Remembering Musician John Martyn

Iain MacDonald
BBC Scotland

Here, BBC Scotland reporter Iain MacDonald recalls his and other stories about singer-songwriter John Martyn who died last week at the age of 60.
The folk, blues and funk artist was widely regarded as one of the most soulful and innovative singer-songwriters of his generation. Iain interviewed the musician for a BBC radio programme.
But the journalist was also among those who "cottoned on to" the Martyn phenomenon back in the 1960s.

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Martyn said he lost his leg after crashing into a cow

"May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold/may you never go to sleep out in the cold."
We know what's to be known about John Martyn.
He was christened Ian McGeachy. He was born in Surrey, but grew up in Glasgow. He moved to London - and the Les Cousins folk club. And he became a star. At least to some people.
He lost a leg because he drank and took drugs. Then he died last week, at the early age of sixty.

But that doesn't begin to express what he meant to those who cottoned on to the Martyn phenomenon back in the 1960s and stayed with it, like me: and those who, even in recent years, have picked up on just what it was he did, like my sons.
So what was it he did?

Well, make a noise that nobody else has ever really approached. Mostly because he could hear stuff in his head that nobody else could. Try "Dusty" on his album "The Tumbler", released in 1968, with jazzer Harold McNair on multi-tracked flutes, providing a breathy other worldly vibe that somehow evokes that hot dirty summer before the dog days of the hippy dream.

That jazzy feel that came to characterise much of the Martyn thing starts here - on an album that was taped in one afternoon for just two hundred quid, and was recorded in mono, when it should have been in stereo.
According to producer Al Stewart, Island Records just stamped "stereo" on the label and stuck it out anyway. Nobody noticed.

What they did notice was the music. Because it was different. Because John Martyn was a phenomenal guitarist producing liquid, glistening runs, often through a fog of mumbling bass and swirling keyboards. Because he had a voice that went from an anguished yowl to a black and bluesy slurred mutter. Because he was an astonishing song writer. Because the whole was often greater even than the parts.

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Phill Collins described Martyn as 'uncompromising'.

In a very Martynesque way, John Martyn once decribed how he got "the heave" with all that "terribly nice rolling-up-a-joint-and-sitting-on-toadstools-watching-the-sunlight-dapple-its-way-through-the-dingly-dell-of-life's-rich-pattern stuff".
So, John Martyn decided he wasn't a Donovan or a Cat Stevens, and went his own way. And it sure wasn't a straight way.

Phil Collins, who played drums with him and produced albums for him, used words like "uncompromising" and "infuriating" to describe his "great friend". He was all of that and more. Musically, he knew exactly what he wanted and generally he got it.

There are other people who can better tell you what it was he did technically and why it was, so often, simply unique. But, as a listener, I still remember listening to the "Solid Air" album with a cheerfully chatting roomful of late-night bon viveurs, in 1973.
These were still the days of vinyl and the first side finished with the astonishing "I'd Rather Be The Devil", a dark mass of rumbling Echoplexed guitar, bass and keyboards, making a witch's brew out of a Skip James blues song. The room fell silent and stayed silent. The record stopped going round. Nobody spoke for about 20 minutes. Then, one by one, individual members of the assembly got up, pulled their coats on and left. He had that effect.
I suspect John Martyn would have liked that story.

"You can't mess with Father Time can you? He's going to catch you whether you run fast or slow"
John Martyn

What he said about his own output was: "Every record I've made -bad, good, or indifferent- is totally autobiographical. I can look back when I hear a record and recall exactly what was going on. That's how I write. That's the only way I can write. Some people keep diaries, I make records."
Around that time, John hooked up with bass player Danny Thompson, who became famous as a member of Pentangle with Scotland's own Bert Jansch, among others. Together, they were musical dynamite.

They were equally explosive where drink -and drugs- were concerned. He toured with Thompson and the Free guitarist Paul Kossoff -eventually to die young because of his heroin addiction- who once broke a bottle over his head. The Melody Maker journalist Allan Jones described seeing Martyn backstage "looking like he'd been drinking since the dawn of time".

Somewhere on that tour, there's the story of Thompson and Martyn heading into the bar at a college gig to sort out somebody they thought had beaten Kossoff up. They discovered he'd been lying to them about who started it, and after a serious shouting session in the dressing room, onlookers were astonished to witness the door open and the star guitarist's earthly remains, battered, bruised and very, very out of it, hurled into the corridor to lie there, semi conscious. Before the gig. That's how it was on the road with John Martyn.

