Damn. John Martyn has died.
The rough-and-tumble Scottish folk-rock songwriter and musician, whose influence reached much further than his name, was 60. No cause of death has been announced yet, but Martyn had suffered a number of health calamities in his last decade.
After a couple of records spent as an earnest folk troubadour in the late 1960s, Martyn unleashed a distinctive new singing style, part jazz-inflected slur and part whiskey-throated growl. Almost overnight, he also evolved a guitar technique that pioneered tapping and presaged the delay-pedal fireworks of U2's The Edge; as early as 1970, he had begun duct-taping an Echoplex device to his acoustic guitar, allowing him to bend and sustain notes to generate a reverb-drenched, quasi-electric sound. (It helped that he was already a strong technician with elegant rhythmic sense.)
With 1973's Solid Air (its title song written for friend and labelmate Nick Drake a year before Drake's death), everything came together, and the handful of albums that emerged in its wake -- through 1980's ravaged divorce album, Grace and Danger -- stand up fine alongside that decade's best albums (and pretty much invented the chill-out genre, which isn't as unflattering as it may sound today, even if it undersells Martyn's considerable understanding of the blues and his convincing fury).
Here's "Solid Air."
Martyn wasn't my A-number-one all-time favorite -- his early records are spotty, and his post-1982 discography is cluttered with dated synth workouts, bellicose live albums and redundant compilations (many of which he was powerless to object to, never having been much of a dealmaker). But he's certainly among my top 10, and his best music has for a long time been the focal point of my personal crusade. I've probably given copies of my much-tinkered-with "Favorite Martyn" CD to a dozen people over the past few years and played him for just about anyone who has come within a few yards of a set of speakers. I admit that response to my Martyn evangelism has never been quite what I've had in mind, but that hasn't dampened my enthusiasm. Today, I'm gonna try again after offering these words from the elegiac "Small Hours," off my favorite Martyn record, 1977's One World:
Going to get on up and fly away
Go on out for another way
And a new day's dawn
Going to carry on.
Here's a smart performance of one of Martyn's finest two-fisted love songs:
And here's an MP3 of "Small Hours":