Laura, That Summer and John Martyn

For some reason I’ve been thinking of someone I knew long ago. Well, not just for any reason. In this new place I’m not far from where she lived, and driving along these streets, the ones where I walked – I was just 18 and who owned a car or took driving lessons all those years ago – has bounced her back into my head a few times. I don’t even remember her surname now, her face is a blur in time, but really, that doesn’t matter.

We were a couple for less than a two months, just a blink in the scheme of things, but I owe her a great debt. After all, she introduced me to the music of John Martyn. And that really did change my life. Over the years since I’ve bought his albums, seen him play whenever I could and even ended up writing a book about him (which you can buy here if you really want to). At his best, the magic of John remains strong, even 41 years after I first heard him.

She was called Laura, which she shortened to Lol, back when that had no other connotations. I’d finished my A levels, I was done with school, an empty summer loomed ahead of me. She was a little younger, just back from a trip to Paris with her mother after a small breakdown following an abortion. We met at a party, one of those teenage affairs where a couple of bottles of light ale and a toke or two on a joint seemed daring.

Now I think she was probably drifting a bit, trying to find herself. Her parents were very liberal, her father was a professor at Leeds University, her mother a published poet. They lived in a detached Victorian house with a flagstone floor in the big kitchen. Dinner conversations ranged all over, and I was included as an adult. It was all I’d dreamed of for myself.

It was an affair that came with a time limit. I was leaving in September and she’d be back to the mundane life of school. We knew it without saying a word.

One day in August, when the trees in the garden were full green and shady, she took me into the music room. Grand piano, a wall full of sheet music, expensive stereo. We sat on the floor and she put on an LP. A few seconds later came the first notes of “Go Down Easy” off John Martyn’s Bless the Weather and I was shaken to my core. I must have heard him on John Peel’s radio show, but this was really hearing him for the first time. It was slow, sensual music, so different from any singer-songwriter I knew. The voice slurred through the notes like a tenor sax, the guitar and bass worked off each other. This was…I didn’t have the words for it. Then came the title track and all the rest and I knew I’d heard something that would lodge in my heart.

We played that album a lot over the remainder of that summer. I bought a copy, I was hooked in a way I’d never been with anyone before or since. The music still moves me. It always will. At his best, John vibrated my soul the way no one else ever managed. Even late in his career, after a couple of decades of ups and downs, he had something special – I was able to review On the Cobbles for NPR. I’m still ridiculously grateful to Lol for introducing me to him.

I did see Lol once more after the inevitable breakup. It was two years later. I was back living in Leeds, a student who’d decided studying wasn’t for him. It was outside the Town Hall, after a King Crimson concert. I was on my own, she was with some new boyfriend. A brief surprised hello and we went our separate ways into the rain. But some moments in life don’t always vanish into nothingness.

Lyrics? Poetry? Both?

I hit my teens and became interested in music in  1967. That was the year that progressive rock – prog rock to most of us now – really began. Music changed. Pop became Art. As well as groups making music more complex (until it would eventually disappear up its own arse), there came the advent of the singer-songwriters.

And with it, to my young ears, the realisation that song lyrics could be poetry. Of course, I didn’t know then that Leonard Cohen had already enjoyed a distinguished career as a poet and novelist, for instance. But that first album of his hit me – an aspiring musician and writer – as a revelation. Then add in some others, the Joni Mitchells, the Nick Drakes, who seemed to distil experience and feeling into lines and verses in the manner of the best poets. It says a great deal that even now I’m more likely to quote a lyric than a poem or a line of Shakespeare.

That’s not to say poetry couldn’t be pop. The Liverpool Poets showed that, Pete Brown crossed between one world and the other as lyricist for Cream, and the A.A. Alvarez Anthology of New Poetry was as vital as the newest Beatles album. I groped my way into culture as I grew.

Of course, not all attempts at poetic lyrics worked. Pete Sinfield’s work with King Crimson was often nothing short of embarrassing, while Yes was twee and post-Syd Barrett Pink Floyd was 6th form solipsism masquerading as profundity. But when things worked, and it always seemed to be the singer-songwriters who made it work, it could be beautiful.

Not that pop couldn’t use words well, as popular song had for decades. But there it was a case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. A marriage of words and music that was generally less effective when taken apart. While it could very powerfully pinpoint a time, a place, a mood, a romance or a breakup, it wasn’t the same.

It wasn’t poetry.

That was what I truly believed back then. I tried to make the songs that I wrote into poetic gems. I polished my poems. I was a pretentious little git.

These days I know better. I can still appreciate old Leonard as a rare talent, and Joni’s Blue stands as a near-perfect record even after all these years. But I’ve hopefully grown out of my leanings towards Art. Maybe, just maybe, I’ve come to understand that what’s important is that it moves me, whether it’s “Suzanne,” “Anarchy In The UK” or Bobby Bland singing “Two Steps From The Blues.” It was always that way, of course. I simply chose to be too blind to see it.