The Storm Bringer

The Storm Bringer.

JOHN MARTYN 1948-2009

JOHN MARTYN, who died on January 29, was a singer-songwriter with a rare gift for inducing a state of meditative bliss in his listeners while living a stormy, often violent life himself. Using his voice and guitar as instruments of mood and feeling, Martyn became synonymous with a woozy, exceptionally laidback style that he executed to perfection on albums such as Solid Air (1973) and One World (1977). Not content with blurring words and syllables, Martyn also blurred distinctions between genres. During a 40-year career, he was probably the only folk-jazz-blues-funk-reggae-ambient-tape-loop-experimentalist that Britain has ever produced. While his records never sold in enormous quantities, Martyn attracted a staunch following that spanned several generations, from folk-rockers to trip-hoppers, who would just as happily see him play in a Palladium or a pub. A man of extremes, he was a witty, acutely sensitive nature-lover but also an alcoholic prone to cycles of cruel and destructive behaviour. “I never knew the road that carried me along,” he sang in a 1980 lyric, “crazy sidewalk, concealed by pretty song.” John Martyn was born (as Lain David McGeachy) in New Malden, Surrey, on September11,1948. His parents, who were both opera singers, divorced when he was five. He was raised by his grandmother in Glasgow, but also spent parts of his childhood in rural Scotland and southern England. “Culturally it bred a schizoid thing in me,” he once said. There would be some confusion in later years whether Martyn, whose accent flitted from north to south of the border and back, was English or Scottish. He claimed in 2007 to be “either a hard core Scotsman or a very hard core Londoner”.

Uncut April 2009As a 17-year-old, McGeachy (he would adopt the stage name John Martyn in 1967) became a regular face on the Glasgow folk scene, where he soaked up ideas under the tutelage of singer-guitarist Hamish Imlach. He later credited Imlach as a key influence on his life, his socialist politics and his music, not least his guitar playing, which was folk-based but took elements from the blues, jazz and various ethnic traditions. Other people the young McGeachy found inspirational included Davy Graham, Pete Seeger, the New Orleans musician Snooks Eaglin and Clive Palmer, a friend and founder member of The Incredible String Band. Soon McGeachy was working Glasgow’s clubs with his own repertoire. Moving to London with the ambition of making a record, McGeachy changed his name (on the advice of an agent), hustled gigs from folk promoters and, at 18, became the first white artist to sign to Chris Blackwell’s predominantly black reggae label Island.

His debut album, London Conversation (1967), on which he wrote nine of the 12 songs, revealed an impressive talent for Bert Jansch-like scene-setting (not to mention some precocious reflections on women), as well as a fondness for outré guitar tunings. His second album, The Tumbler (1968), produced by Al Stewart, was notable for the beautiful accompaniment of jazz flautist Harold McNair. Martyn’s life changed dramatically in 1969 when he met and married a Coventry folk singer, Beverley Kutner, and moved with her to Woodstock, New York. Recording as John & Beverley Martyn, the pair made two albums, Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin (both 1970). After the second, it was judged that the experiment had been unsuccessful and Martyn was persuaded by Island to resume his solo career. He later recalled the Woodstock days warmly: “Dylan lived up the road, and Hendrix lived virtually next door. He used to arrive every Thursday in a purple helicopter, stay the weekend, and leave Monday.” The albums with Beverley had provided clues to the direction Martyn’s music would take in the 1970s. On The Road To Ruin’s song, “New Day”, Danny Thompson of Pentangle had played the double bass; it was the start of a musical relationship with Martyn that would last for several years (and became notorious for its offstage hell-raising). Meanwhile, on the Stormbringer! track “Would You Believe Me?”, Martyn had introduced the Echoplex guitar technique of which he would be the acknowledged pioneer. During concerts, he would run his acoustic guitar through the echo unit, and also through a phase-shifter and a fuzzbox, to generate thrilling, hypnotic sounds never before heard from a so-called ‘folk’ singer. Moving his young family to Hastings in Sussex,

Martyn recorded the well-received Bless The Weather (1971) and crossed over to a university/ college audience with performances that featured anew, slurred vocal style, which became his trademark. (It was, he explained, an attempt to sound like a tenor saxophone.) On his next album, Solid Air (1973), these slurred vocals undulated in perfect understanding with Thompson’s double bass and Tristan Fry’s vibraphone to create a smoky, sensuous jazz-folk hybrid. Solid Air was acclaimed as a masterpiece, but Martyn had harsh words for it in hindsight (“I didn’t like it. I thought I could do better”) and much preferred his other LP from the same year, the free-form and musically diverse inside Out.

Martyn grew to dislike the music business, blaming it for the personal decline of his troubled friend, Nick Drake (the subject of Solid Air’s title track), who died in1974. Martyn himself was on a record-and-tour treadmill, using hard drugs to cope with the unrelenting schedule. “Everywhere you went, people were saying ‘This guy’s happening’ and it all went to my head,” he later admitted. “I had discovered cocaine and heroin. I was doing dope and acid at the same time and drinking as well… You can imagine the state I was in.” Touring with Thompson, he and the bassist would drink from whisky bottles onstage, insulting each other and sometimes even fighting. Martyn described his increasing waywardness as “all part of the jazzy thing. I was determined to live that lifestyle, to look sharp, be sharp, be on the ball non-stop, smoke all the dope, drink all the juice… and be Jack The Lad.”

After his manager expressed concerns, Martyn took a break from music in 1975 and spent much of the next year recuperating in Jamaica. He befriended the reggae producer Lee Perry and allowed his experiences on the island to influence his ‘comeback’ album, One World (1977), recorded with Chris Blackwell back in England. Funky, dubby and druggy-sounding, the album included a song writing collaboration with Perry (“Big Muff”) and a significant musical contribution by Steve Winwood (keyboards, bass). However, the richly deserved praise for One World was followed by a hard-drinking tour of America in1978 (supporting Eric Clapton), a rediscovery of heroin, the collapse of Martyn’s marriage, and a period of binge drinking that he subsequently likened to a death wish.

Uncut April 2009Grace And Danger (1980), recorded in the summer of 1979 but delayed for a year because Blackwell found it too disturbingly personal, was an album of songs about Martyn’s broken marriage and the wife he was in the process of divorcing (“Our love once was sweeter than the April rain/But now I have to beg before you even say my name.”)Martyn was appalled by Island’s decision to sit on the release, saying in 1981: “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 how sad it makes you feel!’ It’s what I’m about: direct communication of emotion.” Martyn remained proud of Grace And Danger, commending it years later as “probably the most specific piece of autobiography I’ve written”.

Phil Collins, along-time Martyn admirer who had played drums on Grace And Danger, produced the next album, Glorious Fool 1981). Martyn had left Island for WEA and was openly courting commercial success. The1980s would see several attempts to turn him into a major album-seller like Collins or Chris Rea, but few fans have kind words for the bland Well Kept Secret (1982), while Martyn’s slick image for much of the decade (electric guitar, sharp suit, neat beard) became rather a cliché. In the event, he did not gain membership to the million-sellers’ club, and re-signed to Island in 1984. His music, in general, earned high respect but charted low; his largest royalty cheques, for instance, came from Eric Clapton’s1977 cover version of “May You Never” (from Solid Air). Martyn was married again in1983, to Annie Furlong, the manager of Dublin’s Windmill Lane Studios. However, the marriage was dogged by heavy drinking and physical abuse. The dark side of Martyn’s character – the demon drinker who could cause serious damage – was kept fastidiously absent from his stylish music, but was sometimes impossible to ignore in his public behaviour, such as when he kept an audience at the Mean Fiddler in London waiting for hours before shambling onstage, vomiting into a bucket and being carried off by two roadies.

Dropped by Island, Martyn’s career in the 1990s was fitful. Signing to independent label Permanent, he released a pair of strong albums early in the decade (The Apprentice and Cooltide), but then came unstuck with an ill-judged decision to re-record classic songs from his past in an over-polished style (Couldn’t Love You More, No Little Boy), which only antagonised some of his long-suffering fans. By1996, unexpectedly, he had signed to Go! Discs – the home of Portishead – and, aged 47, delivered an album influenced by trip hop and sampled beats, And. Reactions were broadly positive, and a Talvin Singh remix of the album’s opening track, “Sunshine’s Better”, was given considerable exposure on Radio 1.

