Head & Heart: The Acoustic John Martyn
Purists might claim this to be some sort of grave-robbing or merely superfluous; standard anger towards posthumous compilations – but Martyn, a tricky man to pin down, was re-recording his own material in his lifetime; was subject to far too many compilations – some of them got to the heart at least, I’m not sure anyone could (or would want to) get inside his head. But I like the aims and ambitions of this compilation very much.
For a start it provides depth and breadth to the new season’s converts that snap up Solid Air and wonder ‘what next?’ – I was one of them once, we’ve all been there, or get there, a compilation like this would have been a flat favourite in my student daze. Solid Air and (Nick Drake’s) Pink Moon were revelations to me, as they are to many. And with a fresh crop of folk-literature acoustic guitar heroes – Steve Gunn, William Tyler, Cian Nugent, Ryley Walker and more besides – it’s nice to hear Martyn’s early days and his subsequent returns to the acoustic format.
Nice, too, to have some of the recordings with Beverly Martyn in place alongside pre- and post- solo offerings. From Dylan covers and earnest folky fingerings to the deep wisdom of his ambient folk across Solid Air and to all points between. We get the impressive finger-work of Seven Black Roses, lovely duets with Beverly on John The Baptist and Traffic-Light Lady, and the deeply hypnotic vocal from a demo version of When It’s Dark; his guitar fingering subtle, deceptive, seeming so simple – but that voice too. Gorgeous.
There are a small handful of treasures here – four previously unreleased songs/versions, a few live pieces, some demos and outtakes, all collected up in once place. It’s both introduction and a fine place for a fan to regather some thoughts. And Martyn is the type of musician where that is required. A shit of a human being, a hopeless drunk – his life, and the life of many others ruined by alcoholism. And then you hear him sing May You Never or I Couldn’t Love You More. And you wonder how anyone could write such songs. Even harder to fathom when you know Martyn’s track-record away from the guitar.
Sad to think that – just scraping 60, he was gone. Gone now for nearly a decade.
So much magic here and so much magic that comes flooding back if you know any of this work already.
There was all the electric/echoplex material that arrived after this, or in and around this. And some of that is magical too. But there’s a purity, and surety, to Martyn on the acoustic guitar. A man taking time out from wrestling his demons perhaps. For the vital moments when he was making this music, and when we get to hear it now, you can pretend he was nice, better, different. Or you can think about toll of it all, of what it takes to be truly great, to make music on this level; to battle those demons without hope of winning.
But this double-disc collection is beautiful. Your call whether you need it. But it could be the music that saves your life, or rescues your soul. Or more likely simply a bunch of songs that makes the two-hours of listening feel like a beautiful stroll more than any deadly toll.