Books: Graeme Thomson’s biography of John Martyn highlights the talent amid the self-destruction

Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thomson.

Omnibus Press, £20

PROLIFIC Edinburgh-based music writer Graeme Thomson has a substantial back catalogue of long-form works, “between hard covers” as we used to say.

With the notable exception of his bestseller, the much-admired Kate Bush biography Under the Ivy, he has shown a special interest in male musicians whose obstacles on the path to popular success and professional contentment have often been of their own making. Cases in point are 2016’s Phil Lynott story, Cowboy Song, and Complicated Shadows, the Elvis Costello book of 12 years earlier that may have partially prompted its subject’s own autobiography, Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink.

It was surely inevitable, therefore, that Thomson would eventually focus his gently forensic gaze on Ian McGeachy, the artist better known as John Martyn and one of the most self-destructive talents to have emerged from Scotland, where such a path is often admired more than is quite healthy.

Martyn’s road to ruin, or long dark night of the soul as Thomson’s subtitle has it (nodding towards James Gavin’s 2002 biography of Chet Baker), will be a revelation to few. The man visually embodied it in his later years, vastly overweight, minus a leg and still consuming alcohol in ever-inventive combinations. Only the most besotted admirer – a diminished cohort by the time of his death in 2009 – would deny that it was audible too.

His last essential recordings were made 30 years previously, and although he was able to produce memorable live performances years after his studio triumphs, aided by some remarkably loyal sidemen, the trajectory of his career was the familiar one of meteoric rise followed by long, slow decline. It says a great deal for the expert way Thomson organises Small Hours that the comprehensive story it tells is neither morbidly turgid nor especially depressing.

The fact remains, however, that John Martyn, for all his unique talent – it took significant leaps in the available technology before KT Tunstall and Ed Sheeran were able to build careers on versions of the techniques he had pioneered decades earlier – was often a despicable character, especially in his relationships with women. Had he lived to see the modern era he would assuredly have been vilified, and with every justification.

Through a judicious combination of research and original material, Thomson documents Martyn’s personal life in meticulous detail. The author has described the songwriter as “Scottish by formation”, which is a neat encapsulation of the origins of a man born to showbiz parents in Surrey but raised, after their separation, at the home of his grandparents in Tantallon Road in Shawlands, on Glasgow’s South Side. His grandmother’s old-fashioned influence is eloquently illustrated in the first photograph of young Ian McGeachy in the book. Pictured with classmates at Langside Primary School, he is the one in a short-trousered three-piece suit, sporting a bow tie.

McGeachy’s musical prowess became obvious when he was at Shawlands Academy, and Small Hours is very good on these early years, even if little of the testimony on which it is based is new. Girlfriend Linda Dunning, jettisoned for first wife Beverley, has valuable recollections of the pre-fame Martyn, and due weight is given to the lasting influence of Scottish folk legend Hamish Imlach, musically of huge significance, and personally perhaps malignly so.

Thomson astutely pins the opportunist in the ambitious young man, happily purloining tunes and tricks from others on the late 1960s folk scene, and effectively usurping Beverley Kutner’s professional career. His treatment of her, with its mix of domestic violence and neglect, is well-documented, and things do not improve in Martyn’s subsequent relationships, with Gillian Allen, sister of drummer Jeff Allen, and Irish recording studio manager Annie Furlong, whom he married in Edinburgh in 1983. Although they were together for eight years, a sparse portrait of Furlong emerges here; she died in 1996, the same year as Imlach.

Allen, on the other hand, has a voice, and one that speaks the pivotal sentence in Thomson’s account of the musician’s personal life. When the son Martyn had never acknowledged reached his teens and asks about his father, she makes the phone call. “Tell him I’m dead,” is the response. Alongside the trail of destruction, there is also in these pages a man of personal charm, never quite obscured by a deal of self-mythologising nonsense.

Thomson is also very careful to give us the prodigiously-talented musician. A virtuosic, highly original guitarist from his youth, Martyn took his instrument into new territory, had a distinctively affecting voice and a skill for setting memorably natural lyrics to sweet melodies in a way that was never cheesy (even if he went through phases of disliking his most popular songs). As a fan of the adventurous Inside Out album from 1973, Thomson recognises that it is the soundscape of Martyn’s best recordings, as much as the writing, that makes them of lasting value. Among his own interviews, Thomson includes words with maverick Jamaican producer Lee “Scratch” Perry. Truth to tell, they add little of substance to Martyn’s story, but his presence in the overall mix of the book is welcome and emblematic of the way John Martyn went about the business of creating sound.

Beyond doubt, that hit-and-miss process, relying on the inspiration of the moment and with little patience for perfectionism, would not be indulged in the music industry of today. The equivalent of Chris Blackwell at Island Records, and his hands-off nurturing of artists he admired, does not exist. If there is one thing for which Martyn is perhaps not accorded enough respect, it is his dogged pursuit of a creative musical career long after his mentors had gone, and even as his abused body failed him.

Although they recognise his flaws, Martyn has his champions in these pages. Daughter Vari, his first-born child, is one, and the author is another. Thomson frames his biography within a late interview with his subject, conducted in a pub near his last home in Ireland, a few years before his death. Martyn comes across as frank, funny, honest about himself, and devoid of self-pity. He is drinking pints of cider laced with quadruple vodkas.

Keith Bruce
The Herald
4 July 2020