Thursday, January 29, 2009

So. Farewell Then, John Martyn

How shocking it is to hear of John Martyn’s death earlier today at the age of sixty. Martyn did not live a particularly healthy life, even to the extent of suffering the amputation of part of his right leg six years ago, but still. Sixty seems no age to take the path of the Faithful.

John Martyn was never mainstream. Solid Air, released in 1973, is probably his greatest album, and Sweet Little Mystery was on the radio in the mid-‘eighties, one of those songs that you look back on wondering why you didn’t like it at the time and blushing deeply at the memory of what you did like at the time. Another case of youth wasted on the young.

That said, Martyn’s fan base was extra-ordinarily loyal, as your correspondent discovered at one of John Martyn’s shows, at Vicar Street on November 25th last year. A friend of An Spailpín’s was kind enough to present me with a ticket, and we went, not expecting much but glad to be in out of the rain.

I had forgotten about Martyn loosing his leg; seeing him rolled in from stage left in a wheelchair was disconcerting. But he had a super, jazzy backing band and for two hours John Martyn gave it socks on stage. He also had a marvellous line in between song patter; like a lot of men who write sad songs, he had quite a sense of humour himself. If you imagine Tommy Cooper with a Glasgow accent you’d need a shipyard saw to cut you get an idea of it.

There was no pretence about John Martyn. You got what it said on the tin. I couldn’t help but notice how tarnished the saxophonist’s saxophone was, and realised this is probably because he spent more time playing it than polishing it. Martyn had the reputation of something of a guitar virtuoso and even to your correspondent’s uneducated ear, his guitar playing was extraordinary. And who would have thought then, as the hall rang with applause, that he would be gone with three months?

May God have mercy on John Martyn, and we may we remember him this way – in his prime in the early seventies on the BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, singing one of the great secular hymns of our age, May You Never.

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