A few weeks ago I posted some accounts of domestic life with Keith Moon, which essentially consisted of all-day drinking and practical jokes. Moon made it to 32, overdosing on medication intended to combat his excessive drinking. In an earlier era, Charlie Parker managed to make it to 34, despite conducting his life as though it were an experiment in existential chaos. But anyone reading Graeme Thomson’s recent biography of the Anglo/Scots singer/songwriter John Martyn will wonder how this errant near-genius managed to make it to 60. (He died in 2009.) Booze runs through Thomson’s book like a flood from an exploding brewery and Martyn’s life story is a trajectory from the precocious teenager of his first LPs to the bloated, wheelchair-bound alcoholic who lost a leg to drink. (Martyn’s long goodbye to his leg was covered by the BBC in a 2005 documentary. I heard – anecdotally – that Martyn’s friend and collaborator Danny Thompson described John’s leg-loss as ‘a bit of a wake-up call‘.) Musically, Martyn had gone from sixties folk guitar merchant to seventies rock experimentalist, pioneering what became known – decades later – as ‘trip-hop’, before an association with Phil Collins led him into an eighties wilderness of jazz-funk and bad suits. (He made music to the end but his glory days ended around 1981.)
I read Thomson’s biography as a sort of part-time Martyn fan, a position that seems to be fairly standard for those interested in his work. He was nothing if not erratic and after he started making records with the Pope of Cheese even some of his most loyal fans drifted away. It seems that Martyn and Collins bonded over the ends of their respective marriages, but in John’s case he doesn’t seem to have connected cause and effect. John had been married to another singer-songwriter, Beverley Martyn née Kutner, and the pair started their marriage as a starry folk duo, before John sidelined Beverley’s career, leaving her to look after the kids whilst he went on a series of Rabelaisian tours in the company of bassist Danny Thompson. When he was at home, John’s behaviour became increasingly paranoid and threatening, eventually forcing Beverley to flee in fear for her life. Beverley’s take on this now is remarkably forgiving; she identifies the key flaw in Martyn’s personality as misogyny deriving from a lack of maternal contact in childhood. His parents separated when he was an infant and John was mostly brought up in Glasgow in the care of his father and grandmother; his mother re-married and stayed in Surrey. Contact with his mother seems to have been distant, although he spent summers with her at various addresses around Kingston-on-Thames, an environment he characterised as a riverside paradise, a stark contrast to the streetscapes of sixties Glasgow. (One early song testifies to his love of London’s riverine suburbia as well as projecting an aching image of parental abandonment.)
Whatever the underlying reason, Martyn was serially dreadful to the women in his life, frequently hitting them or absorbing them into his own addictions. (A later girlfriend proudly says that she had done kickboxing in her youth, so ‘he never landed a punch on me.’) He abandoned his children in infancy, and, when he finally did make contact with his teenage son, took him on tour, whereupon the kid acquired a heroin habit. Even other musicians are described as being wary of Martyn at the bar, or ducking his company in a social setting (he developed a John Belushi-like tendency to out-stay his welcome). The chaos increased as the musical output deteriorated and some of the vignettes in Thomson’s book offer startling testimony of a life in freefall. There are dark mutterings of ‘nightmarish’ benders on tour, with stops at every roadside bar, and indications that people started to turn up to his gigs just to see what state he was in (a situation undoubtedly fostered by his legendary appearance at the Mean Fiddler in 1987, when he went on stage three hours late, sang one song, threw up, and left). And the Glaswegian hard-man persona he developed would have tried anyone’s patience. At one point he gets beaten up by nameless men wielding an iron bar, another time he gets stabbed with his own knife during an altercation in Chicago. But he had the constitution of an ox and, gradually, came to resemble one. He returned to the jazz-folk milieu of his earlier career and managed to claw back a degree of personal and professional respectability, although the drinking remained heavy to the end. He expired a few weeks before he was due to receive an OBE, but he lived long enough to get a Radio 2 Lifetime Achievement Award, shunted out in his wheelchair a receive a mantelpiece trophy, a message from Eric Clapton and a kiss from Phil Collins.
I suppose this book has rattled me a little. I am old enough not to care too much about the personal failings of artists I admire, but when a documented wife-beater and delinquent father is quoted saying ‘quite literally, the most important things to me are my childrens’ smile and my woman’s love’, one is inclined to think that clubbing with an iron bar was too good for him. Even without the gruesome personal life, John Martyn made an art form out of disappointment. He was consistently inconsistent and this applies to his most celebrated record, Solid Air. He was often twee and crass within the framework of the same LP. But, at least some of the time, it was worth putting up with the dross for the bits that were really visionary and unlike anything by anyone else. As a live act he was best encountered as a solo turn, playing his acoustic guitar through an Echoplex machine to create his own personal orchestra. I saw him a few times and was lucky enough to attend a small charity concert he gave in 1980 in Bourne Hall, Ewell, near the happier scenes of his youth. In front of an audience that consisted of every hippy left in Surrey, he played a sentimental and good-natured set, concluding with a haunting version of his greatest song. So … all right. Some forgiveness is in order. RIP.