Remembering John Martyn

Remembering John Martyn ahead of the Celtic Connections tribute.

I like them broken and shattered. Tattered and torn a bit” – John Martyn.

SCOTTISH singer-songwriter John Martyn was talking about chords when he was speaking to the BBC back in 2004, but the quote could have been about almost any part of his life. He was a man attracted to chaos, a man who often created chaos but also a man who could create achingly beautiful music. Martyn was in so many ways a paradox. The Shawlands boy who preferred rugby to football, the man who loved playing on his Glasgow hard man persona but who would switch into Cockney at the drop of a pearly king’s hat, the writer of love songs whose former wife Beverley described as being “wounded from the beginning”, adding: “He mistrusted women because his mother had left him, and he treated them really badly, physically and mentally.”

Perhaps Martyn was always destined to be stuck between two personalities. He was born Iain David McGeachy in Surrey in 1948 to an English mother and a Scottish father. The pair were both opera singers but were to divorce when Martyn was five. He was brought up in Tantallon Road in Shawlands by his father. The pair were both opera singers but were to divorce when Martyn was five. He was brought up in Tantallon Road in Shawlands by his father and grandmother, although he would spend many summers in London with his mother.

The young McGeachy grew up surrounded by two things that would shape his life – music and drink. His grandmother Janet was, according to Martyn’s biographer John Neil Munro, a pianist who was fond of a tipple and who introduced her grandson to whisky as a way to help him wake up for his milk round.

By the time he was in his mid-teens McGeachy was drinking fortified wine on the streets around Queen’s Park, but he had also found a new obsession – the guitar. Inspired first by Joan Baez and then by Davey Graham, who was a key figure in the British folk revival of the 1960s, McGeachy was beginning his transition into John Martyn.

Drawn into the Glasgow folk scene of the 60s, McGeachy came under the wing of luminaries such as Hamish Imlach and soon came to look the part of the handsome beatnik with his shaggy locks and piercing eyes. In late 1967 he took on the name he would become known by, when a friend suggested his own name sounded too Scottish. The rest, as they say, is history.

Martyn is rightly renowned the world over for Solid Air, one of the finest albums of the 1970s, but it is perhaps the less well known but equally brilliant Grace And Danger that truly sums up Martyn’s split personality. It is a record of heartbreaking intensity, written during the period in which he was breaking up from Beverley, but its beauty is tempered by the rawness of the lyrics and the pain which is apparent throughout.

Martyn’s marriage was imploding as a result of his lifestyle, the deep sadness within him that many of his friends have spoken of and the tragedies that afflicted those close to him, such as the subject of Solid Air, the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake who died after taking an overdose of anti-depressants in 1974.

As Beverley – a singer-songwriter in her own right prior to her marriage to Martyn – explained it in 2004: “He had a life which I didn’t really know about. I had a child. I stayed in indoors.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a great artist or play the blues and make everybody cry. It’s what you do as a human being that counts at the end of the day.”

Martyn’s music was always autobiographical but on Grace And Danger some felt the emotion was too much to bear, and his Island Records chief Chris Blackwell desperately tried to delay its release as he felt it was upsetting.

Prior to the recording of Grace and Danger Martyn had become close to Phil Collins, whose marriage was crumbling in a similar fashion to Martyn’s, and the pair would stay together at Collins’ home in Surrey and drink themselves into the stupor of the heartbroken. Collins would play on Grace And Danger and, while the record would never match the sales garnered by Collins’s own anatomy of divorce, Face Value, it was among the most polished and commercial of Martyn’s offerings.

FOR long-time Martyn collaborator Danny Thompson, Grace And Danger was the natural title for the upcoming celebration of his old friend’s life to be staged during Celtic Connections. Double bass player Thompson more than most was aware of the contradictions in Martyn’s personality. The pair first came together on Road To Ruin, Martyn’s album with Beverley which came out in 1970. It was a meeting of musical minds. Thompson’s jazz background allowed him to follow Martyn’s often structureless approach to playing live and his appetite for drink made him one of the few who could keep up with his friend’s increasingly out-of-control bouts of boozing.

In his superb biography of Martyn, Some People Are Crazy, Munro quotes Thompson: “We were just kindred spirits, that doesn’t mean bad or good or anything else; it just means he had all that energy that I had. I’ve been with other people who just couldn’t keep up with that energy and just flaked. It’s not a question of stimulants or booze, it’s just that naturally he is that type of person.”

Thompson had such an influence on Martyn that according to many friends, the Scot began to ape the mannerisms of the Londoner, with Ralph McTell telling Munro that Martyn “became Danny Thompson for a while”.

“They formed a wonderful musical partnership but John slowly metamorphosed into more of a Danny than Danny was.”

