Listen to this track by Scottish folk-jazz figurehead John Martyn. It’s “Solid Air”, the title track of his 1973 album of the same name, Solid Air. The record is arguably his most high-profile, employing a successful fusion of jazz and folk, connecting lyrically on an emotional level too.
Martyn’s delivery here is slurred and languorous, a new style for him at the time. The song’s themes of course have to do with his friend Nick Drake, a person of prodigious talent and sensitivity in the same measure. He suffered from debilitating depression, coupled with and perhaps exacerbated by the pressures of being a recording artist dealing with the demand of record sales and live appearances in close succession. Nick Drake didn’t enjoy success with either at the time.
Nick Drake would die of an accidental overdose of antidepressant medication, November 25, 1974. It happened 18 months after Martyn’s album came out, and 37 years and less one day ago today.
This song is written by Martyn to Nick Drake, a sentiment of one friend to another in song, maybe because, as Drake said in one of his own songs, “if songs were lines in the conversation, the situation would be fine.” The song is looked upon as a tribute. But, to me it is less that, and more a song to express worry, concern.
The Solid Air album, and this song, is bolstered by some of the greatest talent in contemporary British folk music, including bassists Danny Thompson and Dave Pegg, and drummer Dave Mattacks. These same musicians would also play on Nick Drake’s first two albums, being that Martyn and Drake moved in the same artistic circles. John Martyn and Nick Drake were also label mates on Island, and who followed similar stylistic paths, melding jazz flourishes with British folk textures.
Another similarity between the two artists is their gravitation toward mining deeply into their own psyches, although with this song, it’s Martyn dealing most overtly with trying to figure out his friend’s mind rather than his own, strictly. Being so similar in terms of artistry and profession, the tension here is the chasm that exists between them anyway.This song is about a man who can’t reach his friend in the way that he would like.
It’s a love song.
That this song suspended Martyn’s concerns in amber after Nick Drake died was perhaps of little comfort to him. But with its sadness and quiet desperation driven by the love of one friend for another, the song remains to be one of the greatest songs about friendship ever written.
He would perform this song along with the album from which it comes in its entirety for the Don’t Look Back series at London’s Barbican in 2006 .
John Martyn died in 2009, after many years as a recording artist and live performer.
For more information about John Martyn, check out the John Martyn official site.