Thursday, 29 January 2009

May You Never

I was going to write "in common with a lot of people," but should probably make that "in common with a select few people of my vintage" I was saddened to hear of John Martyn's death today. Although I was surprised to hear the news on the Radio 4 early evening bulletin -- which either goes to show that people like me get to draw up the running order these days, or there are more of us than I thought. It's a day that's been coming for a long, long time, but no sadder for that.

I'm probably the worst kind of John Martyn fan. I saw him live in the 70s a number of times, at least four, probably more. I've listened to Solid Air continuously since buying the first of several copies in 1973. "May You Never" will be played at my funeral, unless I change my mind and have "Spencer the Rover." But it is that 1970s Martyn I am loyal to, and the rest of his career passed me by. How sick he must have become of hearing bearded, overweight, middle-aged men calling out for "May You Never" ...

People talk of a "rock'n'roll lifestyle," but -- in Britain at least -- the folk scene was where the weirdness and wildness ran deepest. Martyn was one of many Wild Ones with a guitar, seemingly set on self destruction, and whose exploits were legendary. They weren't all men, either: Sandy Denny immediately comes to mind. Much classic British rock -- Led Zeppelin, for example -- had its roots far deeper in the folk scene than it ever did in the rock'n'roll, dance scene.

John Martyn's physical decline was, I'm afraid, part of his enduring appeal. After all, the progress from slim, sweet-faced angel to bloated, scowling demon is one a lot of us have observed taking place in the mirror over a lifetime, or even sometimes over a single evening where strong drink is involved. It's that secret sadness that gives ageing men what little dignity they can muster, and John Martyn knew better than anyone how to tap into that vein of vulnerability that runs deepest in the hardest of men.

May you never lose your temper
If you get in a bar room fight
May you never lose your woman overnight
May you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold

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