This is not going to be an exhaustive look at Nick Drake but a general chronology of his short life, with some analysis of his music and lyrics and thoughts on what may have caused the dramatic downward spiral of 3-4 years that turned a relatively happy young man with enormous talent, good looks and a very privileged station in life into an uncommunicative shell who would become yet another of rock’s casualties, too young even to join the 27 club (he missed out by one year).
For the reader not so familiar with Nick’s music and the chronology of his work, and since I will occasionally be referring to the other albums while discussing a particular one, the salient facts are that he released 3 studio albums, starting with ‘Five Leaves Left’ in the autumn of 1969 and followed by ‘Bryter Layter’ in late 1970 and ‘Pink Moon’ in early 1972. The beauty of Nick’s short discography is how different the 3 albums are and how they reflect, as will be seen, the place and indeed the state of mind in which they were largely composed. In addition, ‘Five Leaves Left’ features some amount of accompaniment to Nick’s ever-present acoustic guitar and vocal, ‘Bryter Layter’ goes for a full band sound throughout, and finally ‘Pink Moon’ is stripped back to just acoustic guitar and vocal. I can’t recommend highly enough that readers listen to all the albums and in chronological order, either before, during or after reading this piece (or indeed all 3!). They are all gifts that keep giving and in intriguingly different ways.
A great deal of the biographical detail comes from Patrick Humphries’ excellent book ‘Nick Drake: A Biography’, and I’d also highly recommend the documentaries ‘A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake’, which was my personal Nick starter kit along with the ‘Family Tree’ home demos compilation, and ‘A Stranger Among Us’, which featured heavily a lot of Nick’s very well-spoken contemporaries from his university and professional lives in a room discussing and sometimes arguing about Nick and his life and music.
Nick Drake’s story starts with his father Rodney moving to Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1930s as an engineer with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. He met Nick’s mother Molly, who it later emerged was also a songwriter, and they had 2 children, starting with Gabrielle, who would become a successful stage and television actress. Nick followed in 1948 and 2 years later the close and happy family relocated back to England, settling at a house called Far Leys in a quaint and very safe village called Tanworth-in-Arden, south of Birmingham and ‘just down the road’ from the birthplace of the Bard, William Shakespeare, in Stratford-upon-Avon.
His life up to the release of his first record in 1969 seems to have been nothing but happy. With any person who dies young, there is often a tracing back of their earlier life to attempt to find cracks in the façade. In Nick’s case, he was always shy and was a classic introvert in its truest sense, meaning that his social energy was somewhat limited and he was known to leave social gatherings rather abruptly. Having been in this situation myself many times, I can tell you that it can be extremely uncomfortable when your tank of sociability suddenly runs dry and you want nothing more than to be home and alone, or at least in safe and quiet surroundings. Having said that, the only known extended audio of Nick speaking happens to have been recorded just before 5am after a boozy night out (we know because Nick tells the tape the precise time). What is striking about this tape and his voice is that it paints a clear picture of a slightly apologetic, well-spoken teenager who is clearly of the upper-middle class and uses the pronoun ‘one’ repeatedly to describe himself. Just as a good booze-up will cause a working-class Cockney’s true origins to be revealed in the exaggeration of that accent, so happens with the ‘squiffy’ Nick Drake on this tape.
After boarding-school in Berkshire came Marlborough College, a well-established and prestigious ‘public school’ located in Wiltshire in the West of England. At this point, it needs to be explained that (for reasons too complicated to go into here) this term in England refers to a fee-paying elite school so quite the opposite of its meaning in other countries, where it is essentially a state school. He was at Marlborough from 1962-66, and uncommonly for a later ‘rock star’ (term used loosely) he was an excellent athlete, particularly strong as a sprinter and also in rugby and hockey. He was a popular and seemingly very well-adjusted young man with the world at his feet, and there was no real hint of what was to come. However, one of his peers later talked of ‘a part you could never reach’. ‘Diffident’ is a word often applied to him, and rather curiously he seemed to be a person who didn’t smile much but would laugh with friends at things he found amusing, a subtle but not completely insignificant distinction.
Musically, he was at that time playing piano, clarinet and alto sax and was in various bands during his academic career. Amusingly, Chris ‘The Lady In Red’ de Burgh was a contemporary and was rejected by one of Nick’s bands for being too short. Nick was a jazz fan but with a keen ear for the changes that swept through the popular music scene during his 4-year tenure at Marlborough. The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and particularly Bob Dylan would have a huge effect on his musical appreciation, and he and friends would make trips to London to watch bands and indulge in alcohol and cigarettes (but not cannabis at this point). Nick certainly liked a drink and socialised well with people who he knew and felt safe with. From summer 1966, he essentially took a ‘gap year’ before he was due to start reading (i.e studying) English Literature at Cambridge University the following autumn. He seemed to always enjoy driving, and when he and friends went camping in France that summer, Nick was behind the wheel of his mother’s Morris Minor.
He’d got his first guitar the previous year and seemed to make remarkable progress, prompting some amusing speculation about a Robert Johnsonesque pact with the devil in return for his prodigious skills. In reality, an inward-looking character like Nick probably just loved being with this ‘new friend’, who didn’t ask anything of him and was a source of endless curiosity, creativity and perhaps emotional catharsis (he wouldn’t be the first!). Ben Laycock, a friend who accompanied Nick on one or other of these carefree trips, describes being remarkably moved by Nick’s performances around the proverbial or actual campfire, amazed because he’d ‘never met anyone of my age who could do anything that well, to get those incredible sounds out of the guitar’. Nick’s playing in those early days already had his characteristic ‘open tunings’ and immaculate, rather mesmeric technique that was so precise as to be metronomic in the very best sense of the world, with a machine-like power and stunning virtuosity. You can now find videos on you tube of guitarists doing a pretty good job of replicating the tunings, notes and patterns, but there’s still an eternal mystery as to what precisely he was playing and how he came upon a style that seemed familiar but utterly unique at the same time.
