small hours with John Martyn…

It’s nearly 4, reminding me of the John Martyn song “Small Hours”… Over the summer I discovered piles and piles of live videos of him on YouTube going all the way back to the 70s.  And a couple of nice full-length documentaries.  A man barely known in the States but nobody else had a voice like him or ever will.  No slouch on guitar either but for me it was that tender, growling, roaring, aching, endlessly expressive voice… Simply one of the greatest singers we have had.

I got to see him once.  He could give spine-chilling performances live, every one unique, and then he could get on stage totally wrecked and sound a complete mess.  I caught one of those gigs, in a small club.  He came on swigging scotch the first half, came back for the second chain-smoking spliffs, which he would smoke 3/4 of the way down then toss into the audience.  (One of which landed at my feet, then disintegrated in my hand.)

He started out as a folkie in the late 60s then incorporated jazz / rock / blues elements in a way all his own, until eventually there was just nobody who sounded like him.  Ended up with a burst cyst in his right leg, requiring amputation, after which he also put on a ton of weight.  He lived such a wild life a lot of people, including himself, were surprised he made it as far as he did (we lost him in 2009, to pneumonia).  Not a consistent songwriter–there are chunks of his career I don’t connect with, but then there are these moments…

Like the song he wrote for his friend Nick Drake in 1973, the year before Drake died, age 26.

But then, can you believe this is the same guy, only a few years later? A 10,000 volt version of “Lookin’ On” :

Then for something completely different again … I was watching the movie “The Talented Mr. Ripley” one day, shell-shocked by the ending, the film score music going on over the credits, then a pause halfway through and suddenly … that voice again.  It was John Martyn of all people doing a cover of the jazz standard “You Don’t Know What Love Is,” but doing it like it’s never been done before, in this sinuous, intimate, world-lost way.  Such a brilliant choice by the director Anthony Minghella also (a movie full of brilliant choices and breathtaking ensemble acting by every lead)–the song gives a sort of ambiguous, subversive little twist I think on the movie. Martyn himself said that often a singer has to be satisfied with getting to 7 or 8 out of 10 of what they were after, but that with this recording he felt he hit a 10.

And finally a performance of “One World” from 1990. He doesn’t start singing until almost 3 minutes in but … don’t touch that dial!

A heartbreaking version of “Never Let Me Go” from the same concert is also up on YouTube but cut off a minute or so from the end unfortunately.  So you also miss the stunned silence afterwards and some guy in the audience then whispering “beautiful” …

The guy even does … “Over the Rainbow” … like you never heard …

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