01 Jun 2010
Revised and updated edition produced after John's passing.
Foreword by Ian Rankin.
Paperback, 264 pages. Original selling price £ 8.99.
"This book is dedicated to Edinburgh 1977, Colin Ritchie, Michael Kay and Bruce Paton."
Back cover text
'Congratulations... a true story' - Danny Thompson
'Impressively even-handed biography' - Time Out
Gangsters, guns, knives, bar room brawls, tempestuous relationships and industrial amounts of drugs. An exploding pancreas, a car crash with a cow, and a leg amputation. Enough booze to float a navy and some of the most sublime, innovative music of the last forty years.
An industry maverick throughout his career, in February 2008, John Martyn won the Radio 2 Folk Awards Lifetime Achievement Award and was described by Eric Clapton as 'so far ahead of everything, it's almost inconceivable'.
Sadly, John Martyn died on 29 January 2009. His friend Phil Collins paid tribute to him: 'He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we'll never see the likes of him again.'
Front and title page recommendations
'Slow-motion car crashes played out against real artistic achievement' - Q
'A myth-buster and debate starter' - Mojo
'Diligently researched... accurately portrays John Martyn as a recalcitrant, shape-shifting and flamboyant talent' - Mojo
'This well researched biography shows slow motion car crashes played out against real artistic achievement' - Q
An incredible amount of independent and interesting research... John Neil Munro has done an excellent job at portraying John Martyn's character' - Spencer Cozens
'Danny Thompson gives a good anecdote, and illuminating interviews with former bandmates flesh out the account of the sessions for Martyn's best-loved album Solid Air, its title track a lament for his improbable best friend Nick Drake' - Time Out
'Munro has done his homework, and done it well' - Stornoway Gazette
'Very readable and very thorough... meticulous research... hilarious and sometimes hair-raising anecdotes' - Northern Echo
'Perhaps the definitive biography of the musical maverick that is John Martyn' - Dorset Echo
'Munro does a service to music history as he explicates and makes arguments for some of Martyn's oft-neglected later endeavours... There is no doubt that Martyn is as woefully misunderstood as he is loved. By continuously retraining his focus upon Martyn's music, Munro is able to bring a much-needed level of critical depth to the forefront of his book' - www.music-box.online.com
A few years back I was invited to be the guest on BBC Radio Four's Desert Island Discs. I had to choose the eight records I couldn't live without. There were tracks by the Rolling Stones, Van Morrison and others. But at the end of the show, presenter Sue Lawley then asked, 'And if you could only have one of these records, Ian...?' Well, there was only one contender: 'Solid Air' by John Martyn.
The strange thing is, I'd travelled down to London that day for the recording, and had managed to find time for lunch with my literary agent. The sun was shining and we could hear gruff laughter from one of the pavement tables. When we left, I saw John Martyn seated there with a couple of friends - and I bottled it, lacking the courage to go up to him and say 'Guess why I'm here?'
I'd seen Martyn play live just once, around 1977 or '78 at the old Odeon in Edinburgh. A school pal called John Scott had loaned me Solid Air a couple of years before, and I'd become a fan. When I worked as a hi-fi reviewer in London, I would use the title track as my 'reference work', comparing turntables, amps and speakers by playing it. By then I'd bought a slew of other John Martyn albums. I loved everything about him - the voice that somehow blended gravel with butterscotch; the majestic guitar-playing; the tunes; the lyrics. From interviews, I knew he could be 'difficult' and that his health was suffering. Fans told stories and offered anecdotes. It was sometimes impossible to separate the legend from the truth. That's why it was such a pleasure to pick up John Neil Munro's Some People Are Crazy when it was first published in 2007. Munro is obviously a fan, but the book is no hagiography. The John Martyn who emerges is a complex figure with a huge appetite for life to go with his boundless musical talent. There's plenty of humour, too, to leaven the darker reminiscences.
And then I heard that John Martyn had died. I felt numb, but then was invited round to a friend's house for a night of celebration - our 'wake' for a man we'd admired. Three of us sat and listened to our favourite songs, adding memories of gigs, parties, record shops and girlfriends. John Martyn had soundtracked our lives for over thirty years. That music remains essential, but to get to know the man behind it -Johnny Too Bad- you really need this book. Tuck in.
Introduction to new edition
You can't mess with Father Time, can you? He's going to catch you, whether you run fast or slow. - John Martyn
Well, old Father Time finally caught up with John and he died on 29 January 2009. A bout of double pneumonia did for John but even after reading all the fulsome obituaries it still seemed unbelievable that he had really passed away this time. Throughout his life John was a magnet for misfortune and the list of ailments and calamities he survived was genuinely astounding: an exploding pancreas, a leg amputation, impalement on a fence post and a car crash with a cow were the most eye-catching, though during the research for this edition I discovered that he nearly died once from seizures and almost drowned after slamming his head into a rock while swimming underwater. Fist fights were a regular occurrence in John's adult life and he often claimed that he had been shot at and stabbed a few times. In his day John was also a heroin user, fiendish cocaine addict and habitual hash head.
And then there was the booze... John Martyn liked a drink in the same way as vampires are partial to sinking their teeth into the creamy white neck of a chaste young girl. John adored drinking and loved pubs, saying they were the only place that lost souls really felt they belonged. Over the years John must have drank colossal amounts of vodka, rum and cider. His friend, the great jazz saxophonist Andy Sheppard, still talks with incredulity of seeing Martyn down a full bottle of Bacardi in one swig as he prepared for a gig. Along with the drugs, the alcohol powered John to amazing artistic achievements in the 1970s but it also scarred him later in life. For over forty years, he played a dangerous game of chance with the demon alcohol. In January 2009 it hacked him down... no matter what it says on his death certificate.
The first time I saw John Martyn play live was in tiny smoke-filled club above the Edinburgh Playhouse in 1980. John was at the top of his game on that sultry summer's night, an effortlessly brilliant musician with an engaging stage manner that seemed to reinforce the musical vibe that he was a genuine, gentle peace-loving good guy who wouldn't even talk badly to, never mind harm, a fly. When I mentioned this to a friend who vaguely knew his first wife, the reply was quick and to the point... 'No he's not, he's a complete bastard!' This dichotomy between the mild music and the malevolent, wild artiste never left me and a few years back I decided to write a book to try and find out who the real John Martyn was.
I first spoke to John after visiting his hometown in Kilkenny in the summer of 2004. Unable to speak to him during that visit I left a note behind the bar in his local boozer explaining who I was and why I wanted to write his life story. A couple of weeks later my mobile phone rang... 'Hi, it's Johnny Martyn, where are you? ... Stornoway? What the fuck are you doing in Stornoway? I thought you were in Thomastown! I was going to take you for a drink!' Once the confusion was cleared up, he agreed to help me and this book is the end result. Along the way I talked to acquaintances who genuinely adored John. His closest friend, Danny Thompson, summed it up best by telling Q in September 1989:
I'd do anything for John Martyn: if he phoned me up and said 'I'm in the Pennines and my car's knackered', I'd be on my way. It was a blessing from heaven that we were able to rave together so much in the 1970s and live because we lost a lot of friends who raved only half as much. He's the biggest, softest teddy bear, a generous, warm, sensitive person and he spends a lot of the time covering it up.
By way of complete contrast, one former manager refused to speak to me and sounded genuinely fearful at the mention of John's name. Before he put the phone down he said:
You must not come to me for praiseworthy things on John Martyn. I've experienced his darker side much too often. I'm not interested in adding to the myth of the man. I don't enjoy talking about John Martyn. If you cannot say something good about somebody, don't say anything. I find it hard to say anything meritorious about John Martyn.
