An aspiring songwriter myself, listening to Dylan was like reading the great American novel. My head spun with fantastical images – vagabond, and worldly, Blood On The Tracks fueled my own wanderlust. With Dylan it seemed I was viewing the world on a vivid screen. He sang images and ideas waiting to be tried on like an exotic suit of clothes. Yet as the first strains of John Martyn’s Solid Air came through the speakers, the very composition of my life was forever and deeply altered.
Everything about his voice pleaded and seduced its way into my consciousness. His guitar playing slapped my synapses to attention. His arrangements pushed away all peripherals and put the music at the center of my world. Rather than a suit of clothes, the experience of listening to John Martyn was no less than stepping into a wholly human body of ecstasy, suffering, and connection with all that life is. One would aspire to feel life in the fullness that this music was capturing over and over and over.
In the subsequent weeks I would go back to Dylan just to catch my breath – to stand on American terra firma. With Dylan I could return to view life from a safe distance while John Martyn effectively obliterated that distance. Listening to Dylan provided a necessary balance to contrast the murky, emotion-filled island across the ocean that Martyn was. But eventually I would sneak back to Solid Air like a junkie to a fix, and soak in the sweetness and raw masculine emotion rolled up into one jellyroll.
As a guitar player, logic dictated I should learn to play “Tangled Up In Blue” first, and I did. The first position chords were so accessible and fell easily beneath my fingers. And singing Dylan is a folk singer’s dream: it’s a come-as you-are endeavor – just tighten up and let it fly. But to sing like John Martyn requires a looseness, a deep vulnerability, and a willingness to explore things that cannot even be imagined. While his voice inspired me as a long-term study, what really beat in my skull were the percussive intricacies of Martyn’s “Easy Blues,” and “May You Never.” I would visit these songs daily on my own guitar, and the years melted away as I integrated those abilities into my playing. I can still play those two songs and derive the same satisfaction as I did the first time I attempted and gained purchase in them.
I sought out both Dylan and Martyn’s other recordings. Understand this is before the days of the internet when you had to go on record bin hunts and scavenge through other peoples collections. Dylan was more popular and accessible and upon bringing each new album home I would sit down and eat through it much like a good meal. Finding John Martyn’s music was more like treasure hunting. Slowly I unearthed his other albums. Bless the Weather hit me in much the same way as Solid Air did with Martyn’s genius fully showing through. In a shop I found an import vinyl of Sunday’s Child that I still cherish. Ultimately I think I had cassettes of most of what he’d recorded, but they’ve fallen away in time to just a CD of Solid Air and my Sunday’s Child.
I saw John play live once at a small club in Northampton, Massachusetts; it was something like 1990. I remember the thrill of being like a kid who gets to see his idol play. In the first set he was warming up and finding his voice, but I studied his every move and appreciated each moment as it passed. The pay dirt came at the top of the second set with an incendiary “Easy Blues” and a soulful “May You Never.” After that he strapped on his gold-top Les Paul and scorched the house with electric rock, soul, and blues. By the end of the night it seemed like catharsis was had by all including John.
His tales of excess and antics are legendary. Garnet Rogers told me once about seeing him in Britain in the 70’s when John was in his youthful prime. He wandered onto stage late with a six-pack and a huge spleef, proceeded to consume them, then commenced to play. I don’t recall the story too well, but Garnet’s rapture with the experience was well communicated. People trade John Martyn concert memories like a kind of cherished currency. Somehow he got away with punishing himself year after year. The booze, the weed, cocaine, whatever… In a way it’s amazing he lived to be sixty. We should be grateful we had him this long.
The heroes of my life have always been those who in some way have pushed the boundaries. These are our modern-day shamen in a western world. Our great writers, thinkers, painters, musicians, farmers, cooks, and poets of everyday life are those who have been willing to experience life in absolute fullness, then in their own unique and selfless way communicate the fruit of their efforts to nourish the soil of our souls. In turn, then, our own lives are enriched.
Thank you John Martyn -
“…bless the weather that brought you to me / curse the storm that takes you home.” JM
PS - I've uploaded onto my myspace page a song I wrote for my first album, Elemental Lullabye entitled "Stepping Stone." "Stepping Stone" was very much influenced by John Martyn's work. It is to his memory that I dedicate it.