26 Jan 2019
Soulmates don't always feel the need to tell each other their feelings. It would take the singer-songwriter John Martyn the best part of four decades to let Danny Thompson know, "You're my best friend."
The moment came at a session in New York, a month before Martyn's death, aged 60, after a lifetime of alcohol abuse. Thompson, a double bass player par excellence, was incredulous when his old pal made his declaration.
"Thirty seven years, and suddenly you tell me that?" he said to Martyn. "We'd never ever said we loved each other, we never had that kind of fluffy relationship."
Almost ten years to the day since his friend died, Thompson, 79, will tomorrow take part in a celebration of Martyn's work, which he also helped bring together at Glasgow's Celtic Connections Festival. The line-up says everything about his old friend's enduring musical legacy. It features Paul Weller, Lucy Rose, Eddi Reader, Donald Shaw and many others who worked with Martyn or have been beguiled by his music, which transcended folk, jazz and reggae, in a succession of magical albums from 1967 onwards.
Thompson, who has worked with many of the greats of jazz and folk, was with Martyn for most of the journey and believes 'the real John' is revealed in his songs, not in his dangerous life offstage.
"If John had been the only person I'd ever worked with, that would have been enough for me," Thompson said. "When we put the Glasgow show together, I wanted to involve people who loved him. Everyone I called immediately accepted. They didn't say 'How much?' they just said, 'Yes, of course'. It should be a great night."
The two men met in 1972. By then Martyn was established on the folk circuit, with three LPs of his own and two with Beverley, his first wife. Thompson, ten years his senior, was a member of the folk-jazz band Pentangle and also a regular performer at Ronnie Scott's club in Soho.
A brilliant instrumentalist, his genius for improvisation perfectly matched Martyn's evolving style, with the two combining to perfection on the languid Solid Air, arguably the Scot's greatest album. "There were no rules," Thompson recalled, "John never turned up and said, 'I've written this song and I want you to do this…'. He'd say, 'No, just do what you do.' I didn't play the typical folk bass. I could elaborate, that was the thing John liked. It was great for me, because it gave me enormous freedom to decorate his songs, to serve his songs."
Both had dislocated childhoods. Thompson, who was brought up in Battersea, London, was a baby when his father died in the Second World War. Martyn, born in London, moved to his father's native Glasgow when he was five, after his parents split. He is reputed to have been introduced to alcohol, aged 12, by his grandmother.
By the time they met, the two were hard drinkers, 'ravers' in Thompson's word. "It's always strange to me when people ask, 'How could you play so well when you were pissed?' I reply, 'Well, we always rehearsed pissed.'"
Tales about their drunken antics have entered legend. One story has Martyn waking up in a hotel bedroom under a carpet that had been nailed to the floor by his mate. Another has the pair of them walking into a pub and offering the barman a cheque for damages. "There aren't any damages," the landlord said. "There will be," came the reply. "England are about to play Scotland at rugby."
Thompson can laugh at these memories, but it irritates him that obituaries about his friend centred on his drinking, his habit of sharing joints with his fans, and the damage he had done to himself. By the time of his death, Martyn had lost the lower part of his right leg after a cyst on his knee burst and he played his last gigs in a wheelchair. His failing health was, he joked, kept in check by alcohol. "Four bottles of Scotch every night does the trick," he told Mojo magazine.
Thompson said: "People talk about that stuff, but John was far more than that. He was a beautiful man, super intelligent, a multi-linguist. People have this idea that he was a buffoon. He was a remarkable bloke. We've all got demons, from childhood or wherever, it's not just John. I've worked with so many musicians who suffered in their early lives, who'd lock themselves in their bedrooms to get away from the horrors around them. I was one of those too. So we shared a lot of those things."
As for the drinking culture of the 1970s, it was everywhere. "It was really that thing that had passed along from the wonderful 1960s, the freedom to rave," said Thompson.
Though he quit alcohol in 1978, Thompson cherishes memories of the Soho scene he shared with Martyn, supping in bars and cafés and sauntering between gigs at Scott's and Les Cousins' famous folk club.
"People say, 'What was your favourite John Martyn album?'. To me, that whole life with John was just one unfinished album."
The Times is the Celtic Connections media partner.
Grace & Danger: A Celebration of John Martyn. Sunday, 7.30pm, Glasgow Royal Concert Hall
First Night, page 40
Danny Thompson, left, and above with John Martyn, is celebrating the legacy of his talented friend
Eddi Reader is among the musicians who will pay tribute to John Martyn tomorrow
This article was printed in The Times of Saturday 26 May 2019, one day before the concert. It was illustrated with three pictures that are heavily copyrighted.