Before his late-career decline, John Martyn was one of the most innovative figures in the British folk-rock firmament, a forerunner of, and influence on, the freak folk movement of the 1990s. One of the few friends and confidants of the equally enigmatic Nick Drake, Martyn wrote a cautionary song for his ill-fated friend (“Solid Air”) and, eventually, succumbed to some of the same ghosts. A new biography by Graeme Thomson, whose previous subjects include Kate Bush and Phil Lynott, chronicles the life and music of Martyn, who died 12 years ago today. Fiona McQuarrie spoke with Thomson for PKM.
Emerging from the early 1960s UK folk scene, John Martyn was revered by his peers. He was a creative and technically brilliant guitarist and songwriter, and an engaging live performer. He also broke new ground with the innovative sonic effects on his records. After early solo albums and two collaborations with his then-wife Beverley Martyn, he made some of the most highly regarded albums of the ‘70s, such as Solid Air, with the title track paying tribute to his friend Nick Drake. (“You’ve been getting too deep / You’ve been living on solid air / You’ve been missing your sleep / you’ve been moving through solid air / I don’t know what’s going on in your mind / But I know you don’t like what you find / When you’re moving through solid air…”)
But John Martyn also had a turbulent personal life and an ongoing struggle with substance abuse and poor health; he passed away at age 60 in 2009. Journalist and author Graeme Thomson interviewed Martyn several times during his life, and has now written the biography Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn, which received widespread acclaim and was included on several year-end lists of the best books of 2020.
Fiona McQuarrie spoke to Thomson for PKM about the book and about Martyn’s life.
PKM: The very first sentence in Small Hours starts with “In the opening scene of the movie that will never be made about John Martyn’s life…” That really grabs the reader and draws them in. Why did you choose the metaphor of a movie to frame the book?
Graeme Thomson: I visualized that particular scene, a camera on a crane panning across the top of the studio and showing him with that curly mop of hair bouncing around, playing music with people. I could see that scene very clearly in my head when I wrote it. But I think it also kind of sets him up as a cult figure who’s probably never going to get that degree of recognition. Every kind of artist now seems to be the subject of a biography or a film, and it places him outside of that in a way. He is a marginal figure, I guess even more so for people in Canada and America, but even here it’s quite frequent to meet people who know quite a lot about music who don’t really know him all that well. So I wanted to say straight away, look, this is someone whose life is not going to be easy to wrap up in an hour and a half in a film. Those are the two things I was trying to do with that opening.
PKM: Since Martyn’s music is well known in some circles but not broadly known, was it a challenge to get a publisher interested in a book about him?
Graeme Thomson: There were a couple of publishers that were interested from the get-go. There were a couple that were interested in me as a writer and John as the subject matter, but didn’t feel that it was all that commercially viable, which I think has already been disproven [laughs]. It’s been received really well, which I always thought it would. Because even beyond whether you know the name or not, it’s just such an interesting life and story. I always felt that was the case. And he’s a musician’s musician. He’s the kind of musician that you pass on to other people. So a lot of people do know him, and the people who know him and love him love him very deeply and love his work. I felt there was a strong market out there, maybe a stronger market than some people thought. I was very happy with where the book ended up. It found its home.
PKM: In the acknowledgements for the book, you thank those who agreed to be interviewed “between 2009 and 2019”. Did it really take you ten years to write the book?
Graeme Thomson: No [laughs]. There are a handful of interviews that date back that far, but it was probably a two- to three-year project. I signed the contract in 2016, and as I got deeper into the project, there were interviews from the past that came up as useful. The interviews that date from around 2009 were mostly done just after he died, from people who knew him well. So I drew on those.
But a lot of that two to three years was spent getting my head around how you write about someone like John Martyn, how you tell the story without being some kind of moral referee, not wagging your finger and taking a moral stance on his behaviour, but also not letting him get away with a lot of that stuff. Not the traditional, quote-unquote, rock biography that’s going to glorify that behaviour. That’s kind of old news now, and that’s the kind of book I don’t want to write or even read. I was trying to find a path through all of that, a path that was true and honest. That took quite a while.
Olivia Chaney performs “Spencer the Rover”, from 1975’s Sunday’s Child
PKM: This is one of the biographies you’ve written where you’ve met and interviewed the subject. Was it different for you to write about someone that you’d met, as opposed to writing about someone that you hadn’t spoken to in person?
Graeme Thomson: I’d interviewed Elvis Costello for the book I wrote about him, and I spent a lot of time with Willie Nelson. It’s not so much the difference of whether you met them, it’s whether they’re alive or not. When the subject is dead, there’s a more definitive ending, and that makes the work easier because you’re looking at the story as a whole and you can draw conclusions. With someone like Elvis Costello or Willie Nelson, you’re looking at these vast and very varied careers that are still open-ended, and it’s kind of hard to know when to stop. It certainly helped with John that I’d met him, because I got a real sense of the different personalities. I hope the book reflects that and my own reaction to meeting him, which I think is quite important.
