John Martyn: A Tribute

Memories of my childhood are wrapped up in the hard-living guitar maestro, and a recent retrospective of his work brought all of them flooding back...
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Memories of my childhood are wrapped up in the hard-living guitar maestro, and a recent retrospective of his work brought all of them flooding back...

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John Martyn’s 'May You Never' is one of the sounds of my growing up. Not just the song, but the noise of my record player coming on, the needle crackle as it hit the vinyl, which always used to frighten me as a kid, afraid that I’d damaged it in some way, and then John’s falsetto:

“And may, you...”

To this day it’s one of my very favourite songs, a deceptively complicated piece of pop music that tumbles along with wild, romantic excess. Not only is Martyn’s voice shown to be the beautiful beast that it is, sounding like lazily poured wine being sloshed and spilled over wooden tables, but the guitar part is tremendous and nigh-on impossible to replicate. The chord pattern is simple enough, but I’ve no idea what he’s doing with his right hand, and have driven myself near mad trying to get that same percussive playing. It even evades my brother, a far better guitar player than I, so really I’ve no hope.

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Unfortunately for me, it’s not just 'May You Never' that evades me as a player, as a recent box release proved: 17 albums, replete with added material swept off the cutting room floor, intimate live sessions and a properly wonderful DVD. Songs that bleed out of the speakers, as much infused with jazz and psychedelic 60s rock and roll as they are folk music. That said, much of the early cuts fit more comfortably into that folk bracket – although, if I’m honest it’s not where John seems most at home: his delivery on the more trad material is almost tongue-in-cheek, like he’s singing what he assumes people want to hear. It’s a world away from Solid Air, on which he almost croons. That kind of lazy-lipped vocal can grate occasionally, but not so with John. It’s a sound that’s influenced everyone from Jeff Buckley to Rufus Wainwright to Ben Howard. The alternate take of Solid Air, on which he basically scats, is proof of just what a beguiling musician he is.

There’s a warmth to Martyn’s music that isn’t present in the records of some of his contemporaries. Nick Drake is often held up as the tragic hero of that era, and indeed Solid Air is named after a Nick Drake song, but I’ve always found his music very cold, very obtuse. Richard Thompson is another from that era who’s written some truly wonderful songs – I’d take 'Bees Wing' on my desert island – but a lot of the time there’s a seriousness to his playing that can jar. What I’ve always found with Martyn, and what’s present in every note on this collection, is a joie de vivre, a sense of humour, that makes him so engaging. Both his versions of 'Singin’ In The Rain' exemplify this perfectly.

It’s been 4 years now since John Martyn died of double pneumonia at the age of 60, the unfortunate and predictable consequence of a life of excess. I still find it very sad watching videos of him towards the end of his career, a far sight from the wiry young man who emerged in the 1970s. His guitar playing still peerless, but slower, more measured. His voice still beautiful, but muted, like it had been put behind a cage for its own safety. Rest easy Johnny.


The Island Years is out now.  You can buy it here