In the autumn of 1966, Nick went to stay for a short time with his sister Gabrielle in London, and it was around this time that he smoked his first joint (albeit, certainly not with her), an event which may or may not be of significance concerning his later breakdown. In January 1967, while The Beatles were recording the early tracks for their Sgt Pepper album, including the masterpiece ‘A Day In The Life’, Nick and Jeremy Mason, later to be immortalised in the song ‘Three Hours’, went to Aix-en-Provence in the South of France for 6 months, ostensibly to study and improve their French. They busked in Aix and St. Tropez and it was there that some of Nick’s earliest compositions were written and his first home recordings committed to tape.
Mason later recalled that there were warning signs at this point in the form of regular cannabis use and possibly LSD, and a certain intensity that Nick took on as he focused on his music and practised like a man possessed. Nick went on at one point to Marrakesh, famous for its high-strength hash, and appears to have had an encounter there with the Rolling Stones, whose own trip would take the form of a psychodrama as Anita Pallenberg escaped the clutches of her physically abusive boyfriend Brian Jones and fell straight into the arms of his bandmate Keith Richards. Nick apparently played some songs for the Stones and they responded positively.
He enrolled at Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam College in October 1967 but was disappointed to be sequestered in digs that resembled a 1960s day care centre and were quite far out of town and away from the action. He seemed a lacklustre student and didn’t make a big impression as he had at Marlborough. Some of his peers, both his Cambridge and London friends and acquaintances, who featured in ‘A Stranger Among Us’, report a lot of dope-smoking and frittering away of whole days at a time but also a lot of music and creative productivity if not academic. Nick met Robert Kirby at this time and among their adventures was a failed audition for the comedy troupe The Cambridge Footlights Revue. Other students at Cambridge at that time included Ian MacDonald, who would later write the highly-regarded analysis of the Beatles’ recorded output ‘Revolution In The Head’ and eventually take his own life. Nick’s seeming remoteness from others has always begged the question of how much of it was conscious image-building, since both Nick and his peers must have sensed that he was something a bit special. He certainly looked the part with his velvet jacket and Cuban-heeled boots to compliment his soft features, boyish face and flowing locks. He was described as ‘quiet but knowing’ and ‘just passing through, always on the edge of things’. At times, his friends couldn’t quite believe what they had on their hands, especially when they heard his original songs with their poetic lyrics, delivered with his unique voice and increasingly prodigious guitar playing.
He would later become famous for not enjoying and barely ever engaging in live performances, but his sister and others attest that at this point he enjoyed it very much. He is known to have played the May Ball (in June!) at the more centrally-placed Caius College in Cambridge, backed by Robert Kirby’s orchestra, and another definite early gig was a 21st birthday bash at the Pitt Club in Cambridge. Women found him adorable but even at this happy stage of his life, attachments and assignations with the opposite sex were conspicuous by their seemingly total absence. There is no hint of homosexuality, so asexuality or simple lack of confidence in that area seem to be possibilities and may be another potential key to his later demise.
It is thought to be February 1968, just a few months into his university studies, when he was ‘discovered’ by Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings at a gig at The Roundhouse in London where Nick was supporting Country Joe & The Fish. Surprisingly, Hutchings was more taken with Nick’s charisma than his music, picking up on his legendary onstage stoop but finding in him a quiet assurance and magnetic stage presence. He immediately contacted Joe Boyd, an American who at 26 was already something of a legend in the business. Boyd had been production manager at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival where Bob Dylan ‘went electric’, had run Elektra Records’ London office, was involved with the underground UFO club in London and had overseen the first recordings of Pink Floyd and Soft Machine. He’d recently set up his own record label Witchseason (named after the Donovan song ‘Season of the Witch’) and had Fairport Convention and John & Beverley Martyn among his roster.
From there, things moved quickly, at least in terms of the start of recordings for his first album. Nick delivered a reel-to-reel tape of demos recorded during the recent Christmas holidays, and he and Joe Boyd met and quickly developed a strong bond, the easygoing and wise-beyond his-years Boyd becoming both a producer and mentor to the shy young hopeful. The recordings for ‘Five Leaves Left’, engineered by John Wood at Sound Techniques studios, begin in July 1968 but took nearly a year, the protracted period due partly to the fact that Nick was still a student and having to skip lectures in Cambridge and continually travel to and from the studio in London and also owing to the problems of installing a new 8-track machine at Sound Techniques. There was also Nick’s perfectionism. He may have been quiet but he knew what he wanted, a trait that would generally continue even in the darkest days to come. As expected, Nick’s own guitar and voice parts, done live together, were put down on tape quickly and efficiently, and it was noted how remarkably consistent he was if multiple takes were ever required. John Wood’s mic placements were credited with achieving the fine sound of the album, and Joe Boyd was also praised for his production work.
However, there was some tension over Boyd’s belief that the songs needed a fuller ‘band sound’, which he would fully realise on the second album ‘Bryter Layter’, while Nick preferred a stripped-down approach, which indeed he would get on the third and final album ‘Pink Moon’. Compromises were made, and some adornments were added to the songs. Nick was unhappy with the original string arrangements by Richard Hewson and so drafted in his Cambridge friend Robert Kirby to redo them. Boyd describes hearing ‘Way To Blue’, featuring just Nick’s voice and Kirby’s strings, and being taken aback by its beauty. Among the other musicians were double bass player Danny Thompson, who’d previously played on recordings by Donovan and the Incredible String Band. Just prior to the album’s release, Nick decided to leave Cambridge after his second year to seek his fortune in the music business. His father tried to dissuade him and talked of a safety net, Nick telling him ‘the last thing I want is a bloody safety net’.
‘Five Leaves Left’ was released in September 1969 on Island Records, which had recently acquired Witchseason for licensing purposes. Island was the brainchild of Chris Blackwell, a public schoolboy from London who’d spent an idyllic childhood in Jamaica, and by 1969 it had established itself as Britain’s leading independent record label. The album’s title is generally assumed to refer to the warning inside a packet of Rizlas to say that only 5 ‘skins’ remained. However, it may have come from a 1907 short story called ‘The Last Leaf’, by U.S. writer O. Henry. A young painter dying of pneumonia prolongs his life by focusing on the ivy growing outside. He counts the remaining leaves on the ivy vine and there are now five left. ‘When the last one falls, I must go too’. Along with the lyrical nods on the album to the idea of borrowed time, some have speculated that Nick may have known that he was always doomed. It is more likely at this stage however that he was living out some kind of romantic image of the sensitive, misunderstood poet who enters and exits the world without anyone ever truly knowing or reaching him.
I have personally never been comfortable attaching adjectives to music, but a recent close listen with special attention paid to the accompanying instruments and lyrics was quite revealing. The album’s music no doubt generally evokes a pastoral mood and the lyrics are poetic, betraying the fact that Nick was studying English Literature at Cambridge, with particular emphasis on the Classic poets. His acoustic guitar is wonderfully played and recorded throughout, as it would be on all his albums, and Robert Kirby’s string arrangements add a great deal and are tasteful at all times. Nick plays like a virtuosic demon on ‘Three Hours’ and ‘Cello Song’ in particular, and his voice sounds beautiful and warm throughout. The biggest question musically would seem to be how much the other instruments, outside of Kirby’s strings, really add to or detract from the overall effect.
On ‘Time Has Told Me’, the piano is nice but Richard Thompson’s electric guitar, though very well-played, seems to be an adornment there somewhat for the sake of it. The double bass works ok, particularly on ‘Three Hours’, but seems to be out on a limb in ‘Man In A Shed’ and generally makes less sense than on the next album ‘Bryter Layter’, where there are drums to lock in with. The bongos seem to be a bad misstep on ‘Three Hours’ but work better on ‘Cello Song’, and on the final song ‘Saturday Sun’, we get some lovely bluesy piano from Nick himself, good use of vibraphone and finally bass and drums together creating a groove that would anticipate the next album.
Lyrically, Nick tends to come up with great first verses to songs, which he often repeats at the end, a songwriting trait that would continue into the other albums. Rather than give a detailed analysis of his lyrics, below are a few key lines from each song in order to allow you the reader to decide what they may or may not mean. One thing to note when listening to the album (as you hopefully will) is the interesting juxtaposition of somewhat fatalistic lyrics with upbeat music and the wonderfully calm and soothing quality of Nick’s voice. Also note the remarkably prescient lyrics to ‘River Man’, which seem to anticipate Nick’s relationship with fame both during his life and beyond.
TIME HAS TOLD ME
‘Time has told me, you’re a rare rare find
A troubled cure for a troubled mind
Time has told me not to ask for more
‘Cause someday our ocean will find its shore
A soul with no footprint, a rose with no thorn’
‘Betty came by on her way, said she had a word to say
About things today and fallen leaves
Gonna see the river man, going to tell him all I can
About the plan for lilac time
If he tells me all he knows, about the way his river flows
I don’t suppose it’s meant for me’
‘Three hours from sundown, Jeremy flies, hoping to keep the sun from his eyes
East from the city and down to the cave, in search of a master, in search of a slave
Three hours is needed to leave from them all
Three hours to wonder, and three hours to fall’
WAY TO BLUE
‘Don’t you have a word to show what may be done
Have you never heard, a way to find the sun
Tell me all that you may know, show me what you have to show
Won’t you come and say, if you know the way to blue
Have you seen the land, living by the breeze
Can you understand a light among the trees
Look through time and find your rhyme, tell us what you find
We will wait at your gate, hoping like the blind’
DAY IS DONE
‘When the day is done, down to earth sinks the sun
Then you find you jumped the gun, have to go back where you began
When the day is done
When the bird is flown, got no one to call your own
Got no place to call your home
Lost much sooner than you would have thought
Now the game’s been fought
When the party’s through, seems so very sad for you
Didn’t do the things you meant to do
Now there’s no time to start anew, now the party’s through’
‘For the dreams that came to you when so young
Told of a life where spring is sprung
So forget this cruel world, where I belong
I’ll just sit and wait, and sing my song
And if one day you should see me in the crowd
Lend a hand and lift me, to your place in the cloud’
THE THOUGHTS OF MARY JANE
‘Who can know the thoughts of Mary Jane
Why she flies or goes out in the rain
Where she’s been, and who she’s seen
In her journey to the stars
Who can know the reasons for her smile
What are her dreams
The way she sings, and her brightly-coloured rings
Make her the princess of the sky
Who can know what happens in her mind
Did she come from a strange world and leave her mind behind’
MAN IN A SHED
‘There was a girl who lived nearby, whenever he saw here he could only sigh
She lived in a house so big and grand
For him it seemed like some very distant land
This story is not so very new, the man is me and the girl is you
So leave your house, come into my shed
Please stop the world from raining through my head’
‘Fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound
It can never flourish, till its stalk is in the ground
Life is but a memory, happened long ago
Theatre full of sadness, for a long forgotten show
Seems so easy, just to let it go on by
Till you stop and wonder, why you never wondered why
Safe in a womb of an everlasting light
You find the darkness can give the brightest light
Safe in your place, deep in the earth
That’s when they’ll know, what you’re really worth’
‘Saturday sun came early one morning, in a sky so clear and blue
Saturday sun brought people and faces, that didn’t seem much in their day
But when I remember those people and places
They were really too good in their way
Think about stories with reason and rhyme
Circling through your brain
And think about people in their season and time
Returning again and again
But Saturday’s sun has turned to Sunday’s rain
So Sunday sat in the Saturday sun
And wept for a day gone by’
The Island Records blurb for the album played up Nick’s mystery and rootlessness as well as his love of the blues, a feature of Nick that gets somewhat lost in his label of ‘folk singer’. The later compilation ‘Family Tree’, which chronologically features the first Nick Drake recordings (home demos from 1967-68), offers a fascinating juxtaposition of American blues songs sung with a husky-voiced English accent, and friends remember that Nick’s default when jamming, if he wasn’t playing his own songs, was more blues than anything else. Once again, it seems that the spectre of his own blues may not have ever been too far away.
‘Five Leaves Left’ was reviewed in both Melody Maker and the New Musical Express (NME). The latter review included the admission that ‘I’m sorry I can’t be more enthusiastic about this album because he obviously has a not inconsiderable amount of talent, but there is not nearly enough variety on this album to make it entertaining’. In a packed field, the album didn’t get too much attention, and Nick’s lack of willingness to promote it, with regular live performances and interviews, didn’t help. His Cambridge friends were enormously impressed that he had an album out and that it sounded so good but there were mutterings that it was over-produced with some unnecessary augmentation. They’d heard the songs solo and felt that many already sounded complete in that form. It’s interesting to note that Phil Spector would attract criticism the following year for his overproduction of the Beatles’ ‘Let It Be’ and George Harrison’s first solo effort ‘All Things Must Pass’.
The album sold around 5000 copies, obviously a disappointingly low number for all concerned. Nick did rather reluctantly do a few gigs to support it, including supporting Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in September 1969, and there was also a Radio 1 session for the John Peel show one month earlier. Curiously, the Peel session took place at Maida Vale Studios, just a few hundred yards from where the Beatles were making their final ever recordings as a band at EMI Studios, on the now world-famous Abbey Road.
Nick moved to London in late 1969, and Joe Boyd paid for and helped him organise a ground floor bedsit in Camden, North London, prior to which Nick had been dossing with friends while all the while composing songs. Perhaps in return for this generosity, Nick allowed Boyd to craft the next album’s production around a full ‘band’, whose rhythm section was based around the Fairport Convention duo of Dave Pegg and Dave Mattacks on bass and drums respectively, along with Nick’s acoustic ‘rhythm guitar’, which tended to be strummed rather than fingerpicked. The recording took 9 months and once again Robert Kirby was drafted in when Nick expressed dissatisfaction with the string arrangements to some of the songs. John Cale, formerly of the Velvet Underground, heard some of the songs in production and insisted on contributing to ‘Fly’ and ‘Northern Sky’, two of the album’s highlights. Tellingly, Cale described Nick at that time as ‘a zombie- like he had no personality left’. Kirby has been quoted as saying that Nick was smoking ‘unbelievable amounts of cannabis’ at this time which, along with his social discomfort and paranoia about his career, may have helped push him over the edge. However, the rehearsals with the band had been enjoyed by all, and Nick still seemed able to record comfortably with others around.
The album is certainly more upbeat-sounding than the first album, and while ‘Five Leaves Left’s mood conveyed a certain idea of pastoral England with ‘acoustic guitars and trees’, ‘Bryter Layter’s faster pace reflects a young man from a small town encountering life in London for the first time, with its ‘tube trains, city clocks and traffic’. Of Nick’s 3 albums, this is probably the most divisive, with some including Joe Boyd considering it his masterpiece but others struggling with the juxtaposition of Nick’s laid-back vocal delivery with the rather ‘funky’ (and at times even ‘cocktail jazz’) backing. It does seem like this was the album that was the most out of Nick’s hands but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What is clear is that it was an attempt to further Nick’s career with a commercial, energetic record, and when this failed it seemed to accelerate Nick’s descent.
Of musical note are the top and tailing of the album with instrumentals that hold their own, the album opener being a short one called ‘Introduction’ that evokes ‘Five Leaves Left’ and almost acts as a brief musical summary of that album before the change of musical direction kicks in with the second song. The bass/drums/acoustic guitar rhythm section creates a pleasant groove throughout, especially on ‘Hazey Jane II’, a song whose lyrics once again show a remarkable prescience, this time in relation to the fast-paced, increasingly impersonal digital world of the 21st century that Nick of course would never live to see. ‘Fly’ benefits greatly from John Cale’s contributions on viola and harpsichord, and vocally Nick employs a neat trick of alternating rather desperate pleas in a high register with verses that take the melody down an octave and return to Nick’s familiar calm delivery.
