Has anybody here seen my old friend John?

Music, love and friendship

Catching the next train home

Wild child

Wild child

I heard Solid Air performed live just last week at a performance of Nick Drake’s songs at Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush by Keith James and Rick Foot. It’s such a unusual song in that it’s equally associated with its subject, Nick Drake, and his friend the creator, John Martyn. What really struck me was what a warm, open expression of friendship it is, especially as I imagine the communication was rather one way.

The last time I saw John Martyn live was when he played the whole of the Solid Air album live at the Albert Hall. It is, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the greatest albums ever. I went that night with a friend whose life subsequently took a bit of a nose dive due to drugs – a close-to-home illustration of how delicate we all are with regard to alcohol and the like. Watching JM decline from beautiful boy to one-legged survivor wasn’t easy but his unique voice and experimental energy was an enduring thread through his music-packed life.

The penultimate time I saw him was from a red velvet seat in the front row of the Shepherd’s Bush Empire with Una. The performance had a beautiful later life serenity.

Dyed in the wool Londoner that I am, I’ve never been a big lover of West London beyond occasional quick sorties to the All Saint’s Dinner (sic) and the Hammy Odeon, but West London seems to run as a skein through my life with John. One of the first times I saw him was in the Underworld/Westworld (? darn, what was that place called?) somewhere under the Westway near Portobello market. I just remember it as electric.

I saw him live around a dozen times – the Town & Country Club (Kentish Town), the Jazz Caff (Camden Town), the Mean Fiddler (Harlesden) – he struck a chord with me. We shared a birthday. Cooltide accompanied me down the Nile at sunset. One World has that special vibe of Jamaica which runs deep in me.

On the subject of Island, if I had to pick just one song to take to a desert one, it would be Don’t Want to Know:

I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
Only want to know ‘bout love

Sometimes it gets so hard to listen
Hard for me to use my eyes
And all around the cold is glistenin’
Making sure it keeps me down to size

And I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know about love
I don’t want to know one thing about evil
I only want to know ‘bout love

I’m waiting for the planes to tumble
Waiting for the towns to fall
I’m waiting for the cities to crumble
Waiting til’ the sea a’ crawl

And I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know about love
I don’t want to know ‘bout evil
I only want to know ‘bout love

Yes it’s getting’ hard to listen
Hard for us to use our eyes
‘Cause all around that gold is glistenin’
Makin’ sure it keeps us hypnotized

I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love
I don’t want to know about evil
Only want to know ‘bout love

Not much more to say after that. From the words of another great English bard, if music be the food of love, he satisfied us wondrously in his six decades – and I couldn’t love him more for it.

31 comments so far

  1. ArkAngel on

    Some reflections from a fellow JM lover (Doug) sent today:

    “It was the first gig I ever took Caroline too – 1990 at The Shaw Theatre (about a week after starting at Melrose) and we were John groupies for a while. Remember seeing him at The Mean Fiddler in 1987 and buying him a drink – he was sat at the bar post-gig. The first gig at UUC in 1984 and a great one in a tent on the beach in Portsmouth in 1991.

    Logged on to the JM site and was pleased to see how many had Grace and Danger as their favourite JM album. My sentiments too (with One World a very close second) and John’s favourite too. Should be down as a bona-fide classic and criminal that it isn’t.

    By the way what a great line in the Guardian obit describing his condition one night after a fight with close friend Paul Kossoff – ‘(John Martyn)…looking like he had been drinking since the dawn of time’ ”


    “I saw him live about a dozen times. The first at University in 1984 the last I think at the Forum. One of the most important musicians of my life and I found myself choked for a few seconds on hearing the news as I got off a plane this morning. For me Grace and Danger for its stellar musicianship and depth of songwriting and One World because it is an album only he could have made stand as his greatest works although I fully understand why others place ‘Solid Air’ at the top. I note how, in the Guardian obituary they remind us how influenced he was by Pharoah Sanders. That probably prevented him from being a superstar but made him all the better for it.

    For me his great friend Phil Collins got it right ‘Uncompromising …infuriating…but I loved him dearly’. Fans who never knew him will feel the same.

    One of the important musicians of the last 40 years.”

  2. Practical Psychologist on

    You mean the Subterrania. I was there. About 1995?

  3. ArkAngel on

    Subterrania, that’s the fella – we probably went together

    What do you think of my new photo? (it’s by Keith Morris)

  4. Sue Thomas on

    In the mid/late 60s I spent a lot of time hanging around folk clubs where electric was a dirty word and many people stuck a finger in their ear when they sang unaccompanied. Much of the music was traditional but some was contemporary, usually one singer plus guitar. We liked Jackson C Frank, Bert Jansch, and John Martyn. Every newcomer had a go at singing ‘Cocaine, all around my brain etc etc’ – some better than others – and everyone learning the guitar tried to play Jansch’s Angie. I never saw John Martyn live, but I did play my copy of London Conversation to death and I still have it. He had a wonderfully reassuring voice, much different I suspect from the reality of his turbulent life. I look forward to hearing that album again and remembering those days.

