10/28/2010

A Memory of John Martyn

The uneasy life of John Martyn, the British singer, guitarist, and songwriter, ended much too soon for those of us who greatly valued the fearless honesty and the venturesome beauty of his songs. At its best, his rich music had a boundless depth of feeling and expression that always rewarded the willing consideration of a careful listener. He was only sixty years old, with a full history of headstrong adventures behind him, when he was felled by pneumonia in January, 2009.

Iain David McGeachy (as John Martyn was known at the beginning of his life) was born in Surrey, England, and spent his childhood years in Glasgow, Scotland. He became interested in music as a teenager, learning the guitar and playing in local clubs. His first album, London Conversation, was offered to the public on Island Records in 1967, and received much praise. He subsequently released a number of worthy albums over the next four decades, including two albums, The Road to Ruin and Stormbringer!, with Beverly Martyn, his first wife.

I have a clear, poignant memory of seeing John Martyn perform in January, 1970, at Winterland in San Francisco. He was at the bottom of a strong bill that included Free and Traffic, two bands who also recorded for Island Records. At the beginning of the show, John Martyn came out and sat on a chair, alone at the front of the stage, playing his acoustic guitar through an Echoplex, a device that enabled him to create wave upon wave of circular sound. The overall effect was dreamlike and timeless, with a stream of enchanting music swirling out of his guitar and filling the space of the hall.

I was quite impressed by what I heard that evening. John Martyn was doing something different, something that was taking him into new realms of musical invention. Most members of the audience on that evening probably were not familiar with him or his music, but he gamely kept on playing, without any apparent concern. As he sat there holding his guitar, with his eyes closed and his single earring glinting in the spotlight, he appeared to be lost in the magic and mystery of his own musicianship.

Although John Martyn was troubled by a dangerous fondness for alcohol and drugs, he was a dedicated musician who created a durable body of work. He wrote and recorded many estimable songs during his lifetime, but two of his songs in particular, "Solid Air" (written in honor of his friend and fellow songwriter, Nick Drake), and "May You Never" (covered by Eric Clapton and others) are regarded with special esteem. He was one of the foremost musicians of his generation, and his rare abilities are sorely missed.