John Martyn

by John Boland

John Martyn died at the beginning of this year. He was only 60, but although news of his death came as a shock, for many of us who’d followed his career down through the decades it wasn’t really a surprise because, although he was blessed with extraordinary musical gifts, there had always seemed something determinedly self-destructive about him.

There had long been stories of the drug and alcohol-fuelled life he’d led on the road and in the studio since his career as a singer-songwriter began in the late 1960s – a raucous life aided and abetted by his long-time musical colleague, bassist Danny Thompson, both of them self-confessed connoisseurs of chaos.

And by all accounts, he had a troubled and troubling relationship with some of the women in his life, and they even more so with him – evidenced in two wrecked marriages, firstly to folk singer Beverley Kutner and then in the 1980s to Irish woman Anne Furlong, whom he’d met when she was manager of the Windmill Lane recording studios and to whom he caused great unhappiness until she found release from him before her early death thirteen years ago.

He plainly wasn’t an easy man to be around, and his self-destructivess continued right to the end. In Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, where he lived with his last partner, Teresa, he neglected a burst cyst in his right leg, which then had to be amputated at the knee. Prior to that, while driving, he’d crashed into a bull.

But if much of his life could be summed up as a case of Johnny Too Bad – a song he recorded on his 1980 album Grace and Danger – there remained the paradoxical fact of his music, which was characterised by a vulnerability and yearning, even an anguish, that the stark biographical data don’t in any way suggest. It was marked by a great beauty, too, a quality noted by Ralph McTell in a recent documentary when he wondered how a man capable of causing such mayhem could come up something so ethereally lovely and transcendent as the song Small Hours from the 1977 album One World.

But then he was always capable of doing that, from his early days as a folkie to his later fusions of folk, jazz and blues. And he was always experimenting, too – using synthesisers, for instance, long before anyone else had cottoned on to their possibilities. I personally think him one of the few great popular musicians of the age, though “popular” is probably the wrong word, as he never had a song in the charts – not even Solid Air or May You Never, which are the songs that nearly everyone knows. But he inspired a cult following of furious devotion and though I dislike cults I was happy to belong to this one.

I met him only once and that was in the early 1980s when he’d quit his long-standing label, Island Records, and his career was at its commercial nadir. He was performing one winter’s night in the basement of a hotel on the Bray seafront and being financially pinched he made to with an electronic drum machine instead of a band. But he was mesmeric and after the concert was over I and a friend ended up playing pool with him in an adjoining room. He was a big man and looked like a nightclub bouncer, but he was courteous and affable on the night, probably because he wasn’t drinking. I learned, too, that he wasn’t Scottish, as I’d always supposed, but had been born Iain David McGeachy in Surrey, though when his parents split up he was sent to live in Glasgow with his grandmother.

I don’t normally like to meet my heroes, but I’m glad I met Martyn, if only because I encountered a side to him that suggested the little-boy-lost that’s to be found in so much of his music.

And you can hear it, too, even in his performances of songs he didn’t himself write. It’s there in his aching version of Over the Rainbow, from his 1984 album Sapphire. And it’s there, too, in his  1974 version of the Yorkshire folk song, Spencer the Rover. There have been other fine recordings of this great ballad – notably by Philip King with Scullion – but Martyn’s is incomparable.

Accompanied by Danny Thompson’s extraordinary bass, he suffuses the song with a wrenching sense of loss about a man who “had been much reduced, which caused great confusion, and that was the reason he started to roam.” At the end, Spencer the Rover is reunited with his family and friends, but John Martyn’s life and art suggest a man who remained in restless search of such fulfilment. He managed it in his music, though, and for that we should be grateful.

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