My college friend Eric Amrine introduced me to singer-songwriter John Martyn in 1976 when we were just 20 years old. We were both guitarists and drawn to mind-altering experiences. Martyn’s Scots-folk-soul was instantly addictive: full of yearning, hypnotic, melancholy, angry-yet-sweet.
Just the other day my doctor, who is British and the same age as Eric and me, mentioned Martyn and Nick Drake to me in the same sentence. We were standing in the barn as the horses came in for the night, and our breath fell from our mouths like clouds. In winter, when the air is so cold that we are reminded of the thin line between liquid and solid, this is the music we listen to: John Martyn, Nick Drake. Solid Air is the record I still own. Martyn dedicated the title track of his best-known album to the brilliant and insomniac Drake, who died of an overdose at age 24.
Eric and I went to college a mere 200 miles from Woodstock, NY, where Martyn and other lights of the music world also lived in the late 1960s. Martyn once said, “Jimi Hendrix owned a house literally over the road. He used to fly up every Thursday in a purple helicopter. He was very quiet and used to tell me how much he loved the animals.” I was surprised to learn John Martyn was only 60.
My capacity for denial is selective and applies to the passage of time. Eric is forever 20, for instance, and Martyn’s music is frozen with our youthful faces at that time. Yet death looms. It always has and always will, of course, but as my own age trespasses on the territory of the daily obituary, death is so close you can touch it. Every morning during this winter cold spell I worry about the deer and the feral cat that I have seen once, whose tracks I see stringing through the snow. How do they survive? How do the birds keep warm in their tiny feather coats? How do they hold on in the wind?
I don’t know. I hear Martyn singing, I don’t want to know about evil. I only want to know about love.