Martyn was not the type to capitalise. His next release, Tbe Church With One Bell (1998), was an album of covers highlighting his taste for the blues: from “Strange Fruit” to “Glory Box”, via Dead Can Dance and the Rev. Gary Davis. “I just want to be happy,” he said in the late ’90s. “I’m fed up of being miserable. But there’s always a melancholy streak in my nature.” He had recently converted to Buddhism. Nowhere near as visible as he had been in former years, Martyn released albums of new music sporadically (Glasgow Walker, 2000; On The Cobbles, 2004) and paid a heavy price for years of ill health when his right leg was amputated below the knee as a result of a burst cyst.

He retreated to a farmhouse in Kilkenny, Ireland, with his partner Theresa, where he was filmed for a BBC4 documentary Johnny Too Bad (2004). The film, which contained interviews with ex-wife Beverley, Chris Blackwell, Danny Thompson and others, made for riveting viewing, but it was alarming to see Martyn in such poor shape. Wheelchair-bound, he toured Britain in 2007, performing the Solid Air album every night. The following year, he did the same with Grace And Danger.He enjoyed joking about his amputated leg with audiences, and regaled interviewers with mind-boggling stories of brawls, escapades, fractures and narrow escapes (“a broken neck here, a fractured skull there, about of septicaemia, a couple of shootings…”). More worryingly, he conceded that the double pneumonia which struck him down in 2008 had very nearly been fatal. “I guess I’m hard to kill,” Martyn reflected that year.

Asked about his legendary levels of consumption in the past, he added: “I drink in relative moderation and don’t smoke dope. Being overweight [he had put on several stone] is bad for the heart and lungs but, well, people die every day.” In February 2008, Martyn, the folk musician who always refused to play by the rules (“I’m a funky, not a folkie,” he once quipped), received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Radio 2 Folk Awards. He was quietly appointed an OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours, for his services to music. He is survived by his partner, Theresa, and his two children. Mhairi and Spencer, from his marriage to Beverley.

David Cavanagh
1 April 2009
“He Was Pure And Real”- Island Records boss Chris Blackwell on John Martyn.

“I first met John in about 1966, when a mutual friend in the folk business introduced us. I’d always loved jazz, and John was the first folk musician I’d ever heard trying to incorporate elements of jazz into what he did. He was the first white artist I signed o Island. People in the business weren’t sure it was the right thing to do. John initially didn’t seem to make much sense because he was so different.”

“I thought his music was very pure, and he himself was a pure and real type of person. There was no attitude or arrogance to him. There was never any bullshit. He was very bright, he knew what he wanted right from the start. Almost everything Island had released at that point had come from Jamaica, so we didn’t really have any credibility in the folk world. In fact, I initially turned down Nick Drake because we hadn’t been able to do much to further John’s career at that stage. We were making waves in the rock world with Free, but the folk scene was still new to us. “John had a reputation for being volatile, but I can honestly say that I never had any difficulties along those lines. Don’t get me wrong, he could definitely go nuts at times. He once went crazy while recording in the Bahamas, he was drinking very heavily and causing all sorts of problems. I was probably partly to blame, though, because I was the one who introduced him to Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry, and it might not have been the wisest move to bring those two together. Avery explosive pairing. “If I had a favourite one of John’s songs, it’s ‘Small Hours’ from the One World album. I still play it constantly, and I’m very proud to have been part of making it happen. It was recorded in the open air by a lake on a farm. You can even hear the geese on the lake in the background, it’s one of the most beautiful, atmospheric things I’ve ever heard. “As for John’s legacy, he was a free spirit, and he’s probably done more for both British folk and jazz than any other individual over the last 50 years. It’s hard enough to make a lasting mark in one field of music, but John managed it in two. I think it’s because he never played by the rules. He didn’t follow the set guidelines about making music, he would constantly surprise you. His music will live on for generations, because he was so inspirational. I’ve worked with many great musicians, and John Martyn was one of the best.”

Interview by Terry Staunton