Like free jazz, heavy metal and rap, the music of John Martyn is an acquired taste I somehow never acquired. He wasn’t within my orbit during the period I worked for Melody Maker, and thereafter all I learned was that he was a great and very original songwriter, singer and – especially – guitarist, and an unpleasant man who was prone to violence, especially when drunk, which was often.
I also knew that at one time he was close to Nick Drake, whose music I love, and this may have influenced me to buy Solid Air, a 10-track best of album somewhere along the way. I’d read that the song ‘Solid Air’ was about Drake and I was curious. The CD confirmed this and demonstrated to me that U2’s The Edge had learned a trick or two from Martyn’s echo-drenched playing style, that double or triple tracking delay he set up while he played on stage so that it appeared as if several guitarists were playing when, in fact, he was accompanying himself. It was indeed very clever, mesmerising even.
Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn, Graeme Thomson’s fine biography, just published, confirms all of the above. I edited Thomson’s biographies of Kate Bush and George Harrison while at Omnibus Press and know how accomplished a biographer he is, and this latest book merely confirms his status in this regard. He analyses Martyn’s music wonderfully, follows his life and career in forensic detail and verifies my relief at never having come across Martyn in the flesh. He was no stranger to the bar room fights that feature in the lyrics of ‘May You Never’, his best known song, and it is this aspect of his personality that dragged him down, ruining his looks, his health and his relationships with many whose lives became intertwined with his.
What we learn from Small Hours is that Martyn, whose real name was Iain McGeachy, was one of those characters who goes charging through life without much care for the mess he leaves behind, and never cleans it up afterwards. A serial womaniser, he treated his wives and partners appallingly, leaving Beverley Kutner, his first, with black eyes, neglecting their children and leaving her penniless when he walked out. He did pretty much the same with just about all his women whether or not he married them. Like a few others drawn to the rock trade, he was a bit of a Jeckyll and Hyde character, kind and loving one moment and insufferably nasty the next. Drink initiated his obnoxiousness and the longer he lived the worse it became, and it didn’t help that he surrounded himself with petty criminals.
It would wrong to assume, however, that Small Hours is simply a litany of bad behaviour. Thomson is an adept critic, praising Martyn’s acclaimed output, especially Solid Air and Inside Out, the early Seventies albums on which his reputation rests. Take this description of ‘Fine Lines’, a track from the latter: “‘Fine Lines’ cuts deeper than the drunken arm slung around the shoulder, travelling through skin and bone to the soul, via the deeply felt connections forged in smoke-filled rooms and over smeared glasses, in the warm communion of bodies slumped platonically on sofas. Loneliness is there, too, whispering at the window, the exquisite sadness that comes from knowing that good times are ending even as they are happening. The fragility is so profound one can hear the air shake around the strings, feel the cadence of all those empty spaces.”
Thompson is less enthusiastic about Martyn’s later output but he finds some good things to say about many of the songs recorded during the more commercial route that Martyn travelled in the eighties when he teamed up with Phil Collins. While purists may have scorned this change in direction, Thomson squares it with Martyn’s need to balance his creativity with survival. For all his wayward ways, he rarely lost sight of his calling.
Martyn’s skills as a guitarist and seeker out of unusual, pioneering music is fully covered and there are several instances where Thomson delves into Martyn’s fascinating technique, listing the FX he used in a brave attempt to explain how he did what he did. Perhaps this was one of the reasons why Martyn seems to have been one of the few people who could communicate with Nick Drake, another extraordinarily gifted guitar player who experimented with unorthodox tunings, and there are hints within these pages that Drake occasionally came down from the ethereal peaks of passivity that books about him suggest were his natural habitat. A mutual friend, Paul Wheeler, makes an astute observation about Drake that I hadn't seen before but which seems well nigh perfect: “[He was] like one of those cats which turn up at many households, all of which are under the impression that they have a unique role in providing food, shelter and company for him.”
The book is not without humour. Some of the stories of Martyn’s escapades can’t help but raise a smile, especially the barney in an Indian restaurant when Martyn objected to racist comments from an adjoining table. Also, rarely for a biography, we are treated to a mouth-watering description of the subject’s eating habits. An epicurean of deeply held beliefs, Martyn “didn’t do fast music and didn’t do fast food”, writes Thomson. “He was not averse to eating roadkill.” Musicians who toured with him reported that he would rather go hungry than eat food that was not to his liking. “No pizza and chips for Johnny,” reports keyboard player Spencer Cozens. Prone to accidents and a confirmed carnivore, it seems laughably predictable that Martyn sustained serious injuries after crashing his car into a cow.
Nick Drake’s death certainly affected Martyn badly, and may have accelerated his slow decline. He tried the patience of many and few stuck it out to the end. One who did was bassist Danny Thompson, another trouble maker, who became Martyn’s preferred and most distinguished accompanist. Another champion was Island Records boss Chris Blackwell, who stuck by Martyn despite everything, as did his lifelong friend and mentor Hamish Imlach, the Scottish folk singer and humourist who died in 1996. All feature prominently.
The book contains two eight-page photo sections. Poignantly, the final page of the second section features an uncaptioned photograph of a handsome young man in his twenties, his hair tousled, his beard crisply trimmed, his eyes sparkling. On the previous page we see a grossly overweight old man, unable to stand, his hair disappearing, his eyes partly closed. It was taken in 2008, the year before he passed. Small Hours explains in consummate detail how one became the other.
Prodigiously researched with around 100 interviews with relatives, friends, foes, fellow musicians, ex-managers and record company personnel, Small Hours is a terrific biography of a unique musician and troubled soul. All it lacks is an index.