Four years ago today, Iain David McGeachy OBE died. Better known as John Martyn, he successfully divided the human race into two distinct groups; those that have never heard of him and those that adore his music.
Way back in 1973, he made an appearance on the Old Grey Whistle Test which was in those far off days the only television programme to air an alternative to The Sweet, Mud, The Osmonds and Dawn featuring Tony Orlando. Saving up the money from a Saturday job, I went to an independent record shop and bought the Solid Air album on vinyl and then played it to death. Fingers and a heart bled as I tried to emulate the hammer-on, pull-off percussive guitar style and 40 years later the technique has still to be mastered. It was only with the coming of the internet that I realised that the bastard was playing the stuff in DADGAD tuning which remains a black art to players like me who lack the imagination to progress beyond standard tuning and the ubiquitous three chord trick. That`s 25 years of trying to work out May You Never in standard tuning that I will never get back.
I first saw him live at a student union gig a few years later. I wasn`t quite a teenage girl screaming at a Bay City Rollers concert, but it was close. Back in a grotty student flat after the gig, the cheap acoustic came very close to being hurled out of the window. It was the same every time I saw him over the years in York, London, Bristol, Hull, Newcastle and Glasgow. How could anyone play so well and sing with a voice that could melt steel? For this unashamed devotee, his career seemed to have three distinct stages. First was the beautiful boy singer-songwriter breaking hearts with raw emotion. Then the rock star with sharp Armani suite and shades, hanging out with Clapton, Phil Collins and David Gilmour blowing people away with overdrive, Echoplex and swell pedal and then, sadly, a decline. In saw him at the Robin 2 in Bilston in 2006 and a few months later at the Fairport`s Cropredy festival. Overweight, unwell, looking very old and unfortunately missing a leg, his voice had deepened and his guitar occasionally out of time. It looked like the start of a long goodbye but that did not stop us worshipping the ground he now hopped on. I last saw him at Symphony Hall in Birmingham a year later on his Solid Air revival tour which now seems like an insurance policy for his wife and kids.
Living a life of grace and danger he was, by all accounts, “difficult” at times. As is so often the case, outward aggression seems to have been a defence of inward sensitivity. There is a lovely story of a fan persuading his heavy metal buddies to go to a John Martyn gig. Utterly converted, the youths headed for the stage door in the hope of an autograph. Taking a chance, the missionary asked for a photograph of himself and the great man. As John Wayne left the building, the reply to the request was typically brusque. The fan, far from being humiliated achieved glory. “You lucky bastard”, said one of his mates. “You`ve just been told to f**k off by John Martyn.”
John Martyn was grumpy, bad tempered and sometimes nasty. He also wrote and performed some of the most moving songs we are ever likely to hear. After four years, I still love the bad old bugger.
This from 1975 and Sunday`s Child: