John Martyn

image Glasgow, 1973. A cold ill-furnished flat near Charing Cross. My friend and flatmate Guy played me an album he’d just bought, Solid Air by John Martyn. As with so many musics I came to love, I found it ugly at first hearing. ‘Why does he have to slur like that, he sounds like a drunk.’ (How astute is that?)  But boy could he play guitar, as the song goes. It probably took less than a week, a few drinks and some loneliness and John Martyn had claimed his place in my heart for life. When Inside Out came out, taking him further into the experimental, I was right there with him. I tried listening to his older, folkier stuff, but it was like shandy after Guiness. Live at Leeds came out, as a mail-order only for which you wrote to John’s own address in Hastings, and it came  with ‘Love from John and Bev’ scrawled across it and even more electro-acoustic adventure in the grooves. I saw him with Danny Thompson a few times, mostly in Glasgow, where he talked like Billy Connolly and once or twice in England where he was a Cockney. By chance I met Linda Thompson’s brother in a cafe and he regaled me with tales of the Island Records crew, including John’s incredible chemical intake. Even then, it seemed unlikely he’d survive to 30. When Grace and Danger came out around 1980 or thereabouts I was in Manchester, older and wiser and able to relate to the heartbreak that dripped from it. He had the edge, the Danger, to counteract any  sentimentality.  He was never a reformed character, despite his dropping Buddhism into recent conversations – he’d chosen his crazy path and stayed true to it, at tremendous cost to himself and his loved ones, but he gave us so much. To me his gifts were (1) the percussive right hand guitar technique (2) repetitive, mood-building songs and, most important, (3) the use of technology with emotion and heart. If I could ever sing like him there’d be a (4) but, nah, nobody could. (And was there ever an album sleeve that better described the music inside than Solid Air?)

Here he is at his best (cheers to Sid Smith for highlighting this one):

3 thoughts on “John Martyn”

  1. I saw John at the Rock Factory in Leith in 1972. He shared the bill with Sunderland Bros/Quiver, High Speed Grass and Doctor John (of all people). That night his chemical intake was quite high, he managed one song and fell from his stool and sadly I was in a similar state myself so saw little of the other acts…he was a pioneer and it’s some kind of miracle he made it to 60 minus only a leg.

  2. I saw John Martin at Glastonbury sometime in the 1980s. The sound check took for ever but when he started playing and those waves of sound echoed out over the gathering dusk it was unforgettable. Unique.

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