John Martyn - May You Never - 1973
Rest in Peace, Sweet Soul: Jump's Johnny
January 29, 2009
Ahhh, such sad news today --- a friend who remembered how much I loved him emailed me around midday to tell me that John Martyn was gone at age 60. His death is well-covered on bbc.co.uk and in the British press, but not so much in the States, where he was never well-known. We musicologists knew of him though, since at least the late 60's when he recorded with his then-wife as John and Beverley Martyn. Like David Ackles and other 'cult' artists (I am starting to detest that word, with its connotation of Manson crackpots, sociopaths strung out on highly questionable religious motives and toxic Kool-aid) -- as I was saying, these artists usually, almost always, have at least one or two songs in their repertoire that burn so deeply in their fan's characters that strangers find themselves melting into each other's arms when they discover another kindred soul.
They say that David Ackles was a cult artist too. (The times they are a'changing, on that one, you may be sure.) And that he 'had a voice like oak-matured whiskey, at once fragile and uncompromising.' John Martyn, who was born in Southern England but grew up mostly in Glasgow, possessed a voice that had to be filtered through molten maple syrup. Everything he did was magical, he wrote with a mystical pen straight to our stoners' ears – and was perhaps best known for "Solid Air," a long mumble with a sexy sax which he wrote for that poor lost soul – not Syd Barrett but Nick Drake. Although I bet Syd fancied it plenty.
Chris Blackwell, whom I never tire of citing as my lifelong idol, started Island Records in Jamaica with Millie ("My Boy Lollipop") Small before scooping up Bob Marley and turning the world onto reggae. This is ancient history, I know, but it's telling that the genius Blackwell signed Martyn as Island's first white artist.
The Daily Telegraph had this to say today: "A rebel in all senses, he railed against every musical cliché and genre straitjacket they tried to pin on him – annihilating the genre barriers between folk, blues, jazz, rock and avant-garde as he bullishly rejected attempts to tame him and mould him into a sellable product." Back when there were fewer suits to please, loose or no radio rotation, and well before MTV necessitated T & A and lipgloss or their male equivalent (think Bret Michaels) for a single to succeed, he could have raked in the green. But like Laura, he didn't – he just wouldn't. As obscure as they both were, living quiet but certainly not pain-free lives, he was a muse and influence to several household names like Clapton, Gilmour and U2. He wrote ethereal love songs: "One day Without You" and "Head and Heart," pined away in ballads: "Couldn't Love You More," wove tales about Gaelic characters such as "Spencer the Rover," just basically turning on every Celtic charm with
which he was genetically endowed. He was the ideal vision of what kind of chap you would like to curl up with on a rug before the fire if you could ever get out of the bloody city long enough to find one -- Johnny with his beard and lovely curls, dressed in a lumberjack shirt and jeans, bringing in a cord of wood and pouring a perfect Laphroaig into two crystal glasses.
When kids started raving, and listening to 'trance' "Goa trance," 'emo" or "D & B," I thought that the perfect definition for trance music was these guys whose vocals were so cocooned in baffling and swaddling that it took some hard work to figure out their lyrics. Like Martyn and Bryan Ferry. That was trance music to me. It certainly wasn't gonna make you sweat, as Martha Wash would say.
Some readers ask me "That's all fine, Jump, but what's it got to do with Southern Music?" I'll tell you, kids. John recorded a gorgeous ballad long ago called "I Don't Wanna Know" or "I Don't Wanna Know (About Evil)." And guess who covered it? Our own Ninth Ward Nawlns Dr. John on his superbly funky 1997 album "Anutha Zone." So did Santana. Sure, there are more covers. I even remember playing it for a Memphis Belle who sings on Beale Street every night, and her response: "I think this is gonna be my hit record." And on 1993's "No Little Boy" album, whose familiar voice is that harmonizing on "Just Now"? Why, no other than Jump's favourite drummer, ole Levon Helm from Turkey Scratch, Arkansas. Got his own verse even, and it sounds like the mutual respect between these musicians led to some exalted fun in the recording process. But Levon always loves to jam, we all know that by now. So you throw Slowhand into the mix (that was the album on which he
covered Martyn's "May You Never") and it starts to make sense. Clapton said that when he first heard the Band, that was the type of music he wanted to play. Martyn – Clapton – Helm and Robertson, and the circle is unbroken.
Take Phil Collins (or not, if you're picky like I am). John and Phil were going through their respective divorces around the same time. Already friends, they fell into something akin to the Scorsese-Robertson wedonelostourwimmen let's paintthewindowsblack and neverwakeupagain syndrome. They palled around, hit the pubs, cried together, poured till the last drop was gone, and then cried some more. John has even been quoted as saying he never made another good record after his split from Beverley.
I last saw John in 1997, at Liverpool Philharmonic Hall, where I remember feeling extremely offended that some Scouser in the audience yelled out "Hey Fattie." A large man, "lurching" and "skulking" were the words that best described his hefty masculinity. So what did I do? I got myself down to London to catch his next gig a few nights later at a great club in Camden Town. "But I've come all the way from Liverpool," I pleaded when informed the show was sold out. That and a Yank accent worked. Had the chance to go backstage, too, just not the cojones to do so.
It shocks me to see the most recent photographs of him. After part of his leg was amputated in 2003, he was confined to a wheelchair and looked scarier than ever. I don't want to know about that evil, I only wanna know about love. And John Martyn, brash and rebellious as he was, had plenty of that, and if we were lucky, we got to feel a bit of it and send it back his way.
Southern Music Network sends its deepest condolences to his daughter Mhairi and all his friends and family. The world is a poorer one without him.
So go get out your old copy of "Slowhand" or look up "May You Never" on Youtube. He might have written these words as a reminder to himself, and I believe he succeeded, as well as any mortal man can:
May you never lay your head down without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold
May you never lose your temper if you get hit in a barroom fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
Like to think he never did. Rest in peace, sweet boy.
Til we all sing together,