I was deeply saddened to receive news of the passing of another innovative and original artist at the close of last month. John Martyn was one of the most talented guitarists and composers who I ever had the privilege to witness live (on more occasions than I can recall) and, at the same time, one of the humblest and most human performers ever to have walked the boards. Were it the Glastonbury main stage or a tacky student union bar; with a big band behind him, duetting with Danny Thompson’s stand-up bass, or simply all on his ownsome, Johnny Babes would never give less than his all (and usually then some on top!).
He was born Iain McGeachy in Surrey, England, but raised in Scotland. As the old adage goes, “Ye can take the boy outta Glasgow, but ye cannae take Glasgow outta the boy.” From his 60s days as a fingerpickin’ folkie, the first white artist to be signed to Island Records, he constantly strove to explore and expand his instrument’s capabilities to the full. Hooking up his acoustic guitar through an echo box and a barrage of effects pedals, he added jazz, blues and rock sounds and feelings to his playing —- never worrying about the results falling into any particular category. Later incursions, electric and acoustic, would lead him into dub, funk and soul — even hip-hop and dance music.
A couple of albums with his then wife, Beverley, opened the seventies: the decade which saw his most critically acclaimed releases, including Solid Air (1973) — dedicated to Nick Drake — and One World (1977), his experimental collaboration with, amongst other luminaries, Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry.
From the former comes one of his best-loved and most enduring songs, “May You Never” (covered by self-avowed admirer and subsequent co-performer Clappy, on Slowhand). The latter, with its ambient sound morphing into the music, pioneered styles which would come to be known as ‘Trip-Hop’ and ‘Chill-Out’. The cathartic Grace And Danger, attempting to deal with his marriage breakdown, was released in 1980, but only following a year of arguments with Island boss Chris Blackwell. The LP, incidentally, features — for me, at least — some of the finest drumwork ever by a certain Phil Collins, who also went on to produce the subsequent LP Glorious Fool for his “infuriating friend.”
An inveterate experimenter in the studio as well as on stage, his Classic John Martyn EP —- revisiting his career and heralding the lushly produced Piece By Piece album (1986) -— is widely acknowledged as the world’s very first CD single. Of course, not enough people had the hardware back then to put it even near the charts. Not that John would’ve given a fig, anyway: he’d already been close enough to the big-time for long enough to know where he was happy.
This was the period when I got into seeing him live. Johnny never sold his soul to the devil, but willingly gave it to his fans every time he performed. Watching him play was a revelation: your ears can deceive you, but actually being able to see that he really was doing all that with a guitar — woah man — something else… And, more to the point, singing at the same time! Were he oozing “Sweet Little Mystery” or “Angeline”, or ranting his way through “John Wayne”, his voice was always another dimension of the music: the lyrics more often than not remaining a “Sweet Little Mystery.” But, my god, you never failed to feel what the man was telling you. And then, when you did finally get round to sitting down with the liner sleeve/CD booklet and worked out what he was actually saying, you’d get totally blown away all over again by his depth.
He loved quipping with the audience between numbers, and was never shy of straight-talking: Maggie and Ronnie and both the Bushes were prime targets for his acid wit. Close-up in a small venue, reeking of Scotch, dripping with sweat, eyes tight shut and straining to get every ounce of his essence into the music and out of his voice: that’s how I’ll remember him. Or, at the other end of the scale, probably the greatest collective act of disbelief suspension in which I’ve ever partaken: “Over The Rainbow” as his 1986 Glastonbury encore — everyone completely and utterly aware of the cheesiness of it all, and nobody more conscious of it than JM himself. Experiences like that have neither price nor sell-by date!
His taste for a drop or ten of the hard stuff (and assorted other traditional rock ‘n’ roll trimmings) was a factor in his departure from Island at the end of the eighties, but didn’t slow him down any, as he went on playing live and releasing new material on various labels. Neither did the amputation of half of his right leg in 2004: he simply swapped his playing stool for a wheelchair… Continuing his eternal rapport with the public, and commenting on his resultant obesity, he’d frequently introduce himself as “the one-legged Sumo wrestler.”
His 40+ years as a recording artist have left us with a score of studio albums and over a dozen live and compilation releases. Not bad for a man who, by his own admission, “Just stumble[d] from one thing to another.” Or, as “Serendipity says, ‘You got to smile and roll the dice…'” Having received a BBC lifetime achievement award in 2006, he was also named ‘OBE’ for his services to music, less than a month before he died.
It was, of course, the booze (et cetera) that got him in the end —- this time in the guise of double pneumonia. And, as he joins that great celestial jam session, somewhere over the rainbow, it can only be hoped that Saint Peter remembered to get a few extra crates in!
And, yes, love is still a message to learn in our time: bear it in mind…