30 Jan 2009
Hellraising folk musician and creator of the seminal album Solid Air
Ain't No Saint was the title of the four-CD restrospective of John Martyn's career, released to mark his 60th birthday last September. The name could hardly have been more apt, since Martyn, who died yesterday, became renowned for a career that lurched between triumph and disaster, both personal and musical. Drugs, drunken brawls and marital breakdown littered his CV, but then so did several of the most enduring and idiosyncratic albums made by a British artist in the last 40 years.
Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey. His parents, Betty and Tommy, were professional light-operatic singers who worked the postwar variety circuit, singing Gilbert and Sullivan in period costume. They divorced when their son was five, and Tommy took the boy back to his native Scotland, where he proved academically gifted. However, he became fascinated by the music he heard in the Glasgow folk clubs, and felt galvanised towards a musical career by the likes of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and British guitarist Davey Graham.
By 1967 he had moved back to London, living like a hobo and carrying only whatever he could cram into his guitar case. He changed his name to John Martyn on the advice of a booking agent and was snapped up by Island Records. His debut album, London Conversation, recorded in a few hours, had a somewhat conventional approach that did not reflect the true Martyn, who was soon introducing elements of jazz and experimental electronics into his music. "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."
His 1970 album Stormbringer! found him collaborating with his new wife, Beverley Kutner, and taking an innovative approach using phase-shifting and Echoplex devices with which he could create a one-man wall of sound.
The Road to Ruin (1970) and Bless the Weather (1971) marked the start of Martyn's long musical relationship with jazz bassist Danny Thompson, and he was beginning to perfect a slurring, impressionistic vocal style that complemented the rich ambiguities of his music. He often cited the avant-garde saxophonist Pharoah Sanders as an inspiration. He hit a creative peak with 1973's Solid Air, which included May You Never - covered by Eric Clapton on Slowhand in 1977, earning Martyn the largest royalty cheque of his career.
Happy to play the poet-ruffian, Martyn threw himself into American tours with Free and Traffic, where groupies and drug abuse were integral. He gave full vent to his vagabond ways while touring his Sunday's Child album in 1975, accompanied by Thompson and former Free guitarist Paul Kossoff. The atmosphere grew fraught when Kossoff broke a bottle over his head, and a Melody Maker journalist, Allan Jones, described seeing Martyn backstage "looking like he'd been drinking since the dawn of time".1
Dabblings with heroin and an American tour with Clapton took Martyn to the brink. He split up with Beverley and made the infamously bleak break-up album Grace and Danger (1980) with help from Phil Collins. He married his second wife, Annie Furlong, in 1983 but they later separated.
Collins produced Martyn's next album, Glorious Fool (1981), but further plans were scuppered when a drunken Martyn broke several ribs by impaling himself on a fence. By now he had left Island for WEA, but their plans to expose him to a wider audience were doomed. By 1984 he was back with Island and recorded Sapphire and Piece by Piece, but Island dropped him again in 1988.
The Apprentice (1990) and Cooltide (1991) appeared on Permanent Records. In 1996 he released And, on Go! Discs, also home to Portishead. Perhaps influenced by the latter, he explored the use of samples and triphop beats, and a Talvin Singh remix of the album track Sunshine's Better won plenty of radio play. Glasgow Walker (2000) featured more triphop adventures, and Martyn modified his approach further by writing on keyboard rather than guitar. In 2001 he featured on DJ/musician Sister Bliss's electronica track, Deliver Me.
In 2006 the BBC screened the documentary Johnny Too Bad, which followed Martyn as he wrote and recorded the album On the Cobbles, and also covered the amputation of his right leg, made necessary by a burst cyst. He remained stoical, but his weight ballooned to 20 stone. He retreated to his farmhouse in Thomastown, Kilkenny, with his partner Theresa to recuperate.
Martyn was greatly touched to be given a lifetime achievement award at the Radio 2 folk awards last year. Collins made the presentation, and Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones accompanied him on mandolin as he performed May You Never and Over the Hill. Speaking at the award ceremony, Martyn said: "I didn't set out to achieve anything. I was driven. I'm still driven. It wasn't like a great mission to save folk music."
He was appointed OBE in the latest new year honours. He is survived by Theresa.
• John Martyn (Iain David McGeachy), musician, born 11 September 1948; died 29 January 2009
1 'Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One Before', Uncut 1 Jul 2004.
This story was reprinted 31 January by The Irish Times under the title 'Iconic Singer Who Courted Triumph And Disaster'.