That was the way it was with John. Some people loved him and talked fondly of a warm, generous and loving individual. Others genuinely loathed him and recalled tales of his violent temper, dark moods and drunken debacles.
Music critics were equally divided over Martyn's abilities. In the early 1980s, when John was hopelessly out of fashion, NME still proclaimed that his music was the very definition of cool. As Nick Kent commented in the paper on 29 November 1980, John's music at its height possesses that rarest of essences: real soul. Twenty years later, in December 2000, Uncut magazine's David Stubbs argued that John had made 'some of the most palpable, almost physically emotional, music ever recorded'. Other critics were less charitable and likened his singing to that of a horribly wounded bear. In NME, 9 October 1982, Julie Burchill -at her most acidic- dismissed John as someone who 'cooked up aural monosodium glutamate in a melting-pot mind fit for jingles'.
The child of a broken marriage, Martyn was born lain David McGeachy1 and was brought up in a Glasgow home that echoed to the sound of music. His dazzling ability as a guitarist soon won him acclaim playing alongside his mentor Hamish Imlach. After moving to London he became a fixture on the Soho folk scene, before hitching a ride with the formative label Island Records and releasing a string of the most influential and best loved albums of the 1970s. From Bless The Weather to Grace And Danger, Martyn forged a distinct sound, fusing acoustic and electric music, jazz, blues and reggae in a breathtaking, groundbreaking concoction. In an industry riddled with clones and copycats, no one sounded quite like him. Motivated by the soaring ecstasy of finding love and the sharp pain of losing it he crafted scores of beautiful songs. His herbally inspired live shows became the stuff of legend and he could sell out concert venues around the globe. He remains an influence on every fresh generation of rock stars - acts as diverse as U2, The Verve, China Crisis, Paolo Nutini, The Boy Who Trapped The Sun, Portishead and Beth Orton (who called him 'The Guv'nor') all cite John as a major inspiration.
But the music was only half the story. While he produced feather-light, gorgeous love songs, his own private life fell apart in a spectacular way and his two marriages were ripped asunder. Martyn's life became blighted by drug dependency and chronic alcoholism. He took to hanging out with gangsters and earned a reputation as a heavy individual not to be messed with. Rumours of violence were commonplace. As one of his close colleagues said: 'It's hearsay, but it's a lot of hearsay.'
The bass guitarist Dave Pegg told me how he had moments working with John when he looked in his eyes and was genuinely scared. John revelled in this notoriety, deliberately cultivating a bad-boy image and became a hell-raiser to rival the likes of Keith Moon and Oliver Reed. His fellow Scots singer-songwriter Eddi Reader talks of nights on the town with John but admits that she needed the strength of Hercules just to keep up with him.
A renowned womaniser, Martyn claimed to have fathered twelve children in and out of wedlock (others say three children is a more realistic count). Eventually the frenzied lifestyle sapped his creativity and his records became less consistent; overproduced and riddled with drum machines. Back in the 1980s using those devices might have seemed brave and experimental - now they just sound terribly dated. His public profile steadily diminished and as his musical reputation faded he became better known for his personal frailties. While his celebrity admirers Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, Paul Weller and Dave Gilmour became global superstars, Martyn never even troubled the UK album chart top ten and eventually ended up bankrupt. But John had few regrets about the way things worked out - as he often said: he chose the route and the vehicle. When fame stared him in the face, John wilfully rejected it and opted instead for experimenting with all types of music, even hip hop.
Late on in life, Martyn lived in relative tranquillity with his long-term girlfriend in Ireland. But he remained a mess of contradictions. His music was a mirror-image of his personality - veering unsettlingly between the tender and the turbulent. The same man who could write a lyric as benign and beautiful as 'Curl around me like a fern in the spring' could also break the ribs of one of his managers during a vicious brawl. In a good mood he was the soul of any party and advocated the benefits of Buddhism and pacifism. John could also be an extremely generous man and an incurable romantic. On one of the occasions I met him, we drove through his teenage stomping ground in the South Side of Glasgow and passed one of the many Asian shops selling beautiful lengths of cloth for saris. John told the driver to stop and sent him into the shop to buy twenty pounds' worth of the material. Half an hour later he presented it to his slightly bemused Irish girlfriend in their hotel room. But on other occasions his temper flared and he became stubborn, arrogant, angry and resentful about the music industry he despised. Even he admitted that on those occasions he was a nasty person, best avoided.
