John Martyn's Final Musical Testament
Posthumous album from a volatile man who was one of Britain's most innovative musicians.
Singer and guitarist John Martyn was a larger-than-life character. A gruff, tempestuous drinker and drug-taker who could sing with the most subtle and soft inflections. He died at the age of 60 in 2009 but his last will and musical testament, a CD called Heaven And Earth, is released next week. The trappings of fame and celebrity held little interest for him and although he remains somewhat unrecognised by the general public he recorded some of the most innovative and talented British albums of the past 50 years. Solid Air (1973), One World (1977) and Grace and Danger (1980) are timeless classics.
I met John Martyn three times. The first, as a student, was not too long after Grace and Danger with its eviscerating lyrics about a break-up - following his divorce to singer Beverley. He was surprisingly candid and even chirpy about his love life. He talked without much animation about 'pop' bands of the early eighties and only began to enthuse when talking about his love of blues singers such as Skip James. When we talked about jazz musicians, such as Billie Holiday and the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, who had been a friend of my father's, his eyes lit up. He actually whistled with enthusiasm. He was never a straightforward folk musician.
The next time I saw him was before a concert at London's Shaw Theatre, when he was playing with jazz bassist Danny Thompson. Late to meet a friend, I dashed into the pub next to the venue and apologised for being late for the show. "Don't worry," said my friend, pointing to the bar. "I don't think they'll start without him." There, grinning and laughing as he ordered another pint, was Martyn. The concert, incidentally, was superb.
The final Martyn meeting was to discuss a piece I was commissioning for a magazine about Scotland. He wrote movingly in the article about being raised by his grandmother in Glasgow, following his parents' divorce, and his early career as a musician.
Throughout his career, he was clearly a troubled and volatile man but he harnessed his emotions into intense and passionate and often beautifully tender music. In 2003 he had his right leg amputated below the knee because of a burst cyst and lived quietly in Ireland for a time having given up touring and performing. He made an emotional comeback in 2008 and recorded, before his death, the final album Heaven and Earth. The album has vocal contributions from Phil Collins, who sings on a Martyn cover of Collins’ own Can’t Turn Back The Years. Martyn and Collins had helped each other through the collapse of respective marriages and the pair remained long-time friends.
Producer Jim Tullio said: "After John passed, I spoke with Phil and he really wanted to sing on the track… [Phil] said he had always wanted John to record one of his songs. You can hear the emotion in their voices." Tullio, who pieced the record together using scraps of instrumental and vocal takes, added: "John was a genius… He made music more naturally than anyone I’ve ever met, as effortlessly as the way you and I speak."
Martyn died in January 2009 from pneumonia and although his voice shows inevitable sign of wear and tear on his final record, the trademark Martyn grace is evident on the title song Heaven and Earth. The finest moment is probably provided by Can’t Turn Back The Years. The songs were kept, as Martyn wished, in their entirety, and although Stand Amazed and Heel Of The Hunt drag a little, Could've Told You Before I Met You is a lovely reminder of Martyn's enduring appeal.
For Martyn fans, the CD will be a welcome addition to his catalogue. Next month will also see a cover version tribute album, with songs by artists as diverse as Snow Patrol, KT Tunstall, Beth Orton and Paolo Nutini.
Hopefully both albums will reignite interest in John Martyn's fine body of work.