Eventually, after missing it for three years, I watched the documentary Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 a couple of weeks ago. It’s about the life of singer/songwriter/guitarist John Martyn, who passed away just over two years ago. (Annoyingly, just after I discovered him, but such is life.)
The documentary was not what I expected, I have to admit. It was fixated with the idea of a ‘bad boy’ and rather than talking about the music; it instead focused on Martyn’s drinking, drug-taking, fighting, marriage breakdown and ultimately, a number of lingering shots of his soon-to-be-amputated leg with the ever-present suggestion that he had got himself into it.
As an aside, I watched a documentary on Nick Drake a year or so ago, and had the same feeling. It was called A Skin Too Few and from the very beginning was obsessed with the details of Drake’s suicide. All of the interviews focused on his death, all of the music was read with the knowledge of his depression, and as a result I found the whole thing rather cliche.
It’s not to say that I wasn’t aware of these details – I was. I knew Nick Drake felt unappreciated and took his own life (or so we believe), and I know that John Martyn drank and smoked an awful lot and that it took its toll: but I didn’t watch the documentaries to see things I already knew. By focusing on the salacious details of both singer’s lives, I felt that something was missing – there was no reading of the music that did not take these details into account, yet as we all know our feelings and opinions fluctuate. We cannot be as fixated in our approach to life as these documentaries believe, not everything is coloured by these details.
But all this is beside the point, really. Prepare yourself for a diatribe on Why I Love John Martyn.
I first came across John Martyn while watching a DVD of the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test, a kind of showcase for music in the 70s and 80s (so my sort of music, then). I’d like to pretend that I knew a lot about music and folk music, but I can’t. Essentially, I saw the way his hands moved on the fretboard and the way he could still play and sing so well with his eyes closed, and that was pretty much it. Follow the link below to see what I’m talking about.
What I learned from the documentary was that Martyn was about 18 when he recorded his first album London Conversation and couldn’t have been more than 20 at the time of recording May You Never. Which, frankly, amazes me. What a talented bastard.
Since I saw this video I’ve been slowly collecting all of John Martyn’s albums, and after watching the documentary I realised that I wasn’t doing as well as I thought I was. Wikipedia lists 21 actual album releases and then 17 other recordings/compilations etc. Of those, I own 7. A terrible effort.
Martyn’s lyrics are dark, beautiful and uncomplicated. The sentiment is such that it would be impossible not to know what the singer is talking about, and Martyn’s voice is always so full of emotion as to paint you a very clear picture. Listening to Small Hours, for example, always gives me goosebumps.
What was interesting, therefore, was that this man who I had all but fallen in love with was such a ‘bad boy’ – as the documentary focused on. It was as though he had to compensate for the emotional richness and sensitivity of his songs by being as hard and oppositional as possible in real life. Those interviewed in the documentary all stated that Martyn must have felt some enormous loss in his childhood to make him feel so vulnerable, but I’m not sure about all that. What I know is that underneath all of the swearing and fighting and occasional betrayal of trust, there was a man who felt – and felt a lot. Before watching, I would have thought that the man who wrote My Baby Girl, Bless The Weather, Fairy Tale Lullaby and Couldn’t Love You More was as actively sensitive and feeling in his every day life. And I could not have been more wrong. I’m sure I should feel a tad cheated by this, but I don’t. Hence the need for a blog post. In spite of my apparent disappointment, I’m still in love with John Martyn* and I think I’ll continue to be in love for some time.
It’s not all lovey-dovey, though! Listen to Cocaine, Over the Hill and Johnny Too Bad for something more light-hearted but equally musically-brilliant. Something which the documentary and live recordings highlighted was the fact that Martyn, although sometimes cruel, had a sense of humour and wasn’t afraid to laugh. Again, almost as an antidote to his writing, in person he was forever cracking jokes and not listening to people (probably his doctor) and laughing.
So, in essence, I love John Martyn and you should too. He played the guitar beautifully, wrote painful, funny and touching songs and as I’m learning – there is always more to listen to!
* And as my boyfriend pointed out, the curly hair and facial hair also helps.