Troubled Singer Songwriter…

John Martyn. Troubled singer songwriter whose eclectic style influenced many rock and pop idols of the 1970s.

JOHN MARTYN, who died on January 29 aged 60, never became a household name but was one of the most revered and innovative singer songwriters of his generation; his music, a mix of blues, folk and funk, influenced artists as varied as U2, Portishead and Eric Clapton.

Many of his albums, especially Solid Air (1973), are regarded as classics. But Martyn spent most of his career hooked on drugs and alcohol, and in 2003 he had his right leg amputated below the knee.

John Martyn was born Ian David McGeachy on September 11 1948 at New Malden, Surrey. His parents, both singers, divorced when he was five and he spent much of his childhood in Glasgow, where he lived with his grandmother and attended Shawlands Academy. Having taught himself the guitar at the age of 15, he returned to London on leaving school and appeared regularly at Les Cousins, the Soho folk club which also launched Ralph McTell, Bert Jansch and Al Stewart. He became the first white act to be signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island record label, and recorded his debut album, London Conversation, for £158 in 1968.

He began to experiment with electronic effects, introducing a tape device known as the Echoplex on his Stormbringer! album in 1970, which, along with his mellifluous, deliberately slurred vocals, provided his signature sound.

Martyn sealed his reputation with Solid Air, described as the “musical equivalent of a reassuring hug” by Q magazine, which named it the 67th best British album of all time in 2000. Martyn dedicated the haunting title track to his friend Nick Drake, who died of an overdose at the age of 26 shortly after it was finished.

At this point Martyn seemed on the brink of major international success, but his commercial prospects were undermined by his passion for musical exploration and by an appetite for excess that bordered on self destruction. Solid Air included his most celebrated song, the beautiful May You Never (subsequently covered by Eric Clanton and many others), and his record company anticipated a big commercial breakthrough.

Yet the follow up LP in 1973, Inside Out, was wilfully inaccessible as his interest in experimental electronics increased, and its jazz-rock fusion gave the album only limited cult appeal.

Martyn always adopted a studiedly informal approach to his live performances – one story of him tells of a gig in the refectory at the London School of Economics, receiving rolled joints from a companion at the side of the stage, drawing vigorously for two or three puffs, and then passing them into the audience.

But as he slid into alcoholism, his live performances were often punctuated by moments of incoherent drunkenness. The singer later recalled an occasion in Spain where he had been so drunk that he fell off the stage – “I still got three encores,” he noted.

He enjoyed telling the story of how he and his regular accompanist, the bass-player Danny Thompson, “would turn up drunk at hotels, slap a bundle of notes on the counter and say `that’s for the damage’. The receptionist would always look bemused and say, ‘there isn’t any’, then we’d say, `there will be!’ There always was too.”

Martyn also remembered a time the duo “played naked in Bolton”, and the occasion after a drunken binge when Thompson “nailed me to the floor under the carpet, with real nails, and proceeded to order and eat a full hotel breakfast at a table above me as I was coming to”.

The excesses were to take a fatal toll on Martyn’s personal life, and his first marriage broke up in the late 1970s. This darkest period in his life found artistic expression in the despairing, autobiographical Grace and Danger, which was finally released in 1980 after Chris Blackwell had initially blocked it because it was too upsetting and personal. Martyn himself described the record as “cathartic”. Yet it yielded a restoration in his fortunes, and subsequent albums – Glorious Fool (1981), produced by Phil Collins, and Well Kept Secret (1982) – were the highest-charting records of his career.

In the late 1990s Martyn began to experiment with electronic dance sounds, and in 2001 he had a top 40 hit as a featured vocalist on Deliver Me, a dance record by Sister Bliss, keyboard player with the group Faithless.

After losing a leg, Martyn performed from a wheelchair but did not repine. “If I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting,” he told Q magazine. “I’d probably be a great deal richer, but I’d have had far less fun and I’d be making really dull music.”

His cantankerous behaviour was famous, and age did not appear to mellow him or diminish his interest in transcending musical boundaries. Having proved himself one of the most brilliant acoustic guitarists of his generation, he was never content to rest on his laurels, taking his guitar-playing into constantly new directions, even at the cost of his commercial appeal.

Martyn hated being pigeonholed by any one musical genre and as a result remained essentially a cult hero. He never became rich, but he was hugely influential and was idolised by his peers.

He was appointed OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours.

John Martyn’s marriage to the blues singer Beverley Kutner in 1969 ended in divorce after 10 years, and his second wife, Annie, predeceased him.

He is survived by his companion, Theresa, and by the children of his first marriage.

Anonymous
The Daily Telegraph
31 January 2009