An encounter with Martyn in his final years gives the book a dramatic opening sequence. As well as displaying a love and understanding of his subject’s finest music, the author is clear-eyed about the regular bouts of “loud, stupid behaviour, intimidating and graceless”, the chaotic tours, the vast amounts of drink and drugs, the selfishness and the emotional cowardice. Yet amid the despairing shrugs of the surviving witnesses, including his abandoned partners and children, a love of the roaring boy shines through.
After reading Graeme Thomson’s comprehensive, thoughtful and often unsettling biography of the man, there is little wonder the singer rarely, if ever, reached a place of contentment. This is a person, writes Thomson, who “displayed classic patterns of coercive behaviour – controlling, manipulative, mercurial. Quick to emotional and sometimes physical violence when drunk, drugged or simply enraged, he fostered paranoia and panic even when he was being nice”.
And yet Martyn, the difficult musical visionary, thoroughly deserves this painstaking and eloquent biography. It is not the first, but balances the fan’s assiduousness with a critic’s sieving action. Thomson does the legwork: the leading lights of the folk-rock scene, Martyn’s teenage girlfriend, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, an early and loyal benefactor, Martyn’s children, umpteen band members, session musicians, producers and former managers are interviewed. One anonymous friend of Martyn’s is still too scared to go on the record about the musician’s underworld connections.
It would no doubt incense the scathing, unclubbable Martyn to learn how many of his peers-cum-rivals (Richard Thompson, for one) come to pass judgment on his abilities and frailties. What emerges is a picture of a one-man band musician whose virtuoso playing and jigsaw of effects units could, legend has it, upstage superstars; a charming boor with quicksilver in his fingers.