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Elizabeth Kinder
Photo: Sophie Ziegler

The Elusive Ethnomusicologist

Elizabeth Kinder’s monthly column

You’re not supposed to meet your musical heroes and if I was wondering why – some I’ve met have been brilliant – the dangers of doing so have just been rammed home. I’ve recently read two books about musical lives, both underlining why any fan simply must hotfoot it in the opposite direction should the object of their admiration hove into view. One made me hoot with laughter almost all the way through and the other made me cry out with advice to the contrary at practically every turn of the page.

Both detail very messy and very disappointing meetings with musical heroes. In Mark Ellen’s touching, perceptive, generous and hugely funny memoir Rock Stars Stole My Life! he describes a trip with the BBC to interview two of his all time heroes, Jimmy Page and Roy Harper, in the Lake District for the Old Grey Whistle Test. He couldn’t have been more excited. In a scene that might have been written by PG Wodehouse if he’d been in a late ’70s psychedelic band, we stumble upon said heroes off their faces on claret and class As and teenage girls – and deriding all before them. I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say the resulting interview, which involved a sudden intrusion by sheep, was less than initially hoped for.

We meet tons of musicians in Ellen’s book (“There appeared to be two types of people in the world: those who liked Van Morrison and those who’d met him”) and learn how these creative souls navigate the choppy waters of fame and a changing business. At the end everyone including Mark is more or less standing and the future – though a journey without maps – is, we suspect, rosy.

With Beverley Martyn’s captivatingly candid book Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story, we really hope the future’s rosy, because though she writes unstintingly without self-pity, the past has been so painful. Knowing that she put her promising singing career on hold after two albums with John Martyn to concentrate on being a wife and mother; beaten up by him when he was drunk – which he mostly was – to become totally demoralised, ill and penniless, my eyes popped out of my head when I read: “Paul (Simon)… called and asked me to wait for him in New York…” She was young, beautiful, with an extraordinary voice, in America, singing and going out with the Paul Simon, who’d recently had a hit with The Sound Of Silence. “Stay in New York, Beverley!” I shouted at the book. “He’s a bit short, perhaps, but perfectly formed! Don’t get on the plane!”

But we all know she leaps on board to subsequently meet and marry Martyn, he back then with the looks and voice of an angel – and a head full of demons. As in Mark Ellen’s book we meet a full line-up of the great-and-the-good and the famous-and-terrible and witness the impact of music and its surrounding business on people’s lives. Beverley is a survivor. She’s got a lovely new album out, The Phoenix And The Turtle, presenting us with the idea of a better future and a happy ending after all. I’m grateful to both her and Mark Ellen. They’ve met our musical heroes so, thankfully, we don’t have to!

Elizabeth Kinder


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