In view of his poor health in recent years, I wasn’t surprised to hear from an old friend this morning that John Martyn had died, but I was taken aback by my reaction: it moved me very much. Martyn was an extraordinarily talented singer, guitarist and composer. I have been devoted to his music since my teens. For much of that time, I listened to at least a song or two of his almost every day. Even now, 35 years on, I dare say not a week goes by without my putting on one of his records. And more often than not, when I listen to one song of his, I end up listening to many.
Once in the early 1970s I turned up at one of his concerts to find fewer than 20 other people in the audience. He marched us to the pub round the corner and played for us there. He even bought a round, but came out well ahead over the course of the evening. Michael reminds me of a fabulous concert at the Oxford Polytechnic way back when. (Somebody from the audience shouted, “Play something difficult.” So he did.) By the time I went with my daughter to see him at Warwick University in 2005 he was in his wheelchair and almost unrecognisable. The music was still superb. Most of his devotees regard records such as “Solid Air” or “One World” as his best – and they are fabulous. But I like his later albums even better. If I was allowed to keep only one, it would be “Cooltide”. More recently than that, “Glasgow Walker” was another gem.
It find it a sad scandal that he never became very well known or made much money, while posers such as Sting, who I suppose occupies a similar place in the spectrum of popular music, are as rich as Croesus. Not that Martyn ever seemed to care. His life, by all accounts, was a shambles, but he seemed to find his setbacks, almost all of his own making, ridiculous and amusing. The main thing is that he made more wonderful music than all of the stars now saying they were influenced by him put together.
29 January 2009