John Martyn springs from the page to be larger than life

Graeme Thompson




Samuel Taylor Coleridge described the performances of great early-19th-century actor Edmund Kean as “like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning”. Something similar could be said of listening to John Martyn’s most compelling music, with his lyrics carrying disturbing illuminations of the human condition, while the music twists and bucks to evade being trapped in idiomatic boxes. One song can be serene, tender or celebratory, and the next violent, dangerous or tempestuous.

That same set of adjectives could be applied to the man, too, as revealed in Graeme Thomson’s compelling new biography, Small Hours, subtitled The Long Night of John Martyn (intentionally echoing James Gavin’s Deep in Dream: The Long Night of Chet Baker). What Kean, Baker and Martyn had in common (beyond sudden blazes of creative genius) was a staggering capacity to wage war against their own bodies in the course of their war with the world.

The book is based on nearly 100 interviews that author conducted with those close to Martyn both domestically and musically, including with the man himself not long before his 2009 death. He digs deep into the rough-and-tumble Glasgow childhood of the boy who was born Ian David McGeachy in 1948, so we are on page 27 before reaching Martyn’s first public performance at the age of 17. Thompson then tracks Martyn’s career in almost gig-by-gig and session-by-session detail from 1965 through until 1981, after which he accelerates the pace, in tacit acknowledgement that’s Martyn’s artistry, while still capable of being astonishing, was less consistently so.

The author spends too long on Martyn’s ’67 debut, London Conversations, which was really a rushed and rather ordinary outing by someone who had yet to find his voice as either a singer or songwriter. The first flashes of someone significant on the horizon came with the follow-up, The Tumbler, when Martyn intimated that his areas of musical interest extended far beyond the Guthrie/Baez/Dylan folk prototypes or the British traditionalists. From then on he was developing idiosyncratic guitar tunings, partially to approximate harmonies that had caught his ear, including by listening to such jazz as Pharoah Sanders’ albums of the period.

John Martyn. Photo supplied. Top photo: Keith Morris/Redferns.

Thompson also overrates Stormbringer, even if his behind-the-scenes peeks at this first collaboration between John and his new wife, Beverly, recorded in New York, are intriguing. Thompson calls the US drummers used on the album “gold-plated”, and they are indeed very good players, but, in retrospect Strormbringer began a career-long affliction for Martyn of often being saddled with the wrong drummers. The truth of this is proven by the albums where he found the right ones, of which more shortly. By contrast with Stormbringer, Road to Ruin, the far superior follow-up for John and Bev as a putative duo, is given relatively short shrift. Little is made of the quality of Bev’s songs, of the obvious chemistry when pivotal bassist Danny Thompson came on board for the first time, or of the exuberant alto saxophone playing of Dudu Pukwana. Martyn used many saxophonists across his career, but none better than Dudu.

Thompson does, however, catch all of the glow that hangs across Martyn’s 1971-74 golden period of studio albums: Bless the Weather, Solid Air, Inside Out and Sunday’s Child. Alas he then underplays Martyn’s masterpiece, Live at Leeds, where for one tour and recording he had the perfect trio, with Danny Thompson and British free-jazz pioneer John Stevens playing drums. Stevens, primarily playing with brushes, let the songs breathe, and provided the textural space for Thompson to solo and play counterpoint lines against Martyn, not unlike the way that the brilliant Scott LaFaro did against Bill Evans on The Village Vanguard Sessions. (And this was recorded, as Danny once told me, after they had collectively drunk a bucket-load of creme de menthe!) Stevens’ perfect simpatico with Martyn’s material is amplified when one listens to 1986’s The Brewery Arts Centre Kendel (which the book doesn’t mention), and hears how Arran Ahmun, himself and excellent drummer and Martyn regular, defines the same songs in more concrete, less abstracted terms. Martyn’s songs were best presented with the grooves blurred – just like his singing.

Photo supplied.

A highlight of the book is the coverage of the making of the sublime One World, Thompson’s history replete with very funny anecdotes and fascinating insights into the recording process. The coverage of creating Grace and Danger is also hugely entertaining, now with Phil Collins on board, who, like Martyn was recently divorced, with both men raw from the experience.

Thompson’s account of the plummeting final years is resolute in presenting the harsh facts, while also being written with benevolence and sympathy. Throughout the work he is astute at weaving his interviewees in and out of the story, like so many minor characters in a play, with the larger-than-life presence of Martyn looming over all. For anyone who loved any period of Martyn’s wildly diverse music, this is a must-read.