PKM: One of the themes that runs throughout the book is that John was creating some truly beautiful and visionary music at the same time as he was being abusive and damaging to people around him. How did you balance those two competing forces, particularly when some of your interviewees tell completely different stories about the same event?
Graeme Thomson: That’s often the case, and when I started writing biographies, that used to trouble me quite a lot, that people’s versions of events could be so conflicting. I worry about it less now, because that’s just the way life goes. And in a way it’s not my job to tie it up in a neat bow. I think you just present what you believe is the truth of the matter to the reader, and then you try to get out of the way of it.
And that’s kind of how I approached his behaviour. You can’t escape the beauty and intimacy and passion and love that’s at the heart of John Martyn’s music – it’s not a front. It comes from somewhere very deep, and as a listener I respond to it on that level. It’s very authentic to me. But at the same time, you have someone who in real life, as it were, can be a monster and can treat people horribly. I don’t think it’s my job, or anyone’s job, to try to work out why that is. But it would be a huge moral abdication to pretend that side didn’t exist. If it undermines how people feel about him, it’s kind of up to them to work that out for themselves. I think the words on the page cover pretty much the whole gamut of who he was.
Karine Polwart performs “Couldn’t Love You More”, from 1977’s One World
John Martyn-“Couldn’t Love You More,” performed live, 1978:
PKM: One thing I appreciate about your books is that you’re honest about when some of an artist’s work at a particular stage in their career is not as good as the rest of their body of work. In your George Harrison biography you said that he created some truly great songs, but you also suggested that perhaps he was only capable of producing a few truly great songs. How do you incorporate that sort of assessment and judgement into the story without coming across as biased?
Graeme Thomson: Of course fans will think that the artist should be admired for everything they do, and they can sometimes get a bit annoyed or frustrated if you make value judgements, like some songs or albums are better than others. I do try to avoid being too much of a fan, because I don’t think that’s a very helpful position to take if you’re writing a biography. The impetus for writing the book in the first place is that you’ve found someone that you truly admire and who’s capable of great work, but to pretend that everything they do is fantastic – it seems to me to be selling them short in a way, because you’re not giving their work the attention it deserves. I couldn’t imagine writing any of these books without critiquing the work, honestly. I know it’s subjective and I know that other people will disagree, and fair enough. But it’s not the last word on it – it’s me saying that this was what was going on at this point, and this is what they were trying to do, and this is my feeling on whether it works or not.
I don’t consciously think about how or whether that works within the narrative, but I can’t really imagine just stating a bunch of facts about the music. And I have seen books that do that. To just say, this got to Number 9, and this got to Number 7, and this won a Grammy – but what does it sound like, and what does it make you feel, when you think about it? That just comes quite naturally to me as a writer, to do that while I’m looking at the work. What I’m trying to do is to lay out how someone’s life impacts on their work at a certain point. And the music is personal, it’s coming out of them at that point, and to map out what they were doing at that point, and how that affected what they were creating – I find that fascinating.
PKM: Prior to the book’s release you commissioned five musical acts to record covers of Martyn songs, and make videos of their performances. How did you choose these acts, and who chose the songs?
Graeme Thomson: That’s probably something that wouldn’t have happened had there not been the lockdown. We had to find ways of doing things in a different way. These were all people that I already knew of, and that I thought would bring different variations to the music. Having women was important because John’s sometimes associated with a very male sensibility, but the songs can be interpreted many different ways. I contacted each of them about it, they said yes, and they were completely free to choose their own songs.
So then I went to my publisher and said, this is what I’d like to do, given that we can’t go into bookshops to promote the book, and it would be nice if we could help people who don’t have a source of income right now, and pay them what they would get for a gig in a pub or a small club. So that was it. We started a group email and worked out what we were going to do, and they recorded themselves. And we found a partner in Folk Radio UK to work with us. I was just so chuffed. And then I thought it would be nice to take a very brief extract from the book for each song, to give people a taste of the writing, and put it next to the video, and it became a very nice package. I couldn’t have been prouder to be associated with this.
PKM: For people who don’t know Martyn’s music, what songs or albums would you recommend that they start with?
Graeme Thomson: That’s difficult [laughs]. The obvious answer would be Solid Air, because I think it hints at a lot of the other things he did, with the sound textures that he manages to create. But the album before that, Bless the Weather, song by song it’s maybe even a more beautiful record. It has kind of an innocence and a purity to it that he may have lost later on. But any album from the 70s, from Bless the Weather to One World, it’s a pretty peerless run of records. They’re all different, but they all have the stamp of his heart and soul on them. I know people who’d never heard of John Martyn at all, and I’d play them these records and they’d say “Where has that been hiding? Why haven’t I heard of this guy, and why isn’t he really famous?” [laughs]
But I’d also caution anyone who wants to listen to these records: turn the lights down low, and make some time. Because these are records in the very old-fashioned sense. They’re made to establish a mood, and they’re very intimate and kind of personal. So it requires a little bit from the listener as well, to get the most out of them.
“Outside In”-John Martyn, live on the Old Grey Whistle Test, BBC, 1973, showcasing Martyn’s incredible guitar playing: