John Martyn: The One-Legged Sumo…

John Martyn: The one-legged Sumo wrestler who played sublime music.

John Martyn’s music will live on.  After he had had his leg amputated below the knee a few years ago and put on colossal amounts of weight, John Martyn would usually open his concerts by asking the audience, “Does anyone require the services of a one-legged Sumo wrestler?” asks Brian Boyd

Martyn’s death last week in Ireland, at the age of 60, came as no surprise to those who knew the extent of his drink and drugs excess over the years. Many of the obituaries chose to focus on this aspect of his life, ribald tales mixed with innuendo at how “difficult” (which is putting it mildly) he was when he was drunk.

On such occasions, an imperishable link is always made between the sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and the creation of great music. Martyn himself once said: “If I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting. I’d probably be a great deal richer, but I’d have had far less fun and I’d be making really dull music.”

At a concert in Spain once, he was so drunk he continually fell over on stage. When the promoter later mentioned his slurred performance and lack of equilibrium, Martyn just laughed. “Maybe so, but I still got three encores.”

The music was, at times, astonishingly good, and his vocal delivery – the swoop from a whisper to a growl – was remarkable. Martyn’s 1973 Solid Air was one of the best albums of that decade, and his unique folk-jazz stylings were looked at in awe by Led Zeppelin and Eric Clapton, among many others.

It’s curious that Martyn seemed more cherished by vintage “musos” than all the current singer-songwriters whom he has undoubtedly influenced.

But if he was marginalised, it was perhaps of his own doing. He alienated as much as he impressed over the years.

The shame of Martyn’s passing is that his time seemed to have come again. Living in Kilkenny, he seemed bemused that the spotlight was beginning to shine on his work once again.

Last year he received a BBC Radio 2 Folk Award (a slightly bigger deal than it sounds). Martyn’s citation on the nightwas carefully worded: “His heartfelt performances have either suggested or fully demonstrated an idiosyncratic genius.”

One of the tributes came from Eric Clapton: “John Martyn is so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable.” Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones joined Martyn on the night for a run-through of his best known songs. Just a few weeks ago, Martyn was awarded an OBE in the British New Year’s honours list.

Late last year, Ain’t No Saint , a magnificent career spanning four CD box set, was released on Island Records. Chris Blackwell, Island’s boss, originally envisaged keeping the label a strictly reggae affair, but after seeing Martyn perform he made him Island’s first white signing. Blackwell persuaded him to record in Jamaica with Lee Scratch Perry. The resulting One World album, released in 1977, is now viewed as the prototypical “trip-hop” work.

Martyn had a big influence on Portishead, who were thrilled by his decision to cover their Glory Box song. He also flirted with dance music, featuring on Sister Bliss’s Deliver Me single in 2001.

If Martyn had licensed one of his songs to a high street chain, or recorded a duet with any of today’s pop fools, he would be more than a dimly remembered figure from the 1960s folk explosion.

Brian Boyd
The Irish Times
6 February 2009