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Obituary: John Martyn

Obituary by Jack Foley

SINGER-songwriter John Martyn, who was appointed an OBE in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list, has died at the age of 60.

Widely regarded as one of the most soulful and innovative singer-songwriters of his generation, Martyn excelled in folk, blues and funk and was cited as an influence by artists such as U2, Eric Clapton and Portishead.

A message on his website on Thursday (January 29, 2009) said: “With heavy heart and an unbearable sense of loss we must announce that John died this morning.”

The musican passed away in hospital in Ireland.

Born Ian David McGeachy in New Malden, Surrey, in 1948, Martyn spent his formative years at his father’s home in Glasgow following the divorce of his parents.

He moved to London in his late teens with the intention of pursuing a career as a musician and became a fixture at the Soho club, Les Cousins, which was then at the centre of the capital’s folk scene.

And as his reputation as a live performer grew, he became the first white act to be signed to Chris Blackwell’s Island Records, recording his debut album, London Conversation, for £158 in 1968.

From there, Martyn went from strength to strength and cemented his reputation with 1973’s Solid Air, an album that later became hailed by Q Magazine as the 67th best British album of all time (in a list published in 2000).

Included on it was the title track, which was written in memory of his friend and fellow singer-songwriter Nick Drake, who died of an overdose shortly after it was finished.

Martyn himself fought a constant battle with alcohol and drug abuse, performing erratically during several live performances, and eventually falling out with his wife, blues singer Beverley Kutner, and announcing their split towards the end of the ’70s.

An album, Grace And Danger, released in 1980 subsequently recalled the pain and torment of that divorce and was, in Martyn’s own words, the last great collection of songs he completed.

In spite of this personal view, however, the late ’90s found Martyn experimenting with electronic dance sounds and even scoring a top 40 hit as a featured vocalist on Deliver Me, a dance record by Faithless musician Sister Bliss.

It was a considerable achievement given that Martyn had never really commanded a regular place in the mainstream, despite being an inspiration to people like Phil Collins, who even produced one of his earlier albums.

In spite of this success, however, Marytn continued to battle drug dependency and alcohol abuse and, in 2003, had to have his right leg amputated below the knee after a cyst the size of a golf ball burst.

But the tireless performer, who took to performing in a wheelchair, defiantly stated in interviews that he held no regrets for the way he lived his life, opining that his music would probably have been a lot less interesting if he had stayed on the straight and narrow.

It was this attitude, and his fiery live performances, that saw Martyn considered as something of a maverick within the music industry – although someone who was always capable of rising against the odds and inspiring new musicians.

He even collaborated with many musicians throughout his life, including Phil Collins, while one of most famous songs, May You Never, was covered by many artists, including Clapton.

Among the first to pay tribute following the announcement of Martyn’s death was Phil Collins, who said: “John’s passing is terribly, terribly sad. I had worked with and known him since the late 1970s and he was a great friend.

“He was uncompromising, which made him infuriating to some people, but he was unique and we’ll never see the likes of him again. I loved him dearly and will miss him very much.”

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