Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Over The Hill

When the marriage of Glaswegian folk and blues singer John Martyn, and his wife Beverley, broke up at the end of the 1970s, they were living in Heathfield. Interviewed in 1981 by Chris Salewicz of the NME, Martyn reflected on the fact that he had returned to Scotland whereas his wife still lived in the East Sussex town. “I don’t know how she can stand it,” he ruminated, “I suppose she has learnt to live with middle class ponces.” Hmm…

If that sounds as though Martyn was never at home so far from Glasgow, it could not be further from the truth. From the age of five, he had divided his time between his estranged parents’ homes north of the border and in the home counties. And in the first half of the seventies, Martyn and his own young family lived on the Sussex coast. Indeed, his time in Hastings probably saw Martyn at the peak of his creative and commercial powers.

Having already been an important figure in the British folk scene from the mid-1960s onwards recording as a duo with Beverley, Martyn’s sound took a distinctive turn when he experimented with guitar delay effects and a slurred vocal style, and teamed up with jazz bassist Danny Thompson. This new and unique sound was first fully heard on the 1971 album, Bless the Weather; but it was the next album that was his apotheosis: 1973’s Solid Air, with its title track dedicated to friend and regular visitor to the Martyns’ Hastings home, Nick Drake, was a huge critical and commercial success.

However, Martyn’s prodigious appetite for alcohol and drugs had become a central feature of his life and, on the beautiful Over The Hill, his paean to Hastings’ West Hill, he was at his most confessional:
Can't get enough of sweet cocaine, get enough of Mary Jane/Going back to where I come from, going rolling back home again/Over the hill
Although his lifestyle had caused the family’s life to become increasingly chaotic, Martyn was still self-aware enough to realise where his priorities lay:
Been worried about my babies, been worried about my wife/ Just one place for a man to be when he's worried about his life/ I'm going home, over the hill
The image of the troubled troubadour, returning home over West Hill, is a powerful one.

In an attempt at a new beginning, the family moved 15 miles inland to Heathfield in 1975. But what was intended as salvation was merely a postponement of the inevitable; by the end of the seventies, Martyn had left Sussex behind. He continued to record, perform and consume consistently throughout the following decades, until his death in 2009.

Once their young children had grown, Beverley also returned to music, latterly with this year’s The Phoenix and the Turtle album. And most recently, the young man who visited the Martyns’ hill-top Hastings home to stare out to sea for hours on end has propelled Beverley into the headlines. The ownership of early demo tapes, long in the possession of the Martyns, has been called in to question by the estate of the legendary Nick Drake.

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