Music

John Martyn – My favourite guitarist and singer

“Keep on loving while your love is strong / Keep on loving ‘til your love is gone” – ‘Small Hours’, from his album One World [1977]

John Martyn could be horrible. He was a domestically abusive husband, a neglectful father, and a publicly violent alcoholic. Interviewed later in life, he said, “You know, when I was wild and young, I used to go, ‘Where’s the biggest geezer in the place?’ And I hit him.”

He was also a highly sensitive musician and songwriter. Coming from a British folk background, he was signed to Island Records in 1967, aged eighteen. Later he absorbed rock and American jazz and blues, and throughout the 1970s made the string of albums – from Bless the Weather [1971] to Grace and Danger [1980] – for which he is largely remembered. His frequent musical partner from that decade, the double-bassist Danny Thompson, has said, “I loved him as soon as I met him… Who else could write something so beautiful as ‘You curl around me like a fern in the spring’ (lyric from ‘Go Down Easy’from Solid Air [1973])?”

Saxophonist Andy Shephard played with Martyn from the 90s to the 00s. Interviewed in 2003, he added, “[John is] full-on, you know. You wouldn’t put the two together, necessarily – read those lyrics and then see John in a bar in Glasgow, on one.”

But the two sides of Martyn’s personality weren’t as incongruous as they appeared. Key to his music is an audible deep hurt. His parents divorced when he was two – he stayed with his father in Scotland while his emotionally absent mother moved to England. He wrote to her, “Dear mummy, I miss you so much, why don’t you write back?”

Much of the emotion in his songs comes from his voice. From his twenties onwards he slurred breathily like a saxophone, less concerned with people hearing his lyrics than with emphasising melody and trying to directly represent in sound what he was feeling.

The title track of Solid Air, written about the severe depression of his friend Nick Drake, is a good example of this, and of his unique style of acoustic guitar playing. It has the same general sort of chord movements as the blues, though the actual chords he plays are unconventional – minor key jazzy and plucked percussively across most or all the strings.

It’s an ethereal, brooding song. Double bass pulses slowly; his voice and guitar float overhead with a shimmering vibraphone. As with much of his best music, there’s something dark about it, in a literal sense, like it’s night and nothing is visible outside the dim cave of your listening.

After a point, he could no longer keep this kind of quality up. His wife, Beverley, left him in the late 70s (“He mistrusted women and so treated them really badly, physically and mentally”, she has said). Beverley Martyn perhaps hasn’t been sufficiently credited for her positive impact on him: he made his best music while with her.

In 1980 Grace and Danger was released. It was about the separation and remained his personal favourite of his albums. But from then on, he capsized into the angry, self-destructive side of his personality which, when kept in balance, had been part of what made his music arresting. Despite a personal recovery in later life he hardly ever again created anything as good.

I don’t mean by any of this to romanticise his dysfunction. Much of the damage done in his life – by him to himself and to others – was most likely avoidable. In different circumstances he could have made much more great music than he did, although the best he made is brilliant. 

15/12/2020

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Sam Gardham


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