Worst Luck

Mark Ellen
The Word #16


For the first time John Martyn "didn't do a runner from hospital". With good reason: he'd just had his leg amputated.

IN 1996, JOHN MARTYN'S PANCREAS exploded. The medical profession had warned him -and to be fair, he had adopted a more balanced diet; "a balance," he reflects, "of pickled eggs, whisky and beer"- but it was the point in the life of the now 55-year old songwriter when he had to concede that his grievances were self-inflicted and not merely an endless catalogue of catastrophic bad luck.

Months later he injured his head on a rock, swimming underwater with his eyes closed. Soon after he broke a toe while stumbling onstage and performed for an agonising 90 minutes, praying he wouldn't get an encore. Recovering from a dislocated shoulder, he then broke his neck while driving drunk with no lights1 down a country lane at midnight when a heifer flew through his windscreen. And it's worth remembering that his private life wasn't all beer and skittles either. He's conservatively reckoned to have fathered "around a dozen" children, two by his first wife and the senior partner of Island-signed duo John and Beverley Martyn, a woman clearly still bitter about the way she was eased out of both the personal and professional relationship. His second wife Annie Furlong died in a car accident2. And at the tail-end of the last century, after years spent unsuccessfully trying to sue various managers Martyn believed had siphoned off his earnings, his house in Scotland was repossessed and he and his third wife decamped to a cottage in Kilkenny on the West coast of Ireland.3

He was driving drunk with no lights on
down a country lane1 and a heifer flew
through the windscreen

But all of this seems like glorious good fortune compared with what was waiting round the bend. Chronically afraid of doctors -or authority of any kind likely to bear bad news- the old curmudgeon had stubbornly ignored the shooting pains in his right knee, but when he could no longer walk, only shuffle, he caved in and sought advice only to have the problem misdiagnosed as deep-vein thrombosis. By the time he'd got a second opinion there was no going back: not unlike the gangrene that plagued the trench-war wounded, a build-up of synovial fluid behind his knee-cap was now pumping poison around his body and amputation was the only option. It took three separate operations to finally remove the danger. It's with no little irony that you discover these were first occasions he "didn't do a runner from hospital".

This chronicle of woe is mapped out in a sterling new documentary by the Later team stalwart Serena Cross. It's mostly recorded by her alone in the Martyns' remote cottage, lobbing questions from behind a hand-held camera. We follow the gruff old stager every step of the way -composing, cooking curries, refusing to wear his neck brace, savouring his last few minutes on two legs. He now cuts a rather statuesque figure and spends much of the time lounging professionally in a well-worn armchair, flooring bottles of ale while putting the world to rights. His first attempt to wear a prosthetic limb is a classic: first he puts a pot plant in it, then he straps it on while wearing a two-foot carnival hat hung with giant polystyrene flowers. "You can hear my helpless whinnying in the background," Cross admits. "A lot of the time I had my arm in my mouth trying not to laugh."

Somewhere in the middle of this is the parallel story of his writing, recording and, eventually, performing a new album. You learn enormous amounts about his life and art in the process but, strangely, understand none of it any better. Ralph McTell believes there is "some deep dark hurt in John somewhere", though Martyn himself claimed -'til recently- that he had "no scars, well none visible anyway". "There's two approaches," Cross believes. "One is you think he's a madman but actually he's a lovely little teddy bear. The other is that he looks like a sweetheart but underneath he's a dark devil. And neither is really true. Most people have a life-changing epiphany and you can assess their story around that, but he is not a reformed character and he doesn't want to be. Growing old gracefully is his idea of hell. He's just an uncontrollable human being. And he keeps ... not dying."


John Martyn: Johnny Too Bad is on BBC4 on May 28.

John Martyn around the time of Bless The Weather in 1971; and (above) gearing up for his maiden voyage on an artificial leg in the riveting BBC documentary.

1 That's two serious mistakes in one sentence. John's long-time personal friend Jim McKnight sets the record straight: he (so not John) was driving on that fateful night, and he was not drunk. It was a pitch-black night and "a cow ran right into us, seemingly frantically looking for its lost calf." [So it wasn't a heifer either, ed.] The car also caught fire in the accident and luckily Jim succeeded in pulling John out of the van in time.
2 Wrong again. Annie Furlong was born 27 December 1954 and died in 1996, her cause of death being cerebral malaria. 'Although there are erroneous rumours that her cause of death was a car accident.' After separating from John Martyn, she moved to Kenya with her new partner and she was also buried in Kenya.
3 Two times wrong again. John never married Theresa. And Kilkenny is not on the West coast of Ireland - unless you don't know what West means.