“Screw these assholes; take whatever you want; that’s what I’m doing.”
That was the angry directive snarled at me by my boss at the grungy Lower East Side record shop I was working at as he stomped past. He’d just had a blowout with the owner of the place and now wanted revenge. I watched in horrified confusion as he headed for the bins and began furiously stuffing albums under his arms. This type of angry display from him was not an anomaly—oh no. Not only was he frighteningly acidic about the bands he disliked, he wasn’t too crazy about the world at large either, especially New York City. He frequently expressed his desire to destroy it: “They’d better watch it, seriously.”
All of which is to say, he kind of intimidated me, and so I, a young, impressionable, nerd-girl in my very first record store job, obeyed his command—even though I had no idea what specifically we were supposed to be angry about. To be honest, ordering me to help myself to whatever albums I wanted wasn’t a big ask. I was making minimum wage, had no disposable income, and quite literally coveted the records that I unpacked, priced, and filed each day. And so when this illegal opportunity knocked, I was only too happy to answer. And I knew exactly what I wanted.
There was a particular album that had been piquing my interest as of late, an oldie from 1981 by an artist I’d never heard of. It was called Glorious Fool, and its front cover featured a photograph of a rooftop with a single cloud hovering over it. I was enraptured by the striking stillness of the picture and desperately curious as to whether the actual music within was as beautiful as its exterior. The artist’s name was John Martyn.
I had no expectations regarding the album’s quality, nor did I feel I had a right to; I mean, it was “free” after all. Still, the fact that it was something obscure made me feel less guilty about taking it. “It’s not like I’m depriving the shop of a sale,” my inner voice conveniently rationalized. Anyway, even if it wasn’t any good, it had that cool cover, which I could now stare at whenever I wanted.
Like I said, I was earning a pittance because of the unspoken, ironclad agreement—aka, the myth that working at a record store was a privilege—and part of the compensation was the fact that you got to work in a record store. Did Johnny Thunders calling me sweetheart repeatedly one afternoon make up for my lack of income? In a sense, yes, but in a bigger sense, no. I straight up could not pay my bills. At the time, I was in the midst of a relationship with a bartender with whom I was both obsessed with and didn’t entirely trust (rightfully so, as it turned out). The obsession part of the equation had led to my taking an apartment across the street from him that I could not afford. But hey, I was just out of teenagedom, in the throes of irrational love and plain old living in the moment, baby. Rock and roll.
This apartment, my first minus roommates, was less a living space than it was a specimen jar. The refrigerator didn’t work and I couldn’t safely store food, so it had an uncontrollable roach and rodent problem. But its biggest deficiency turned out to be its actual location which, while across the street from the then-beloved boy, was directly over a popular Lower East Side bar with a jukebox. Every night at 2am, there was some sort of closing ritual that involved playing “Honky Tonk Woman” at top volume, and every night I would be cruelly roused from my sleep by the song. Or a motorcycle revving outside my window. Or the sound of bottles being smashed in the street. Then there was the loudest sound of all, my phone not ringing—soon after I moved in, my wandering boyfriend, now neighbor, had pretty much stopped calling.
To summarize: I had a semi-cool, but basically dead-end job; a shit apartment; a rubbish boyfriend; no viable business skills; a defaulted student loan; and was living paycheck to paycheck. It wasn’t long before the eviction notices started finding their way under my door. I was both absolutely terrified and staggeringly depressed. And every day, once the sun went down, I would cry about what an idiot I was and how poorly I’d managed my life. Yes, folks, I had some serious growing up to do.
It was within these fabulously grim and dingy environs that I came to know the otherworldly voice and heartbreakingly gorgeous songs of John Martyn.
My first listen of “Glorious Fool” was revelatory. I loved everything about it, from Martyn’s gruff, sensuous voice to his melodic spaced-out guitar playing to the songs themselves. One play was enough to make me want to hear every John Martyn song ever.
Since I had no money for self-gifting, I immediately began trading in albums from my existing collection at used record shops to exchange for anything I could find by Martyn. Once I’d acquired a solid handful, I made a magical mixtape with all my favorite songs, painstakingly arranged according to mood and tempo. I would play this custom “Martyn Mix” every night to help me relax and get to sleep . It was my counter-ritual to the bar below’s nightly “Honky Tonk” party. I’d get into bed, lodge my Walkman under my pillow, pop on the headphones, and John would take it from there. He would nobly and single-handedly drown out the world for me.
