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John Martyn: Scottish Folk-Blues Innovator

From Folk & Blues: An Encyclopedia, Lyndon & Irwin Stambler, St. Martin's Press, 2001
 
JOHN MARTYN
Singer; songwriter; guitarist. Born Glasgow, Scotland, June 28,1948.
 
During the 1960s and 1970s, Scottish-born singer- songwriter John Martyn composed romantic folk ballads of ineffable grace and delicacy. The Island Records two-CD anthology Sweet Little Mysteries captures the quintessential Martyn songs: Bless the Weather, Head and Heart (covered by the rock group America), Solid Air, Don't Want to Know (covered by Eric Clapton), May You Never, Lay It All Down, Spencer the Rover, Sweet Little Mystery, and You Can Discover. Martyn, in these works, created an un- surpassed romantic style: his melodies are alternately lilting and playful or achingly heartbreaking; his singing style is alternately soft, warm, and earthy or gruff and slurred; and his delicate guitar styling is influenced by performers like Richard Thompson and John Renbourn.
 
A sampling of three Martyn songs highlights his lyrical gift. Solid Air both expresses Martyn's devoted friendship with Nick Drake (it was written one year before Drake's death) and captures the paradoxical, wraithlike nature of a man living in the world but not of it. . . and who would shortly leave it: You've been painting the blues and you've been looking through solid air;. Don't know what is going on in- side your mind, I can tell you don't like what you find when you're moving through solid air.
 
In Martyn's love songs, the exquisite interplay between his guitar and Danny Thompson's bass mirrors the playful relationship of two lovers. One of his best is May You Never, a plea for lasting love. And in You Can Discover, the alternating joy and pain of love seems to make the lovers and their relationship stronger: One day our laughter comes floating with the rain, On the very next day our sorrow sees us crying again, But darling you can discover the lover in me, And I can discover the lover in thee...
 
It is startling that such a gifted songwriter has never won more than a cult following in the United States. Several reasons account for this: Martyn can be ornery, irascible; he is far too demanding and uncompromising to remain satisfied in a single genre like the romantic ballad. No sooner did he write these gorgeous ballads than he restlessly turned his hand to the technowizardry of a song like Root Love. While Martyn's journeys across the musical landscape earn him credit as a continually experimenting and expanding performer (ever the contrarian, Martyn says his "sense of adventure came from the need to avoid boredom rather than a need to constantly experiment and evolve"), his audience, radio stations, and record companies didn't know what to make of him. Also, a broken marriage and alcohol dependency sidetracked his career for three years beginning in 1976.
 
Colin Escott's masterful liner notes for Sweet Little Mysteries capture Martyn's grit and iconoclasm. Life has been "a hard bloody slog, John Martyn would be the first to tell you," Escott writes. He was brought up in Glasgow, Scotland, a city of working-class neighbor- hoods whose inhabitants work the textile mills and sea- side docks. It is gray, bleak, and brooding. The street life is replete with petty crime and drug dealing as described in the film Trainspotting.
 
Martyn was an only child whose parents divorced when he was five. His mother returned to England, and he shuttled back and forth from Glasgow to southern England. During the mid-1960s, he worked the London folk club circuit, eventually securing a record contract from Island Records. His first album, London Conversation (1967), was heavily influenced by British guitarist Davy Graham, who was also a musical hero to Paul Simon when he lived in London during this period. His second album, The Tumbler, was produced by Al Stewart.
 
He had a hardscrabble youth and, as with Van Morrison (who grew up in Belfast), you can hear it in his voice: at times gruff and scuffling; at other times warm, smooth, and whiskey-drenched. His diction, like Morrison's, makes no concessions to intelligibility. The growling and slurring lend an emotional authenticity to the songs. His highly autobiographical, introspective song" writing calls to mind Tim Buckley and Nick Drake.
 
Martyn met his first wife, Beverly Kutner, in 1969 at art college. At the time, she was involved with Joe Boyd, the legendary producer of Fairport Convention. When she earned her first record contract, Martyn played guitar and wrote many of the songs with her. Their first album released in America is the delightful Stormbringer (1969), produced by John Simon (who did the early Leonard Cohen recordings) and featuring accompaniment by many members of the Band from the Big Pink era. They followed with The Road to Ruin and Bless the Weather before John recorded Solid Air.
 
In 1973, his musical explorations caused him to turn away from simple folk songs in favor of electronic experimentation. He introduced the fuzz box, phaseshifter, and Echoplex on the recordings Inside Out and Sunday's Child, using them to add a darker, more threatening edge to his music. In particular, Martyn's work on the Echoplex influenced U2's lead guitarist, the Edge, and helped give that group its distinctive sound.
 
His romance with musical technology can become oppressive. Martyn's album, No Little Boy (1992), is an uneven attempt to update his old folk-oriented material in a jazz groove. This work is an uncomfortable musical amalgam in which Martyn attempts to get his folk material to swing and groove in the jazz idiom.
 
Escott characterizes Martyn's music at its best when he says: "All kinds of sound and furies meet here, brought together by a keen, intuitive musical intelligence. The albums are the work of a true eccentric. 'Every record,' John once said, 'is totally autobiographical. That's the only way I can write. Some people keep diaries. I make records.' "
 
Martyn's The Church with One Bell (Independiente, 1998), is an album of covers of disparate originals ranging from Billie Holiday's Strange Fruit to Randy Newman's God's Song to Portisheads Glory Box. A rather audacious concept the result of which, by most critics' accounts, is rather spotty. Writing in the Jerusalem Post, David Brinn calls it "a good concept gone awry in execution. Amazingly enough, Martyn manages to make all this seemingly incompatible music sound exactly the same--a droll, lazy shuffle that's perpetually stuck in first gear."
 
Almost simultaneously released were a limited- edition "official bootleg" Live at Bristol (Voiceprint, 1998) and Serendipity (Island, 1998), a compilation album of previously released material issued by Martyn's former record company.
 
Entry written by Richard Silverstein