During that period John mysteriously became a Cockney, just like his mate Danny.
An old acquaintance remembers him, in company with Danny and Hamish Imlach in Motherwell, "doing the full on Cockney thing" in a local pub, then going up to the bar and ordering in a broad Glasgow accent….totally oblivious to the fact that several very hard, broken-nosed individuals were glowering at the bar, "because they thought he was taking the p***".

Found fighting
As Danny Thomson himself pointed out subsequently, they once flew from Heathrow to Glasgow together. When they left, John was a Cockney. By the time they landed he was talking broad Scots. He was, says Thompson, now a non-drinking Muslim: "a bit of a loon".

On one occasion, the two got very drunk together and Martyn passed out. When he awoke, Thompson had nailed him under a carpet so he couldn't move his hands or feet. Martyn's revenge was, on the following night to move Thompson's clock forward five hours, so that he got up, still drunk, at two o'clock in the morning to catch a flight to the next gig.

On another occasion, they were found fighting in a Highland loch in their underpants. Apparently they'd been fishing. In the middle of the night. In winter.

John Martyn beat up Sid Vicious. He dislocated Bert Jansch's finger on an Australian tour. He still made the sublime "One World" album.

He mixed with criminals, even employed them. "Grace And Danger" was the album he made when he broke up with singer Beverley Kutner, who married him and put up with him, and made an album called "Stormbringer" with him. It was, he said: "very cathartic, and really hurt. I was really in love with that woman."

Sober up or die
Phil Collins, who'd also lost a marriage, played on it. Martyn lived his life in public and -literally- on the record. In the ensuing years, he recalled, he quite often fell offstage while deep in his cups. Generally, people pushed him back up there and he carried on. Eventually, he moved back to Scotland -to Lanarkshire- and doctors told him to sober up or die.

I remember meeting John Martyn around that time at the short-lived original Skye Music Festival, when he had people like Foss Paterson on keyboards and bass player Alan Thomson in his band. In one corner of the Broadford Hotel, a member of a world famous folk band was wandering around telling startled spinsters, who hadn't known there was an international festival on: "I'm a Boy of the Lough".

In another, a young keyboard player called Phil Cunningham was playing bits of what was to become his ground-breaking Highlands and Islands Suite. And still the man who dominated the place was John Martyn.

I recorded a radio interview with him as he burbled enthusiastically about his work, the world, Scotland and anything else that came to mind. The interview was broadcast on a programme I used to present on the BBC's Radio Highland. It appeared in the late lamented music fanzine "To Beat The Drum". And it projected the kind of enthusiasm for his music and the future that John Martyn was apparently still giving out right up to the end of his life last week.

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A former manager said Martyn could have been as big as Jimmy Page

Foss Paterson talked about being part of the John Martyn washing machine of life, which was always set on spin cycle.
His former manager Sandy Roberton reckons if he'd ever been together, he'd have been as big as Sting or Jimmy Page. Fairport Convention's Dave Pegg remembers being really scared just to be in his company. But all of them recall a uniquely talented musician whose troubled life contributed to his music and his songs.

But this was also a man who wrote great love songs. "Solid Air" was about Nick Drake. His best known song was "May You Never", and that was about a bloke too, apparently, though John ascribed it to various different people through the years. But they were still love songs.

He could still perform "Hurt In Your Heart" from the "Grace And Danger" album for Phil Cunningham and BBC Scotland and, 30 years on, reduce himself to helpless tears as he sang.
He told Phil on that programme: "It's important when you're in some ghastly emotional state to be truthful about it, because if you're not… you'll hurt yourself."

Danny Thomson summed it up - "someone who can write 'you curl around me like a fern in the spring' - that's the man that is going to be missed, not the guy who is chucking beer all over you and poking you in the chest."

He went from skinny fresh faced boy in the Sixties, to a 24-stone one legged bear in the 21st Century. But, in the end, beneath the professional and the personal lies he told -his leg was amputated after a cyst burst, but he told people he'd crashed into a cow, because it was a better story1- and the hell raising and bad behaviour, it's the memory of a brutally honest musical legend that'll survive. And the music. Always the music.

He said it himself. "You can't mess with Father Time can you? He's going to catch you whether you run fast or slow."

John Martyn always ran fast: even on one leg.

1 muffnote:
This is not quite correct as the cow story was always connected to the broken neck.

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