An Irishman's Diary
At home one evening some time ago I was listening to John Martyn’s breezy, soulful song, Go Easy, when a dark thought crossed my mind.
The song is from one of his early albums, Bless the Weather, and in it Martyn sings: “Life, go easy on me/ Love, don’t pass me by.” It is a song written by a young man starting out on life, a singer and musician who already knows about “raving all night, sleeping away the day”.
Martyn, who was born in England but lived in Kilkenny for the last period of his life, died in this month four years ago, aged 60. Half way through the song I remembered that he had died, and the contrast between that fact and the whole attitude of the song hit me forcefully.
I first saw Martyn in the Exam Hall in Trinity College in the late 1970s. I went to the concert with a fellow student I had recently started dating and we sat on our plastic chairs with all the other longish-haired semi-hippies who had gathered to listen to the singer-songwriter perform his own compositions.
Martyn was a phenomenal messer, boozer and blaggard who, when it came to his music, could be fantastically soulful and unusually frank. He wasn’t concerned with hiding his vulnerability. Rather he made it into beautiful music. He picked up his guitar, used his voice as an instrument, and delved down deep into his pain and even his self-pity. He created such emotion on the stage that by the end of one of his concerts you could leave feeling quite exhausted.
He was never a commercial success, but for those who were affected by his music, he was one of the best. The melodies he invented and those isolated, perfect notes that he achieved, always won me over.
He was born in 1948 and Bless the Weather was released in 1971. On the night I first saw him he performed on his own, just him and his acoustic guitar and something called an ecoplex that I think he invented and which he used to make the notes he played on his guitar repeat and fade, repeat and fade. He could build up walls of tumbling notes that washed over you like the waves of the sea.
What crossed my mind in the kitchen was the fact that all of the great singer/song-writers that I had listened to when I was younger, had been older than me. Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Neil Young. It hadn’t only been that I found their music impressive, and their attitudes attractive; it was also the case that I considered their songs to be something akin to messages sent back down the trail. They were older than me, more experienced, wiser, I presumed, and I listened to their songs in part to learn what they’d been up to, and to experience at one remove emotions that I expected to encounter one day and make my own.