John Martyn OBE had such a wonderfully perverse sense of humor, he would have found it amusing that he is probably held in higher esteem, and his name more widely known today, than it was for most of his career of 40 years-plus.
Born on September 11, 1948 in New Malden, in greater south London, Martyn spent many years honing his own style. As the mammoth, 17-disc Island Years box set of 2013 demonstrated, that grew from gentle singer-songwriter to the charismatic growler of his later years, with some brilliant guitar experimentation along the way.
A teenage mod
“Between 15 and 17 I was a mod in Glasgow,” John told Mat Snow in Mojo in 2006. “Two Vespas I had. Ska and soul, the Temps and Four Tops, Prince Buster. I went off mod because they kept stabbing each other and generally being a nuisance.
“I was also desperately trying to become a bohemian by playing guitar, wearing shades and attempting to grow a beard to be cool, man. I got a lot of that from my mother; my stepfather was a terrible beatnik. My parents were divorced and I grew up with my grandmother and my father; he taught me to fish and shoot, the manly pursuits. No better thing can happen to a young boy.”
Martyn died on January 29, 2009 at the age of just 60. A few months earlier, in Uncut magazine, he talked about the unvarnished passion that informed his art until the end. “I have been known to burst into tears in the middle of a song,” he said. “It happened quite recently on BBC2. I had to stop and say, ‘Sorry chaps, I can’t go on.’ And I had to go out and sit in the back yard for half an hour before I could come back and sing.”
An acoustic and electric master
After John’s passing, 2011 brought the posthumously-released Heaven and Earth, of which Andy Gill wrote in The Independent that its “valedictory recordings have a suitably weary presence that makes even such legendary laidback soporificos as J.J. Cale and Leonard Cohen seem positively sprightly by comparison.”
In April 2017, the two-disc collection Head And Heart: The Acoustic John Martyn was released, featuring the unique performer at his most stripped-down, on acoustic guitar and piano. The set featured three previously unreleased demos of songs from the early The Tumbler and Stormbringer! plus a 1971 performance, on BBC television’s celebrated The Old Grey Whistle Test show, of “Bless The Weather.” Additionally, the 1971 album from which that was the title track is also available on 180 gram vinyl, as are the 1973 set Inside Out and 1975’s Sunday’s Child.
In September 2018, John featured on a career-spanning box set release by his friend and frequent collaborator Phil Collins, Plays Well With Others, which also included work with Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Robert Plant among others.
“I’m an emotional fool,” Martyn told Q magazine in 1990. “I’m not a sweatshop writer who tries to sit down and write three hits by tomorrow. I know it’s a cliché but I genuinely have to say that I believe you do your best work when you’re the most screwed up.”
Buy or stream Head and Heart: The Acoustic John Martyn.