Friday, January 30, 2009

John Martyn - "Every Bird that Sings is Born to Fly"

One Day Without You
I was saddened to hear of John's passing yesterday - but even then the thought of him brought a smile and "for-the-life-of-god!" shake of the head. I was glad to know he'd made it this far and hope he was content with his legacy; he certainly he lived wild and hard and brought some great music into the world.

I first saw John Martyn perform at the Troubadour in LA back in the 70's. My friend Alan and I had come to see the featured act -Incredible String Band - whom we had long admired and seen previous but they were in the midst of personnel and style change; Martyn however was an unexpected delight and, for me, a life-changing influence.
May You Never

It was the perfect intimate venue for him to play, accompanied by only his (predominately) acoustic guitar and warm smokey voice. It took about 20 minutes to comprehend what he was singing about, and chattering on exuberantly about through the thick lilt of a Glaswegian accent. The paradox of him was that most of his songs were unchecked soulful and emotional outpourings, in that sense very much like Van Morrison, and his music layered with gorgeous altered minor ninth chords and lovely intricacies but his in-between chatter was hilarious, self-deprecating, and bubbled forth with spontaneity. I think most of us were savvy enough to know exactly what he was singing about whether or not a few decipherable words swam their way to the surface.

A live rendition of You Can Discover on John Peel's BBC show. One of my favorites in the sweet melancholy twilight that John dished out.
Here another later live, less nuanced, version of the same tune but entered here for a taste of John's between-song rambles.
John would often cap off a set encore with one of these snippets of classic old-time American popular song:
Singin in the Rain
and Glory of Love

Though his major influences were recognizable - Davy Graham, and Skip James amongst others - John had a unique guitar style. He had a popping, slapping/dampening technique that he would often lay down on beats 2 and 4 that gave his tunes a jazz-like lift. He chose a variety of tunings but never played with the droney cliches many oft settle for but he also equally held forth expressively in standard tuning - it was all about the song.
One more I always loved - live with Danny Thompson;
Sweet little Mystery

Whenever and wherever I went out to see him I managed to say hello and he always had a humble but eager thanks to offer in return. He is still transmitting through the ether!

The following clip has John paired together with his friend and collaborator, the double-bassist Danny Thompson. The two were, seemingly, not always the models of sobriety; once they dared one another to do a concert set in the buff and followed through. Another tale of the road has Thompson, after a night of inebriation, nailing a hotel rug over Martyn while he snoozed oblivious on the floor. I'm sure John awakened thinking he was either buried alive or had finally met his Judgement.

John, we Couldn't Love You More

I can't resist one more simple favorite, as a goodbye. I like to blow some floating tenor sax lines over this one....
All For the Love of You


Chicago Cubs 1908 said...

Thanks for getting in touch.
As is always the way with departed stars, the knives come out. And it's not hard to see why in John's case. He was, by most accounts, a drunken bore away from the stage. Nasty, vindictive and misogynistic. I think it's right that he should be brought to task on these matters, but he paid the ultimate price for the substances which, ultimately made him that way.
It is just incredible that this guy was the absolute polar opposite with a guitar in hand. It was his release from the daily pressures he placed on himself. If his manner didn't seem to influence his muse then it really is the saddest of losses to know that his life could have been lengthened without his output suffering if only his friends and family could find a way through the haze.
RIP and let's never stop remembering the good times.
Cubbies for 2010, 101 years and counting.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Hard truths my friend! I'm sure you're on the mark - as per usual I donned my rose-colored glasses and took the elegiac tone.
However, I the few times i talked with Martyn he was courteous and humble.
The night following the first concert we saw (in'72?) he turned around from the Troubadour bar and said "Hey guys, good to see you!"
First impressions die hard.
That said, seeing him again some 18yrs on he definitely caustic in his stage chat - though still courteous and upbeat when I saw him on the street afterwards.

Good to hear from you and best wishes on the Cubbies return to glory!

Matthew H Camp said...

that percussive slap on may u never gives it such a perfect drive

Tom the Piper's Son said...

yeah I'm sure there are number of people that did that dampening/slap thing to great effect; Martin Carthy, who is still going strong, for one - though he applies in a different musical context. Some of the blues guys were doing it and i wouldn't be surprised if Davy Graham did it as well as he was a mentor/influence on both John and Martin C.. I may be wrong, but i think Davy did it on his version of Jelly Roll Baker which martyn often often opened his sets with.

Meg said...

I've only just got around to reading this post, and I'm so glad I have done. It's clear his music meant as much to you as it has done to me over the years, and I can only hope he's at peace.

Great blog, thanks.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Meg - Thanks for the comment. I was so glad to read your blog and find someone who felt much as myself about John...he helped me through sorrow and joy alike.
- Tom "Hope-i-die-get-old-but-goddamn-im-turning-56-in-a-month-and-there's-still-so-much-to-learn-and-forget" C.

ps. if you love May You Never you may want to check out the later (1995) live version on youtube he does with Kathy beautifully ragged and rough;
i love it as much as the earliers.

Tom the Piper's Son said...

oops that should have been "Hope i die before i die before I get old..." etc.
- apologies to the Who and everyone else

Meg - here's to easing up on the Diet Coke; just wished John had made the switch to it....:) :( !!!!

persephone2u said...

A touching and lovely post. I always enjoy reading your blog entries and miss you on Facebook!

Tom the Piper's Son said...

Persephone - Thanks. Let me know when your blog is back up. I feel like I'm missing a chunk of the world without it!
As it looks like I'll be leaving the library after 13 yrs I may get back on eventually to keep up with the few friends there who are left.

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