I first met John Martyn, as many did, in a bar. The beer garden of Carroll's Bar in Thomastown to be exact. I was interviewing him for a British music magazine, and was on the fizzy water. He was on the cider and quadruple vodkas. It was 2005 and Martyn - the once beautiful curly-haired sorcerer who belonged to a folk-jazz-blues genre of one - had seen better days.
I subtitled my new biography The Long Night Of John Martyn for a reason. For all the beauty in his music, Martyn's life was filled with what the folk musician Ralph McTell called an "awe-inspiring darkness". The final chunk of his three-score years were spent in Thomastown, and, at times, things got very dark indeed.
Martyn had moved to Kilkenny at the turn of the millennium, after bankruptcy forced him from his previous home in rural Scotland. With the kind of grimly humorous flourish he appreciated, a summons had been served on his 53rd birthday: September 11, 2001.
Though born in England and raised in Glasgow, the man who made a string of remarkable albums in the 1970s - from the bucolic bliss of Bless The Weather to timeless classics Solid Air and One World - had always enjoyed a strong connection with Ireland, both musically and personally. He shared folk club bills with an emerging Christy Moore and recorded 'She Moved Through The Fair' during sessions for his 1967 debut album, London Conversation. On 1973's wild Inside Out, he turned Eibhlí Ghail Chiúin ni Chearbhail - a pretty air recorded by The Chieftains - into an ominous Celtic death dirge seemingly powered by bellows and a crank handle.
There were holidays in Glendalough and regular shows north and south of the border. His appearances at Lisdoonvarna festival became annual events. It was in the Clare spa town in 1980 that Martyn met his second wife, Annie Furlong. Originally from Wexford, Furlong was a former model and PA who became the first studio manager at Windmill Lane. As the vivacious, outgoing and beautiful interface between artists and technical staff, "she brought a bit of glamour and pizazz to it," says producer Brian Masterton, at the time the studio director. "She really knew how to celebrate the end of an album!"
The relationship developed quickly to the point where friends and family felt "a bit of trepidation", says Masterton, over her decision to give up her career, leave Dublin and live with Martyn in Scotland. After marrying in Edinburgh in 1983, the union took a disastrous, if sadly predictable, course. Martyn had subjected his first wife, the singer Beverley Martyn, to a decade of physical and psychological abuse. The relationship with Furlong became just as toxic and dysfunctional. On tour, friends would see her emerging from hotel rooms with "black eyes and swollen lips".
'Annie Says', the sweet ode to Furlong which appears on Martyn's 1991 album Cooltide, doesn't quite tell the whole story. That same year, she ran away from her husband. She returned to Dublin and remarried, eventually moving to Kenya, where she died in 1996 of cerebral malaria. Furlong struggled with anxiety and alcoholism until the end of her life. Her family viewed her as collateral damage in Martyn's raging fight with the world and himself, and never forgave him.
These times of greater empathy and awareness often demand a reassessment of the terms on which we engage with artists whose music we love, but whose behaviour we abhor. The conclusions we reach will vary but, for many, Martyn's abusive nature leaves an indelible taint on his music.
After a period of financial misadventure, he came to live in an old farmhouse, just outside Thomastown, belonging to his last partner, Teresa Walsh. The rooms were filled with rugs, candles, books and Buddhas. He spent his time recording, drinking, smoking dope, cooking, and fishing for sea trout in the streams nearby.
His health was now poor. In 2002, shows were cancelled due to an infected foot and the after-effects of an accident in which the car in which he was travelling collided with a cow. Matters reached a head when a cyst burst and septicaemia flooded his bloodstream. Decades of alcohol and drug abuse had, in effect, poisoned his system.
Left with no further options, in April 2003, Martyn's right leg was amputated just below the knee. The operation took place in Waterford Hospital, where he recuperated for seven weeks in traditional fashion: a stream of visitors came armed with curries and Guinness. His dog, Gizmo, was smuggled in beneath a blanket. Martyn's next album, On The Cobbles, is dedicated to staff at the hospital. During the recovery period, Teresa would drive him out to Dunmore East for seafood and gulps of sea air.
Performing in a wheelchair, Martyn made his stage comeback on November 7, 2003, at Connolly's of Leap, the music-focused pub in Cork. A 'Welcome Home' banner on the wall emphasised the extent to which he'd been embraced in Ireland. I first met him, not so long afterwards, in Carroll's. By turns eloquent, courteous, funny and still slightly dangerous, he looked older than his 57 years. His face was scarred, his fingers pale and thick as butchers' sausages. He was on his ninth prosthetic and had gained six stone in the past 18 months from lack of exercise. When he tried to swim, he went around and around in circles. "No rudder."
As Martyn's long night drew to an end, parts of the sky lightened a little. Off the road and off the beaten track, his appetite for destruction seemed to wane. He espoused Buddhism, meditating near the river Nore two or three times a week. He watched birds in the garden, taking life at a "slower, sweeter pace. I'm becoming more and more withdrawn from the world. I have a lot more peace and composure. I like being on the road still, but I prefer listening to the trees". He watched snooker and trash TV: Deadliest Catch, Ice Truckers, The X Factor.
He recorded music in every room of the farmhouse, much of it later released on his patchy, posthumous final record, Heaven And Earth. More fruitfully, he continued to tour in a wheelchair, in major concert halls and local boozers. He played two songs at Kytelers Inn in Kilkenny during the 2008 Rockfall Festival. The final show took place at Vicar Street in Dublin on November 25, 2008, where Martyn performed his bruised 1980 masterpiece, Grace And Danger. He died just over two months later, on January 29, 2009, of pneumonia and acute renal failure, at St Luke's Hospital in Kilkenny. "He got a year for free at the end," says his keyboard player, Spencer Cozens, who played at Vicar Street.
The funeral was held in St Mary's Church, Kells, on the first day of February. Local singer, the late Mary Moore, rendered 'The Sally Gardens' and the ensemble sang Martyn's classic folk hymn, 'May You Never', as he was carried from the church. He was cremated the following day at Newlands Cross in Dublin. The snow was so bad that night, all flights out of Ireland were cancelled. The bar stayed open late. Martyn would, I think, have approved.
Small Hours: The Long Night Of John Martyn by Graeme Thomson is published by Omnibus Press on Thursday