‘Poor Boy’ features some wonderful keyboard work from South African pianist Chris McGregor and a ‘mocking female chorus’ including the voice of Doris Troy, an idea taken from Leonard Cohen’s ‘So Long Marianne’. ‘Northern Sky’ is a beautiful ballad to an imaginary lover and features Cale on celeste, piano and organ. The song was memorably used in the final sequence of the ‘A Skin Too Few’ over footage of Nick as a toddler playing on the beach and in the sea with his sister Gabrielle. As ‘Five Leaves Left’ ended with a song called ‘Saturday Sun’, ‘Bryter Layter’s closer is ‘Sunday’.
Once again, here are a few lyrical highlights from the album:
HAZEY JANE II
‘What will happen in the morning when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out your window in the morning
And all the friends that you once knew are left behind, they kept you safe and so secure among the books and all the records of your lifetime
Let’s sing a song for hazey Jane, she’s back again, in my mind
If songs were lines in a conversation
The situation would be fine’
AT THE CHIME OF THE CITY CLOCK
‘Saddle up, kick your feet, ride the range of a London street
And at the chime of a city clock, put up your road block
Hang on to your crown
For a stone in a tin can, is wealth to the city man
Who leaves his armour down
The games you play make people say you’re either weird or lonely’
HAZEY JANE I
Do you curse where you come from, do you swear in the night
Will it mean much to you if I treat you right
Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past
Do you find things are moving, just a little too fast
Try to be true even if it’s only in your hazey way
Hey slow Jane, live your lie
Slow slow Jane, fly on by’
‘Please give me a second grace, please give me a second face
I’ve fallen so far, the first time around
Now I just sit on the ground in your way
Please tell me your second name, please play me your second game
I’ve fallen so far of the people you are, I just need your star for a day
And the sea she will sigh but she’ll never deny
For it’s really hard for the fly’
‘Nobody knows how cold it grows, and nobody sees how shaky my knees
Nobody cares how steep my stairs, and nobody smiles if I cross their stiles
Oh poor boy, so sorry for himself, oh poor boy, so worried for his health
You may say every day, where will he stay tonight
So worried for his life, so keen to take a wife’
‘I never felt magic, crazy as this
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea
I never felt emotion in the palm of my hand
Felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here, brighten my Northern sky
It’s been a long time that I’ve wandered through the people I have known
Would you love me through the winter, would you love me till I’m dead’
Bryter Layter was released in November 1970, by which time Nick had moved to another flat in North London which he kept very sparse. There was no semblance of it ever being any kind of home, as ‘bohemian isolation gave way to depression’. Nick gave his only ever interview in early 1971 to ‘Sounds’ magazine, where he mentioned his reluctance to play live and was very vague on future plans. His interviewer sensed that this was an ordeal for Nick, who was shy, self-effacing and monosyllabic throughout, his former understated charisma not shining through at all. Presumably he read the scant reviews of the album, and the description in one of ‘coffee and chat music, the songs quite similar’, would not have helped his mood.
As far as live performances go, it’s important to dispel the myth that Nick only did literally a handful of gigs. He certainly didn’t do many, the best guess being around two dozen, but he did travel as far as Liverpool and Hull in the North of England and so could be said to have done a ‘tour’, in the loosest sense. However, he clearly wasn’t fit for the hard grind of folk venues and universities. He needed a quiet, attentive audience and didn’t seem to even once address them in all his live performances, the closest being when he held us his guitar to them as he walked off stage. He had a number of bad experiences, including a show to ‘lager louts’ at the Coventry Apprentices Xmas Ball, and was known to up and leave the stage in the middle of numbers (shades of Syd Barrett), as he did in his final known appearance supporting Ralph ‘Streets of London’ McTell at Ewell Technical College in June 1970. McTell was one of the folk musicians who did work his way up from the bottom, driving himself across the country to do up to 200 gigs a year and describing the folk circuit as ‘unforgiving and competitive, requiring stamina and guts’.
Nick’s biggest audiences were the aforementioned 1969 support slot at Royal Festival Hall, a venue he returned to to back John & Beverley Martin in 1970, and the Queen Elizabeth Hall the same year, and on these occasions he played to a few thousand people. However, it seemed that even when the crowd were attentive and appreciated his extraordinary guitar playing, he wouldn’t address them or look them in the eye and seemed to play as if he were in a recording studio, playing and singing into the mic but feeling no need to ‘perform’ in any way at all. Martyn remembers him being ‘crippingly nervous’ at gigs they shared, and maybe only a performer can understand the horrible feeling that coarses through your being as the eyes of the audience are upon you, quietly judging you, and the nerves don’t allow you to give the performance you know you can or feel comfortable enough to engage with the patrons who’ve paid to see you.
As word occasionally filtered through of this reluctant performer, his friends at Marlborough were baffled since they remembered him as very keen to perform. Perhaps doing it alone to strangers was a lot of the problem. One poignant engagement was as support for Graham Bond at the bottom of a large bill in Bedford in May 1970. Nick had hitched with a friend from Wiltshire to London to see Bond and his band in the Marlborough days just 5 years earlier, when he’d been a bright-eyed hopeful living a carefree existence. He must have mused on how that seemed a hundred years ago and perhaps wondered just what had gone wrong.
