The Tears of a Clown

Now if there's a smile upon my face…

“I don’t want to know about evil, I only want to know about love…”

The heading today is a quote from the official website of a great hero of mine, singer, songwriter and guitarist John Martyn who passed away on Thursday this past week. It tells of the essence of a man who wrote many songs about the the vagaries of love. Indeed, similar were the words I first heard about him, a fellow student at college back in the late seventies exhorting me to ‘come along to see this guy’ who was playing at Nottingham University, whose songs were invariably written around love.

I did go along, and I was stunned at his musicianship. I’d had the opportunity to borrow an album or two beforehand and was interested in John’s unique style of music already but this live performance was quite something apart. My friend and I had caught a bus from the city out to the University and polished off a drink in the student union bar before rushing to the stairs leading to the concert room. At the foot of the stairs stood two men, one with a mass of curly hair, an unruly beard and an earring. In his hands were a guitar with several effects pedals hanging from it. It was John Martyn and his roadie. We had a few quick words with him, wishing him a good gig whilst walking up the stairs, and he took the stage with a crate of beer placed beside him as we took our places sitting cross-legged on the floor. What transpired was a stunning and original display of innovative guitar virtuosity couple with John’s blues influenced trademark slurred vocals.

From that time around thirty years ago I’ve always felt a special affinity for John Martyn’s music. Not only for it’s excellence but also as a link back those happy and carefree times at college in Nottingham and the great friends that surrounded me in those days. This is perhaps the reason why I was so taken aback to hear the sad news of John’s passing this week. It feels very much like a part of my past has disappeared too.

John had an interesting upbringing. Having been born in Surrey , England, christened Iain David McGeachy to parents who were both opera singers, he spent much of his growing up years in Glasgow and attended school there. It’s said that he very much considered Glasgow to be home. Throughout his career of over forty years John was known for his excesses with drink and drugs. It was perhaps, partly his lifestyle that hastened the end of the marriage to his wife Beverley Kutner, who he had collaborated with musically on several occasions. The resultant next album, Grace and Danger, was an extremely wrought and emotional offering which detailed his feelings of dejection at the time and of how out-of-control his life had become. From John’s large back catalogue it is arguably his Solid Air album of 1973 that has been most widely lauded however. The record was a tribute to his friend, singer-songwriter Nick Drake who sadly died of an overdose of anti-depressants the following year.

 

John Martyn’s music has always been a curiosity – it’s almost impossible to attribute to any particular genre, so unique is it. It encompasses blues, folk, jazz and much more. He used special effects arguably better than any other artist has with his trademark sound typically being produced with an acoustic guitar run through fuzzbox, a phase shifter and Echoplex. Last year in February,  John received a lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk awards. A present Eric Clapton was urged to say in tribute that John Martyn was “so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable”. Who would argue with one of the great masters of the guitar?

On Thursday 29th of January, John Martyn passed away in Ireland. The world lost a wonderful talent – a man with a great gift.

Lot of love, John.

“May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold.”

January 31, 2009 - Posted by | I CAN HEAR MUSIC | ,

8 Comments »

  1. Nice piece. I remember that Nottingham show well. I went to set up an interview with him beforehand and his first question was ‘Got any dope?’ After we were done, he asked me ‘how far’s the Trip To Jerusalem?’ Not having been in Nottingham long, I was a bit bemused, so replied ‘long way, man’…

    Comment by David B | February 3, 2009

  2. Very moving tribute Stu and so very true. Glad I put you on to the big man all those years ago.

    Best, Jeff

    Comment by Jeff | February 3, 2009

  3. I got into John Martyn rather late in the day – I’ve just been slowly working my way through his music over the last three or four years, but I was lucky enough to catch him live at the Cambridge Corn Exchange a couple of years ago.

    Although I knew the name for many years it always seemed to be associated with that decidedly dodgy genre ‘folk rock’ which I think put me off for a long time. When you actually listen to him there’s not really much folk there, mostly blues. It seems if you play solo with an acoustic guitar people have an imagination failure and just call it folk. Really he was in a genre of his own, or like most great music in all genres at once.

    Sad to see him go at such an age. I think he enjoyed himself a lot while he was here though.

    Comment by Fraser | February 5, 2009

  4. David

    Nice story! I hope the big fellah made it to The Trip at least at some point. I’d be amazed if he didn’t!

    Jeff

    Thanks mate. I have a lot to thank you for my friend. Whenever I play his music I think back to that night at Nottingham Uni.

    Fraser

    I remember you mentioning that gig on Mass Hibsteria. Better late than never and now of course there is a wonderful legacy of his music left with us.

    I totally agree about the ‘folk-rock’ tag thing. It’s certainly a misnomer with regards to John Martyn. I’d say he would have credited the likes of Robert Johnson as an influence more than anything. I’d probably say there were more jazz influences too than straight-ahead folk. You’re right – he was out there on his own. No particular genre ‘fits’.

    Comment by Stuart | February 6, 2009

  5. I know this is an old post, but I just came upon John’s music when I heard Dr. John’s take on “I Don’t Want to Know (about evil) about 9 months ago. Holy cow – it shook me to my core.
    I’d never heard of Mr. Martyn, and I am sorry I missed listening to him as you did, in your youth. Have already viewed him on youtube.
    Another good man gone.

    Comment by christine95037 | September 3, 2011

  6. Thanks for the lovely comments Christine. Dr. John – such another fine artist too. Enjoy John Martyn’s music, it’s well worth catching up with.

    Comment by Stuart | September 4, 2011

  7. Stuart – Just working my way through your very interesting and entertaining site. I learned very early on never to rush when going to see John play. No matter how late you were he was always later. Don’t mind admitting to crying when I listen to some of his classics.

    Comment by George Richardson | July 30, 2014

  8. Thanks George for your positive comments, they’re really appreciated. I like the idea of John taking his time to get up and play! Yes, they’re pretty emotional some of those songs and they so easily evoke an era in the listener. There will never be another John Martyn – totally unique.

    Stu

    Comment by Stuart | July 30, 2014


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