published: 19 /
In the latest instalment in his 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll' column, Ben Howarth looks back on the career and music of the late John Martyn
2009 has not been a good year for the life expectancy of the fairly famous, especially those whose presence during my childhood made them seem almost immortal. Tony Hart, whose love of drawing made his programmes the stand-out parts of the Children’s BBC of the early 1990s and Bill Frindall, whose voice added statistical reason and historical perspective to the almost out-of-control Test Match Special commentary box were the two I mourned most.
But others among you may feel that you grew up with John Updike, Sir John Mortimer or BBC Sport’s David Vine. Indeed, on the day that I am due to submit this month’s 'Condemned to Rock 'n' Roll', Eastender Wendy Richard has added her name to that list. (And I’m also ignoring the fact that Britain’s dominant piece of celebrity news is the imminent death of a reality TV star).
So, yes, its been a morbid start to 2009. But surely the death of John Martyn must have been a mistake. Granted, he wasn’t in the best of health - he lost a leg in 2003 and was by the time of his death morbidly obese. But his contempt for his health had been so consistently fearless, that one assumed that - having made it through middle age - he was going to be around as a pensioner for some time to come. He’s survived being shot, you reasoned, so he could surely also survive getting really fat.
It just seems to have come at the wrong time. Martyn has slowly benefited from the increased attention in the English folk of the early seventies to restore his reputation, but I still feel the timeless brilliance of albums like ‘Solid Air’, ‘One World’ and ‘Grace and Danger’ could reach a far larger part of a younger audience who worship vastly inferior younger folkies.
I should probably admit that I’m not a wholly devoted fan. I have written a lengthy tribute to my favourite of his albums, ‘One World’, which appeared on this site some years ago. But Martyn has been touring regularly since I first began listening to his music five years ago, and I never bothered to go. There would always be next year, I reasoned. Meanwhile, I have seen Bob Dylan on every possible occasion, reasoning that his last tour could be imminent. Sure enough, he is coming back to the country again in two months, while my chance to hear John Martyn sing in the flesh has passed.
Some of you reading this may have better stories to tell. Indeed, you may have been there when he undertook one of those acts of idiocy which had both furnished his legend and prevented his music being truly appreciated - be it performing blind drunk, interrupting shows for lengthy spoken monologues of drug-addled nonsense, abandoning his delightful songs in favour of unlistenable jazz noodling, or maybe you were even there on one of those occasions when he roamed into the audience to exact retribution on a heckler. Perhaps you were one of the hecklers, and can say you’ve had a fight with folk-legend John Martyn. Either way, anyone who thinks that Ryan Adams is wacky doesn’t know the half of it…
But, luckily, we are left with his monumental music. If I had to recommend one album, I’d probably still go with ‘One World’, for its sublime mesh of jazz, folk and reggae, and in particular for ‘Couldn’t Love You More’, the great soul ballad that Van Morrison surely wishes he wrote.
But if you consider yourself a music fan, and I presume if you’ve bothered to read this, you do, then you simply need to own Solid Air, the title track his tribute to his lost friend, Nick Drake ("gone in the nut, but a lovely bloke", was how Martyn described him). It also contains ‘May You Never’, his simplest and loveliest melody, and a cover of ‘I’d Rather Be The Devil’, where he uses the Echoplex, a guitar effect that was to define his music for the rest of the decade. It is also the best evidence of his meeting-of-minds partnership with double bassist Danny Thompson.
If you suspect divorce is imminent, or if you’ve just overplayed ‘Blood On The Tracks’ and ‘Tunnel of Love’, then ‘Grace and Danger’, (recorded with Phil Collins but don’t let that put you off) is an absolute must. Chris Blackwell refused to release it for several years because it was simply too bleak. But actually, in spite of the cruelty and pain it documents, this album sounds human and, even, mature. It has aged well.
After years of middling material, he released ‘On The Cobbles’ in 2004, though by now he was a big man in a wheelchair and it almost totally overshadowed by reissues of earlier, leaner albums. Nevertheless, it showed him if not back to his best, at the least in a new light. Where he was once recklessly experimental, this is an easy merging of his long standing folk and jazz influences, with the occasional mesmerising evocation of Pink Floyd. He sounded at peace, but it didn’t sound like it should have been his last album. Sadly, it turned out to be.
In the weeks following his death, fans have been quick to upload his live performance footage onto Youtube. As I never got to see him, I’m grateful, naturally.
Yet, I was most struck by a performance I did actually see, when he promoted ‘On The Cobbles’ on 'Later with Jools' Holland in 2004. As he prepares to sing ‘One For The Road’, he is clearly introduced by the ever-enthusiastic Holland as "Sir John Martyn." I’m pretty sure the Queen never actually made him a Knight of the Garter, so quite what prompted Jools is unclear. But, now, it seems only right…