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British blues and folk singer John Martyn performs live in London as part of The Don't Look Back series. Samir Hussein /Getty Images
British blues and folk singer John Martyn performs live in London as part of The Don't Look Back series. Samir Hussein /Getty Images

John Martyn: Something old, something new

A new 18-disc box set covering John Martyn’s peak years bolsters his status as a uniquely talented pioneer. We look back at his tough, troubled life.

There were, by common assent, two John Martyns. The first was the tousle-haired troubadour with a voice like a tiger gargling honey – both charmed and charming. Then there was the other incarnation, the one who described himself as a drink- and drug-devouring “nutter”.

A contemporary of the likes of Richard Thompson and Nick Drake, Martyn started out in the London folk scene in the mid-1960s, signing to Island Records in 1967. After a couple of primarily folk-based albums, he began to stretch out, transforming his guitar playing with the visionary Echoplex technique and pushing the capabilities of his voice in emulation of avant-garde jazzers such as Pharoah Sanders.

“At that time there was an ocean of singer-songwriter blokes,” says the jazz bassist Danny Thompson, Martyn’s close friend and collaborator for 40 years. “Then John comes along with those great songs and that innovative guitar technique. Even now no one realises quite how incredible it was.”

A new 18-disc box set covering Martyn’s peak years in exhaustive detail may help bolster his status as a uniquely talented pioneer, while drawing the emphasis away from his reputation as a hellraiser. In contrast to the tenderness of his best known song, May You Never, the Scottish singer-songwriter, who died in 2009 at the age of 60, lived a tough, troubled life.

He was born Iain McGeachy in 1948 to parents who were both light opera singers. “It was all ever-so upmarket and highbrow,” Martyn told me when I met him in 2005 at his home in Ireland. “They rather detested my voice.” His parents divorced when he was 5, after which he was raised in Glasgow by his grandmother. “Any flaws in my character are to do with the divorce of my parents,” he said, “I’m very sure of that.”

Such flaws were copious, exacerbated by alcohol, hard drugs and a propensity for explosive violence.

In 1969 he married the English singer Beverley Martyn, with whom he released two albums, Storm­bringer! and The Road to Ruin, in 1970. “It was good, it was bad and sometimes it was magical,” she says of their tempestuous 10-year marriage. “John was wild, he lived on the edge. He had a lot of guts and self-belief, but in the end I wouldn’t stay with a man who was killing himself.”

Their marriage lasted the length of the 1970s, during which time Martyn made the greatest records of his career – Bless the Weather, Solid Air, One World – and expanded his musical frame of reference to encompass jazz, rock, blues and dub. Although he jammed with Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan – “a very quiet little fella” – and worked with Eric Clapton and David Gilmour, Martyn failed to achieve their levels of mainstream success. “It’s a very top-heavy industry,” he said. “I always think the poor musician should be further up the pecking order, but he’s down there with the plankton. In the end, the music is more important. I don’t drive fast cars, I don’t have a swimming pool, but I don’t miss them.”

The end of his first marriage in 1980 seemed to herald a gradual creative decline: he was dropped from Island first in 1981 and again, conclusively, in 1988. Meanwhile, a series of physical and financial setbacks culminated in 2003 with the amputation of his right leg below the knee following a burst cyst. When I met Martyn at his modest home in Thomastown, 160 kilometres south-west of Dublin, he cut a somewhat tragicomic figure. He was on his eighth prosthetic and had gained 40 kilograms in two years. Still, he claimed: “It could have happened when I was 15 and changed my life entirely. I can’t really argue at all.”

Slightly tamed by his disability, towards the end of his life Martyn inched towards respectability as an elder statesman. He received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards in 2008 and was awarded an OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours. Within a month he was dead, stricken by pneumonia. His friend Phil Collins was among the first to pay tribute: “He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique. We’ll never see the likes of him again.”

According to Thompson, he was routinely misunderstood. “When people talk about him they talk about the raucous behaviour and the drinking, but they miss out on the reality. The man who wrote lines like ‘You curl around me like a fern in spring’ – that was the real John Martyn.”

A posthumous album, Heaven And Earth, was released in 2011 but only hinted at the fluid beauty of the best of his music. The new box set, on the other hand, makes a watertight case. It includes the hypnotic title track of what is perhaps Martyn’s greatest album, 1973’s Solid Air, written for his friend Nick Drake. It’s not inconceivable that, like Drake, in death Martyn may yet find the kind of widespread appreciation that eluded him while he was alive.

John Martyn: The Island Years (Universal Music) is out today


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