Folk’s flawed great

This painstak­ing story of John Martyn’s life doesn’t shy away from the shock­ing be­hav­iour that of­ten over­shad­owed his trail­blaz­ing mu­sic, writes Kitty Em­pire

The Observer - The New Review - - Books -

Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn Graeme Thom­son Om­nibus, £20, pp256

By the time the mer­cu­rial, volatile singer-song­writer John Martyn heard that he had been awarded an OBE for his con­tri­bu­tion to Bri­tish mu­sic, he was in a wheelchair, hav­ing lost a leg to sep­ti­caemia com­pounded by a life­time of sub­stance abuse. He died weeks later, be­fore he could ac­cept the hon­our.

Mu­si­cians of­ten em­body a gar­ble of con­tra­dic­tions, but the English-born “Scots Bel­gian Jew” known to his fam­ily as Iain McGeachy was a more trou­bled – and trou­bling – fig­ure than many from the late-60s. A trail­blaz­ing gui­tarist, he be­gan his artis­tic life in the cru­cible of the folk re­vival that also pro­duced Fair­port Con­ven­tion and Nick Drake. Solid Air, one of Martyn’s most mag­nif­i­cent out­ings, was writ­ten about Drake.

But Martyn took many of his ex­tem­po­ris­ing cues from jazz and he went on to em­brace nascent elec­tron­ics, most par­tic­u­larly the early, spa­cious ef­fect known as echoplex. U2 gui­tarist the Edge may not for­mally con­cur, but Martyn fans know the Ir­ish­man’s sig­na­ture gui­tar sound was cribbed from Martyn. John Ly­don and Bob Mar­ley were ad­mir­ers, as were Por­tishead.

By the end, Martyn had been im­paled on a fence post and run into a cow with his car; ar­tis­ti­cally, he was yes­ter­day’s man, hav­ing spent the 80s mak­ing slicker, more suf­fo­cat­ingly pro­duced com­mer­cial rock mu­sic, of­ten with Phil Collins. There were pe­ri­ods when this lead­ing light of the mav­er­ick fringe went dark, pre­sum­ably to avoid the dis­rep­utable char­ac­ters with whom he sur­rounded him­self.

To his credit, jour­nal­ist and bi­og­ra­pher Graeme Thom­son, au­thor of pre­vi­ous well-re­garded works on Kate Bush, Ge­orge Har­ri­son and Phil Lynott, dives straight into the aw­ful­ness of the man in the pref­ace. “He black­ened the eyes and broke the spirit of women he pro­fessed to love, aban­doned at least one of his chil­dren and ne­glected oth­ers.”

Martyn’s par­ents sep­a­rated when he was young, with his mother re­mar­ry­ing; the young Martyn felt the en­forced dis­tance from his mother, Betty, keenly. “He mis­trusted women, which turned him into a misog­y­nist,” states the folk singer Bev­er­ley Martyn, who suf­fered his vi­o­lent al­co­holic rages. Her own ca­reer did not sur­vive their two-disc part­ner­ship. When the mar­riage broke up, Martyn left her, their two bi­o­log­i­cal chil­dren and Bev­er­ley’s el­dest child pen­ni­less; they lived off ben­e­fits while Martyn fu­elled a coke habit. He started another fam­ily, for­sook them too.

Some­how, this man had the gall to sing about love. Per­haps his best­known early song, May You Never, is an open-hearted bless­ing: “may you never lay your head down with­out a hand to hold”.

The re­main­der of the song’s lyrics touch on telling con­cerns, though. “May you never lose your tem­per if you get in a bar room fight,” Martyn husks. He saw many him­self. Ac­cord­ing to his long-time mu­si­cal wing­man and carous­ing pal, the cel­e­brated bassist Danny Thomp­son, Martyn once butted two men of a party of 12 af­ter one racially abused a waiter in an In­dian restau­rant; the rest backed down. Tellingly, the well-wish­ing of May You Never reads, for the bulk of the song, like a dose of toxic mas­culin­ity garbed in lamb­swool; the verses dou­ble as a litany of para­noid fears of be­ing bad­mouthed or back­stabbed.

And yet Martyn, the dif­fi­cult mu­si­cal vi­sion­ary, thor­oughly de­serves this painstak­ing, elo­quent bi­og­ra­phy. It is not the first, but bal­ances the fan’s as­sid­u­ous­ness with a critic’s siev­ing ac­tion. Thom­son does the leg­work: the lead­ing lights of the folk-rock scene, Martyn’s teenage girl­friend, Chris Blackwell, founder of Is­land Records, a loyal bene­fac­tor, Martyn’s chil­dren, umpteen band mem­bers, ses­sion mu­si­cians, pro­duc­ers and former man­agers are in­ter­viewed. One anony­mous friend of Martyn’s is still too scared to go on the record about the mu­si­cian’s un­der­world con­nec­tions.

It would no doubt in­cense the scathing, un­club­bable Martyn to learn how many of his peers-cum-ri­vals (Richard Thomp­son, for one) come to pass judg­ment on his abil­i­ties and frail­ties. What emerges is a pic­ture of a one-man band mu­si­cian whose vir­tu­oso play­ing and jig­saw of ef­fects units could, leg­end has it, up­stage su­per­stars; a charm­ing boor with quick­sil­ver in his fin­gers.

To or­der Small Hours for £17.40 go to guardian­book­shop.com or call 0203176 3837

‘Caus­tic mu­si­cian’s mu­si­cian’: John Martyn in 1971.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.