John Martyn: Guitarist And Singer Songwriter

John Martyn: Guitarist and singer-songwriter.

Born: 11 September 1948, in New Malden, Surrey. Died: 29 January 2009, in Kilkenny, Irish Republic, aged 60.

IT IS easy to say that there never was a musician like so-and-so, but in John Martyn’s case it is true. He was a musician who shaped people’s appreciations of where the guitar could go. The textures he created through Echoplex techniques, an analogue delay used to spectacular effect on his Glistening Glyndebourne on 1971’s Bless The Weather, shaped guitar sonorities in popular music and influenced the soundscapes that the music of Phil Collins and U2 populate. It can also be argued, without stooping to stereotype, that he was shaped for the worse by his formative years.

John Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy in a nondescript London suburb near Kingston-upon-Thames in Surrey. His parents’ marriage broke up and he moved to Queen’s Park, Glasgow.

Glasgow’s rough and tumble in the early 1950s and Martyn’s tendency to “quick temper,” to summon the idiom of his mentor, folk singer Hamish Imlach, profoundly coloured and stamped his attitudes. Anecdotes about Martyn’s violence are as legion as the tales of hell-raising substance abuse. Some go beyond talk of fisticuffs and bloody noses in the wings before hitting the stage. They have entered musician folklore. One, possibly apocryphal, story involves him rolling a fellow musician, passed out at this point, up in a carpet, then nailing it to the floorboards. He came round to having lost the use of his limbs and his sight, and to Martyn’s maniacal laughter. Whether it actually happened matters not one jot; Martyn myths took on lives of their own.

In his teens he took up the acoustic guitar, some reports cite the influence of Joan Baez’s Silver Dagger, and by the age of 17 he was playing in Scottish folk clubs, egged on by Imlach, influenced by the guitarist Davey Graham (“my absolute hero”) and the Incredible String Band. He returned to the area where he had been born and began performing on the aptly named Folk Barge on the Thames at Kingston, an early stomping ground of Sandy Denny before she joined Fairport Convention.

Martyn began making a name for himself at Les Cousins, “a very hep club to play in,” in Soho. He developed a vocal delivery that flowed between gravel and smoke while his musical style came from discerning the otherness in the ordinary. Stimulants of many kinds became part and parcel of his music-making.

Martyn’s 1967 debut, London Conversation, for Island Records, mixed originals with Bob Dylan’s Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright. It would be an entrĂ©e to a fertile creative period for him. The label brought him into contact with its reggae artists. Jamaican music and ganja sensibilities would profoundly shape his musical worldview. Johnny Too Bad, an outlaw song by The Slickers that is central to the film The Harder They Come, became a staple of his live repertoire and was regularly reprised, appearing, for example, on Live At The Cambridge Folk Festival (2003) and Live At The Bottom Line 1983 (2001).

Two of his finest albums were Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin (both released in 1970), co-credited to his wife, Beverley (formerly Kutner), whom trivia-hounds know as the other voice on Fakin’ It on Simon and Garfunkel’s Bookends. Afterwards many felt he stifled her career, but there were children to raise, and Island believed their signing would do better as a soloist. Martyn then toured the United States with stablemates including Free and Traffic.

A little down the line, he produced a work that stands paramount: Solid Air (1973) is one of the era’s musical landmarks. A stoner’s paradise, Q magazine has extolled it as one of finest chill-out albums of all time. In 2006 he played a re-ordered version of Solid Air as part of the Don’t Look Back concerts, recreating past glories live at the Barbican in London.

When his marriage to Beverley broke up, he turned life into art with the cathartic and sometimes disturbing Grace and Danger (1980), it contained Sweet Little Mystery, one of his most majestic compositions, with Phil Collins and John Giblin as his rhythm section. His Live At Leeds (1975) was an early mail order “official bootleg”, with his long term right hand men: bassist Danny Thompson, drummer John Stevens and Paul Kossoff on guitar.

In the 1990s his excesses finally seemed to have caught up with him. Hugely overweight, in poor health and often drunk to the point of incoherence, he was physically unrecognisable from the earnest young man pictured on his earlier record covers.

In 2003 his right leg was amputated below the knee (the consequence of an infected cyst), though he continued to perform from a wheelchair. In 2009 he was awarded an OBE in the New Year’s Honours list.

His overall recorded output is blighted by too many live albums and reshuffles of past heights, yet the four-CD career retrospective, the appositely named Ain’t No Saint (2008), compiled by John Hillarby, unearthed revelations galore. Its Solid Air outtake In The Evening reaffirms the fertility of Martyn’s imagination and originality.

Martyn was married twice. His second wife, Annie Furlong, predeceased him. He is survived by his partner, Theresa Walsh, his first wife, Beverly, a daughter, a son and a stepson.

The Scotsman
2 February 2009