John Martyn Has Died

John Martyn has died

One of the pioneering figures of the British folk movement, the acclaimed singer, songwriter and guitar player was 60 years of age.

He was born Ian David McGeachy in Surrey but spent many of his formative years in Scotland and spoke with a refined Scottish burr. He had very strong Irish connections, having married the late Annie Furlong (who had managed Windmill Lane Studios) in 1983. He has spent much of his time over recent years in Ireland.

“While John isn’t working, he enjoys the simple things of life,” his website reveals, “like fishing, swimming and cooking. With his partner Theresa, John now spends his time in Scotland and Kilkenny in Ireland. John and Theresa met in Dublin in 1998 and have been inseparable ever since, with Theresa accompanying John on his recent tours.”

To mark his 60th birthday, Island Records, which had been his artistic home for many years, released a 4 CD boxed set, entitled Ain’t No Saint. Also, in a move that would have caused a younger John Martyn no end of amusement, he was awarded an OBE in the 2009 Honours Lit. He also received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the BBC RAdio 2 Folk Awards.

A statement on his website on Thursday said: “With heavy heart and an unbearable sense of loss we must announce that John died this morning.”

With a recording history that stretches back to the late ’60s, Martyn was prolific early in his career. Hesigned to Island Records, who released his debut album London Conversation in 1967. He went on to become a pioneer of the use of repeat echo and other effects on guitar, playing acoustic, often set to open tunings, and fed through a fuzzbox, an Echoplex and a phase shifter.

He met and fell in love with Beverley Kutner, and they married, collaborating on his albums Stormbringer! and Road To Ruin. The titles proved unintentionally prophetic. Martyn’s personal life was hugely turbulent, with his relationship with Beverly finally coming apart towards the end of the 1970s.

In the meantime, he had made a breakthrough with the Solid Air album, the title track of which was a tribute to label mate and friend Nick Drake, who died suddenly in 1974 as as result of an overdose of anti-depressants.

A hugely accomplished musician, he introduced jazz stylings to his music and with One World, released in 1977, he embraced reggae, working with Lee “Scratch” Perry. The album was recorded outdoors and featured the inclusion of ambient sounds.

His own website, www.johnmartyn.com, recounts that when he finally split with Beverley, he “hit the self-destruct button”. The album Grace and Danger documented his feelings of devastation and, difficult as it may be to listen to at times, it remains one of the great autobiographical statements about the sundering of a marriage and a relationship.

His website addresses the issue in very direct terms, quoting John: “I was in a dreadful emotional state over that record. I was hardly in control of my own actions. The reason they finally released it was because I freaked: ‘Please get it out! I don’t give a damn about how sad it makes you feel – it’s what I’m about: the direct communication of emotion’. Grace and Danger was very cathartic, and it really hurt.”

While he was out of the limelight in latter years, he continued to write and record, delivering songs of depth and substance in that unique John Martyn style.

“John was an extraordinary performer,” Niall Stokes editor of Hot Press comments. “He was a soul singer, with a wonderful distinctive voice. He wrote great songs and in guitar terms he was an innovator. He was also a marvellous live performer, who achieved a kind of rapture when he was onstage. He had a turbulent and often difficult life, but as an artist he was the real deal. His contribution to contemporary music was immense. He will be greatly missed.”

Niall Stokes
Hot Press
29 January 2009