  5. ArkAngel on

    I think the track you mention that was the guitar inspiration was Anji by Davey Graham. That’s one that got John Martyn inspired early on during his school days in Glasgow. He called it “the test piece” which aspiring guitarists had to be able to play to be taken seriously. You have to move the thumb and forefinger at the same time as the other fingers, going in opposite directions, so technically pretty tricky. Davey, after a trip to Tangiers, developed a unique way of playing incorporating North African styles. Bert Jansch who you mention was also much influenced by him, as was the young Jimmy Page. London Conversation is much shaped by Davey’s inspiration. He was born in Leicester which is your manor these days I think. Were the folk clubs you speak of in Soho, the Midlands – or beyond?

  6. Sue Thomas on

    They were in Nottingham, where I lived then (with my parents in a small dead-end town called Bingham)s. I was going out with a singer called Mick Atkin, and he was a big fan of Jackson C Frank, who had recently died very young. Mick’s signature pieces were Kimbie and Blues Run the Game, both written by Frank. http://www.last.fm/music/Jackson+C.+Frank/Blues+Run+the+Game+(Expanded+Deluxe+Edition) Know him?

    • laurence platt on

      You must have been Sue De Vos at one time? I kne Mick in those days but have not seen him since 1980! Where he is now I have no idea. If anyone knows I’d love to get in touch with him.

      • ArkAngel on

        I’ll pass on your reply to Sue

      • Sue Thomas on

        Hi Lawrence! Adam told me about your msg. I was last in touch with Mick a few yrs back thru friends reunited. You might look for him ther.he was just retiring from the BBC

  7. Sue Thomas on

    It was in Nottingham around 1967/8. I was going out with the singer Mick Atkin, who was well-known then for his great renditions of a couple of Jackson C Frank songs – Kimbie, and Blues Run the Game. Thanks for correcting my memory – it was a very very long time ago!

  8. ArkAngel on

    Wow, who’d have guessed such a colourful past 😉 Did any of folk’s big guns pull through town?

  9. holmes on

    Glastonbury 1979, an extraordinary event unlike the modern version and a thin John Martyn in a suit played to a crowd of about 10000 in that glorious damp field. He was entrancing. Saw him on many other occasions but that was my favourite.

    His music became a background soundtrack to my life, from first hearing (and buying) Stormbringer in 1970, then backtracking to The Tumbler and London Conversation he accompanied me, along with Nick Drake, Joni Mitchell and Miles Davis for almost 40 years. Looking back at my favourite mix tapes/cds/ipod playlists, there is a John Martyn track on all of them. Watched this the other night http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=rhFLtOIhhCw – very moving.

    Discovered this unreleased song called All For the Love of You on the Ain’t No Saint boxed set which came out last year. Written in 1976 it somehow sums him up very well, it certainly rings a very strong chord with me.

    I’ve been learning my lines
    I’ve been chasing my time
    I’ve been changing my mind
    For a while

    I’ve been boring my friends
    I’ve been burning both ends
    I’ve been rounding the bend
    For a while

    Well is it for fame and fortune
    Or is it for a better place
    Is it for peace and plenty
    Or is it for the sake of face

    Is it all for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love of you

    I’ve been rolling so high
    I’ve been meaning to try
    I’ve been waving goodbye
    For a while

    I’ve been three/fourth part stone
    I’ve been out on my own
    I’ve been moving alone
    For a while

    And is it for fame and fortune
    And is it for a better place
    Is it for peace and plenty
    Or is it for the sake of face

    Is it all for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love of you

    I’ve been learning my lines
    I’ve been changing my mind
    I’ve been chasing my time
    For a while

    I’ve been boring my friends
    I’ve been burning both ends
    I’ve been rounding the bend
    For a while

    Well is it for fame and fortune
    And is it for a better place
    Is it for peace and plenty
    Or is it for the sake of face

    Is it all for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love of you
    All for the love – of you

  10. Sue Thomas on

    I hardly think dark smoky pubs full of droning men counts as colourful! Martin Carthy comes to mind – he was pre-famous then. Can’t think of any others atm. How come you’re interested? I wouldn’t have had you down as a hardcore folk fan!

  11. ArkAngel on

    I have very catholic taste when it comes to music including folk (but not opera or country – with only the odd exception). You can get a sense from https://aarkangel.wordpress.com/2008/01/12/100-greatest-songs/ I saw that other Martin with an I (Carthy) with wife Norma Waterson and daughter Eliza at the Union Chapel, Highbury – it was a fabulous gig.

