John Martyn OBE died on the 29th January 2009, in Ireland. He was a uniquely gifted musician who was once described by Eric Clapton as being ‘so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable’.
His death at the age of sixty leaves a sense of consuming sadness and loss as his many admirers face up to the fact that we will not be able to see this remarkable man perform again. Not in this world anyway.
Born on September 11, 1948 in New Malden, Surrey, England he spent most of his childhood, following his parents divorce, with his grandmother in Glasgow. His love was music and when he moved to London in the mid sixties he quickly established himself as a key figure on the blues and folk circuits.
When Chris Blackwell, with customary vision, signed him to his Island Records label it heralded the start of his recording career. His first album London Conversations appeared in 1968. It is an album that explores more traditional folk styling than much of his later work and opens with the wonderful “Fairy Tale Lullaby”.
By the time his next album The Tumbler was released John was venturing into different territory particularly when playing live. By 1970 he had developed his now trademark and unique sound. He achieved this by running his acoustic guitar through a fuzz box, Echoplex, and phase shifter.
His vocal style evolved into a trademark slur that echoed the delay achieved through his guitar. Taking on more jazz and blues influences, it quickly became a sound forever associated as his.
I will never forget the first time I saw him perform live on television, possibly on The Old Grey Whistle Test. There was a genuine intensity to the man and his music, both of which were instantly likeable and memorable.
The first album to appear with his now signature sound was 1970’s Stormbringer!, an album that featured his then wife Beverley Kutner. Two more albums, The Road To Ruin and Bless The Weather, appeared in quick succession. It was his 1973 release Solid Air that really established him as a household name and underlined his position as one of the most influential musicians of his generation.
The title track was a moving tribute to his close friend from the London folk scene, Nick Drake. Nick was to die following a struggle against depression the year after the album’s release. By now John had cemented a long-time working relationship and friendship with double bass player Danny Thompson. To see these two sparring off each other during live concerts was a joy.
His next album Inside Out, released at the end of 1973, underlined his reputation and marked a further move towards experimentation. Other notable albums in his forty year career include 1974’s Sunday’s Child, and 1977’s remarkable One World, which included the single “Couldn’t Love You More”.
By the end of seventies John’s marriage to Beverley had broken down and he entered a self confessed dark period during which he ‘hit the self destruct button’. This period is reflected in his 1980 album Grace And Danger. Disturbingly sad and troubled it was later revealed as John’s own personal favourite.
His later career saw albums such as Glorious Fool (1980), Cooltide (1991), And (1996), 2000’s excellent Glasgow Walker, and On The Cobbles (2004). Health problems began to cause concern and in 2006 John had to have one of his legs amputated below the knee. This particular part of his journey was covered in a television documentary entitled Johnny Too Bad (BBC).
In February 2008 he received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards. He performed one of his greatest songs “May You Never” to mark the occasion. In the latest New Years Honours list John was awarded an OBE. His 60th birthday was marked by the release of a 4 CD box set. Ain’t No Saint, which contains many previously unreleased songs alongside live performances.
I had the privilege of seeing John in concert several times at various stages of his remarkable career. His presence and music have left a marked impression on me and many others. Today is a sad day but one that should also see us celebrating this amazingly talented, highly original, and much loved musician.
These are John’s own words taken from the Solid Air album. ‘I don’t want to know about evil, I only want to know about love.’
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