Listening to John Martyn’s The Tumbler (1968, Island Records) for the first time, I’m taken back to the first time I heard this gorgeous voice. I was in high school, music-obsessed and was devouring about anything that had made the US or UK pop charts from the late ’60s to late ’70s. Martyn’s sixth album Solid Air (1973, Island Records) — propelled by the surprise hit title track (which had been dedicated to his friend and contemporary Nick Drake, just a little under a year before his death by overdose) — had become a canonical British work from the ’70s and ended up in my LP stack (perhaps after having heard it on a compilation LP released by K-Tel, bless their souls). While I didn’t make it much deeper than the opening title track back in those days, the entire album has become an oft-traveled staple in my cockpit over the past three to four years, with “Over the Hill” and “May You Never” (which Eric Clapton brought to a much broader audience on his ‘77 album Slowhand) becoming bonafide folk-jazz classics to mine ears.
Over the past few years, as I’ve gradually brought myself up to speed on the rest of Martyn’s body of work (which ranges from ‘67 to the present), I’ve kept my ears especially focused on his first decade of recorded work (ten albums), which includes two albums he did with his then wife Beverley. For some reason I’m especially drawn to albums made by married (or nearly married) couples (see also: John Lennon & Yoko Ono, Richard & Linda Thompson, Buckingham Nicks, Gregg Allman & Cher, Leon & Mary Russell, Victoria Williams & Mark Olson’s The Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, among others). There seems to be a certain degree of down-letting of the guard that occurs when a famous public artist opts to share the spotlight with his or her new lover, something by which I’m fascinated, especially as I’m naturally fascinated by the soft white underbelly of an otherwise control-hungry poet beast. John & Beverley’s two albums (Stormbringer! and The Road to Ruin) maintain the Drake/Bert Jansch-like folk-blues hybrid of his first two solo albums, but lean in a decidedly more rock direction, still veering south of the jazz territory that he’d perfect in a few years with Solid Air. I wish there were major revelations as stirring as the Stormbringer! album cover on these two John & Beverley albums, but alas, these are subtle albums with the revelations coming in small packages the shape of “Sweet Honesty” and “Stormbringer”, better suited for the lone road trip or the quiet dinner party than your next ecstatic haiku party.