John Martyn: A Music Legend Remembered

Will Hodgkinson
The Guardian Music Blog

Throughout his life he kept searching for new musical forms in which to express essential themes: love, loneliness, and what it means to be alive

At the 2008 Mojo awards, where he accepted the Les Paul Award for being a phenomenal guitarist, an inspirational figure and an all-round cool guy, John Martyn gave sage, slightly slurred advice to future generations. "The power is definitely in the music, not the people," he said. "The music is the cool bit."

John Martyn was one of those people, rare in the narcissistic world of rock and pop, who realised what he produced was far more important than who he was. He treated life as a game – a tragic game, but not without its comic absurdity. At the Mojo awards Martyn, a famously heavy drinker whose right leg was amputated below the knee in 2003, said as he took to the stage: "I promised them I wouldn't get legless before the gig …"

Born Iain David McGeachy to two light opera singers, John Martyn picked up the guitar at 15 and immersed himself in Glasgow's nascent folk underground. He moved out of the family home and into a shed in Cumbria with Clive Palmer, the founder of LSD-soaked folk freaks the Incredible String Band. His great hero was Davy Graham, an exotic guitarist as famous for his transcendent playing as he was for not turning up to his own gigs. For all his subsequent success, John Martyn would hold on to Palmer and Graham's freewheeling example, particularly their mad spontaneity, for the rest of his life.

He also had ambition. After making his debut, 1968's London Conversation, he moved to Woodstock in upstate New York with his then wife Beverley Kutner, a strikingly beautiful singer from Coventry for whom the folk-rock svengali Joe Boyd had big plans. Martyn was brought in as a backing singer for Kutner's sessions and effectively upstaged her, making the subsequent album, 1970's Stormbringer, a showcase for his increasingly sophisticated songwriting and acoustic guitar style.

By the time he released Solid Air in 1973 Martyn was an unstoppable force. He was a mentor and friend to Nick Drake and Bridget St John and an increasingly high-profile singer capable of delving deep within myself to make great art. Throughout his life he kept searching for new musical forms in which to express the same essential themes: love, loneliness, and what it means to be alive.

He was also a far more gentle soul than his image as a grizzled wildman suggests. Initially intimidated by the fact that he was gruff, large, bearded and extremely drunk, I found him to be someone whose acute sensitivity meant his existence was innately painful. Drink dulled that pain, and turned it into something Martyn could laugh at. His songs were an attempt to make sense of it. The music, as John Martyn said in what proved to be his final public speech, was the cool bit.