Some People Are Crazy | The John Martyn Story

John Neil Munro
Edinburgh, Polygon ISBN 978 1 84697 036 8

coverGenerally considered the most authorative biography up to date.

The hardback cover originally cost £14.99 and was published by Polygon (Birlinn Limited, Edinburgh).

"This book is dedicated to Edinburgh 1977, Colin Ritchie, Michael Kay and Bruce Paton RIP"

The back cover text:

"An incredible amount of independent and interesting research... John Neil Munro has done an excellent job at portraying John Martyn's character." SPENCER COZENS

Gangsters, guns, knives and a leg amputation. Bar room brawls, tempestuous relationships and industrial amounts of drugs. An exploding pancreas, impalement on a fence post and a car crash with a cow. Enough booze to float a navy and some of the most sublime music of the last forty years. Welcome to the world of John Martyn - one of rock music's last great mavericks.

"I was in an altered state. I'm often in an altered state. I like it. I've been like that all my life." JOHN MARTYN

The inside cover text:

FOR THE FIRST TIME John Martyn has contributed to a biography which will help shine light on this complex individual. The book documents his upbringing, as lain McGeachy, in Glasgow and his rise through the 1960s Scottish and London folk scene, recalling his subsequent highs and lows, and his friendships with the great lost souls of British rock music - Nick Drake and Paul Kossoff. What emerges is often unflattering but always honest - the hellraiser with the tortured soul. With contributions from fellow musicians, lovers and enemies, and with rarely seen photographs, Some People are Crazy is the definitive John Martyn biography.

A superb guitarist and innovative vocalist, Martyn has written some of the gentlest love songs of our times. Feted by each new generation of rock stars, Martyn is one of the most influential figures in British music, with high profile fans like David Gilmour, Phil Collins, Paul Weller and Beth Orton. His classic album Solid Air is regularly voted one of the greatest recordings of all time.

But plagued by addictions and alcoholism his private life has often been a shambles. After decades in the music business he openly despises, he remains a mess of contradictions and a mysterious figure to the fans who love his music.

About the author:

John Neil Munro was born in Campbeltown and raised in Stornoway. He studied modern and economic history at Glasgow University then completed a postgraduate journalism course in Cardiff during the late 1980s. In the 1990s Munro worked as a journalist for various UK newspapers, including the Glasgow Herald. Some People Are Crazy was his second title.



I'd do anything for John Martyn: if he phoned me up and said 'I'm in the Pennines and my car's knackered', I'd be on my way. It was a blessing from heaven that we were able to rave together so much in the 1970s and live because we lost a lot of friends who raved only half as much. He's the biggest, softest teddy bear, a generous, warm, sensitive person and he spends a lot of the time covering it up.
Danny Thompson, Q, September 1989

You must not come to me for praiseworthy things on John Martyn. I've experienced his darker side much too often. I'm not interested in adding to the myth of the man. I don't enjoy talking about John Martyn. If you cannot say something good about somebody, don't say anything. I find it hard to say anything meritorious about John Martyn.
Former associate who preferred to remain anonymous

Mention the name John Martyn, and you are unlikely to get an indifferent response. For every Martyn enthusiast there's someone who is either unmoved or actively hostile to his charms. His admirers love his matchless music and talk fondly of a warm, generous and loving individual. His detractors genuinely loathe him and recall tales of his violent temper, dark moods and drunken debacles. Music critics are equally divided over John's abilities. In the early 1980s, when John was hopelessly out of fashion, NME still proclaimed that his music was the very definition of cool. As Nick Kent commented in the paper on 29 November 1980, John's music at its height possesses that rarest of essences: real soul. Twenty years later, in December 2000, Uncut magazine's David Stubbs argued that John had made 'some of the most palpable, almost physically emotional, music ever recorded'. Other critics are less charitable and have likened his singing to that of a horribly wounded bear. In NME, 9 October 1982, Julie Burchill -at her most acidic- dismissed John as someone who 'cooked up aural monosodium glutamate in a melting-pot mind fit for jingles'.

The child of a broken marriage, Martyn was brought up in a Glasgow home that echoed to the sound of music and his dazzling ability as a guitarist soon won him acclaim playing alongside his mentor Hamish Imlach. After moving to London he became a fixture on the Soho folk scene, before hitching a ride with the formative label Island Records and releasing a string of the most influential and best loved albums of the 1970s. From Bless The Weather to Grace And Danger, Martyn forged a distinct sound, fusing acoustic and electric music, jazz, blues and reggae in a breathtaking, groundbreaking concoction. In an industry riddled with clones and copycats, no one sounded quite like him. Motivated by the soaring ecstasy of finding love and the sharp pain of losing it he crafted scores of beautiful songs. His herbally inspired live shows became the stuff of legend and he could sell out concert venues around the globe. He remains an influence on every fresh generation of rock stars - acts as diverse as U2, The Verve, China Crisis, Paolo Nutini, Everything But The Girl, Portishead and Beth Orton (who calls him 'The Guv'nor') all cite John as a major inspiration.

But the music was only half the story. While he produced featherlight, gorgeous love songs, his own private life fell apart in a spectacular way and his two marriages were ripped asunder. Martyn's life became blighted by drug dependency and chronic alcoholism. His capacity for drink is legendary - his friend, the great jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard, still talks with incredulity of seeing Martyn down a full bottle of Bacardi in one swig as he prepared for a gig. Martyn took to hanging out with gangsters and earned a reputation as a heavy individual not to be messed with. Along the way he says he has been shot at and stabbed a few times, had his neck broken when his car collided with a cow, suffered an exploding pancreas, and had a leg amputated. The bass guitarist Dave Pegg told me how he had moments working with John when he looked in his eyes and was genuinely scared. John revelled in this notoriety, deliberately cultivating a bad-boy image and became a hell-raiser to rival the likes of Keith Moon and Oliver Reed. His fellow Scots singer-songwriter Eddi Reader talks of nights on the town with John but admits that she needed the strength of Hercules just to keep up with him.