He was aware of the paradox at the heart of his work, how a man who produced such loving gentle music could at the same time live such a self-destructive lifestyle. As he said in Q in May 1990:
All my songs have always been utter misery or lunatic belligerence. I actually think those two sides are a racial trait in the Scottish... I don't want to be able to control my moods. I probably am a little schizophrenic, exacerbated by all the raving over the years. I'm either John Wayne the bully or John the daddy and lover. But I have enough self-control and if I could control myself more, I think the music would be much less interesting. I'd probably be a great deal richer but I'd have had far less fun and I'd be making really dull music.
I hope this book will shine a little more light on where John Martyn came from and what factors motivated him along the way. The aim is to discover the roots and the consequences of both his musical brilliance and his chaotic lifestyle. During my research John spoke to me and also helped smooth the way so that others would also offer their views, but I cannot claim to have known John Martyn well. So wherever possible I've opted to rely on the oral testimonies of those that were present at the time rather than offer intrusive personal views. For example, I think most readers would prefer to learn Ralph McTell's opinions on the relative strengths of the main players on the London folk scene of the late 1960s rather than read any assessment of mine. I've also spoken to over forty people who either knew John well or helped create the sound of those classic albums. Some of those interviewed would only speak anonymously while other former associates reacted with a mix of fear and anger at the mention of Martyn's name. To paraphrase the words of one of his most famous songs, some people are crazy about him, but some people just could not stand to see his face.
Thanks to the following for taking time to answer my questions: John Martyn; Linda Dunning; Danny Thompson; Dr Kirk McGeachy; Spencer Cozens; Ralph McTell; Bridget St John; Andy Sheppard; Claire Hamill; Dave Pegg; Michael Chapman; Steve Tilston; Wizz Jones; Daisy Flowers; Dave Mattacks; Eddi Reader; Simon Climie; John Glover; Sandy Roberton; Martin Levan; Paul Wheeler; Robin Frederick; Tim Denley; Phill Brown; Brian Young; James MacPherson; Hans van den Berk; Steve 'Monk' Moncure; Susanne Mead; Robert Kirby; Alan Dunbar; AMN; Mo Barnes; Ann Sadler; Peter Wright; and Alec Milne; James McNair for access to unpublished interviews and John Mackinnon for help with photography. Thanks also for assistance to: Teresa Walsh; Calum Angus Macdonald; Scott McGowan; Stephen Manzor; Ann Macdonald; Gabrielle Drake; Cally at Bryter Music; Martin Kielty; Vivienne Nicoll; Eddie Mould, CMP Entertainment; Kate Pool, Society of Authors; Ken Goodwin of Shawlands Academy; Colin Braham; Dee Harrington; George MacCallum; David Clayton; Pippa Hall, Monkey Business PR; Christine Waters; Mandy Moncure; Roy Corkill; Aileen McCulloch, Carluke Gazette; Robert Meek, Hastings Observer, staff at Stornoway Library; the National Library of Scotland; the Music Library, Edinburgh; 'Swedish Peter'; Neville Moir, Alison Rae and Sarah Morrison at Polygon.
For this new edition, particular credit goes to Donnie Barclay, Davie MacFarlane, lain Hamilton, Michael and Mary Furlong.
All quotations are from interviews with the author, unless specified.
1 A couple of his close friends from school told me that back then he spelled his first name Ian. The registrar's scrawl on Martyn's birth certificate could read either way. But when I asked Martyn he replied 'I have two eyes and two i's.' So lain it is.