Quick Look: “Dealer” by John Martyn (1977)
My goodness, it has been a crazy couple of months in my extra-blog life, and there is not much indication that things are going to quiet down anytime soon. The promised post about the brave anti-terror dog is indeed in the works; in the meantime, please enjoy the first—okay, let’s call it the second—in a new series of brief (yes!) posts that will pretty much attempt to say only one thing ABOUT only one thing. There’s a ton of distance between an 8,000-word commando raid on a pop hit and “Martin shared a link on your wall,” right? And SOME of that territory’s gotta be worth checking out.
Thus, please enjoy with my compliments the following:
Here is a fruit fallen from a rather peculiar branch of the pop-music tree: John Martyn in 1977, performing “Dealer,” the first track from his soon-to-be-released LP One World. Martyn began his career as an English folk and blues artist in the mold of Davey Graham, but later moved away from the clear diction and crisp acoustics of traditional folk in the direction of jazz and dub; the One World studio sessions followed a transformative encounter with the justly fabled Lee “Scratch” Perry and a brief interlude as a session player in Jamaica. While Martyn had been using Echoplex tape delay for years as an occasional component of his sound, by the mid-70s it had become central to his live performances, helping to yield the constantly-accreting cascade of notes we hear in much of his output from this period. His experiences in Jamaica, we can imagine, suggested even broader avenues for exploration: I think the subtractive logic of dub is pretty apparent, for instance, in “Small Hours,” the last track on One World, where the Echoplex and a volume pedal serve to elide the sound of Martyn’s attack on his strings, thereby separating the guitar’s sound from its source. (I think this solo performance—from Reading University in 1978—is extraordinary, and with all due respect to Steve Winwood’s Moog noodling, I prefer it to the album version.)
While creatively fertile, 1977 was a dark time for John Martyn personally, and it was about to get darker: by the end of the decade he’d be divorced, and his already pronounced proclivity for alcohol and substance use and abuse would rapidly expand and escalate. In retrospect, “Dealer” comes off a little like the view from the apex of the rollercoaster: the last clear glimpse of where things are going and what’s about to happen.
What strikes me as most remarkable about “Dealer” is how it can’t or won’t settle on how literally it’s meant to be about a vendor of narcotics. If it’s not literal, then what is it a metaphor for, exactly? I’ll bet you can think of several answers, and I’ll bet they’re all correct. A slightly weaker but fascinating performance of the same song from a year later—the coaster now on its way down, picking up speed—makes it clear that the indictment that “Dealer” intends to hand down is pretty broad: Martyn is contemptuous toward his audience, almost combative, and the audience seems amused by this. It’s clear that the encounter is tainted by bad faith, but it’s difficult, maybe impossible, to determine who the sucker is, who’s taking advantage of whom.
I think the second verse of “Dealer”—shifted to third in the 1978 performance, with a few pronouns tellingly shuffled—is particularly sharp and true: a corrosive blast of self- and other-loathing aimed at anyone who earns a living selling a product that people want, but don’t need. That, needless to say, implicates popular music, and implicates Martyn himself:
They tell me that they dig my shit
so I sell it to them cheap.
They bring their scales and check the deal,
’cos they’re scared that I might cheat.
Well I’m just a spit and polish
on a fat man’s shiny shoe.
Well I think I hate them for it
and I think they hate me too.