Like Nick’s old school and university friends, his sister Gabrielle completely rejects the idea that Nick had always been a reluctant performer and puts his later reticence and fear down to his illness. She was also quoted as saying that ‘as an artist you need a soft, sensitive centre but a tough-as-nails-exterior, and maybe Nick was just born with a skin too few’. He would still pull out his guitar and play at friends’ houses, where he could perform introspectively and on his own terms, but despite the approaches and gentle pleas of the sympathetic Island Records executives, live performance was by the dawn of 1971 totally out of the question.
The ‘Warlock demos’ were promotional recordings of songs by Island artists performed by session musicians, including Reggie Dwight, later to be known to the world as Elton John. Nick also had one song of his officially covered in his lifetime, ironically one known as ‘Mayfair’ that he never officially recorded himself. There was also a second John Peel session for Radio 1, where Nick was accompanied to the session by his very sympathetic Witchseason labelmate Anthea Joseph, who remembers the session taking hours and Nick being very nervous. Nick also did a Radio 2 session with a Cambridge friend, where he played celeste (a keyboard instrument) as well as guitar, and he would later do some session work on guitar, organised by Robert Kirby.
‘Bryter Layter’s lack of impact, once again not a big surprise in those days considering Nick’s unwillingness to promote it, was compounded by the fact that this was the height of the singer-songwriter boom, at least for the ones that regularly played live and gave interviews, and Nick may have also felt that he’d ceded control to Joe Boyd and allowed him to do the record Boyd wanted without getting the commercial payoff in return. Nick would later blame Boyd to some extent for his lack of success in a rare display of overt anger.
Reports vary as to how much of his time Nick spent stoned, but he certainly indulged when he visited friends like John Martyn and would often stay for days without speaking much before suddenly and wordlessly getting up and leaving. Linda Thompson, who was Nick’s ‘girlfriend’ for a while, admittedly no more than ‘a kiss and a cuddle’, describes him as ‘spectral’ and ‘not really there most of the time’. Ironically, considering Nick’s very respectable upbringing, the one person who may have been able to pull him out of his stupor was a ‘minor East End villain’ whose house Nick and Joe Boyd would go to to play endless games of Liar’s dice and drink and smoke. Boyd remembers that Nick would be very animated there, and the host would gee him up and bring him out of himself, something his more well-heeled friends were never able to do.
At the end of 1970, Boyd, feeling the financial pressure of maintaining his Witchseason label, sold it to Island Records and upped sticks back to his native U.S, taking a very lucrative position in the music division of Warner Brothers film studios. Before leaving though, he arranged for Nick’s records to be kept permanently on the Island catalogue and never deleted. He may also have already heard that Nick intended his next album to be stripped-down and a solo record in every sense of the word, so Boyd’s conscience at leaving his charge may have been eased.
Nick had come to rely heavily on Joe and so this was another body blow to his already fragile state. Looking at their relationship, you get the sense of Nick as the Edward Norton character in ‘Fight Club’ to Boyd’s Tyler Durden, albeit a more relaxed, toned-down version. Boyd was urbane, comfortable around people and able to forge romantic relationships, all things lacking in Nick Drake. Nick had friends and acquaintances but he’d always compartmentalised these groups, and sadly they would only come to meet each other at his funeral.
Nick’s third and final album was ‘Pink Moon’, whose production and execution was in marked contrast to his first two efforts. Nick contacted John Wood in late 1971 to state his intention of recording his next album with just the two of them present and no other musicians involved. They recorded it over two nights with just guitar and voice except a smattering of Nick’s piano on the title track. The album is short at just 28 minutes and certainly stark and bare, perhaps influenced by John Lennon’s recent ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album and Syd Barrett’s extremely raw solo efforts. However, many don’t find the album depressing to listen to, and it’s curious that, ‘Black-Eyed Dog’ (a 1974 recording) aside, Nick always sounded calm on his recordings and not in the least distraught despite what was happening in his life outside the songs. Perhaps it was the release and comfort of being in front of the mic with a sympathetic engineer in Wood and nobody around to distract or judge him, and it’s one of the few happy elements of his story that these songs will now be around for ever and are certain to be enjoyed by every new generation, such is their quality and the connection that so many listeners feel with them.
Having said that, ‘Pink Moon’ is often at times uneasy and restless, the songs mostly conceived in a dingy North London flat with no warmth and love at a time when Nick wasn’t receiving visitors and was seen by one friend ‘alone and just staring at the walls’. There’s a darker edge and it is deliberately stark though Nick’s guitar work is as magnificent as ever and his voice sounds more mature. The songs sound strong with no backing, led by the imperious title track, and are again a credit to Nick’s playing and John Wood’s mic placement, even if Wood later played his contribution down. Nick Drake’s music always seemed to be a curious mixture of light and dark, bright and downbeat. Vocally, ‘Things Behind The Sun’ sees him pull off a similarly nifty trick to ‘Bryter Layter’s ‘Fly’, this time singing alternate verses that reflect his paranoia before answering them with more upbeat ‘advice’ to himself about how he can rise above his troubles.
