John Martyn: 1948-2009 R.I.P.

Legendary guitarist
and British folk pioneer passes on Jan. 29.

 

By Fred Mills

 

“With heavy heart and
an unbearable sense of loss we must announce that John died this morning.” – www.johnmartyn.com

 

Heavy heart indeed. Less than a month into 2009, the world
lost another guitar giant when avant-folk pioneer John Martyn died last week,
on Jan. 29, at the age of 60 (the Stooges’ Ron Asheton passed away on Jan. 6).
Ironically, his death – the cause of which has not yet been released – came on
the heels of Martyn receiving an Order of the British Empire honor in early
January. He’d also gotten a lifetime achievement honor last year at the BBC
Radio 2 Folk Awards, and this past September saw the release of the
career-spanning Ain’t No Saint box
set.

 

For those unfamiliar with Martyn and his work, he was a
fixture on the mid 60s London
folk scene and debuted in 1967 with the London
Conversation
album. He soon became one of the flagship artists on Island
Records. His ’73 LP Solid Air brought
him to international prominence, displaying in equal measures his big-lunged vocals
and his unique guitar style, which frequently incorporated a mind-warping
Echoplex effect that marked him as much “psychedelic” as “folkie.” Many of the
usual Island Records (and Fairport Convention and Traffic) studio suspects
appeared on his albums – among them, guitarists Richard Thompson, bassists
Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg, drummer Dave Mattacks, keyboardists Steve Winwood
and Rabbit Bundrick – while over the years he collaborated with numerous other
peers and admirers including Eric Clapton, David Gilmour, Phil Collins and
Levon Helms. His final studio album was 2004’s On the Cobbles featuring guest appearances by Paul Weller, Mavis
Staples and the Verve’s Nick McCabe.

 

“Every record I’ve made – bad, good, or indifferent –
is totally autobiographical,” Martyn wrote once for his website. “I can look
back when I hear a record and recall exactly what was going on. That’s how I
write. That’s the only way I can write ! Some people keep diaries, I make
records.”

 

Said Collins, also a close friend, to the BBC, “John’s
passing is terribly, terribly sad. I had worked with and known him since the
late 1970s and he was a great friend. He was uncompromising, which made him
infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we’ll never see the likes of
him again. I loved him dearly and will miss him very much.”

 

Over the years Martyn had had his struggles with drugs and
booze, and in 2003 his right leg had to be amputated following a cyst burst,
leaving him to perform in a wheelchair. But perform he did up until the very
end.

 

***

 

To add a personal note, I’ll never forget seeing Martyn play
twice in 1974 when he opened for Yes on their North American Tales from Topographic Oceans tour. His
solo set mostly comprised material from Solid
Air
and its followup, Inside Out,
and the man was in full flight from start to finish, shaking his long, curly
locks manically at times as he stomped his foot and mauled his acoustic guitar
– this from a guy forced to stare down an audience that was obviously there for the headliners
and largely ignorant of who he was.

 

Not me and my friends, though; we already knew his albums.
And when Martyn grinned evilly, triggered his Echoplex, and cocked his head
back to emit a massive room-clearing wail, it was as if someone had collectively
slapped the audience senseless, such were the looks of shock on the faces of
the stunned Yes devotees around us.

 

Something tells me that Martyn probably got a perverse
pleasure out of that. If there’s any justice in the world, anybody who saw him
on that Yes tour, regardless of whether or not they were Martyn fans, will
remember his performances and how utterly unique, how perfectly primal, he was,
and for a much longer time than they remember any of the Yes material.

 

Rest in peace, you gifted sonofabitch, you.

 

Watch for a tribute to Martyn in the inaugural print edition
of BLURT, coming in March.

 

[Photo Credit: Paul Reid/JohnMartyn.com]

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