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Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn

PART OF THE Applause ISSUE

‘”You could put it into a hymn book,” Richard Thompson told me of Martyn’s best known song, which comprises of a series of very secular prayers.’

Small Hours is an intimate, unflinching biography of one of the great musical mavericks, and a man of great complexity and volatility. If you’ve yet to make your acquaintance with John Martyn’s music, then BooksfromScotland has a treat for you. We asked biographer Graeme Thomson to recommend his favourite tracks, and we share them with you now.

 

Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn
By Graeme Thomson
Published by Omnibus Press

 

Go Easy (Bless The Weather, 1971): A shrugged mea-not-quite-culpa, ‘Go Easy’ is Martyn’s first great song of liberation. It is the lucky charm of the self-defined wastrel, a drowsy acknowledgement of the non-conforming life he has chosen, ‘raving’ through the night, sleeping away’ the day, always with a little something on hand to numb the pain.

 

May You Never (Solid Air, 1973): ‘You could put it into a hymn book,’ Richard Thompson told me of Martyn’s best known song, which comprises of a series of very secular prayers. That the song’s litany of pitfalls – wandering women; frayed tempers; bar-room rumbles; sleepless nights on the tiles – were all directly pertinent to Martyn’s chaotic lifestyle suggests that he was, at least partly, singing to himself. The version recorded at Transatlantic Sessions in 1995 underlines what a beautiful and versatile song it is.

 

Solid Air (Solid Air, 1973): The title track of Martyn’s classic album was written for his friend Nick Drake. Triangulating between murmuring empathy, frustration and foreboding, Martyn divines not only Drake’s quietly devastating emptiness, but the maddening impossibility of reaching him. In the decades since Drake’s suicide in November 1974, the song has become a kind of requiem. At the time, it was something more complicated, a necessary release of feelings that could not be expressed face to face. The final cut is a work of almost casual brilliance: fragile, unanchored, barely in motion.

 

Small Hours (One World, 1977): A pre-dawn symphony scored in reverb. Recorded in the wee hours of a summer morning in 1977, the microphones scattered around Chris Blackwell’s Berkshire farmstead, ‘Small Hours’ is a genuinely ambient recording. The flight of passing geese flying low over the lake, the rattle of the passing mail train, the gentle lapping of the water, the rush of early morning air all contribute to the pastoral aural tapestry. It offers a glimpse of Martyn’s restless soul finding a moment of peace.

 

Under My Wing (On The Cobbles, 2004): Later-period Martyn is erratic, but ‘Under My Wing’ is moving, soulful proof that he remained forever capable of divining the heart of the matter. Sounding reflective and appropriately weathered, Martyn throws a protective arm around a vulnerable loved one who keeps their most intimate feelings hidden away. The backing vocals are by Paul Weller, the wonderful flute from Steve Eisen.

 

Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thomson is published by Omnibus Press, priced £20.00.

 

 

 

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