Superstardom Always Eluded…

Superstardom always eluded this maverick singer and guitarist, says James McNair.

Before he passed away last week on January 29, at the age of 60, the singer and guitarist John Martyn had cheated death many times. A former heroin user and lifelong alcoholic who suffered numerous injuries in falls, he also seemed to treat being shot at, pancreatic failure, and a broken neck sustained when his car collided with a bull as occupational hazards.

In April 2003, Martyn’s morale was further tested when his right leg was amputated below the knee. Typically he soldiered on, playing gigs in a wheelchair, and referencing his injury and subsequent weight gain with black humour. “Does anyone require the services of a one-legged Sumo wrestler?” he inquired at some of his last concerts.

Listening to Martyn’s illustrious back catalogue, one hears naivety, drugged-out experimentation, mid-life crisis and some Buddhism influenced soul searching. But it is for his 1973 masterpiece Solid Air that he will be remembered most. The influential album’s pastoral folk and jazz won admirers in Paul Weller and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, not least for its spellbinding title track, which voiced touching concern for Martyn’s friend, Nick Drake, who would pass away 18 months later.

Like him, Martyn had developed a masterful finger-picking technique on acoustic guitar, but the most celebrated aspect of his playing was his pioneering use of the Echoplex echo device, employed to mesmerising effect on his druggiest album, 1977’s One World.

Though scores of musicians, including Eric Clapton, delighted in working with Martyn, his most important musical foil was undoubtedly Pentangle’s double-bassist, Danny Thompson. As 1975’s Live at Leeds testifies, near telepathic interplay informed the pair’s musical unions even when both players were roaring drunk.

Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, on September 11, 1948, but grew up in the Queen’s Park district of Glasgow. His parents, both light-opera singers, divorced when he was five, and he was brought up by his father, Tommy, and paternal grandmother, Janet. His parents’ divorce, cited by his biographer John Neil Munro as the source of “a deep dark hurt”, had a lasting effect on him.

In London the aspiring singer songwriter occasionally slept rough while honing his live act. He signed to Island Records in 1967 aged 19.

In April 1969, Martyn married Beverley Kutner, a fellow folk singer. They made the 1970 album Stormbringer together. The newly weds relocated, along with Wesley, Beverly’s son, to Woodstock, New York State, for its recording. A second album by the Martyns, The Road to Ruin, followed, but, like its predecessor, it wasn’t well received. When John Martyn re-emerged, it was with his solo album Bless the Weather. Containing one of his most beautiful love songs, Head and Heart, the album could be read as a celebration of the Martyns’ new life and the birth of their daughter Mhairi. But the darker truth was that John had been abusive to Beverley.

The couple had a son, Spenser, in 1975, but by 1980 they were divorced. John married again in 1983, this time to Annie Furlong, a fellow alcoholic and the manager of a recording studio in Ireland. Furlong passed away in 1996, long after they had separated.

He had documented his messy break-up with Beverley on his 1980 album, Grace & Danger. Martyn had employed his friend Phil Collins, also undergoing a break-up, as producer.

Martyn once said that had he drank coffee all his life he might have become a superstar, but his stubbornness and refusal to play by the rules could also explain his lack of mainstream success. Martyn made a great curry (he cooked me one once). He could be tender and poetic or aggressive and intimidating, and even while stoned or drunk he was an eloquent, informative speaker and a hugely expressive musician.

The last time I met him was in 2004 when I travelled to Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, to interview him. He seemed calmer and more contemplative, and he was living in a cottage with his partner Teresa, whom he met in Dublin in 1998. We’d met to talk about his 22nd studio album, On the Cobbles, but Martyn only agreed to do so on condition that I first listen to him perform four brand new songs. I’ll never forget him coaxing beautiful phrases from his Gibson SG, his prosthetic foot stretched out before him and curlicues of marijuana smoke twirling around his head.

“I can’t not believe in a creator,” Martyn told me.

Last year Martyn received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards presented to him by Phil Collins. He was appointed an OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours List.

James McNair
The Irish Independent
1 February 2009