John Martyn

John Neil Munro
The Glasgow Herald

SOME rock stars affect outrageousness but John Martyn was the real deal. Powered by more than 40 years of enjoying the excesses of a rock'n'roll lifestyle, John could be boisterous, difficult company. Consequently, his enemies -and he had a few- genuinely disliked him. Back in his heyday, he hung out with gangsters and had a reputation for resorting to violence: he once broke the ribs of a former manager during a brawl.

So meeting him for the first time in a downbeat bar at Shawlands Cross was a daunting experience. When he entered the Bay Horse pub: almost 24-stone, immaculately dressed, using a wheelchair and with one leg missing, even the local hardmen stopped to stare. It was a few hours before a sell-out gig at Glasgow's Carling Academy,1 yet John ordered a double vodka with a pint of cider. When I asked him if he wanted anything in the vodka he looked at me with a measure of disdain and said: "nah, that's what the cider is for, son!"

After a few refreshments he left and I remember thinking he will be lucky if he ever makes it on stage. But four hours later he was receiving a standing ovation from adoring fans. How he managed to perform so well while seemingly in a permanent altered state was a mystery even to his closest friends. John attributed it to eating a hearty breakfast and smoking lots of Woodbine cigarettes.

During that interview2 and on the few other occasions I met him, John was marvellous company: witty, intelligent, courteous and eager to help in my research. He later persuaded people like his closest friend and musical collaborator, Danny Thompson, and his former lover, the English singer-songwriter Claire Hamill to contribute to the book. Claire told me how John was a "sweet and tender lover" who always seemed to be in possession of "the biggest lump of dope I have ever seen in my life!"

Those who knew him much better than me told how John had mellowed over the years and that, as he grew older, he was reverting to the character of the boy who grew up as Iain David McGeachy on Tantallon Road in Shawlands, Glasgow. Near the end of his life, John settled in rural Kilkenny with his long-term partner, Teresa, and their pet dog, Gizmo.

Living in a trim, white-walled cottage near Thomastown, John seemed to find a new contentment in life and rediscovered his youthful love of ornithology and fresh-water fishing. He became more open, more approachable and at times even tender. His mood was probably helped by the amazing belated recognition that he received in later years in the form of a lifetime achievement credit from Mojo, the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards and -most improbably of all- the Queen. John's award of an OBE in the New Year's honours list was as surprising as it was deserved. It's just a crying shame that he'll never be able to receive the award because that photo of John with Her Majesty would have made wonderful viewing. The irony of all this is that, despite the critical acclaim and awards, John was never a commercial success and never even had a top 10 album in the UK.

As a teenager, John worshipped the English folk guitarist Davey Graham and John himself became an innovative player with a style and ability to rival his old hero. (By a strange twist of fate, Graham himself died just a few weeks ago). John was also a distinctive singer and gifted songwriter and throughout the 1970s he produced a string of stunning albums. From Bless The Weather to Grace & Danger, John wrote a succession of songs which influenced just about every singer-songwriter since, from his friend Nick Drake to Paolo Nutini.

His old friend from the London folk scene, Ralph McTell, summed it up best when he told me how John and Danny Thompson made "sublime music - full of madness, mayhem and unpredictably. I don't know of any of the wild men of rock and roll who could compare to them and the things they got up to. John made three of the most masterful albums of his generation. Solid Air, One World and Grace & Danger are peerless works."

In truth, no-one ever sounded quite like John Martyn and -despite spawning a host of imitators- no-one ever will.

1 This concert took place 17 Nov 2004.
2 A transcription of this interview is included on this website, titled Background Interview.