At the age of 22, I found my life but lost my music. For the love of a woman, the love of a country, and the yoke of a mortgage, I embraced self-imposed exile to a musical Siberia. If the Beatles hadn’t recently broken up and Dylan hadn’t released “Self-Portrait”, I don’t know if I could have done it.
I spent the twenty years from 1970 till the advent of the internet in musical exile, where the local AM radio’s idea of a hip foreign playlist was Johnny Hallyday followed by ‘Greenfields’ followed by Rex Allen’s ‘Son, Don’t Go Near the Indians’. Somehow, on Friday afternoons, when the Kommisars of Kitsch were taking their pre-weekend nap, an hour-long program snuck on the air called ‘Here, There and Everywhere’. It still may be running, for all I know. I stopped listening to other peoples’ playlists the moment the airwaves were liberated.
The theme song of the program was a Jose Feliciano instrumental, a harbinger of good things to come. They played new, interesting, refined music, stuff that was unavailable in the local stores. I was playing a lot of mediocre guitar in those days, and was thirsty for new sounds and materials and directions. I’d sit by the radio with the microphone of my little cassette recorder pointed at the speaker. When a promising intro started up, I’d flick on the tape. And it was thus, boys and girls, that I compiled twenty or thirty compilation cassettes that I loved dearly, tapes now closeted in the back of some drawer but dusted regularly in the nether corners of my musical memory.
One song that struck and stuck with me was a charming, disarming, more-than-ditty called ‘May You Never’ by a John Martin. I enjoyed it for years, and when All Music Guide and YouTube and Amazon Records hit town (iTunes still won’t sell here), I checked him out.
May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.
It turns out his name is John Martyn, a Scottish dissolute who died of booze and pneumonia and diabetes and excessive indulgence with one leg and many scars in 2009 at the age of 60. He began at 17 as a young adherent of the burgeoning British folk scene which included Davy Graham, Bert Jansch, John Renbourne and others. They started with traditional British/Celtic folk materials, amplified their acoustic guitars, and melded into them American blues and American jazz. Richard Thompson took Fairport Convention towards a new brand of rock. Paul Simon took the tweed jackets and turtleneck sweaters (and Graham’s ‘Angie’ via Jansch’s rendition) back to America. Jansch and Renbourne recorded alone, as a duo, and then together in The Pentangle, creating a riveting but regrettably short-lived acoustic folk-jazz amalgam.
John Martyn took his guitar to the pub. After four albums where he honed his craft and many drinks in which he learned to slur his voice, he broke through the constraints of the folk tradition into a remarkable outburst of brilliant, genre-defying folk-jazz in his next two albums, “Bless the Weather” (1971) and “Solid Air” (1973).
Martyn’s music of this period is spare in format – a sliding drunken mush of a voice, more an instrument than a singing voice as such; an expressive, fingerpicked electrically amplified acoustic guitar with a lot of percussive backslapping; backed by double-bassist Danny Thompson (formerly of The Pentangle); and the occasional bongo or ornamental piano. But it’s all Martyn and his guitar and voice backed by Thompson. The subject matter is slippery and elusive, ranging from the whimsical to the passionate to the cosmic. But it’s all a distinctive, unique voice. And hence difficult to describe, lacking all reference. He’s like no one, no one is like him.
The only thing that comes to mind is that other unique Celtic jazz-rock masterpiece, Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” (1968). Way back in SoTW 38 I wrote:
What is unique about “Astral Weeks” is how unique it is. It comes from no tradition and left no legacy. Stylistically, it stands absolutely alone. Spiritual blue-eyed Celtic soul acid acoustic jazz-rock. It’s gorgeous and sumptuous and moving and transcendent. No one else even tried to go there. It is literally inimitable. Probably the closest album to it in its musical frame of reference is The Pentangle, their first, an album I quite admire. Listen to this, and you’ll hear how many light years beyond its contemporary surroundings “Astral Weeks” was. Its impact, if not its influence, has been indelible.
I wrote that a few years ago, and I’ve learned since then that John Martyn did some fine work in that very vein. Van Morrison drafted jazz masters Richard Davis (bass) and Connie Kaye (drums) for “Astral Weeks”. Thompson was a significant partner for Martyn. Folk-jazz, the genre that almost never was.
Van never repeated the experiment, but he went on to a long, restless and energetic career. John Martyn spent the rest of his life degenerating personally and musically. John Martyn was a singular talent, tragically wasted. Many friends collaborated with him over the years, attempting unsuccessfully to resuscitate his career: Clapton, Phil Collins, David Gilmour, and Levon Helm. Back when I was discovering him, I dutifully plowed through his dozens of albums and innumerable live performances. Trust me, he flamed brilliantly for a short time, and you’ll do better avoiding the stench of his decline.
I made myself a Favorites compilation, 33 songs, 1970-1980. Not a single song from the subsequent 30 years of sloppy, self-indulgent recordings. And to tell you the truth, 30 of the songs are really fine, admirable, enjoyable. But there are three that outshine the others. Heck, they outshine just about everything. There’s the aforementioned ‘May You Never’, a charmer, witty and wise and loving. Listen to Clapton mistreat it. Gives you some respect for Mr Martyn, doesn’t it? Here’s Martyn singing it live in 1973, when he was still holding himself together.
And then there are these two transcendent, breathtaking cuts. One is a paean to pain, soul bared, nerves exposed to the ‘Solid Air’. Martyn wrote it as a tribute to his buddy Nick Drake, who had the tragic good taste to end his misery in one fell swoop rather than dragging it out.
You’ve been taking your time
And you’ve been living on solid air
You’ve been walking the line
And you’ve been living on solid air
Don’t know what’s going wrong inside
And I can tell you that it’s hard to hide when you’re living on
And then there’s our Song of The Week, ‘Bless the Weather’. It’s a love song by definition, but how often does a popular artist invoke the elements as the impediment to love’s fulfillment? Oh, those Scots. It’s just John, his voice and his guitar and his bassist. And the elements, and his love, and the pain of her absence.
Time after time, I held it
Just to watch it die
Line after line, I loved it
Just to watch it cry.
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you home.
Wave after wave, I watched it
Just to watch it turn
Day after day, I cooled it
Just to watch it burn.
Pain after pain I stood in
Just to see how it would feel
Rain after rain I stood in
Just to make it real.
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