As Martyn’s musical soulmate it is fitting that it was Thompson that should instigate the upcoming Celtic Connections tribute, which will take place on January 27 at the Royal Concert Hall. This month will mark 10 years since Martyn’s passing, yet his music remains as relevant and as popular as ever. It is no surprise that Thompson has managed to bring together a stellar lineup for the gig.

Paul Weller, Martyn’s bass guitarist during his later years Alan Thomson, Kate Spencer, Ross Wilson, Rory Butler, Eddi Reader, a string section led by Greg Lawson and many more will join Thompson on stage to sing and play and pay tribute to one of Scotland’s own troubadours.

Donald Shaw, creative producer for Celtic Connections, says: “John is a Scottish legend with his guitar style rooted in the folk stars of the 60s like Bert Jansch, Martin Carthy and Nick Drake. This concert falls 10 years almost to the day that John passed away. One of his last concerts was doing Solid Air at Celtic Connections.

“He was a great influence on many artists who are on the scene today, everyone from emerging singers like Adam Holmes to the likes of Paolo Nutini. This concert will be special as it is curated by his best mate and touring partner Danny Thompson. ”

For Reader it is a privilege to be asked to celebrate someone who was such an influence on her as she took the first steps on her own musical pathway.

“I loved John,” says Reader. “I knew of John as I was heavily involved in the folk scene of the late 1970s. When I became 18 and went to folk clubs for the first time it was that kind of scene that was the most vibrant and John Martyn was one of the kings of it.

“His ability to modernise the traditional style and also write these amazing songs like May You Never made him a hero of mine. Everybody was kind of in awe of him.”

Reader was lucky enough to get to play with her hero on more than one occasion, but it was the initial meeting that made the most impact.

“I met him after my own flurry with the charts [with Fairground Attraction’s Perfect],” recalls Reader. “We were doing the Transatlantic Sessions with Aly Bain and Phil Cunningham and John was there and he pulled me in and wanted me to sing He’s Got All The Whisky.

“I remember his Gloria Love and the way he played it with that guitar tuning. And I really like that about his music – and in most folk music, particularly Scottish and Irish folk musicians. They have this real jazz eclecticism in their style and they can improvise at the drop of a hat.

“I was like a little schoolgirl. I just thought he was amazing.”

Martyn’s split personality was always in evidence, however.

“He could tell I was a little nervous in his company and his voice would dance between Cockney and Glaswegian in company, but when he spoke to me he would be very Glaswegian and encourage me by saying ‘come on, hen’.

“He was so kind and lovely to me. I’m not sure what he was like with relationships with women that were more intimate but as a musical thing it was just gorgeous to have him in the company.”

Reader was lucky enough to see Thompson and Martyn’s relationship close up, albeit long after Thompson had given up on his hard-drinking lifestyle. There was, though, even then, many years after their heyday together, a symbiotic understanding between the pair.

“They were certainly musically and personally aligned in lots of ways,” says Reader of the pairing.

Reader also has a theory as to why so many musicians such as Martyn and Thompson give in to the temptations offered them. “Any musician that’s worth their salt, they take human beings with them,” says Reader. “It’s not about isolating yourself, it’s about being really competitive with yourself and finding that beautiful sound that makes you feel good.

“That’s why musicians end up in trouble with their human frailties, predilections for drink and addiction. Anything that opens the door to that spectrum, musicians are like bees and honey. But you have to still do all the normal stuff like pay your taxes, and bring up your kids and take care of your wives or husbands.

“The way I live with music like John Martyn’s and people like him, such as Van Morrison, is that I just know there’s magic in the air whenever something of theirs is coming out the speaker.”

Martyn’s ability to weave magic with his music never really left him. Even in later years as he struggled with a succession of health problems brought about by his chaotic lifestyle he remained steadfast to the musical ideals of his youth.

Speaking to the BBC in 2004 Martyn compared the screaming soul of a songwriter with the howling of wolves: “Wolves only howl for a reason. Same as men cry for a reason. I think it’s the same thing. It’s part of the intrinsic sadness of any creature which is part of music’s real attraction for me.”

Even if his musical integrity was sometimes at odds with his personal integrity, Martyn never wavered from his ideals.

“I’ll not be told what to do, I can’t do it in any shape or form,” Martyn said in 2004. “If you can’t play what you want to play then where on earth is your freedom?

“You are making music which is supposed to be an expression of yourself, not an expression of what someone else wants to hear. It’s part of your pride, it’s part of your integrity. It’s part of your self esteem. If you lose that you’ve lost everything.”

Martyn lost many things in his life – friends, his wife, a leg – but he always, despite the ravages brought on by addiction to booze and drugs, maintained his musical integrity. And, while he was never an easy man to understand given his complex personality, that is something to be celebrated.

Grace & Danger: A Celebration of John Martyn is at the Royal Concert Hall on January 27.

Jonny Jobson
The National
6 January 2019