At a John Martyn gig, recalls UK singer-songwriter Ralph McTell, an audience member shouts at the singer, “Lighten up, John, take it easy”. Martyn’s belligerent reply? “It’s not my f**king job to take it easy!”
After reading Graeme Thomson’s comprehensive, thoughtful and often unsettling biography of the man, there is little wonder the singer rarely, if ever, reached a place of contentment. This is a person, writes Thomson, who “displayed classic patterns of coercive behaviour – controlling, manipulative, mercurial. Quick to emotional and sometimes physical violence when drunk, drugged or simply enraged, he fostered paranoia and panic even when he was being nice”.
Martyn’s unhappiness was there from early on. He was born Ian McGeachy in 1948, an only child; his parents divorced when he was five; the presence in his young life of two paternal alcoholics (his father and stepfather) and being dramatically separated from his mother engendered mistrust in women. According to Martyn’s first wife, Beverley (née Kutner), the combined destructive influences “turned him into a misogynist”.
It is difficult to know who suffered the worst: the women he had relationships with or the children he had with them
Moving from England to Scotland, it was as a teenager in Glasgow that he gravitated towards music, first soul, then folk and blues. Influenced by the likes of Bert Jansch and Davey Graham, and mentored by Glaswegian musician Hamish Imlach, Martyn quickly conveyed his burgeoning talent as well as what Thomson describes as his “boisterous self-belief”.
Such assertiveness squared off to the inflexibility of more traditional folk musicians, but Martyn cared little of their opinions, seeing himself as “liquid to their stone”. By 1967, he had signed to Island Records, released his debut (London Conversation), and set off on a recording career that would last until the final studio album delivered in his lifetime, On the Cobbles (2004).
Much like Martyn’s fitful recorded output and its creative peaks, which include some sublime examples of jazz-inflected soul/folk, Thomson’s book traces, for the most part, the singer’s life up to the mid-80s, treating his remaining 25 years as an extended coda.
Albums such as Bless the Weather (1971), Solid Air (1973), One World (1977) and Grace and Danger (1980) are as carefully considered as the man. Water, the author intuitively notes, is Martyn’s oft-used lyrical and musical theme. “It is the element which best fits the sounds he created: ripples, waves, currents, eddies; rocks plunging, stones skimming, whirlpools boiling. He drew fat circles in wet sand, surrendered his anchor to tidal drift.”
Martyn’s gifts as a songwriter, however, echoed those of his personality: he would first dominate and then demolish. As with many dysfunctional artists, through his music “some purer form of his true self” materialised. A contemporary songwriter/performer, Richard Thompson, regarded Martyn’s most enduring song, May you Never, as so beautiful it should “belong in a hymn book”. The author writes of Grace and Danger’s “emotionally searing and very powerful” gathering of “near-suicidal torch songs dressed up in the plush clothes of languorous late-night mood music”.
What a pity that such justified plaudits had to be for material written by a man whose treatment of those who loved him the most was so acutely humiliating.
It is difficult to know who suffered the worst: the women he had relationships with or the children he had with them. Beverly Martyn was deeply wounded, writes Thomson, by “a relationship which had passed through deep passion and love to toxicity and terror”. Even Beverly’s career as an emerging singer-songwriter was blighted: Martyn signed contracts in her name and mean-spiritedly denied her royalties on songs she had co-written.
Candid recall from another partner, Gillian Allen (“He was exhausting . . . I fell out of love with him, thankfully”) and a non-biological son, Wesley (“I lived in total fear of that man. I thought my life hung on a thread”) point to a person who had little or no trouble glossing over “the darker colours in his paint box”.
There is a strong Irish connection to Martyn’s life. He visited Ireland many times throughout the 80s (his second marriage, in 1983, was to Wexford woman Annie Furlong, the first studio manager of Dublin’s Windmill Lane Recording Studios), and he moved in the early 2000s to Thomastown, Co Kilkenny, with his new partner, Theresa Walsh.
His life during this time was far removed from the kinetic spree he had previously perpetrated and too many others endured: following a leg amputation, he spent much of his final days in a wheelchair. His last gig was at Dublin’s Vicar Street on November 25th, 2008. Within two months he had died of pneumonia and acute renal failure.
Martyn’s latter-day influence, writes Thomson accurately, approximates to being viewed as “a spiritual godfather of trip-hop”. Fair enough. But those who were in much closer proximity to him might take a different view altogether.