  12. practicalpsychologist on

    An interesting discussion here. I think we must mention Pentangle – THE folk supergroup. Jansch, Renbourn, Danny Thompson, Jacquie McShee, Terry Cox. Basket of Light probably the best of all folk albums.

    On John Martyn. The Danny Baker show on BBC London last Thursday is a gem. He was told of JM’s death just as he was about to start broadcasting his show and immediately said ‘stop everything’ and played two hours of JM – sending a guy in the studio round to HMV to grab all he could of JM’s work. He was clearly very moved. It was a great two hours – as DB said he didn’t play much John Martyn on his show ‘too important, too personal’. Well done the BBC for letting this happen.

    However, I will say that JM was a folk musician for a very, very short period of time. He immersed himself in avant-garde jazz for listening and from Bless The Weather blended improvisation and traditional song-writing brilliantly.

  13. ArkAngel on

    Thanks for drawing attention to that radio show, PP. Going to go and have a listen on iPlayer and will report back.

    As you say, beyond London Conversation, The Tumbler and the Beverley records, his music had already transcended folk…

    ’71 really was a Big Year for music – What’s Going On was released that May. Tapestry, Led Zep 4, Histoire de Melody Nelson (your side of the water), LA Woman (Jim’s last), Hunky Dory, Pink Moon, Meddle, etc. It’s the year that forms the basis of the argument that the 60s actually happened in the early 70s.

  14. practical psychologist on

    You’ve got me thinking about classic albums released in 1971. Back home at the weekend and will add to this list. What a year – (‘Chirpy, chirpy, cheep, cheep)

  15. ArkAngel on

    PP, listened to the Danny Baker show – you could tell he was genuinely “knocked for a loop” and it was cool they cleared the airtime in that way. Not sure I fully captured it above but I really felt deeply saddened by the news when I came across it around midnight online. And it clearly had a personal effect on others as a few people felt moved to actually ring that day and share the sad event. I didn’t know him, never met him in person, had an actual family bereavement in prospect, he was known to be in very poor health, but I still felt deeply saddened by his passing.

  16. ArkAngel on

    Sue, just found your comment on Jackson C Frank – WordPress thought you were a spammer, foolish thing that it is. I don’t know his stuff but have been reading about him this week in Some People Are Crazy, a rather pedestrian biog of John Martyn by someone called John Munro.

  17. ArkAngel on

    Sorry, Holmes, just found your interesting comment in the ol’ spam filter. Jealous of course about old school Glasto. We seem to have picked out the same clip on YouTube (see above) – it is a great one, watching him and Danny T working together. You don’t happen to have said box set…? 😉

  18. holmes on

    I do indeed have it and will happily share it…

  19. practicalpsychologist on

    You can add ‘Maggot Brain’, Jack Johnson’ and ‘There’s a Riot Going On’ to that ’71 list.

    A very nice little write-up of JM’s funeral service on his site. DT there of course and his band acting a pall-bearers.

    Broke my leg recently so I am in blighty for extended period and have time to remind myself of great 71 albums.

  20. practicalpsychologist on

    a very nice site ‘johnmartyn.info’ has revealed that just before his death JM was due to play with his hero (and mine) Pharoah Sanders. What a thought. What a lost opportunity.

  21. Michael Tim on

    I love your site!

  22. ArkAngel on

    PP, enjoyed the Mike Harding programme, thanks – esp Danny Thompson (true love!) and Eddi Reader

  23. practicalpsychologist on

    There is an excellent JM website set up by a fan:


    I really enjoyed the attempt to list every gig he has ever done (an ongoing project) to which I was able to add with some commentary. Watching JM consuming a full bottle of Bacardi in one hour at a gig in Portsmouth in 1991 was a remarkable experience.

    Revisiting ‘Grace and Danger’ which I think is his greatest album and still regretting that the album with Pharaoh Sanders never got made. If he had hung on in there for another six months…

  24. ArkAngel on

    Thanks for the heads up – you can’t beat a good bit of obsession when it comes to the web

    Don’t think I’m with you on Grace & Danger (great though it is – but you have prompted me to revisit). I reckon I have to be obvious on this front and recognise Solid Air as the zenith

  25. practicalpsychologist on

    I just think Grace and Danger has everything. Fabulous musicianship – John Giblin’s bass playing is exceptional as is Phil Collins drumming and backing vocals. A class jazz piece – ‘Lookin’ on’ – and tracks of sublime beauty such as ‘Our Love’ and ‘Sweet Little Mystery’.

    When I first listened to Solid Air I found that it connected instantly but that the effect didn’t last like some of his other albums. It doesn’t have the depth of G and D or One World for me. But of course, it is a great album.

  26. practicalpsychologist on

    This is an unreleased gem.


  27. […] meet Janis Joplin) at Ronnie Scott’s. She was singing songs by my favourite of favourites John Martyn. The venue is one of the best, still redolent of the 70s. You just sip cocktails (no two the same) […]

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