In the last couple of weeks, I’ve read Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thompson and Beverley Martyn’s Sweet Honesty: The Beverley Martyn Story. Here are some thoughts. I’m not really going into the music in depth here. I’ve written about John Martyn elsewhere on this blog several times if you’re looking for that. I’ve not gone into specifics about John Martyn’s abuse of Beverley; nonetheless, CW.
In 2001, thanks to James McKean playing me Fine Lines in the house we shared in Lewisham, I became a John Martyn fan, and picked up his entire seventies discography over the next two or three years.
It wasn’t until I saw Johnny Too Bad on BBC4 in around 2004 that I realised Martyn was not a nice guy, that his mellow-old-soak routine could turn on a dime into hostility and physical aggression. You could still see it and sense it, but his edge had by then been blunted by his health conditions; during the course of the documentary, he has his leg amputated, and over the next few years, largely wheelchair bound, he would grow hugely overweight and progressively more frail. At that point, he was mainly a danger to himself.
In the 1970s and 1980s, though, he was a danger to anyone who looked at him in a way he didn’t like, including, more than anyone, his first wife, Beverley.
The two had met in the late 1960s, when they were both up-and-coming singer-songwriters in the London folk scene. At the time, Beverley Kutner was the bigger name of the two. She had been in a fairly successful jug band called the Levee Breakers, released some singles on Deram Records (also home at the time to the still-obscure David Bowie), been offered a contract by EMI, which her boyfriend Bert Jansch advised her to turn down out (she believes out of professional jealousy), and been in a relationship with a visiting Paul Simon, which is how she ended up performing at Monterey Pop as the guest of Simon and Garfunkel and travelling all over the States, making contacts and meeting the great and the good.
John Martyn had not been at Monterey, he had not been out with famous folk stars, whether homegrown or international, nor had he hung out with Peter Fonda and David Crosby in LA. Mentored by Scottish singer-songwriter Hamish Imlach, a Rabelasian figure whom Martyn would increasingly resemble physically as he aged, Martyn moved to London in his late teens, scoring a deal with Island. Despite label boss Chris Blackwell’s belief in Martyn and his music, his first two albums were not successful, and didn’t really deserve to be. Martyn, unlike Jansch (a rival with whom Martyn more than once came to blows) or Nick Drake (a friend who seemed to bring out Martyn’s gentler, best side), did not arrive fully formed.
But for all her early successes, neither did Kutner. When she and Martyn pitched up in Woodstock, NY, to record what would become Stormbringer! in 1969, both were – being generous – improving singer-songwriters. Originally slated by Joe Boyd, her mentor, as a Beverley Martyn (the couple were newlyweds) solo album, it became instead a duo record, with John writing six of the album’s ten songs, and his fingerprints more evident on the finished product than hers.
Boyd didn’t like John Martyn all that much, as a man or a writer. There was no outright hostility between them at this point, but their relationship was edgy. Boyd came round to Stormbringer! during the course of production, and ended up thinking it was a decent album despite John’s involvement, but he’s expressed regret many times at how Beverley’s career became intertwined with John’s, to its detriment.
Released in February 1970, Stormbringer! is a record that’s promising and intermittently great rather than consistently accomplished. The band that Paul Harris (pianist and musical director for the sessions) assembled was superb, with Harvey Brooks on bass and top-tier drumming talent in the shape of the Mothers’ Billy Mundi, The Band’s Levon Helm and session great Herbie Lovell. But only a few of the songs are worthy of the stellar backing they received.
One of them, the title track, is magisterial – John Martyn’s greatest early song, with beautifully empathetic support from Harris’s piano and Lovell’s drums. Rollicking opener Go Out and Get It works well, as does John the Baptist. Both songs suggest a pretty heavy influence from The Band. But Traffic Light Lady and Woodstock are twee and forgettable, and Would You Believe Me fails to nail the heavy, spooky mood it shoots for. Kutner’s songs are, on the whole, less successful still, with static melodies and blue notes that don’t quite work. Sweet Honesty, arranged (presumably by Martyn and Harris) in a similar style to John the Baptist and Go Out and Get It, works best by placing more emphasis on groove, reducing the importance of lyric and tune. But at eight minutes, it overstays its welcome.
Stormbringer! is, then, almost certainly a better record as John and Beverley Martyn album than it would have been as a Beverley solo release. But knowing that Martyn elbowed his way into the picture then took over his wife’s artistic project is always there in the background, making listening to the record uncomfortable, as it appears this was an early manisfestation of the controlling and abusive behaviour he would exhibit for the rest of their marriage. Indeed, Beverley Martyn writes that it was during their time in Woodstock that Martyn was first violent towards her, after a party at which they met Bob Dylan.
The Road to Ruin was recorded and released in 1970, marking a busy 12 months for the Martyns. This time, they recorded at home base for many of the artists signed to Island and/or Joe Boyd’s Witchseason production company, Sound Techniques in Chelsea, with a band once again led by Harris and featuring Fairport’s Dave Pegg, Mike Kowalski, Alan Spenner and saxophonists Ray Warleigh and Dudu Pukwana.
It’s decidedly less of a rock album than Stormbringer! The drums are mixed lower, and the vibe generally – enhanced by the presence of saxophonists on the songs – is more jazzy, but Auntie Aviator at least (co-credited to John and Beverley, but claimed by Beverley as mainly her work) recreates the Stormbringer! template of pensive piano, woodily downtuned acoustic guitar and rock rhythm section.
