I must be working too hard because I failed to notice that John Martyn had died at the end of January. It feels strangely personal and judging by the vast amount of tributes on the web I'm not the only one to take it that way. His music was the soundtrack to my student years in London and when I hear one of his songs I feel that those days are only yesterday. I can almost smell them, can almost reach out and touch the bittersweetness of experiencing everything of importance for the first time.
My flatmate was a great fan and gave me a tape with some of the songs from Inside Out on it. I had never heard anything like it. It was the music of confession, everything on display, the agony and the ecstasy. I rushed out to the Virgin Megastore on Oxford Street and bought Solid Air and Grace and Danger. The latter I can hardly bear to listen to, the musicianship is stunning, but it seems indecent to consume so much of another's pain. More recently I bought One World and was blown away. Here was trip-hop 20 years ahead of its time. With music as good as this you don't need illicit smoking substances to appreciate it.
Looking at early recordings of his performances - there are some superb Old Grey Whistle Test sets - you see a man with the good looks of a Greek god and the voice of an angel. You also see the seeds of self-destructive tragedy. I only saw him live once, in the mid-nineties at the Festival Hall. He played a mostly electric set, ear splittingly loud, punctuated by the obligatory and perfunctory accoustic rendition of May you Never. It was a magical performance without any of the drink and drug fueled incoherence that his live act was notorious for. He could have sat back on his laurels and just played the standards from his back catalogue, but he was still pushing out in new musical directions.
May you Never is one of those songs whose success partly depends on the fact that you can read into it more or less what you like without it being so full of holes that it becomes completely vacuous. I think I read somewhere that it is actually addressed to his baby step-son which makes perfect lyrical sense. It's not my favourite Martyn song but I do like the fine version with Danny Thompson and Kathy Mattea from the BBC's Transatlantic Sessions. I think the performance epitomises musical intelligence. You can judge for yourself at: