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on 16 June 2009
This isn't the definitive biography of Martyn, but it will have to do until one comes along.

I picked it up knowing that Martyn was an exceptionally gifted guitarist and songwriter, an alcoholic who consumed industrial quantities of booze and drugs, and (often as a result) an aggressive and perhaps unpleasant person to be around. And when I'd finished the book, I still didn't know much more than that.

This isn't necessarily Munro's fault; he's pretty open about saying who would (and wouldn't) be interviewed for the biography. But sometimes the lack of background personal detail is surprising. For instance, Martyn's five-year relationship with (Julianne) Daisy Flowers is dealt with in just two paragraphs (in which Flowers describes Martyn as 'unbearable', 'vicious' and 'violent'). Similarly, his marriage to Annie Furlong, which lasted nearly seven years, is again scarcely mentioned, except for a quote from Martyn in which she is summed up as 'permanently drunk' (Furlong's family maintain she only became an alcoholic after suffering years of abuse from Martyn).

And so we end up with a lopsided view of the man, in which his drunken antics on tour and on stage are the stuff of frequent and lengthy anecdotes, but the years of abuse which he meted out to his wives and partners is skated over or (sometimes) ignored altogether.

I would have liked to know more about his relationship with his children, too. Son Spenser is mentioned on page 96 (as a baby) and then again not until page 164, when he's 16 and playing with his father on stage! Presumably in the intervening years the two had some contact, and maybe Martyn was an adoring and supportive (absent) parent, but we're not told one way or the other.

Stylistically, the book is no great shakes. It's worthy but pedestrian, and rarely inspired. In fact, much of the book is taken up with long quotes from articles or interviewees, with Munro just providing the bridges. The albums are all represented, with an obligatory mention of outstanding tracks, the recording process, and some excerpts from critical reviews. All very useful if you want to make sure you're not missing anything essential from your collection, but it's only rarely that Munro conveys any unbridled enthusiam.
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on 28 October 2007
A declaration of interest first of all: John Neil Munro is an old friend and colleague, so I was in any case disposed to like this book. That said, he didn't disappoint me.

Writing for "Scotland on Sunday" (Sept. 30, 2007), Munro explains that he decided to write the book after hearing conflicting reports about one of his musical heroes. The man responsible for some of the most romantic and mellow acoustic ballads, for classic albums such as "Solid Air" and "One World", apparently also had a darker side. So he set out to see "whether John Martyn was really a peace-loving good guy or was indeed something of a bampot."

The answer of course is he's a bit of both: Munro does a good of job of weaving together the twin threads of Martyn's remarkable musical career and the old rock-and-roll cliché of his self-destructive personal life. The book's great strength is that he has access to many of the key sources: not just Martyn himself but musical collaborators - and great musicians in their own right - such as Ralph McTell, Dave Pegg and the incomparable Danny Thompson.

Munro has also done his homework on key influences in Martyn's life and work, such as fellow musical prodigy and friend Nick Drake, who inspired "Solid Air". (The chapters on "lost souls" Drake and Paul Kossoff are sensitively handled.) And where he hasn't been able to interview important sources such as Beverley Martyn, thorough research ensures that her voice is heard.

Munro does a fair job sketching out Martyn's formative years in Scotland, though a few local references may escape some readers. He really gets into its stride when the young Martyn arrives in London. Munro does not pull his punches when it comes to assessing the limitations of some of Martyn's earlier work. But where the book really scores is in its detailed accounts of the making of the key albums: Solid Air, One World, Grace and Danger. As well as talking to the musicians involved, Munro puts the albums in the context of Martyn's personal life. And as well as offering his own assessments, he has taken the trouble to dig up some of the most perceptive reviews written at the time of their release.

I was interested, though perhaps not surprised, to discover that Martyn's slicker 1980s albums - when he put on a suit and went electric - are dismissed by many of the diehard fans hooked on his acoustic work. (Personally I love "Well Kept Secret" even if Martyn admits "to being so sozzled that he barely remembers anything about the recording".) But I would like to have read more about the merits or otherwise of Martyn's work from the 1990s onwards.

Martyn the man, as opposed the Martyn the musician, does not come out of the book terribly well. It is not just because of what some former friends, lovers and collaborators have to say. His own attempts to justify what has clearly on occasion been quite appalling behaviour are less than convincing. Martyn tells Munro how he doesn't suffer fools gladly. But one can't help thinking that the only reason so many people have suffered him is that hiding behind the bampot is a warmer, gentler man. And it is that gentler voice that comes through in a lot of his most beautiful work.

