Tom Dunne's Music & Me: John Martyn was a troubled soul who rolled at night

Life on the road with a guitar is far from the romantic lifestyle many assume it to be as a new book on the maverick musician explains  
Tom Dunne's Music & Me: John Martyn was a troubled soul who rolled at night
The late John Martyn in concert at London's Royal Albert Hall in April 2007. Picture: Yui Mok

‘Be careful what you wish for’ is believed to be an old Chinese proverb. I’ve used it myself on rare occasions such as when a friend gains access to a free bar or a child encounters an ‘all you can eat’ ice-cream party. Its end is ‘lest it come true’, but although I say it, I never really mean it. It is, after all, only a beer or a free mini Magnum.

But in the case of John Martyn I would mean it. ‘John,’ I would say, ‘would you not give guitar teaching a go? Or carpentry? Or something that doesn’t require a heady mix of travel, alcohol, time alone, and female attention? Because, honestly John, I don’t think those things suit you.’ Would he have listened?

The answer, according to a wonderful new book by Graeme Thompson is a resounding no!

It’s called Small Hours, The Long Night of John Martyn and the emphasis is on the ‘Long Night’ bit. Daytime was not John’s thing. Night time was where he came alive. It was his place, where he could drink, make music, and bring destruction upon himself and others.

And he did this, in spades.

It’s a cautionary tale. For anyone who has ever looked at some bright-eyed singer and thought ‘I would give anything to be him,’ this one’s for you. If you’ve harboured dreams of singing and freedom, here’s a look at the terms and conditions. Having read this, you may not sign the contract. The school run may suddenly look like enough excitement for anyone.

Drink lies at the beginning, centre, and end of John’s woes, but so too does  fecklessness. He has a childlike attitude to responsibility. He probably used drink to ensure he never needed to swap that attitude for anything more mature. This was great for his art, which thrived in the '70s. It was not so great for wives or children, who did not thrive and were cast aside.

in 1970 John had the world at his feet. He was 21 and regarded as one of the brightest lights in a music scene that boasted Linda and Richard Thompson, Sandy Denny, Tim Buckley, and Nick Drake. He was beloved of Island Records' Chris Blackwell and had both the ability and the support to do whatever he wished.

Albums such as, Solid Air (’73), One World (‘77), and Grace and Danger (’80) were stunning.

He was constantly pushing the envelope of what could be achieved with an acoustic guitar and electronic sound effects, way before U2. He created a new sound: Trippy, soulful, and beautiful, and would later be referred to as ‘The Spiritual Father of Hip Hop'. 

Running parallel through all this was destruction. He appeared to be constantly building nests and having children only to suddenly depart. One day he would dote on the children, the next he would abandon them. When one of his children later tried to call him, he told a friend to tell the child that he was dead.

It isn’t pretty and by the end nor was John. Sitting opposite him in a bar in Kilkenny in 2005, three years before his death, Thompson says it was hard to imagine how anyone could destroy themselves to the extent John had. He was over 20 stone in weight and had had a leg amputated. He was drinking a pint of cider into which he had poured four double vodkas.

This contrast, between the weak flesh and the soaring soul of his music is at the heart of the book’s power. But can you really enjoy a song like ‘May You Never’ knowing the hurt its author has brought to so many? in John’s case, I find I can. In the midst of his troubles and pain, he espoused a better world. He was complicated, he was ill, but he was true to his music.

In his latter years one of the children he had abandoned would force her way back into his life. She wanted to know, as she said, ‘the only father I have'. She would later recall it as one of the best relationships of her life.

We missed sharing a stage with him by one night in Culdaff in 1994, but even 24 hours later, the staff were still shaking their heads in horror at his behaviour in the dressing room. 

‘Ah! troubled man,’ I thought. Yet, his was a life that had granted him everything his 21-year-old self would have wished for. The Chinese knew a thing or two, didn’t they?

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