A renowned womaniser, Martyn has been married twice and claims to have fathered twelve children in and out of wedlock (others say three children is a more realistic count). Eventually the frenzied lifestyle sapped his creativity and his records became less consistent; overproduced and riddled with drum machines. Back in the 1980s using those devices might have seemed brave and experimental - now they just sound terribly dated. His public profile steadily diminished and as his musical reputation faded he became better known for his personal frailties. While his celebrity admirers Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Paul Weller and Dave Gilmour became global superstars, Martyn has never even troubled the UK album chart top ten and eventually he ended up bankrupt. After almost forty years in the music business, substantial commercial success has eluded him and most people who come across Martyn's difficult slurred vocal style, his almost unbearably honest lyrics and his dreamy music politely decline to be won over. But John has few regrets about the way things worked out - as he often says, he chose the route and the vehicle. When fame stared him in the face, John wilfully rejected it and opted instead for experimenting with all types of music, even hip-hop.

As he nears the age of sixty John now weighs over twenty stone and lives in relative tranquillity with his long-term girlfriend in Ireland. But he remains a mess of contradictions. His music is reflected in his personality - veering unsettlingly between the tender and the turbulent. The same man who could write a lyric as benign and beautiful as 'Curl around me like a fern in the spring' could also break the ribs of one of his managers during a vicious brawl. In a good mood he is the soul of any party and advocates the benefits of Buddhism and pacifism. John can also be an extremely generous man and he is undoubtedly an incurable romantic. On one of the occasions I met him, we drove through his teenage stomping ground in the South Side of Glasgow and passed one of the many Asian shops selling beautiful lengths of cloth for saris. John told the driver to stop and sent him into the shop to buy twenty pounds' worth of the material. Half an hour later he presented it to his slightly bemused Irish girlfriend in their hotel room. But on other occasions his temper flares and he becomes bitter and resentful about the music industry he despises. Even he will admit that on those occasions he is a nasty person, best avoided. He can be stubborn, bad tempered and arrogant.

He is aware of the paradox at the heart of his work, how a man who produced such loving gentle music could at the same time live such a self-destructive lifestyle. As he said in Q in May 1990:

All my songs have always been utter misery or lunatic belligerence. I actually think those two sides are a racial trait in the Scottish... I don't want to be able to control my moods. I probably am a little schizophrenic, exacerbated by all the raving over the years. I'm either John Wayne the bully or John the daddy and lover. But I have enough self-control and if I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting. I'd probably be a great deal richer but I'd have had far less fun and I'd be making really dull music.

Though he has given countless interviews throughout his career, John actually likes to keep things close to his chest. He's basically given the same interview -with the odd tweak or two- since the early 1970s. I hope this book will shine a little more light on where John Martyn came from and what factors motivated him along the way. The aim is to discover the roots and the consequences of both his musical brilliance and his chaotic lifestyle. During my research John agreed to speak to me and he also helped smooth the way so that others would also offer their views. I cannot claim to know John Martyn well, so wherever possible I've opted to rely on the oral testimonies of those that were present at the time rather than offer intrusive personal views. For example, I think most readers would prefer to learn Ralph McTell's opinions on the relative strengths of the main players on the London folk scene of the late 1960s rather than read any assessment of mine. I've also spoken to over forty people who either knew John well or helped create the sound of those classic albums. Some of those I interviewed would only speak anonymously while other former associates reacted with a mix of fear and anger at the mention of Martyn's name. To paraphrase the words of one of his most famous songs, some people are crazy about him, but some people just cannot stand to see his face.

Thanks to the following for taking time to answer my questions: John Martyn; Linda Dunning; Danny Thompson; Dr Kirk McGeachy; Spencer Cozens; Ralph McTell; Bridget St John; Andy Sheppard; Claire Hamill; Dave Pegg; Michael Chapman; Steve Tilston; Wizz Jones; Daisy Flowers; Dave Mattacks; Eddi Reader; Simon Climie; John Glover; Sandy Roberton; Martin Levan; Paul Wheeler; Robin Frederick; Tim Denley; Phill Brown; Brian Young; James MacPherson; Hans van den Berk; Steve 'Monk' Moncure; Susanne Mead; Robert Kirby; Alan Dunbar; AMN; Mo Barnes; Ann Sadler; Peter Wright; and Alec Milne. Special thanks to James McNair for access to unpublished interviews and to John Mackinnon for help with photography. Thanks also for assistance to: Teresa Walsh; Calum Angus Macdonald; Scott McGowan; Stephen Manzor; Ann Macdonald; Gabrielle Drake; Cally at Bryter Music; Martin Kielty; Vivienne Nicoll; Eddie Mould, CMP Entertainment; Kate Pool, Society of Authors; Ken Goodwin, Shawlands Academy; Colin Braham; Dee Harrington; George MacCallum; David Clayton; Pippa Hall, Monkey Business PR; Christine Waters; Mandy Moncure; Roy Corkill; Aileen McCulloch, Carluke Gazette; Robert Meek, Hastings Observer; staff at Stornoway Library; the National Library of Scotland; the Music Library, Edinburgh; Neville Moir and Alison Rae, Polygon.

All quotations are from interviews with the author, unless specified.

Promo preprint

The book was promoted through a 'pre-publication extract' consisting of the introduction and the first four chapters. This was un uncorrected proof copy and not for sale.