While there can never be a ‘good’ time for someone as gifted as John Martyn to pass away, fans of the 60-year-old folk/blues veteran can take heart from the fact that his profile was higher than it had been in years.
Martyn was honoured with an OBE on New Year’s Day 2009. Meanwhile, the blanket critical acclaim afforded Bon Iver’s ‘To Emma, Forever Ago’ was a recognition of the enduring influence of Martyn’s brand of spectral, whispery folk.
The Surrey-born artist’s influence can today be detected in many strands of modern Americana, from the slurred, hypnotic folk lullabies of Iron And Wine to the arresting mix of gruffness and dreaminess employed by M.Ward. By way of tribute, here are some of Martyn’s most affecting moments.
Famously a tribute to tragic folkie Nick Drake, whose tendency to black despair and self-destruction was to also to dog Martyn. However, after Drake’s death Martyn never succumbed to schmaltz or hagiography: his warm-yet-unsentimental attitude to his old friend is captured in this clip from 1987: “This is a song I wrote about a man who had a bit of trouble in his nut – lovely man though.”
May You Never
A subtly affecting song about that most difficult of subjects to tackle convincingly: male friendship. Typically, Martyn swerved sugary emotion in favour of a mixture of hippy utopianism and bluff blokeishness: “May you never lose your temper if you get hit in a bar room fight/May you never lose your woman overnight”.
Over The Hill
Another ‘Solid Air’ track, a song about a drug-addled man who’s hit rock bottom (“Can’t get enough of sweet cocaine”) and decides to shape up. Like many Martyn songs, it dramatises a moment of conflict: the turbulent thoughts of a man at a crossroads.
Sweet Little Mystery
Described by Martyn as a “long journey into misery… divorce… lawsuit…”, his 1980 album ‘Grace And Danger’ was blocked for a year because label boss Chris Blackwell found it too depressing – although here the bloodletting is superficially cloaked by an elegant, heartswelling melody.
Hurt In Your Heart
Many found Martyn’s onstage appearance in 2008 shocking. Huge and wheelchair-bound (his right leg was amputated in 2003 after he developed a burst cyst), his final performances can be seen, in hindsight, as the enthralling swan song of a man raging against the dying of the light.