The Long Night of John Martyn

Back in 2006, I interviewed the great producer Joe Boyd about his book White Bicycles, detailing his work with some of England’s most storied new folk musicians, including Nick Drake, Martin Carthy, the Incredible String Band, Fairport Convention and more.

John Martyn, in his prime.

He was generous about all of them—until we came to John Martyn, one of the more interesting musicians in that stable. Boyd’s Witchseason represented John and Beverley Martyn during the period they recorded their fine Stormbringer! and Road to Ruin albums. To my surprise, Boyd had nothing good to say about Martyn—a virtuoso guitarist, brilliant songwriter and vocalist of no small ability—and got us off the subject as quickly as possible.

Now, having read Graeme Thomson’s Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn (Omnibus Press) I see why. Martyn, who died in 2009, was a musician at war with himself. Although he wrote songs of incredible sensitivity and delicacy, he fancied himself a pub roughneck, was terrible to women, and sabotaged a promising career.

He didn’t start out that way. Thomson’s book explains that, growing up in Glasgow, Martyn was a bookish lad who failed at sports and found himself with the guitar—which he practiced incessantly. His show-biz parents split up early, and he rarely saw them afterwards, being raised mostly by his grandmother. This was the period of some very talented guitarists on the UK folk scene—Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourn. He left Scotland for England in 1967, and was soon sharing stages with his idols. The balladeer Ralph McTell (“Streets of London”) describes him then as bubbly and full of fun, “in awe of the power of music.”

Martyn’s first two solo albums, London Conversation (1967) and The Tumbler (1968), aren’t very good. He was just getting started as a songwriter, and was caught up in the fey tradition of British musicians writing about fairies and elves and magic toadstools. Ugh. He might have been better off sticking to blues and traditional English material, but that was never his way.

Martyn in those days was also generous, playing magical second guitar on his friend Bridget St. John’s John Peel-produced Ask Me No Questions, for instance. On my radio show recently, St. John (who now lives in New York) had only good things to say about their friendship. When John met Beverley in 1968 she was the more established musician, having released a string of commercially oriented singles. Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones and Nicky Hopkins played on them, and Boyd suggested taking her to America to record an album.

Martyn worshipped American musicians and loved The Band—he wasn’t going to stay home while she went to Woodstock and recorded with them. So off they both went, and he basically hijacked the sessions that became Stormbringer! (which features Levon Helm on drums and my friend Harvey Brooks on bass). They later recorded Road to Ruin in England, and you can hear Beverley receding. But these are still very good folk-rock LPs.

Beverley Martyn didn’t record an album of her own until No Frills (1998), recorded after they broke up. Once the couple had kids he apparently expected her to stay home and take care of them. The same pattern basically obtains with the other women in his life, some of whom left promising careers to be at his side. Drugs also entered the picture—heavily—and dealers and gangsters became regular callers. As they say, it ain’t a pretty picture.

John Martyn with his great foil, bassist Danny Thompson.

As a solo artist, Martyn had a brief run of fantastic albums, beginning with Bless the Weather and continuing through Solid Air, Inside Out and Sunday’s Child (1971-1975). He had been inspired by jazz, particularly Pharoah Sanders’ Karma, and that influence is reflected in his increasingly experimental guitar playing and singing. He displayed a fantastic range and an ability to slur vocal notes but still keep the songs eminently coherent.  

Martyn’s most famous song, which he professed to hate.

As a listener, I began to get alarmed around the time of One World (1977). He hated his pretty voice, and wanted to sound like a tough guy. I thought the music was both brutish (his voice deliberately made ugly) and fairly atonal—one song sounded like the next. I tuned out for a succession of albums, Grace and Danger (OK, one of the better ones), Glorious Fool, Well-Kept Secret, Sapphire, Piece by Piece, Cooltide, The Apprentice, No Little Boy, The Church With One Bell (a decent covers record), and Glasgow Walker. Between them, there’s maybe a halfway good double album.

Other musicians have coarsened their music, to both positive and negative effect. Tim Buckley, after making the sublime Happy/Sad (and also being influenced by both jazz and hard drugs), sunk into unlistenable “experimental” shrieking. Tom Waits’ later singing is difficult to listen to–he apparently wants to escape his early LA/Eagles/Asylum recording artist pop singer image. But his songwriting gift is intact.

What happened to John Martyn is a shame. He could have made good music. He could have been a good man. He could have been a good husband. He wasn’t. The second part of the book is pretty dispiriting, one bad gig, bender and ruined recording session after another. I read a late-period interview in Mojo magazine (after he lost his leg), and he seemed preoccupied with pub brawls. Paradoxically, once he was in a wheelchair he couldn’t make it to the bars and his on-stage performances improved. But really, don’t bother with his later career. But that run of wonderful early albums remains.

There’s a quite good documentary on Martyn, Johnny Too Bad (2004), that’s on Youtube in three parts. Here’s Part 1; you can easily find the rest of it:

Thomson’s book is recommended. I intend to check out another of his books, about Kate Bush. My guess is that it’s more uplifting.

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