Sunday, February 01, 2009

For John Martyn

As the Times piece on the day of his death noted, while John Martyn was seen as the hard-drinking Scottish troubadour par excellence, he was actually born in Surrey to two light-opera singers. But his parents divorced when he was five, from which time he spent his formative years in Glasgow where he attended Shawlands Academy on the south side of the city.

John Martyn always saw himself as Scottish and Glaswegians, or those of us who were aware of him, were happy that he did so because we could proudly claim him as one of our own: Glasgow doesn't produce many geniuses and whatever else he may have been, John Martyn was a genius.

Before I heard and saw John singing and playing I wouldn't have thought it possible - and even now I'm finding it difficult to comprehend - for one man to possess so much talent. With the voice alone, one would feel the gods had been generous - but he could also play the guitar like no-one before or since has ever done. This combined with an ability to write songs of such heartbreaking beauty...

An extraordinary combination but unlike many I'm neither surprised, nor do I consider it a grave injustice, that John Martyn never enjoyed commercial success. To do this in popular music is a fairly straightforward matter: you either need to produce a few simple foot-stomping anthems that will get a hall jumping or if you're inclined to play it slow, your ballads need to have generous helping of sugar to make them more palatable. John wasn't prepared to do either of these things. Following the success of Solid Air, Island records hoped for something equally marketable to follow. Instead they got Inside Out, an album that has been not unreasonably described as 'willfully inaccessible'. (I hope I can declare this to be my favourite without sounding too much of a pseud.)

Before Thursday, I had no idea that I was capable of feeling so bereft over the death of someone I did not know personally. So much so, I've been trying to get my head around it. It's not as if I would have liked to have known him particularly. Cliché is hard to avoid on these occasions. There's much been written about John's 'rock and roll' lifestyle replete with anecdotes about him being 'difficult', 'prickly' and 'cantankerous'. Scotland is the land where everyone 'ken't yer faither' so it goes without saying that I've spoken to one or two of John's contemporaries and from what I can gather, this is an understandably euphemistic account of John's often egregiously aggressive behaviour. Deborah Orr's recollections come the closest to matching what I've heard from people who have known him:
"I love John Martyn's music. But I had the misfortune to be sitting near his party in an Edinburgh bar in the early 1980s. It took me a while before I could reconcile the sweet romanticism of his songs with the rude, drunk, aggressive and demanding boor who had dominated everybody's evening.

It was tragic to observe over the years that he grew no wiser as he grew older, even though his self-destructive ways led to leg amputation, then early death. Like a lot of creative types, Martyn, right, died believing that his dreadful behaviour was justified because of his art, and even that the latter would not have existed or thrived without the former.

It's a great shame that he never ever stopped to ask why so much of his most celebrated work had already been completed while he was still a young man, less damaged by the ravages of his poor lifestyle choices. It's amazing, really, that even though the spectacle of talent squandered in such a way is ubiquitous, the myth of the desirability of creative chaos, and artistic "suffering", maintains such a firm cultural hold."
Yet I was left with the feeling that this account, while undoubtedly accurate, wasn't a little mean-spirited. Leaving aside the fact that most artists produce their best work when they are young - and the fact that I don't think many people, including myself, would agree that John squandered his talent - is it really that easy to separate these things? It's not that John needed to drink to be creative, or that his creativity made him drink - they were just two expressions of the same personality. John did whatever the fuck he wanted: in his personal life this was supremely destructive; musically it was sublimely creative. Or perhaps it is simpler to say this: God chooses to keep His treasure in earthen vessels - if you have a problem with this, take it up with Him.

In any event, his personal life was not, and is not, my concern. The love was for the music. In explaining what this meant, it is also difficult to avoid cliché. I recognise so much in what others have written. For me too he provided the 'background music for my life'. My sister got me Solid Air for Christmas when I was about 17. After that I couldn't see past John for years. Then the years turned into decades. I don't think there's ever been a significant moment of heartbreak in my life where I haven't listened to John giving tune to the inarticulate rage of my heart. And it gets more technical than that. What to do when you're learning to play the guitar in the aesthetic musical wasteland that was the eighties? You regress, is what you do. There was Jimi and Muddy - but they were both dead. There was the other Jimmy - and he might as well have been. There was also Eric - but he took to wearing a cardigan. I'd date this earlier than most - he never recovered his form since he was playing with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers in the sixties.

And then there was John Martyn. His music had already rescued me from a blues-purist phase I was going through. He remains the most significant musical influence in my life. To this day, when I play guitar, I can never finger-pick without a plectrum because if I do, I just end up sounding like a low-rent version of the John Martyn I wanted to be like for so many years. But better than all this - he was still playing. I'm not one for gigs - I love music but frankly there's so few artists I find interesting enough to make it worth my while sitting through a whole set of their songs. I've only seen two artists more than once - one was the legendary Peter Green, the other John Martyn.

Famously erratic in his performances, John was always at least sensible enough to try and hold it together a bit when he had an album to promote. The best of these performances for me was at the Renfrew Ferry where he was on tour to promote his album of covers, The Church with One Bell. Squandered his talent? Goddamit all, the man had been living the life since he was seventeen - here he was at fifty, and what a set he played! The air was thick with marijuana smoke and anticipation. We were expecting a support act but there was none. Instead the band came on and began to play the opening bars of 'Couldn't Love You More' - a few moments later big John clambers onto the stage. He's a little late but once he starts to sing, everyone forgets space and time. It went uphill from there. I don't have the words to describe the joy and exhilaration that I felt on this night.

Herein lies the bitter-sweet tragedy of it all for me. It has to do with John's passing - but it has to do with a wider sense of the passing of time, the passing of an age - which Laban remarked upon in his touching tribute. We will never see the likes of John Martyn ever again, never see him play again. Laban's post made me mist up a little - this one made me cry. It's the story of how John played for some prisoners, leaving them "feeling for a while like members of the human race once more." I've never been in prison but this is what I bear witness to as well. Yesterday's gone - now we have smoking bans, obesity strategies and the X-factor. Would this age give enough space for someone like John Martyn? I don't know but I take leave to doubt it.

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