80s) took Norman Mailer to task across a sequence of interviews and reviews, commenting in a dismissive write-up of Peter Manso's brilliant oral history Mailer: His Life and Times that the 'common background noise' of the book during accounts of Mailer's stormy conduct in the 1960s was that of 'screaming children'. Fair comment, maybe. But Amis has surely now lived long enough to realise that judgement of one's fellow practioners in these delicate matters should be exercised with a little sympathy and self-awareness.
Of course, women, ex-wives in particular, can be piercingly acute dissecters of masculine boorishness. As a longterm admirer of Warren Zevon's music, I have never quite gotten over reading Crystal Zevon's oral history I'll Sleep When I'm Dead, which she compiled at her ex-husband's request following his death in 2003. I had known Zevon was a very bad drunk during his lowest personal ebb, and yet his gift for a rueful love song and the melancholy beauty of his turn of phrase tended me to see him as a man who had been more often ill-used than using, more hurt than hurting. Well, Crystal's book sure turned my head round on that score, notably from the point where she first describes Warren punching her in the face... She forgave him, at length and over time, and of course the credit and debit sides must be carefully balanced by those who weren't there. But still - talk about a nail in the coffin of the myth of the romantic troubadour...
One of the best insights into this vexed matter of male-female relations as complicated by the call of the creative life came to me back in 1998 when I interviewed the poet Jehane Markham for my book on Alan Clarke, with whom she had a relationship in the wake of the breakdown of his marriage. For Jehane this was a romantic transport that turned sour somewhat once she realised the extent to which Clarke required the company of male friends/accomplices and was unwilling to ever put his work into second place. Moreover, the milieu of Clarkey and his mates was boisterously proletarian, very different to where Jehane came from. She can say the rest in her own words, and I think she sums it up:
"It was old-fashioned, working class, patriarchal, it wasn’t good. And I was a silent woman, a young woman. There was a lot of anger that would come out of Alan, often when he was drunk. So I didn’t enjoy all that, it made my life with Alan quite separate, and that isn’t a good sign. Because if someone is going to be part of your life, you kind of integrate them with your friends and family, and I couldn’t. He did love his work, he was a workaholic, maybe too much so. In my dreams of him he was always working and I would think, ‘I can’t reach him’. When we worked together years later on [the BBC play] Nina, that was resolved. But I think he knew the balance of his life was wrong, he couldn’t get the personal thing right. Obviously, he was very scared of being trapped and contained and held back by a woman or women, he had to be free and unencumbered, and I think that was a battle within him. I don’t know if he regretted that, whether he felt we could have shared a life together while also being independent artists. It’s a lovely idea, but it takes a bit more than wishes, and it wasn’t to be."

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