Saint or Sinner?

Russell Leadbetter
The Herald Scotland

Published on 25 Jan 2010

Almost a year after his death, John Martyn’s life is the focus of a celebratory concert. But the man behind the music remains as mysterious as ever.

He was an incurable romantic who was handy with his fists. Within his burly, imposing frame lay a soulful, expressive voice, and his songs lent themselves to cover versions by artists as renowned as Rod Stewart, Eric Clapton and Ralph McTell. As for his guitar playing, he was a master of the craft, an enduringly influential and inventive figure.

John Martyn, alas, is with us no more. He died less than a year ago, on January 29, 2009, aged just 60, of double pneumonia in a hospital in Ireland. On hearing the news, his long-time friend, the singer Phil Collins, was moved to say: "He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we’ll never see the likes of him again. I loved him dearly and will miss him very much."

The regard in which Martyn is held is also evident from a memorial website called Lasting Tribute, where dozens of fans – some long term, others much more recent – declare, one after another, that his music was the soundtrack to their lives. "What a complex enigma of a man," writes one. "He was simply a genius and will never be forgotten," writes another.

One fan recalled staying overnight at a friend’s house at the same time as Martyn. He decided to hide the musician's shoes in the morning. When Martyn came downstairs, he went to the pub and played pool all afternoon in his bare feet, not mentioning his shoes at any point through the day.

A musician who occasionally played on the same festival bill as Martyn wrote: "He was charming, cheerful, irascible, willing to share his skills, and pretty grumpy depending on when you met him. He didn’t particularly like strangers approaching him, but if you could play a bit you were welcome."

Other musicians can't speak highly enough of Martyn. The singer Donnie Munro, formerly of Runrig and now fronting his own band, says, "His performances were always edgy, passionate and unpredictable, and he was unafraid of pushing himself to the outer limits of his abilities."

One week from today, on January 30, some of Martyn's songs will be played again, courtesy of a group assembled by Danny Thompson, one of the world's finest acoustic bass players, who toured and recorded with Martyn for more than 20 years. The tribute will form part of a Celtic Connections show at the Old Fruitmarket in Glasgow.

His acute sensitivity meant
his existence was painful,
and drink turned the pain
into something he could laugh at.
Will Hodgkinson

"I miss him so much, even the early-morning phone calls when he'd ring at 3am and say, 'I love you, man,' " Thompson says. "He'd do this regularly, long after we'd stopped playing together, and I'd say, 'If you love me, why can't you let me sleep?' "
"John had this relationship with his fans – they obviously felt he was approachable and seemed to regard him as their big brother. And that was because he was real – he was like your brother, and his music was real. You can't lie when you play because you get found out."

The artistic director of Celtic Connections, Donald Shaw, who often worked with Martyn and persuaded him to play his classic album Solid Air at the festival three years ago, says, "He would come into the room like a big bear with a sore head but would then start singing in this angelic voice. Getting to know him and his slightly tortured soul meant the music had another edge to it as well."

Martin Simpson, the award-winning guitarist who will be playing alongside Thompson in Glasgow, says Martyn was "one of the essential guitar players. He didn't play like anybody else – he had his own thing and that's always admirable."

John Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy, in New Malden, Surrey, on September 11, 1948, the only son of two light opera singers, Betty and Tommy. His parents split up when he was five and he accompanied Tommy back to his native Scotland, spending much of his early childhood with his grandmother in Queen's Park, Glasgow, and attending Shawlands Academy. According to Martyn's biographer, John Neil Munro, his parents' divorce was the source of "a deep, dark hurt" that had a lasting effect on him and his music.

By his mid-teens Martyn was learning the guitar, and at 17 he found himself playing in city folk clubs, watched over by traditional music legend Hamish Imlach. He was still in his teens when, in October 1967, he released his debut album, London Conversation, and was soon peppering his music with hints of jazz and experimental electronics. "I didn't like that finger-in-the-ear stuff," he said later. "I've never been the morris-dancing type. I'm a funky, not a folkie."

In 1969, he fell in love with singer Beverley Kutner, and the first of their two children was born. The couple married but Martyn's darker side was never far from the surface and he became physically and verbally abusive to his wife. They released two albums, Stormbringer! and The Road To Ruin, before the bosses at his label Island told him to end their musical partnership and resume his career as a solo singer-songwriter. Martyn objected but complied with their wishes.

During this period he began experimenting with innovative guitar sounds and went on to produce a series of increasingly well-received albums – Bless The Weather, Solid Aid, Inside Out and Sunday's Child.
For many Martyn's creative peak came in 1973 with Solid Air, which included May You Never, covered by Eric Clapton on Slowhand in 1977, earning Martyn the largest royalty cheque of his career. He wrote the title track as a tribute to his friend Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter whose struggle with clinical depression culminated in his death from an overdose of antidepressants the following year.

Martyn was happy to play the dual roles of poet and ruffian, and threw himself into US tours with Free and Traffic, with the attendant groupies and drugs. His vagabond ways became famous while touring his 1975 album Sunday's Child, accompanied by Thompson and ex-Free guitarist Paul Kossoff. At one point Kossoff broke a bottle over Martyn's head, and Melody Maker journalist Allan Jones described seeing Martyn backstage "looking like he'd been drinking since the dawn of time". Martyn then started dabbling with heroin – and his life spiralled further out of control.

His marriage to Beverley finally broke down at the end of the 1970s. Out of this, described by Martyn as "a very dark period in my life", came the album Grace And Danger. It was released in October 1980, but would have come out a year earlier had Chris Blackwell, Island's founder and a friend of the couple, not found the songs so disturbing. Martyn himself said it was "probably the most specific piece of autobiography I've written".

"I was in a dreadful emotional state" he said at the time. "I was hardly in control of my own actions. The reason they finally released it was because I freaked: ‘Please get it out. I don't give a damn about how sad it makes you feel. It's what I'm about – the direct communication of emotion.' Grace And Danger was very cathartic, and it really hurt."

He went on to marry Annie Furlong in 1983, but the couple's relationship floundered due to his alcoholism. Her family claimed he regularly beat her and they later separated.

Although Martyn never enjoyed sustained chart success, his albums were loved by fans and musicians alike. Ralph McTell told John Neil Munro that Solid Air, One World and Grace And Danger were "peerless works".
Munro, who is updating his book Some People Are Crazy, said he met the singer half a dozen times during his research. "He was very courteous and helpful, always on his best behaviour," he says. "I also interviewed a few of his girlfriends from the early days, and it seems he was a charming, half-of-lager type person back then. But without being too simplistic about it, I think fame, and the amount of drugs he took in the 1970s, coloured his whole personality."

"He always had long-term women in his life and, later on, there were a lot of abusive things going on, but I suppose that inevitably happens in the relationships of all long-term alcoholics and drug addicts."
It was the subtlety of Martyn's work, says Munro, that captivated him. "I'd always loved the gentle music he produced. I saw him once in 1979 or 1980 in a club above the Edinburgh Playhouse and told people about it afterwards and how he was such a gentle, wonderful guy. This woman who vaguely knew him said, 'No, he was a complete bastard.' That kind of stuck with me all the way through – I wanted to find out if he was really the guy who wrote songs like May You Never, or more belligerent."

"But in all my dealings with him he was generous and witty, a very intelligent man. I only once saw him lose his temper – it was quite a scary experience. I would have hated to have been in his company when he was raging, back in the 1980s, because he could be a fearsome individual."

Munro, whose favourite Martyn album is One World, believes Martyn's guitar style influenced many other guitarists, from Nick Drake to contemporary troubadours such as James Morrison. "From the early 1970s up until Grace And Danger he was at the peak of his powers," says Munro. "Afterwards, once his first marriage went on the rocks, the music suffered. But the strengths of his 1970s albums are undeniable: they always finish high up in polls of the most influential album of that decade."

In 2003 surgeons amputated part of Martyn's right leg after a large cyst burst under his knee, and he spent his later years in a wheelchair. He remained stoical, but his weight ballooned to 20 stone and he retreated to his farmhouse in Kilkenny with his partner Theresa Walsh to recuperate.

While he recorded little new music in the 21st century there were several compilations and archive live recordings. The former Verve guitarist Nick McCabe, who played on Martyn's final studio record On The Cobbles alongside the likes of Paul Weller and came to know him well, says, "It would’ve been nice to see what he came up with next, but we’ll never know. It's hard to say if he was going to carry on anyway, as he seemed pissed off with the business. He came across as charming but I don't think he was treated right. He wasn't afforded the kudos in his lifetime."

There were, however, several awards: the Les Paul Award at the 2008 Mojo magazine honours, a Lifetime Achievement Award the same year at the Radio 2 Folk Awards (Eric Clapton sent a message saying Martyn was "so far ahead of everything else it is inconceivable"), and finally an OBE, which his partner collected on his behalf last March, two months after his death.

In an obituary, the journalist and author Will Hodgkinson wrote perceptively that Martyn was "a far more gentle soul than his image as a grizzled wildman suggests. Initially intimidated by the fact 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."

Connected: Danny Thompson And Friends, featuring Darrell Scott, Luka Bloom, Eddi Reader, Martin Simpson and Tim O'Brien, takes place at the Old Fruitmarket, Glasgow, January 30.