Lyrically, the romantic poet of 1969 has virtually disappeared and the words are undoubtedly more authentic and personal. For the final time, here is a selection of the best of them:
‘I saw it written and I saw it said, Pink Moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall, Pink Moon’s gonna get you all’
PLACE TO BE
‘When I was younger, younger than before,
I never saw the truth hanging from the door
And now I’m older, I see it face to face
And now I’m older, gotta get up, clean the place
And I was green, greener than the hill
Where flowers flew and the sun shone still
Now I’m darker than the deepest sea
Just hand me down, give me a place to be
And I was strong, strong in the sun
I thought I’d see when day was done
Now I’m weaker than the palest blue
Oh so weak in this need for you’
THINGS BEHIND THE SUN
‘Please beware of them that stare, they’ll only smile to see you while your time away
Once you’ve seen what they have been, to win the earth just don’t seem worth
Look around you, find the ground, is not so far from where you are, but don’t be too wise
For down below they never grow, they’re always tired and charms are hired from out of their eyes
Take your time and you’ll be fine, and say a prayer for people there
Who live on the floor
And if you see what’s meant to be, don’t name the day or try to say
It happened before
Don’t be shy, you learn to fly, and see the sun when day is done
If only you see
And the people round your head, who say everything’s been said
And the movement in your brain, sends you out into the rain’
‘Know that I love you, know that I don’t care
Know that I see you, know that I’m not there’
‘Lifting the mask from a local clown, feeling down like him
Seeing the light in a station bar and travelling far in sin
Take a look, you may see me on the ground
Falling so far on a silver spoon, making the moon for fun
Changing a robe for a size too small, people all get hung
For I am the parasite of this town
Take a look, you may see me in the dirt
For I am the parasite who hangs from your skirt’
‘But hear me calling, won’t you give me a free ride?’
‘Falling fast and falling free, you look to find a friend
Falling fast and falling free, this could just be the end
Falling fast, you stoop to touch and kiss the flowers that bend’
FROM THE MORNING
‘A day once dawned and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell and the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around
So look, see the days, the endless coloured ways
And go play the game that you learned from the morning
And now we rise, and we are everywhere from the ground’
So look see the sights, the endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learned from the morning’
Around the time of the recording of ‘Pink Moon’, Nick decided that he couldn’t cope alone in London, especially without Joe Boyd around, and he reluctantly returned to his parents’ house in Tanworth-in-Arden. By now there was no question of live performances to promote the album, and even his customary photo session with Keith Morris was a chilling affair. Morris remembers that ‘whereas before we’d bounced ideas around, now he just basically sat while I snapped away, almost like I was doing a still life’. Morris didn’t see Nick regularly and so was shocked when he saw him again in 1971 for the ‘Pink Moon’ photoshoot. The contrast between the Nick seen in these photos compared to just two years earlier when he was promoting ‘Five Leaves Left’ is staggering and quite horrifying, all the expression gone from his once-boyish face, replaced by a haunted look. The cover for the album featured, unsurprisingly, a pink moon, which was actually a blood-red moon. During an eclipse, the earth’s shadow can turn a moon blood-red, believed to be a portent of catastrophes.
‘Pink Moon’ has remained a firm favourite of fans and now outsells his other two albums considerably despite predictably low sales at the time. It certainly sounds like his most honest record and you get the impression that he was no longer recording songs to become famous but more as a personal necessity. Therefore, what reviews came were probably of little or no interest to him, and criticisms of the songs seeming unfinished appear to have no relevance to the artist himself. Interestingly, Robert Kirby remembers fragments of some of the ‘Pink Moon’ songs dating back to 1968, and to some extent it’s the stark production and the delivery of the songs that marks them out. It’s true to say though that perhaps he was now tackling real life and his own fears rather than the idealised view of love and the world that is found on the first two albums, particularly ‘Five Leaves Left’. His parents never enjoyed the album and found it hard to listen to though they always loved the more hopeful closer ‘From The Morning’, which seemed to promise a new day and a happier new beginning. One of the lyrics, ‘now we rise and we are everywhere’ would be carved onto Nick’s headstone.
Island’s full-page ad for the album was quite extraordinarily candid, highlighting the mysterious nature of the recordings and questioning why they are even releasing his records when the first two ‘haven’t sold a shit’, before concluding that it’s because of Nick’s ‘incredible talent’. ‘Time Out’ wrote of the album’s ‘exquisite 3am introversions’ but predicted that Nick would ‘remain in the shadows’.
Back at home with his parents, he told his mother that ‘I’ve failed at everything I’ve ever tried to do’. His parents took him to a psychiatrist in London and he reluctantly began to take 3 types of anti-depressant including Tryptizol, which would eventually kill him. On the request of Rodney and Molly Drake, Joe Boyd called Nick from London to tell him that nobody was judging him for getting help. Brian Wells was a friend of Nick’s and later became a psychiatrist. He believes that ‘Nick withdrew because there was safety in his own company. It was more of a terrible, existential rut than a biological depressive illness, so a drug like Tryptizol wouldn’t have really helped, not to mention the powerful side effects’. It should be said that in those days, doctors were more uncomfortable with non-physical illness, and depression tended to be seen as a temporary and somewhat adolescent condition that the individual would presumably grow out of. Real madness was traditionally deemed to be untreatable and constituted a trip to the loony bin.
Chris Blackwell, the head of Island Records, generously kept Nick on a weekly stipend and also let him use his flat in Gibraltar for a while to get away from his surroundings. In another nod to earlier, happier days, Nick may well have remembered himself and Marlborough friend David Wright 7 years earlier planning a world trip that would start in Gibraltar. He did seem to enjoy his time away but it didn’t last and he suffered a breakdown around April 1972 (‘Pink Moon’ had been released in February) and was hospitalised for 5 weeks in Warwickshire. Brian Wells visited him there and gave him a copy of Anthony Scaduto’s biography of Bob Dylan, the songwriter who’d been such a great inspiration to Nick in his early days.
