Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

May you never – John Martyn (RIP 1948 – Jan 2009)


When I think of John Martyn – who sadly passed away on the 29th of January –  I think of friends, spread out across time and space, with whom I’ve listened to his music. It’s natural, because for decades Martyn was an artist to be discovered. He only periodically existed on radio/tv or in the music magazines, but few who heard him could resist introducing him – via a mix tape – to a music-loving friend.

I think of my mate Cathy, who, older than me, took matters into her own hands when seeing my U2 and Black Sabbath dominated tape collection. She introduced me to Martyn’s groundbreaking Solid Air (and, at the same time Van Morrison) with a smile, knowing that it would change things for me for ever.

I think of my friend Ronan, with whom I could never agree over the genius of Doc Watson, but who introduced me to Martyn’s debut London Conversations . A more different record to Solid Air it’s hard to imagine, to the extent that you could never imagine that light folk singer of one was also the gruff, mumbling vocalist with the timbre of a tenor saxophone of the other. Genius either way.

 I think of my friends Brendan and Melissa, who one pleasant afternoon in their small flat near the Guinness brewery ransacked their record collection to find me that spectacular husband/wife album that is Stormbringer. Martyn recorded this gem with his wife Beverley, a formidable talent in her own right. With songs like John the Baptist and the sublime (used advisedly)  Sweet Honesty  the couple managed to capture on vinyl  the joy, excitement, and terrible fear of love.

I think of my mate Mick, with whom I gambled on buying a ticket to see Martyn in Dublin during the mid ’90s. The common wisdom then was that going to see Martyn was a lottery – it could be the greatest or worst gig you’d ever see, depending upon the amount of booze Martyn had consumed.  As it turned out it was a brilliant, funny, warm and inspired performance – the gamble paid off. It was the last gig I ever saw with cheerful and upbeat Mick, who dissapeared shortly after.

There are too many John Martyn songs that have moved me  to list here (though it’s worth giving a special mention to The Man in the Station), but right now I want to go back to the first song of his that I heard – May you Never.

In the context of his career, with it’s constant shifting and searching for new styles – ranging from simple folk through to jazz and blues (with many considering him the pioneering father of trip-hop) – it’s easy to see why Martyn wouldn’t have given this song more consideration. On the complex Solid Air it’s simplicity could fool one into thinking it throw-away, but thankfully it has urgency, momentum, and a hook that is hard to resist.

There are those opening bare-naked lines

May you never lay your head down
without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed
out in the cold

With Martyn’s sweet soulful voice, above a guitar-part that makes you want to learn the instrument properly, these lines manage to be sincere and moving, while in the wrong hands (like, perhaps, those of his sometime colleagues Clapton and Collins) they would risk becoming unbearably sentimental.

And there’s the darkness that was unmistakable in his music, when he moves into his catalogue of wishes

May you never lose your temper
if you get in a bar-room fight
May you never lose your woman
over night

It’s that tension, between light and dark, that makes this so powerful. It looks to the worst, and hopes for the best, all the while taking consolation in rhythm and melody. It’s a beautiful, romantic, pop song that balances on a knife edge.

He’ll be missed.


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