At the opening of his 1971 LP Bless the Weather, John Martyn pleads in a light, sweet voice: “Life, go easy on me.” The song, “Go Easy,” for all of its lilting, soft beauty, is full of foreboding, as though Martyn already knows too much about what life has to offer to hold out much hope for the avoidance of pain, and yet still he pleads. His pleading carries the earnestness of youthful prayer; there is the innocent and ignorant hope that just by asking for something he might get it.
Less than a decade later, in 1980 (the year of my birth), he released Grace & Danger. In some ways, if one absorbs the boozy, late-night feel of Solid Air and Inside Out and the strange, semi-commercial leanings of Sunday’s Child and One World, the material on Grace & Danger makes a certain kind of sense. In many other ways, there is really no emotional precedent in Martyn’s career for this explicitly bleak, self-absorbed song cycle. If Martyn’s early material exists as something created to thwart heartbreak and harsh reality, Grace & Danger indulges these feelings to the hilt. The sultry slur Martyn cultivated during the 70s is still very present, but there is an anguished, animal-like, back-of-the-throat growl that informs the singing, a self-consciously pathetic quality, a tangible willingness to put his emotional life, in all its warts-and-all reality, right out in the open.
And since we’re talking about sad songs, it must be said that “Hurt in Your Heart” is one of the saddest songs there is, a song that could still reduce its creator to tears almost 30 years later. Martyn’s voice is full of a heartbreaking combination of resignation, yearning, and denial. There can be no doubt that the situation being described (his marriage) has irrevocably broken down and is not working, and still he claims that the solution is simple: all that has to happen is for the hurt in the other’s (his wife’s) heart to fade so he can jump right back in and get things back on track. No mention is made of his potential culpability—there is no “I’m sorry.” Quite the opposite, he puts the impetus on her to “save this poor heart from breaking.”
When Martyn moans “I still feel the same,” it’s such obvious horseshit, but what really hurts about the song is that he so very obviously believes it as he says it. He is able to grasp moments of doubt and live there for extended periods of time—he wallows in them, he gets off on them. His own doubts about himself become the very lifeblood of his craft. It’s a very slippery slope: if everyone’s heartbreak was worthy of examination, we wouldn’t necessarily need art, would we? We could just talk to our friends. As it is, since he put it on a record and performed the song for years, we are able to view another’s pain with all the voyeuristic oddity of gazing through bars at a caged beast in a zoo or gawking with awe and heartbreak as a stranger breaks down in uncontrollable tears on a sidewalk. I was walking in the West Village a few years ago and witnessed a man sobbing in agony on woman’s shoulders on the street. It was immediately apparent that he had received devastating news. All regards for decorum were well out of bounds, and the horror of his new-found reality filled the night, and my own, not inconsiderable unhappiness was thrown quickly into perspective.
That is the kind of anguish Martyn calls forth on Grace & Danger with an relish that is both unwitting and magnificent. Never mind the fact that the man I saw on the street seemed to be in possession of truly seismic news (although who is to really say what I saw) while Martyn is merely lamenting the loss of love, a loss that most anyone has experienced at one time or another. This music understands the awful, human truth that the moment directly in front of us has the undeniable power to dominate us and consume us. Death is death no matter what form it takes.
“Hurt in Your Heart” isn’t fair at all. By placing the actionable hurt in the other’s heart, Martyn can conveniently transfer his misery out of himself while still having the luxury of expressing his own damaged state. All she has to do is call him up, whisper his name, wish him back, and he insists that he’ll be right back and ready to move forward. He simplifies the entire experience of being apart, he cheapens it and, looking for an easy way out, wishes she would just want him back. Nowhere in the song is the idea that anyone did anything wrong, not even the very basic idea that the couple might have come to resent one another, let alone the numerous possible and probable transgressions. This simplification, however, is what lends the song its power. So self-centered is Martyn in his despair and his projection of that despair that he opens a window into what the feeling of being confused by oneself and sad and alone is actually like. All the weird, “bad” decisions of the record become illuminated (I can’t quite say “forgiven” even though I want to) in the context of grief.
There isn’t much point in describing the sound of “Hurt in Your Heart.” If I said that Phil Collins produced the record (his own divorce record, Face Value, was made at the same time and sold about ten million copies—Grace & Danger did not), that Phil played and sang on it, that John Giblin’s bass betrays Martyn’s preference of Weather Report to Coltrane, that the self-pity quotient borders on the absurd, that a few of the songs overstay their welcome, would you really want to hear it? Maybe, maybe not. This is the problem at the base of writing about music: The moment any attempt is made to somehow “accurately” describe what happens in a given piece, the magic is lost. And since so much of Martyn’s power lies in the grey areas between the various modes of expression he employs, I will spare both the reader and myself the embarrassing task of explicating the brick-and-mortar content of the thing and dwell instead in the ineffable.
“Hurt in Your Heart,” especially in some of its live incarnations, is made of the same stuff that later gave way to much more questionable and depressing material like “Angeline” or “Sapphire,” songs preposterous and painful and laughable and moving in equal measure, and there is also the question of whether or not I would even be listening to music “like this” if I were not familiar with Martyn’s previous work, but to quote that other great arbiter of ethical ambiguity, Lou Reed, “since I don’t have to choose I guess I won’t,” so there you have it and there it is…