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John Martyn – I Liked That One

I seem to have to a habit of commenting belatedly on the deaths of musicians I admire. I was about a fortnight after the event in paying tribute to Mitch Mitchell and now I’m the best part of a week late talking about the demise of John Martyn.

Ah well, that’s how it is sometimes. Only the small-minded, petty, inadequate, and cowardly live their lives by immovable deadlines.

John Martyn was none of those things. He was a man who stared life in the face and, consequently, was capable both of exquisite tenderness and appalling self-indulgence. Good. At least he was honest.

Part of the reason for my tardiness was due to nothing more complicated than not knowing where to start. Or finish for that matter. This is a blog, after all. How do you do justice to a talent like John Martyn in this format? And then I realised that you don’t – you let the talent justify itself.

So, with that in mind, watch this.

Seriously, watch it. Don’t read any more until you have.

OK, how good was that? Every component of it is amazing. The guitar playing, the vocal performance, the lyrics – all exceptional.

And when was the last time you heard a love song that wasn’t rooted in sexual desire? (OK, maybe Tears In Heaven but l’ve always been convinced Clapton took this – a song he once covered, incidentally – as his starting point for Tears In Heaven anyway)

Right, now watch this.

It’s the same song recorded 22 years later. OK, I know he looks about 50 years older but that’s hard-living for you. Anyway, I think it’s actually better. Now I know it’s not quite comparing like for like. Where he plays solo in the earlier version, he’s accompanied by Kathy Mettea on vocals, Jerry Douglas on slide guitar (isn’t his contribution just brilliant, by the way?), and his old mate Danny Thompson on double bass in the second. But it’s the evolution of both the song and the man that make it a superior version to my mind.

How often do you see/hear a performance of a song by its author more than two decades after it was written which surpasses any recorded at the time?

Martyn’s voice is deeper, richer, and more nuanced in the later version and as a result so is the song itself. Popular musicians often makes fools of themselves with their desperate efforts to cling on to their youth. This is an object lesson in ageing perhaps not gracefully exactly (he does look a bit like a homeless person) but certainly with dignity.

And…and…and… his dance of joy at the end! That’s a man who has seen it all several times over but never lost touch with the child he once was. Perhaps that’s the secret.

Two versions of the same song, 22 years apart. In the first, a young man wise beyond his years and, in the second, an older man overcome with youthful exuberance. Every age at every stage. The best of both worlds.

I like that one.


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