Spencer The Rover, RIP

john-martynHe had a voice and he knew how to slur it. Self-taught guitarist, it didn't matter whether he plucked an acoustic or feed it through a bank of electronic effects, his voice remained unique. Singer-songwriter Ian David McGeachy AKA John Martyn, born on the 28th of June 1948 in Surrey, raised in Glasgow, Scotland. Died of pneumonia in Ireland yesterday, the 29th of January 2009. To his legion of music fans and critics, he was revelatory and will be missed. Fame and riches would elude him here in the States. Thankfully, he was a national treasure in the U.K., even though he never cracked their top 40. So beloved he was finally appointed an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in New Year Honours this past December.

About ten years ago I finally caught up with him at one of his shows at the Bottom Line. He'd re-established himself with new set of younger fans with the critically acclaimed The Church with One Bell -- a covers album featuring songs from Portishead to Billie Holiday. He was hurting physically, the after-effects of years of drink and drugs. But his spirit remained intact, his voice strong, his playing assured. In 2003, his leg would be amputated from the knee down due complications from a burst cyst. But he soldiered on, recording and performing. But looking back...

For a short while in the late '60s he lived and recorded in Woodstock with his wife Beverly Kutner. They recording two albums. But he would see critical and audience appreciation reach a whole new level with his third solo effort, Bless the Weather, released in 1971. A darker, more stripped down effort; his voice, congas, bass (the esteemed Danny Thompson of the folk band The Pentangle and life-long musical foil), and his remarkable agility on guitar. The introduction of tape loops, but so organic you'd never know it. It remains one of those timeless classics. Songs to cherish forever.

Time after time I held it just to watch it die
Line after line I loved it just to watch it cry
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you away
Bless the weather that brought you to me
Curse the storm that takes you home

Some call him the father of trip-hop with albums like Solid Air -- the title track an homage to friend and label mate Nick Drake -- receiving even more accolades and a wider audience. Many argue this was his finest effort. Eric Clapton would later cover "May You Never" on Slowhand. Next was Inside Out (1973) (heavy use of the echoplex on his guitar), then the very solid Sunday's Child (1974), and One World (1977), produced by Chris Blackwell and featuring Steve Winwood on many of the tracks.

Grace and Danger (1980), his "darkest hour," yet his personal favorite, recorded in an emotional valley after divorcing his wife Beverly. Phil Collins handled drums in this tight quartet. Friend and Island Records honcho Blackwell held up the release, finding it too disturbing. Critics and fans hailed it as yet another milestone release. There was more to come, but words can't adequately describe his vibe.

Suffice to say, best to let this 1977 performance offer a glimpse of his magic:

Rave on, Spencer the Rover.

This tune was composed by Spencer the Rover
As valiant a man as ever left home
And he had been much reduced
And caused great confusion
And that was the reason he started to roam.

May you roam long and far. In eternal sleep, may your music find a new audience.

peace,

Dusty

John Martyn

dusty5a

Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs, and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was a William Morris agent.

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