John Martyn: Johnny Too Bad

John Martyn: Johnny Too Bad 11.35pm BBC2

When one of the contributors to this absorbing profile, first shown on BBC4 says of John Martyn’s music that “it stops the world,” you know just what he means. There’s something about a John Martyn song that takes the listener to a rather lovely place…

But, in stark contract, Martyn’s life has been blighted by difficulty and tragedy. His first marriage ended badly, his second wife was killed in a car crash, he’s been dogged by ill health, and last year surgeons removed part of his right leg below the knee.

This affecting and revealing documentary follows Martyn at home in Ireland as he prepares for surgery, and afterwards during his recovery towards a comeback gig and another tour. Despite his surgery, he’s determined to get back on the road. He’s an engagingly straightforward man who talks candidly about his extraordinary life and its various struggles and successes. After decades of hard living, he’s now living peacefully as a Zen Buddhist with his girlfriend.

Many of the people interviewed here, band members past and present, and those whom Martyn has influenced, including Phil Collins, Ralph McTell and Beth Orton, have fond things to say about this complicated man. But his first wife, Beverley Martyn, herself a singer, saw his dark side when his excessive drinking put paid to their marriage. She comes up with perhaps the most revealing comment of the program: “Lots of people love John Martyn, but hate him as well.”

If you’d prefer to concentrate on the music rather than the man (though it’s hard to see how you can separate the two), there are vintage clips here from the Old Grey Whistle Test and footage of concert appearances.

It’s a well rounded and affectionate portrait, full of those gorgeous, bittersweet songs that wrap themselves around your heart.

Alison Graham
Radio Times
26 June 2004