Sat Eye Candy: R.I.P. John Martyn
ONE OF THE HEAVIEST ROMANTIC SOULS MUSIC HAS EVER KNOWN
Time after time, I held it
Just to watch it die
Line after line, I loved it
Just to watch it cry
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
In music we sometimes stumble upon an unknown country, fresh landscape of such varied, wonderful terrain that one knows instantly they’re in the presence of the unique, the standalone, the original. Scottish folk-rock-blues innovator John Martyn was one such island (and we mean that in the John Donne sense, too…). A big man in every respect, he was a conjuring minstrel capable of pirouetting with darkness while still snatching handfuls of sunlight in his songs. With heavy heart, JamBase reports that John Martyn shuffled off this mortal coil on Thursday, January 29th at the age of 60. While not well known in the U.S. outside of a fervent cult – including many musicians like Chris & Rich Robinson, Vetiver and Devendra Banhart – Martyn was a significant force in contemporary music – a carrier and mutator of tradition, a bluesman with green sleeves, a folky with a jet black rock streak. In The U.K. he is revered as the founding father of modern folk-rock that he is, as crucial to that merger’s evolution as The Band, Fairport Convention, The Byrds and The Grateful Dead.
Looking at me you never find out what a working man’s about
Raving all night, sleeping away the day
Something to ask
Something to say
Something to keep the pain away
Something I’d like to see if it’s alright
Life, go easy on me
Love, don’t pass me by
Drop the needle on Bless The Weather (1971) or Solid Air (1973) and something as hard and smooth as the Scotch whiskey he loved so dearly pours into your ears, moving with subtle heat into the thick of you. For most, hearing John Martyn for the first time is a game changer – other music just doesn’t sound the same afterwards. A running partner of luminaries like Richard Thompson, Nick Drake and Levon Helm, Martyn had the slippery, profoundly distinctive voice of a great jazz or blues singer, Blind Willie Johnson and Nina Simone bumpin’ uglies inside the throat of grizzled Scottish bohemian. Like most things about Martyn, it is a glorious noise, and a sound that changed dramatically over the course of his life but never lost any flavor. Combined with his dizzying guitar prowess, he didn’t need anything else to hold one’s attention.
Time’s gone by
Calendar leaves and snows fly
I might write a poem
If I could think of the words to try
What is there to remember
The winter was December
Just one more year left behind
However, Martyn was an absolutely lethal songwriter and a madly morphing musical entity. His long career – which begins with 1967’s London Conversation and stretches up his last studio release, 2004’s On The Cobbles, as well as countless live collections and anthologies – is marked by broad, fascinating chapters often worlds apart sonically but all powered by the same heart and troubled mind. There’s the early Greenwich Village/Woodstock inspired stuff but also his late ’70s Echoplex dappled explorations, his smoothed out, electric jazz touched ’80s stretch and the dreamier contemplation of recent years. Each period is worth exploring, however, Martyn’s albums aren’t quick tricks and a slow hand is always rewarded. Even the records that may at first rub one the wrong way often sprout inviting stamen if allowed time in the ground.
Tell me, tell me, tell me, tell me
Is it one for the road
One for the river flowing
Or is it one for the four strong winds that keep on blowing me away
Blowing me away
Please let me live everyday within the circle of your smile
Your sweet, sweet, sweet, sweet smile
It seems surreal that he’s gone just as he was reemerging in the U.K. and gaining a whole new generation of acolytes in the States. Martyn lived hard and had a lot of heavy things thrown on him besides. There seemed a new respect for life, for the gift of it, after he survived the amputation of his right leg in 2003. John Martyn was a noble gourmand, savoring this world’s delights down to the bitter juice of defeat, divorce and despair. One can imagine John licking his fingers with gusto after a particularly good recording session or gig. Because one can always taste it – and taste it good – when Martyn hit the sweet spot, and that’s where the man usually lived. Eric Clapton has said that Martyn was “so far ahead of everything, it’s almost inconceivable.” That about covers it. Thank you, John, for all the laughter, tears and inspiration. Thank you, thank you, thank you, sir.
We begin our remembrance of Martyn with the song that introduced him to many of us – the gentle, welcome Everyman’s benediction “May You Never.”
Martyn pioneered many of the techniques and electronic wizardry employed today by the likes of Keller Williams and Xavier Rudd, as witness by this solo performance of “Dealer” from 1977 that hisses and crackles most modernly.
We stay in 1977 and visit the trusty Old Grey Whistle Test for “Couldn’t Love You More” with longtime sparring partner upright bassist extraordinaire Danny Thompson (Pentangle).
Next, a more contemporary taste of Martyn with “Hurt In Your Heart” from a 2007 BBC program, where he discusses and performs the song.
Here’s Martyn and Thompson again on the Transatlantic Sessions in 1998 performing “Solid Air,” Martyn’s moody, evocative ode to his old pal Nick Drake.
Few men have ever given Skip James a run for his money but Martyn’s take on “I’d Rather Be The Devil” possesses a darkness that infuses his take with clawing menace. His use of Echoplex here gives his version added creepy fuzz.
We conclude with bittersweet chestnut “Bless The Weather,” which takes on new, sad shading in the wake of his passing this week. You done good, rough bard. Thanks for the music, Mr. Martyn. You shan’t be soon forgotten.
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