i.m. John Martyn

Another one gone, and only 60, although folk-jazz guitarist John Martyn had flirted with death on several occasions, and, having had a leg amputated a few years ago, and having ballooned to twenty stone, he must have guessed that his fighting chances were limited.

When you watched John Martyn at the height of his success, in the mid-1970s, when the albums Bless The Weather, Inside Out and Solid Air succesively redefined what you could do with ‘folk’, he was an agitated, happily alcoholic singer, who would punctuate his amazing performances with rambles and rants. What he had hit on, using the echo-effect of an Echoplex, was the device of singing against a guitar which was playing against a delay of itself. At the same time, he slowed and slurred his voice into an instrument, drawling the words so that they merged into the music (usually he was accompanied by Danny Thompson on double bass, which anchored the enterprise). The sound was stunning, and not at all unlike a sort of slow and enterprising scat. (There was a live album, too, Live At Leeds (then the premier venue),which he produced and had pressed and sold from his home, failing to persuade his record company to do it: in many ways, it’s his best.) At the end of this came Grace And Danger, which has grown and grown in reputation, but which was his last for Island Records – one of the key labels to be associated with.

Later in his career, especially during the dumps into which he fell in the mid-1980s, and when he toured with a drum machine, he seemed almost hell-bent on reversing his reputation. Onstage, he wore shades, and complained about the light, was angry with the audience, and didn’t play well at all, it seemed to me – even though he was playing to the completely converted. Only in the last decade had he somehow worked his way back into favour – with himself, perhaps, as much as with his music. In the last two years, he was given award after award – you can’t help feeling he must have known he was being feted because no-one thought he could last (he himself declared that he would make it to 70).

It was the mixture of reckless and sweet in his music that really appealed – songs about intangible feelings, long soundscapes of rhythm, an electric bonanza of effect and counter-effect. But here he is. on the cusp of that era, with ‘May You Never’, probably his most-requested song (which makes me think of something else, which I’ll add in a second):

When I saw Martyn in the 1980s, he objected in particular to his audience shouting suggestions to him: most frequently for songs on those three major albums. I have no idea to what extent it drives songwriters and singers mad to have to deliver up their most conspicuous successes, years after recording them. Dylan still sings ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ almost every night, just as Eric Burdon sings ‘The House Of The Rising Sun’ (not least because he never saw a penny from the original, which is another story). There is an early live album (Miles of Aisles) on which a shirty Joni Mitchell fends off a request by telling her audience that no-one said to Van Gogh ‘Paint “Starry Night” again, man’, and an album – Jazz-Blues Fusion – on which John Mayall ticks off someone who has the nerve to ask for ‘Room To Move’ with the words ‘Why did you come here? To hear an old record?’ Is this biting the hand which feeds you? Perhaps.

But there again, Janis Ian makes a point of playing ‘At Seventeen’, and ‘Fly Too High’, telling her audience they deserve it. And I think this is where John Martyn may have lost his way a little. To have had such huge success in his twenties, and still to be asked to re-visit those years when he was several, albeit less memorable albums down the line, that seems to have bitten him for a long time.

Grouchy or not, he was the kind of singer who inspired great devotion, rather like his contemporary, Roy Harper. That he survived so long when his friends at Island, Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff, pressed the self-destruct button, was an achievement in itself. His last perfomances, from a wheelchair of course, had a kind of heroism about them.


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