Greg Freeman 

Old music: John Martyn – Sweet Little Mystery

Greg Freeman: John Martyn is the sound of hangovers, of long and lonely journeys, of a spine tingling
  
  

You know – or still remember – that moment halfway through Sunday afternoon, when you still have the hangover but are just beginning to come round? It's a little before you decide on some dry toast, your first sustenance of the day, and long before you think of risking a boiled egg. Maybe a sharp, tangy Granny Smith? Maybe not. At such moments of fragility, you decide to put some soothing music on that will assist you to recover, but at the same time reflects your mood of rueful regret – or sheer embarrassment – at what you may have got up to the night before.

John Martyn's the man for me, Sweet Little Mystery the song that condones such behaviour, and makes it all right again. "Another weekend almost gone," perhaps. But listening to his swirling, sensual, hypnotic voice, and the slurring words of wistful longing, you slowly begin to engage with the world once more.

Martyn spent his early years in New Malden on the borders of south-west London and Surrey, the same unassuming area beside the Kingston bypass that nurtured another brilliant guitarist and songwriter, Peter Green, and is now perhaps more notable for the remarkable number of Koreans living there. Then his parents divorced and he spent his childhood shuttling between England and Scotland, where his grandparents lived. His music triumphantly blurs musical boundaries. The Grace and Danger album, about the break-up of his marriage, is regarded by many as his finest. Sweet Little Mystery is, for me, the most poignant, addictive track on it.

When I bought Grace and Danger in early 1982, I was feeling a sense of dislocation, having just joined the Guardian – a long time ago now – and consequently living part of the time in London with my in-laws, but joining my wife whenever I could, where she was still trying to sell our house in York. Sweet Little Mystery helped make sense of a time of transition as I pootled up and down the A1 in our Renault 5.

For some unaccountable reason my wife doesn't share my appreciation of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits. But she loved the dim-the-lights mood of Sweet Little Mystery. There's no doubt whatsoever that Martyn himself must have suffered his fair share of hangovers. You can hear it in his voice when those crooning, slurring tones eventually degenerated into something like a wino's rasp before his untimely death at the age of 60 in 2009, a few weeks after he was awarded an OBE. I accepted this change in his voice as part of life; it's fair to say that my wife found it harder to accept.

Watching this 1984 video still makes my spine tingle.

 

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