30 Jan 2009
John Martyn: guitar pioneer
For many music fans, one lingering image of John Martyn, the British singer-songwriter who has died at the age of 60, remains preserved in the amber of the communal memory bank: 36 years ago, the pioneering acoustic artist appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Test playing the song for which he will probably be remembered best, May You Never.
Overnight, he became a star of sorts, prompting thousands of aspiring guitarists to experiment with delay pedals and unbuttoned waistcoats. In 2006, by the time I saw him roll up (literally; he was in a wheelchair) at the Barbican, he was unrecognisable from the lithe troubadour of 1973. Unable to walk since the loss of his lower right leg, he padded his head with a towel and joked that a measure of sadism had accounted for the healthy turnout.
Watching him — drenched in sweat, seemingly in pain — you wondered if, rather, it was masochism that kept him on the road. The more likely reason was financial necessity.
His failing health in recent years was, he said, kept in check by alcohol. "Four bottles of Scotch every night does the trick," he told Mojo. That was three years ago, 18 years after he was told by his doctor to give up drinking or die. On BBC Four's excellent Martyn documentary Johnny Too Bad, his regrets extended not so much to his lifestyle but to the people who had suffered as a result of it. One of them was his former wife Beverley Martyn, who claimed he hijacked her solo career by appearing on her debut album. The results, The Road to Ruin and then Stormbringer!, may have undermined his wife's confidence - but, on their own merits, both remain among the defining albums of their era.
Martyn's pioneering of the echoplex "loop and layer" effect -a technique since used by scores of artists, including U2- was well suited to the sensibilities of the dub reggae pioneers he befriended during his time in Jamaica in the 1970s. "There were massive amounts of ganja being consumed by everyone. Lots of love and peace," recalled Martyn, adding that he couldn't remember if he stayed there for seven weeks or seven months.
The 1980s didn't seem to know what to do with John Martyn, and you suspected that the feeling was mutual. Produced by Phil Collins, Grace & Danger was Martyn's last essential release — an eloquent memorial to a marriage from which Beverley Martyn never quite seemed to recover.
Since then, working out how best to utilise Martyn's talent in the studio seemed to elude most of those who took it upon themselves to try. Performing live, however, the guitar that was once a prop, an implement with which to dazzle, took on a new significance. Here, he would simply cradle his instrument like a baby, and make it do things that no other performer could do. Staring felt like an intrusion.
Indeed, it helped not to look at all. If you closed your eyes, the sinuous hook and pull of Martyn's fretboard manner, his bedside burr, conspired to make the years fall away. Best remember him that way.