In the end, the album’s most crucial tracks in John Martyn’s career were the acoustic Parcels (in which he sang low in his range, with a backing of his guitar, Harris’s piano and congas) and New Day, which features on double bass Danny Thompson, who would go on to be Martyn’s great musical partner throughout the seventies. Beverley, meanwhile, contributed her finest original song – Primrose Hill, a lovely evocation of early-seventies bohemian north London, which has been sampled by Norman Cook for North West Three, a track from 2004 Fatboy Slim album Palookaville. (Auntie Aviator, meanwhile, has been sampled by Bristolian hip-hop group Aspects.)
After The Road to Ruin, the Martyns largely stopped recording and gigging together, not that they’d ever done a lot of that. A full-band launch gig for Stormbringer! with Nick Drake in support at the Queen Elizabeth Hall had gone so badly, in John’s view at least, that he called it the most humiliating moment of his career, and blamed it on the lack of interplay between himself and other musicians.
The inescapable conclusion is that he was never much interested in being in a duo with his wife as any kind of permanent arrangement. Perhaps he muscled in simply not wanting to be overshadowed by Beverley or miss out on any opportunities Joe Boyd offered her. Once it became clear that it wasn’t going to give him what he wanted, he moved on. Coincidentally or not, it was then that he found the relationship with Danny Thompson and the improvisatory style melding jazz, folk and rock that would power his albums from Bless the Weather through to Live at Leeds, after which he would record One World and largely leave folk guitar picking behind*.
As ever with John Martyn, we have to somehow reconcile the often extraordinary music he made with his terrible personal behaviour. Reading Beverley Martyn’s book, or even Graeme Thompson’s Small Hours, is often harrowing. Martyn’s physical abuse of Beverley steadily escalated until she left him in 1979. Even after that, the abuse continued in the form of bare-legal-minimum maintenance payments that left her and their children broke in a dilapidated house in Heathfield, sometimes depending on charity from friends, including a visiting Art Garfunkel. Perhaps related to her treatment by John, Beverley Martyn has been through periods where she’s struggled with her mental health.
Some will, no doubt, use that as a means to dismiss her testimony regarding Martyn’s abuses. For me, the central charges all stick – Graeme Thompson includes them in his book without questioning their veracity, with more than enough corroborating witnesses who saw their relationship at close hand.
Which brings us circling back round again to this question that keeps coming up these days – what to do, as a longtime fan of Martyn’s work, about the fact that he behaved in ways that were both criminal and appalling?
Artistic legacies are not value neutral. Who gets remembered, whose work is preserved and made available for future generations, is not merely about whose work is the best, or the most morally pure, even. It is mediated by commerce: does it make financial sense to continue to preserve this digital archive?
Clearly, it will continue to be profitable to preserve John Martyn’s music. The fact that his songs have been covered by other, bigger-name, artists (most notably, Clapton’s version of May You Never) means that there will always be a stream of people coming to Martyn’s music through that connection. Others will hear of him having first become fans of Nick Drake, or perhaps Fairport Convention.
Martyn’s music will live on. He will not, no matter what some of his more neanderthal fans say, be cancelled by woke warriors and SJWs. They – we, if you want to hang those labels on me – don’t have that power. Never have, never will.
One could, in the truest sense of the word, cancel him (that is, one could choose to exclude his work from one’s personal canon, not listen to it, and endeavour not to give him brain space either – to live as though he never existed), but his work will be preserved by the industry for others to listen to. And others will, and they will be influenced by and copy what they hear; his Solid Air-era acoustic guitar style, that percussive slap on the strings, is already part of guitarist’s lexicon, as it’s such a useful halfway house between picking and strumming.
For me, my reaction to Martyn and his music is in a state of flux. I find myself thinking again and again of the wise conclusion from Ann Powers’s essay, What it’s Like Listening to Michael Jackson Now, written shortly after Leaving Neverland aired:
As I write now, my critic’s impulse to draw neat conclusions nearly overcomes me: I want to provide closure for you, the reader, and maybe even more so for myself. But if I’m going to genuinely represent what it’s like to listen to Michael Jackson after Leaving Neverland, I have to ask you to stay with me in an uncomfortable place. In some way, this is what criticism, what engaging with culture as a thinking person, always strives to do. Yet it’s so easy to stop short. To revel in the boldly stated conclusion. To indulge in the flush of strong positive feelings. To rest in the perceived authority of the self-appointed jurist and turn away from the role that a deeper engagement with culture, in all its imperfections and even moral shortcomings, can offer: the chance to be a trustworthy witness. If culture builds itself through revelations, explorations, secrets and lies, any response that doesn’t claim the contradictions gets it wrong.https://www.npr.org/2019/05/11/722198385/before-and-after-listening-to-michael-jackson-and-accusers?t=1613551586694
As Powers says elsewhere in her essay, the challenge is to stay present while listening, if listening is what we choose to do. And, as I argued a couple of weeks ago in re Phil Spector, not to delude yourself into thinking that the art absolves the artist in any way. It can’t and it doesn’t. We must hold on to the fact that the artist’s art and his crimes are both irreduceable, ineradicable. They don’t separate neatly, and they are equal facets of the person. You can play death-of-the-author mind tricks with yourself if you want, but the simple fact is that John Martyn’s career depended on his wife’s support and domestic labour. His art – itself often domestic in scale and subject – resists any attempt to prise it free of the circumstances of its making. Listening to it is uncomfortable, even – perhaps especially – when it’s the art that he and Beverley created together.
*Interestingly, Beverley claims she wrote the hook of one of his greatest songs, Don’t Wanna Know from Solid Air, for which she never recieved credit or royalties. My tendency when reading her book is always to trust her testimony, but I struggle with this one a little, because in both tune and sentiment it seems so typical of John’s style. But if true, it was disgraceful behaviour by him.