The timing of this week’s ebbs and flows of work seemed almost destined to prevent me from mentioning the sad loss of John Martyn before burkesworks might comment on it. Only fair: he introduced me to Martyn, and is a far better authority on the subject.
burkesworks has friendslocked his post—with his typically wonky ‘worksy wont—but I hope he won’t mind me quoting him here:
He was just 60, and only received his OBE last month. RIP John, and thanks for all the great gigs over the years. Kids – without this guy, you’d have never heard of Nick Drake, let alone Jeff Buckley. Remember him this way
and followed this with a video of a live performance of the hectic, sweaty, tongue-in-cheek Big Muff. It looks like the 1995 Montgreenan recording: I don’t say that to pretend that I’m a bigger fan than anyone else, but because dates—the compass of them all, rather than each date singly—are important in what I want to say.
I agree with almost everything burkesworks said, but I’m not sure if Martyn would want to be remembered in a particular way. For those who don’t know, Martyn was a contemporary and close friend of Nick Drake, and played on and off until his death with the similarly legendary Danny Thompson. His touring had always brought him in close contact with alcohol, and either the implosion of his first marriage begat the explosion of Martyn’s chronic alcoholism, or vice versa. Regardless, his albums charted—in a raw, often viscerally painful way—the emotions and events he was experiencing. Towards the end of his life he was in many ways a mess—bankrupt and sloshed—but the rawness was still there.
Martyn said after his amputation: “I’ve had a wonderful time. I can’t argue at all about the way that life’s dealt me.” It seemed important to Martyn himself that he had been both the youthful, handsome success and the sloppy, occasionally brilliant but largely worn-down lush. Not in the rather lazy sense that his was a cautionary tale, that his life somehow illuminated the hubris of stardom, or the emptiness of fame, but rather in the expression of his own personal complexity and messiness. That was both him and his music: the two perform a diptych together, and enrich each other. Every bit of him informed every other bit of him, both emotionally and temporally.
Have a look at the following YouTube videos, but: if you’re going to watch one, try to watch them all. Here’s burkesworks’ choice of Martyn from 1995:
and here’s mine—more of a crowdpleaser if you like, but closer to folk—with Martyn singing the song he riffed on for much of his life:
Here’s a slightly loose version of Sweet Little Mystery from 1987. Towards the end, at around 6:00, there’s a guest appearance from both Danny Thompson and a glass of something dark, and it becomes clear that Martyn’s almost certainly performing, while almost note-perfect, drunk:
And finally—I find this the difficult one, but the most important—here’s Martyn singing Hurt in Your Heart in a recent documentary, from 2007:
Of course you shouldn’t dwell too much on the sadder parts of Martyn’s life. Consider those aspects once, in their human tragedy, and move on; lingering would be maudlin, and a minor injustice to Martyn’s art (and anyway, I for one couldn’t bear to watch that last video again.) But it’s all of a piece of the man, and we’ve lost him, all of him, not just the photogenic twentysomething. That’s a greater puzzle, one that encompasses the loss of the beautiful, successful youth he once was; a youth we really lost years ago; and the youth we each individually lose, eventually. Cheers, John, for everything you gave us.