As Danny Thompson explains to Munro: "Someone who can write `You curl around me like a fern in the spring' - that's the man that is going to be missed, not the guy who is chucking beer all over you and poking you in the chest."
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on 8 January 2015
John Neil Munro has delivered an excellent biography on the life of John Martyn. I've read 'Grace & Danger' by Lee Barry, and 'Solid Air' by Chris Nickson, but this is the pick of the bunch. It's more comprehensive.
He was my musical hero, having owned all of his albums and seeing him in concert over 20 times. Certainly the sublime and emotional music contrasted with the turbulent life of the man making it, and John Neil Munro certainly does a fine job of unraveling the possible reasons for this. The book is particularly strong when covering his classic years up to 1980. Thereafter I felt that the chapters were a little too compressed, with the period around fine albums such as Sapphire, Piece by Piece & Glorious Fool given quite small amounts of print space.
The writer finds the right balance between respect for the quality of his work, and John's dysfunctional private life. The contributions of those who knew him best (with the exception of his first wife, Beverley) at all the points in his life, are quoted in significant chunks, giving the book credibility and insight. The John Martyn I see in these pages is a man who knew happiness and sadness in extreme proportions. Possibly the drink and drugs entering his early life in London thwarted his efforts to hold together marriages and develop stable relationships, and set in motion a destructive chain of events.
John Martyn may one day be revered as a true musical genius - he certainly deserves to be - but this book also offers a more complete picture of the man behind that legend. They say 'never meet your heroes' - I think I know why.
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on 23 August 2008
This man's music has moved me for over 20 years and I was looking forward to this biography. It is a warts and all look at his career. It is well written and the author hits the nail right on the head when he concludes that the world would be a far better place if more people listened to John's music. Since reading it I have listened to loads of his old (and new) stuff again and again, and you can not fail but be moved by his majesty.
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on 21 December 2007
It is clear that a lot of work and thought has gone into producing this biography. It would have been easy to have produced a superficial production based on all the various anecdotes and other published works.
John Neil Munro should be congratulated on the way in which he covers the good , the bad & the ugly sides of Martyn as well of course as the beautiful and fantastic music which has captivated so many for the last 40 years. The book is well produced in hardback and a most enjoyable read.
Maybe John Neil Munro should have a go at Davy Graham as his next subject?
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VINE VOICEon 11 April 2013
Effortlessly bridging musical gaps and challenging preconceptions throughout his life John Martyn could amaze and frustrate in equal measure. From his early acoustic folk albums right through to the drum machine fuelled freestyle jazz of his more obscure works it became increasingly dangerous to pigeonhole him both as a musician and as a person. While John Neil Munro's biography is not totally comprehensive regarding Martyn's considerable output it does shed valuable light and insight on John Martyn the person. From his childhood in Glasgow to seeking fame and fortune in London through to his Irish sojourn and eventual return to Scotland Martyn's complex character, relationships and musical attachments are examined in fine detail with generous quotes from acquaintances associated with every stage of the guitarist's colourful but preciously too short life. I would have liked to have seen more detail in the appendices about Martyn's live shows and albums (recommending just one DVD of John Martyn in concert is akin to just recommending one Beatles song) but on the whole Munro has researched and written a warm and eminently readable memoir of one of Britain's most underrated songwriters of the past half century.
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on 5 March 2010
I hesitated before writing this...I would firstly like to thank John Munro for writing the biography of one of my very favourite needed doing.. is very obviously a valiant attempt by a latecomer to John's work who had to try to find the soul of a complicated man by looking through the wrong end of the telescope....interviews with the few people who opened up to him not long before the man himself died.

I know its wishful thinking but...I wish someone had got hold of John, hung about with him for a year or so...preferably in the 1970s and written a book about that...or that Beverley had written this book...or Danny Thompson...

I was left feeling unsatisfied...the collection of photos in the centre says it all...a patchwork from his early life with a big rush of photos of John as an old man at the end.

All John Martyn's fans should buy the book ...but youll need to listen to the music to get close to the man...hey, maybe thats how he would have preferred it?
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on 4 September 2011
I liked the way the book was written - yes the author does quote from many previously published items but contrary to what others have said, I quite like this approach as it is factual and without embellishment.

I saw John Martyn live in 2000 and 2001 the last was in a small venue with him playing acoustic with Danny Thomson. It was an amazing evening - the chemistry between the two was very much obvious - as described in some detail in the book.

I enjoyed it very much and learned a quite a lot from it. The mystery of John's changing accent was solved as well. Small 'technical' matter of where John was brought up in Glasgow. Author has Tantallon road in Queens Park - I would have thought it more Shawlands, or at a push perhaps Langside.
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on 11 October 2015
A revealing insight into a creative and complex man. Having had the privelige of seeing him perform and variously dazzled and inspired by his talent and technique on more than one occasion, it has been fascinating to learn something of the man's uncompromising nature and fortitude behind it all. A good read!
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on 9 April 2009
I've been waiting for years for this book, it's such a shame it had to come after John's untimely death. He's formed a big part of the soundtrack of my life since my early teens (I'm now 53!). This book has filled in many of the gaps in my knowledge of John's life, and some of the personal reminiscences, particularly those ,from one of my other heroes - Danny Thompson, helped to put a knowing smile back on my face. As Danny might have said on many occasions "John's always been a bit of a cult......!", but to those of us who love his music, he's always been a genius, be it of the fretboard, or the writing and singing of some of the most soulful songs ever. Thank you John Neil Munro for capturing it in print.
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