John Martyn: Pioneering singer-songwriter who blended folk with jazz and played with Eric Clapton and Dave Gilmour

Before he passed away this week at the age of 60, the singer and guitarist John Martyn had cheated death many times. A former heroin user and lifelong alcoholic who suffered numerous injuries in falls, he also seemed to treat being shot at, pancreatic failure, and a broken neck sustained when his car collided with a bull as occupational hazards.

In April 2003, Martyn's morale was further tested when a burst cyst led to septicaemia and the amputation of his right leg below the knee. Typically he soldiered on, playing gigs in a wheelchair, and referencing his injury and subsequent weight gain with black humour. "Does anyone require the services of a one-legged Sumo wrestler?" he enquired at some of his last concerts.

Listening to Martyn's illustrious back catalogue, one hears naivety, drugged-out experimentation, mid-life crisis and some Buddhism-influenced soul-searching. But it is for his 1973 masterpiece Solid Air that he will be remembered most. The influential album's sublime-sounding pastoral folk and jazz won admirers in Paul Weller and Pink Floyd's David Gilmour, not least for its spellbinding title track, which voiced touching concern for Martyn's friend and record label-mate, Nick Drake. A shy and vulnerable individual who was John Martyn's opposite in terms of temperament, Drake, English folk's tragic seer, would pass away 18 months later.

Like him, Martyn had developed a masterful finger-picking technique on acoustic guitar, but the most celebrated aspect of his playing was his pioneering use of the Echoplex echo device, employed to mesmerising effect on his druggiest, most electric-sounding album, 1977's One World. Though scores of musicians, including Eric Clapton, delighted in working with Martyn, his most important musical foil was undoubtedly Pentangle's double-bassist, Danny Thompson. As 1975's Live at Leeds testifies, near telepathic interplay informed the pair's musical unions even when both players were roaring drunk.

Martyn was born Iain David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey in 1948, but grew up in the Queen's Park district of Glasgow. His parents, both light-opera singers, divorced whenhe was five, and he was brought upby his father, Tommy, and paternal grandmother, Janet. The household was a cultured and reasonably affluent one, and Martyn's boyhood interests included ornithology and the paintings of the French Impressionists. Buthis parents' divorce, cited by his biographer John Neil Munro as the source of "a deep dark hurt", had a lasting effect on him.

Following his hero, the folk-guitar virtuoso Davy Graham, to London (Graham died in December 2008), the aspiring singer-songwriter left Shawlands Academy with decent qualifications but occasionally slept rough in Trafalgar Square while honing his live act on Soho's folk-cellar circuit. He signed to Island Records in 1967 aged 19 and would enjoy a long tenure at Chris Blackwell's exemplary imprint, his uncompromising, shape-shifting music taking in folk, jazz, funk, dub and more.

In April 1969, Martyn married Beverley Kutner, a fellow folk singer who had already appeared at the Monterey pop festival. They made the 1970 album Stormbringer together at the suggestion of the record producer Joe Boyd. The newly-weds and Wesley, Beverley's son from a previous relationship, relocated to Woodstock, New York State, for its recording.

A second album by the Martyns, The Road to Ruin, followed that same year, but like its predecessor it wasn't well received. When John Martyn re-emerged, it was with his solo album Bless the Weather. Containing one of his most beautiful love songs, "Head and Heart", the album could be read as a celebration of the Martyns' new life by the seaside in Hastings, and the birth of their daughter Mhairi. But the darker truth was that John had already been physically and verbally abusive to Beverley, blackening her eye on one occasion.

The couple had a second son, Spenser, in 1975, but by 1980 they were divorced and Beverley had custody of their children. John married again in 1983, this time to Annie Furlong, a fellow alcoholic and the manager of a recording studio in Ireland. When Furlong passed away in 1996, long after they had separated, Martyn was also grieving for his oldest friend, the musician Hamish Imlach. These and other accumulated hurts might help explain – though not excuse – the ugly bouts of drunken machismo that periodically blotted Martyn's copybook.

He had documented his messy break-up with Beverley on his 1980 album, Grace & Danger, a record whose emotional candour unnerved Island's Chris Blackwell so much that he delayed its release for a year. Martyn had employed his friend Phil Collins, also undergoing a break-up at the time, as producer, but while Collins's divorce record Face Value went on to sell 10 million copies, Martyn's Grace & Danger was another critically-acclaimed but under-performing work.

Martyn once said that had he drank coffee all his life he might have become a superstar, but his eclecticism, stubbornness and refusal to play by the rules must also be factored in when attempting to explain his lack of mainstream success. More taken with innovation than writing hit singles, he was forever indulging whims and proclivities while striking odd deals. In 1998, when he was "rediscovered" by Independiente Records, he agreed to record an album of cover versions including Portishead's "Glory Box" on the condition that the label buy him a disused Scottish kirk he had his eye on. Independiente agreed, and soon came The Church with One Bell.

Martyn made a great curry (he cooked me one once when I interviewed him). He could be tender and poetic or aggressive and intimidating, and even while stoned or drunk he was an eloquent, informative speaker and a hugely expressive musician and singer. One of his party pieces was to segue between broad Cockney and broad Glaswegian in the course of one sentence.

The last time I met him was in 2004 when I travelled to Thomastown, Co. Kilkenny to interview him for this newspaper. He seemed calmer and more contemplative, and he was living in a bric-a-brac festooned cottage with his partner Teresa, whom he met in Dublin in 1998. We'd ostensibly met to talk about his 22nd studio album, On the Cobbles, but Martyn only agreed to do so on condition that I first listen to him perform four brand new songs. I'll never forget him coaxing beautiful phrases from his Gibson SG, his prosthetic foot stretched out before him and curlicues of marijuana smoke twirling around his head.

When talk eventually turned to On the Cobbles, I singled out "My Creator", a balm for the senses wherein Martyn's rich, gravelly voice soars alongside tenor and soprano saxophones. The song seemed to reflect Martyn's growing awareness of his own mortality and prompted questions about whether there actually was a God.

"I can't not believe in a creator," Martyn told me, his Jack Russell terrier, Gizmo, now asleep on his lap. "The birds sing too beautifully and the trout are too speckled."

In February last year Martyn received the lifetime achievement award at the BBC Radio 2 Folk Awards – presented to him by Phil Collins – and at the ceremony he performed "Over the Hill" and "May You Never", accompanied by the former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones on mandolin. To mark his 60th birthday, Island released a 4-CD set, Ain't No Saint, and he was appointed an OBE in the 2009 New Year Honours List.

James McNair

Iain David McGeachy (John Martyn), singer, songwriter and guitarist: born New Malden, Surrey 11 September 1948; married 1969 Beverley Kutner (marriage dissolved, one son, one daughter, one stepson), 1983 Annie Furlong (deceased 1996); died 29 January 2009.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Financial Director / FD / Senior Finance Manager

Up to 70k DOE: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Financial Director ...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Luton - £24,000

£20000 - £24000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst vacancy with a we...

Recruitment Genius: Instructional Training Designer

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic and interes...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse & Stores Supervisor

£16224 - £20280 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Warehouse & Stores Supervisor...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen