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.”