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John Martyn - An Obituary And An Appreciation
jonny mugwump , January 29th, 2009 15:24

Jonny Mugwump pays tribute to John Martyn, who sadly passed away on January 29th

Regardless of anything, irrespective of peaks (so gloriously, unattainably high) to troughs (never awful, just disappointing) there is still that voice. From straightforward folky jaunts to midnight coral reef freakout to middle of the road ambient soul, it steals your breath and takes your heart. One man’s life encapsulated in a sound like Tom Waits drunk on silk; intimate and huge. Slurring the boundaries between words so they become a lugubrious drawl. Relaying the constant misadventures of hedonism, of love, of sunsets and of deep black violent endless holes. Always that voice.

On Thursday January 29th, 2009, Ian David McGeachy passed away from what is thought to be pneumonia. Despite his recorded work receiving much less attention recently than his critical and commercial peak in the 70s and early 80s, Martyn never stopped recording, searching, confessing and creating without really giving a fuck whether the rest of the world listened or not. This attitude is also the reason why, when he was on form, he was utterly untouchable by anybody else.

Martyn originally floated around the London folk scene in the mid 60s and was the first white act to sign to Island Records in 1967 when he released his debut London Conversation. Often in collaboration with then wife Beverley, these first releases were charming and lyrical but slightly elevated by John’s strangely energetic and off-kilter runs. They’re of their time too, full of naïve hope. But, like his parallel traveler (and the only real comparative benchmark) Tim Buckley, these early songs restrict through an over-abundance of words - no room to for the future innovator to breathe. Things start to change very quickly though. The acoustic balladeer builds a band, a slightly ballsier Nick Drake, and makes an artistic sidestep away from his wife. The guitar is rerouted through an echoplex and a fuzzbox, the rhythms become looser. Magic and loss seep through the veins. And then a liquid meteor shower containing the most impossible and beautiful sounds you could never imagine as Martyn takes the folk... and obliterates it. He absorbs everything of his time while anticipating plenty more. Jazz, funk, soul, and psychedelia; everything becomes permeable. These four peaks Solid Air, Inside Out, Live at Leeds and One World. You could write a book about each of them; gospels for the four.

Let’s look at two songs, one from the first and one from the last of this sequence. The eponymous ‘Solid Air’ signalled a breakthrough; a distressed, distressing and eerily calm hymn to friend and label mate Nick Drake. Over Danny Thompson’s (of Pentangle and from this point, life-long collaborator) free double bass, twinkling fender Rhodes, muted saxophone, textured, winding acoustic guitar, Martyn sings of his friend living on solid air. I first heard this, perhaps appropriately, hiking in the Lake District many, many years ago. It was one of those moments. You stop, you struggle for breath. From such a simple set-up, he achieves exactly what he sings: solid air, a wall of unbreatheable oxygen.

From One World, the track ‘Small Hours’ starts with a warm glacier, a hugely intimate echoplexed electric guitar drone stretching to infinity. It repeats. An elegiac melody forms out of these vast movements. Slowly the sound of geese, water, a heartbeat/drum machine and Martyn’s voice, out there and as close to a saxophone as he would ever get. It’s just under ten minutes but it could go on for ten hours and you wouldn’t care, maybe wouldn’t notice. So few ever get so close to pinpointing that time, the outdoors before dawn, utterly lost and surrendered to the grip of nature. It’s no huge surprise that he became something of a chill-out idol when dance music took over the planet in the early 90s.

After this, Martyn’s marriage collapses and abandon turns to one long hedonistic night of the soul. Grace and Danger was so savagely autobiographical that he had to fight with Chris Blackwell for a year before it could be released on Island. From this point onwards there are ever-decreasing rewards. By this point, a strong-friendship with Phil Collins gives way to an over-polished ambience in his work. There is a loss of pain and passion in a slick cocktail-bar goo of fretless bass and huge synthesised waves, but even here there are impossible and glorious vocal emissions. With age comes a cracked fragility and an eternal luscious drawl somehow bigger than ever. Martyn himself is present through that instrument, and saves even the most mundane of songs from collapsing into true awfulness. Nothing he ever did in this period, it must be stated, is really all that bad.

In the Ain’t No Saint retrospective set released last year (with some must-have unreleased live and alternative versions of older songs), we were presented with a loving image of an artist/fighter story, forever kicking against the pricks. This survival (near death from a punctured lung and then several years later, a knee-down amputation, excruciatingly and yet compellingly documented on BBC4) was affirmed in a horrific manner on the final disc. Like those hideous game show contestants who get applause for simply remaining married for 63 years, resilience and survival garner plaudits in the rock world no matter what the state of the music. Ain’t No Saint climaxes with guest stars, cheery bonhomie and the cursed Jools Holland.

John Martyn’s fuck-you attitude, his life-long refusal to do anything other than what he wanted may have led to ill-advised decisions in terms of a perfect oeuvre but who gives a shit about that? Certainly not him. John Martyn was a starsailor, still is. I hope that with the undoubted mass of appreciations that will arise over the following weeks that he becomes placed in the lineage that he belongs, and not in the piss-stained bedsit of hoary old rockers. John Martyn attacked the idea of song with an open heart, an open mind and a voice from nowhere. He is part of an outsider lineage that includes Scott Walker, Robert Wyatt and Tim Buckley. Less of a saint, and perhaps more of a fallen angel.

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