Vinyl LP, Compact Disc (CD)
No song sated my soul more than the one I’d chosen to occupy the always crucial closing spot on the tape: “Small Hours,” a nearly nine-minute piece of hazy melodic ambiance built on a foundation of never-ending notes and Martyn’s warm, spectral voice. It was the last track on his 1977 album One World, and it was beyond beautiful. It set me swooning the same way my other all-time heavenly crush, the Cocteau Twins’ song “Lorelei,” had years before. I revered “Small Hours” as much as you could possibly revere a pop song. And I honored its magic by only ever listening to it on the aforementioned headphones during the actual small hours. As it played, I would mentally time travel to a scene of myself roller skating alone on a blacktopped parking lot in my hometown late at night, and a huge sense of peace would wash over me. It was a random and weird remembrance, but “Small Hours” was the boss, and that was the memory it decided to attach itself to in order to lift me out of the heartache. Weirder still was the fact that it freakin’ worked.
John Martyn began his career as an acoustic folk troubadour, albeit one with an unusually soulful and mellifluous voice and genuine ear for melody—uncommon traits in the late ’60s English traditionalist circles he came up in. He was also a virtuosic guitarist who wasn’t remotely bound by tradition. He was particularly famous for his mastery over a piece of musical gadgetry known as the Echoplex, a tape delay device for guitar, and by the ’70s began officially employing it on recordings. The machine allowed him to elongate and extend notes as he played, thus creating a delicate echoing effect. And it’s a huge part of why “Small Hours” sounds as transcendently gorgeous and disorienting as it does.
The song was recorded in an outdoor studio set-up at producer Chris Blackwell’s farm in Berkshire, England, at 3am (very fitting). The grounds were surrounded by water, and if you listen closely to the track, you can hear an actual flock of wayward geese flying overhead, as well as the low rumble of a passing train in the distance. English folk legend Ralph McTell once said of the song, “If that doesn’t move you, there’s something wrong with you; it’s absolutely exquisite. It’s a hymn to the night. Reflective, dark, experimental, absolutely beautiful.”
I did eventually manage to extricate myself from my assorted situations, albeit with some help; I was evicted by both my landlord and my boyfriend. But a tiny miracle happened while the mayhem swirled. I somehow scored a decently-paying job at a big mega record store that was about to open, which offered both insurance and, even better to me at the time, an employee discount which I could utilize to buy more John Martyn albums. Par-tay.
Unfortunately, for the world at large, as my love for John Martyn grew, so too did my desire to testify to other music nerds about just how awesome he was. One of my more receptive new co-workers was the late, great, future WFUV program director Rita Houston, who was then serving as the in-store DJ. I was so desperate to share my rapture that I actually ended up giving her my special “nighttime” mixtape. By that point, I’d made so many John-themed tapes that I was no longer reliant on the “original” artifact anymore, and the thought of turning someone else onto him far outweighed the need to hold onto it as some sort of sentimental keepsake.
In the years that followed, I was able to see John play live a couple of times at the Bottom Line in NYC. And as an added bonus, he smiled at me during one of the shows, which, I’ll tell you, rocked my little world.
As time passed, my relationship with “Small Hours” itself became even more immersive. The original version eventually came to serve as the centerpiece of a homemade “Small Hours” playlist, surrounded by an assortment of exquisite live versions and covers, including one by The Cure’s Robert Smith.
Fast forward: As is sometimes the case with this stuff, I had no idea who the “real” John Martyn was until after he’d passed away. Since his death at age 60 in 2009, there have been three books published about his life—two bios and a memoir by his ex-wife Beverley—all of which lay bare some pretty bad stuff. It turned out my nightly knight in shining armor had been both an abusive partner and a neglectful father over the course of his first marriage, behaviors exacerbated by an ongoing alcohol addiction.
By the time I’d heard about all this, I was beyond invested in my fandom with decades of listening under my belt as well as a massive collection of his music. And as troubled, saddened, and pissed off as I was by some of the stories I’d read, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to stop listening to John Martyn. His songs were so ingrained in my emotional history that extricating them was going to be impossible.
I had a walk-in closet as a kid and spent more time sitting in there reading than I ever did in my actual room. That’s what “Small Hours” had come to be: my hiding place, my shelter from the storm in musical form. Once the song was reverberating in my headphones, I was out of this physical world and inside an imaginary universe where everything was okay. I’d spent enough time with “Small Hours” that it had long ceased being “a John Martyn song” and had morphed into a singular floating entity detached from any particular human apart from myself when I was listening to it. And I still listen.
Yes, one of my all-time favorite songs was created by a flawed and fractured human whom I both love and am extremely disappointed in. But despite the contradiction, “Small Hours” remains an absolute treasure to me after all these years. When it plays, I’m not here; I’m skating in the dark and feeling no pain.
Hope Silverman is a writer and visual artist based in New York City. She is a regular contributor to Cover Me and editor-in-chief of her own nerdy music blog, Picking Up Rocks. She was the co-president of small, sweet label 80N7 and spent a scary, maybe an excessive number of years working in record stores. She is obsessed with destroying the musical concept of “guilty pleasures” and is currently working on a book about owning one’s love of “bad” and “questionable” music. Follow her at @pickinguprocksblog