I don’t read tend to read too many rock biographies but this one is exceptional and darkly compelling. Mainly drawn from new and insightful interviews with the likes of Beverley Martyn and Danny Thompson (of course) plus a cross-section of his contemporaries and those fortunate or unfortunate enough to come across Martyn at various stages of his career and life.
I first discovered his music in the early 70’s – probably around the same time that I found Nick Drake and had started to develop my own guitar playing and song writing. The two of them instantly appealed and in particular Martyn’s deceptively easy slappy fingerpick style was an early influence (Nick’s more precise playing was beyond my comprehension). As with all your early heroes you then tend to follow them religiously wherever they may go and in my case up to and including this book.
The story is told chronologically and charts a sad and inevitable arc of decline physically and mentally almost from the off and artistically from the end of the 70s. The stories of his abuse of both himself and others are occasionally very funny (those mainly involving his partner in crime Danny Thompson) but the ongoingness of it all eventually wears everyone down; managers come and go unable to cope with the madness, fellow musicians whilst loving the music are never sure what he’s going to do next. It almost feels like one long suicide note – the excesses of drugs, violence and alcohol make the majority of those more infamous bad boys of rock look like pussycats. But there are moments of great tenderness, as there has to be to produce such heartfelt and gorgeous music, and over the final couple of decades he reconciles with his estranged daughter Vari.
Thomson doesn’t pull any punches – this is a warts and all story which whilst recognizing the musical genius also paints an unforgiving picture of a tormented and at times obnoxious human being.
It doesn’t change my opinion of John Martyn’s artistic career though – I always think it important to separate the music from the musician (why would anyone listen to say Van Morrison if they couldn’t?). That run of albums from the late 60’s up to Grace and Danger in 1980 is sublime and there were a few good ‘uns after that as well and nearly always at one or two great songs on every album. I was also lucky enough to sees him live a few times and certainly on one of those occasions he was heavily under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs and barely able to stand or speak but incredibly as soon as he started to play it somehow all came together.
As I said at the start it’s not a comforting read but well researched and written and above all honest and unflinching.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
biographies about artistically talented but troubled human beings
One thing you’ve learned
In the main that his life was way more tragic than I had thought and the famous stories that have done the rounds over the years are rarely funny when placed in the context of that life. Also one small point – that Paul Wheeler was a friend of both Martyn and Drake (that most unlikely of combinations).