“Small Hours. The Long Night of John Martyn” by Graeme Thomson (published by Omnibus Press)

A one-man wrecking ball

In the late 1970s, record company public relations lady Dawn Murray, in Sydney, Australia, was excitedly awaiting a tour by one of her musical heroes, British singer-songwriter John Martyn. He was distributed Down Under by her record label, Festival, so Dawn would be overseeing the visit. Unfortunately, when it was all over she was left shell-shocked, hugely disappointed by the man. The concerts had been fine but perhaps Dawn had been unaware of Martyn’s reputation as a top-grade hell-raiser. Well, you know what they say, Dawn: never meet your heroes.
22. August 2020 14:59

We knew Dawn at that time and she told us of her unhappy experience but didn’t want to go into the messy details. Martyn died just over a decade ago, in 2009, and Graeme Thomson was able to conduct almost 100 new interviews for this all-embracing biography. He missed Dawn Murray, if she is still around, but he does offer one illuminative tale from that tour.

Martyn had flown to Australia with fellow folk artist Bert Jansch for a series of joint shows, and their manager was waiting for them to arrive in Perth, Western Australia. Bad weather forced them to Melbourne, 2700 kilometres away by air, from where Martyn phoned in. “What do you want: the bad news or the good news?” he asked. It was all bad. “I’ve got a busted lip, Bert’s got a dislocated finger and the road manager’s in prison.”

They’d had a fight on the plane. Jansch had punched Martyn. “Whatever possessed you?” Jansch was asked. “Well, I knew before the tour was over John was going to hit me so I thought I’d get mine in first,” he replied. The tour manager had been arrested for stealing a life jacket, which had been sneaked into his hand luggage by Martyn as a drunken prank. Jansch missed the first date due to his injured finger. And so the tour progressed.

Tales of Martyn’s escapades on various tours are legion, such as when his madman-in arms, double-bass player Danny Thompson, nailed a comatose Martyn under a hotel carpet in retaliation for some drunken indiscretion. The following morning Thompson ordered and ate a full room-service breakfast next to where a severely dehydrated Martyn, still pinned to the floor, ranted and raved. The author says it is a well versed though not verifiable story.

Another time, on stage, a drunken Martyn took an age tuning up, before leaning so far back on his chair he toppled over. Undeterred, he continued playing from a prostrate position. Martyn once head-butted two men of a party of 12 after one had racially abused a waiter in an Indian restaurant. As the other 10 prepared to act, Danny Thompson shouted, “Don’t even begin. I taught him!”, and they backed down.

Graeme Thomson’s book is great for those enthusiasts who appreciate the solid body of songs Martyn wrote and recorded on 23 studio albums over a 40-year career before his death in 2009 aged 60. His ambition wasn’t to be hugely popular but he received considerable acclaim and moderate fame. Anyone who is unfamiliar with his music, described as a sort of folk-jazz, would surely want to become acquainted after reading this biography. On the other hand, if you already know Martyn’s music, the factual details about this troublesome man may dishearten.

Journalist and author Thomson, who has written books on Kate Bush, George Harrison, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Phil Lynott, informs us that Martyn was actually born Ian McGeachy in New Malden, UK, in 1948 and adopted his stage name in 1967 after moving from Glasgow to London to begin his music career. The book gives just the right amount of information about his antecedents (we generally prefer not to know about a subject’s great-great-great-grandparents). Mum and Dad were professional light opera singers but the marriage flopped quickly, leaving Ian to be raised by his father and grandmother in Glasgow from the age of about two years, “an age when Martyn was still soft fruit, ripe for bruising”, writes Thomson. He could usually only visit his mother in school holidays, saddening him.

“He mistrusted women, which turned him into a misogynist,” opines folk singer and ex-wife Beverley Martyn, who suffered physical and psychological abuse at his hands. Her own career did not survive their two-album cooperation. She endured his rage and beatings, perhaps simply because his shirts weren’t ironed.

After the breakup, Martyn gave her no money and largely ignored their two biological children and Beverley’s child. The combination of financial and psychological pressures caused the family intense hardship while Martyn fuelled his drink and drug habits.

He started another family and forsook them too. Thomson: “He blackened the eyes and broke the spirit of women he professed to love, abandoned at least one of his children and neglected others.” When the mother of one child phoned Martyn, whom she had not spoken to in more than a decade, to say that the child would like to meet him, Martyn told her: “Tell him I’m dead.”

In Glasgow, Martyn had started playing guitar at 15 and on leaving school at 17 he started performing in local folk clubs. With a growing reputation he decided it was time to move on, taking the train to London without bothering to tell his girlfriend.

He started playing in the main folk venues around London but “Having grabbed a foothold in the rather earnest Sixties folk scenes in Glasgow and London, he soon outgrew what he regarded as their limitations… The art was magical and unerringly beautiful, fearsomely personal, feather-light and somehow pure. It was also capable of being coarse, aggressive, wayward and indulgent, not to mention repetitive and downright dull on occasion”, Thomson adjudges.

Martyn was soon signed by Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, and became the label’s favoured child among an illustrious roster that included Free, Traffic, Jethro Tull and Nick Drake. Thomson recounts: “Full of wit and bounce and bite, he pushed his luck into corners and charmed, or slugged, his way out almost every time.”

John’s debut album, “London Conversation”, was basically a folk album, recorded in mono and released in October 1967. His first two albums failed to do any serious business. He only ever had modest commercial success and his main income from touring, for which he needed stimulants to keep himself going.

His later work is described as incorporating elements of spiritual jazz, reverberating blues, smooth soul and skeletal dub, his albums as bold and unclassifiable. Slurred, lazy vocals topped innovative guitar. “Did any musician in the Seventies fly so free as John Martyn did on “Bless the Weather”, “Solid Air”, “Inside Out” and “One World”? Did any fall so far?”, Thomson asks.

The hair-trigger personality could switch in a flash. There was the Glaswegian thug and the loving hippie. His features took on a debauched air, puffy, red-faced, sweaty. The music lost a degree of verve and swagger. He became “a man who had chanced his arm one too many times and seemed astonished to discover that it had finally been torn off”.

Martyn fell and was impaled on a fence post once and ran into a cow with his car. By the time he heard that he had been awarded an OBE for his contribution to British music, he was in a wheelchair, having lost a leg to septicaemia compounded by his substance abuse. He died weeks later, before he could accept the honour.

Thomson understands his subject. In one of his excellent summings-up he offers: “Martyn lived his life the same way he made his music, improvising as he went, with no safety net, admirable in one sense and impossibly irresponsible in another. He tore through it, scattering brilliance and destruction in his wake.”

Or: “At turns he was sweet, tough, slightly terrifying and very funny, exhibiting roughly equal measures of scholarly eloquence, quicksilver intelligence and macho roguery, with flashes of tenderness. If there was guilt – and there must have been – it was not offered up. He seemed cheerfully unrepentant about the many bad choices he had made.”

Or: “The innate prettiness Martyn possessed – in his face, his voice, his music, his words – was a gift he at first exploited and then actively mistrusted. In the end he simply destroyed it.”

His daughter, Vari McGeachy: “A lot of people got wounded in John’s vicinity but he damaged himself more than anybody else – there is no question of that.”

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