At this point it’s interesting to note the timeline since most would assume that Nick didn’t live long past the release of ‘Pink Moon’ but in fact he lived another 2 years and 9 months. If you trace the same amount of time backwards, you find yourself at May 1969, when he was busy recording his first album and still a student at Cambridge. John Martyn released his celebrated album ‘Solid Air’ in 1973, the title song of which was ‘done for a friend of mine’. Martyn was as close to Nick as you could be at that time and later said that ‘the world had not quite lived up to his expectations’ as well as talking of ‘the indecent, parasitic opportunism that pervades the music business’.
Jeremy Mason hadn’t seen Nick for 2 years and was shocked by his appearance and silent demeanour. Mason traces a slow decline from Aix in 1967, pointing to Nick’s drug experimentation and getting lost in his image to some extent, but it can hardly be said that Nick was faking it by the final days in London in 1971, as he started neglecting to wash and let his fingernails grow a la Howard Hughes. Rather amusingly, friends at Cambridge remember him not wanting to do any washing up in case he damaged the nails that were so integral to his guitar style. Now he simply didn’t care.
A curious episode from 1971 involves another old university friend Paul Wheeler, who had wound up as one of John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s personal assistants. John and Yoko had been living at the palatial Tittenhurst Park in Ascot before moving to New York in September 1971, a move that initially was not presumed to be permanent. Tittenhurst was therefore kept in permanent readiness for the royal couple’s imminent return, and Nick visited Wheeler along with Brian Wells soon after John and Yoko’s departure. The 3 of them ate hash cookies, and the two visitors marvelled at the all-white mansion with its collection of Lennon’s guitars and gold records, not to mention the 71 acres of land attached to it. One can only wonder when Nick would have thought of Lennon’s incredible fame and success, something Nick had once sought, as he strolled the house in a cannabis haze.
Although Nick had no real success in the U.S.A, he had accumulated some fans, among them David Geffen, who would have John & Yoko on his label in 1980 for their comeback record ‘Double Fantasy’. A compilation of the first two albums, imaginatively titled ‘Nick Drake’, was released in Nick’s lifetime, and Rolling Stone gave it a glowing review, calling the music ‘beautiful’, ‘decadent’, dreamlike’ and ‘slick’ (if that is a compliment), ‘evoking a hypnotic spell of opiated languor’, with comparisons made to Donovan and also Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 album ‘Astral Weeks’. Inevitably, the lack of touring killed any hopes of success Stateside though the famous Troubadour nightclub in California did put on a ‘show’ of sorts in which the record was played, accompanied by a cardboard cut-out of Nick onstage.
Once he’d seemingly resigned himself to not becoming a successful and famous musician, Nick allowed his father to get him a job as a trainee computer programmer but it didn’t last. Incredibly, Nick also applied to join the army at one point and one wonders if the necessary discipline might have helped him for a while. Realistically however, it would seem hopelessly optimistic to believe that the quiet to the point of total silence, shy, withdrawn frail shell that he’d become by 1972 would have stuck it out for too long. As far as his activities in the last couple of years of his life went, he seems to have enjoyed driving and did get his own car in which he would go for long, aimless drives and often let his petrol run out, at which point he would call Rodney at whatever hour it was to come and pick him up. Anthea Joseph remembers seeing him at Island a few months before his death. He was sitting reading the paper, said ‘hi Anth’ and that was it. He was there for absolutely no reason except that maybe he didn’t want to be alone despite having no ability to communicate by this point.
Nick’s silence and malaise grew through 1973, and John Wood was surprised to once again get a call from him saying that he had some new songs to record. The recording of the ‘final four’ songs is believed to have taken place in February 1974 though it may have been July, prompted by a feature article on Nick from June 1974 in ‘Zig Zag’ magazine. Joe Boyd was in London at that time and came to the session, shocked and chilled by Nick’s appearance and the fact that for the first time he was in too much of a state to record his guitar and vocals together. It may be selfish to say this but this state of affairs does allow us now to hear outtakes of these songs without vocals and hear Nick’s still-remarkable guitar playing in all its glory.
The songs are well up to the previous standard and are to some extent an extension of the starkness of most of ‘Pink Moon’. ‘Hanging On A Star’ sounds like a message to Joe Boyd, who Nick had previously blamed for his lack of stardom, while ‘Black-Eyed Dog’ is clearly about depression and evokes the idea of Robert Johnson’s ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ and echoes Winston Churchill’s description of his depression as the ‘black dog’. It must have been a strange session for all concerned, especially hearing the monosyllabic and almost totally withdrawn Nick suddenly blurting out his at-times hysterical vocal to ‘Black-Eyed Dog’. Conversely, there is a remarkable calm to the vocal of a personal favourite of mine, ‘Rider On The Wheel’.
As previously mentioned, Nick never had a steady girlfriend or perhaps not a relationship of any kind, but there were rumours of a romance with the beautiful French ‘chanteuse’ Francoise Hardy, who’d had a British hit with ‘All Over The World’ in 1965. When Hardy expressed interest in recording one or more of Nick’s songs in 1970, he and Joe Boyd visited her in Paris although nothing transpired of the recordings or any hint of a romance. Hardy was and did remain a big fan of Nick’s music, saying that the soul of his songs touched her deeply, and they may have met again when Nick spent some time in Paris just weeks before his death. Hardy’s memory is vague but she did a recall a dinner where he barely spoke, either in French or English. It does seem however that, as with his Gibraltar trip in 1972, he did find some relief in new surroundings that rekindled fond memories, but the shadows would close in again when he returned to what he must have considered a rather pointless existence back with his parents in the idyllic English countryside.
On Sunday November 28th 1974, he went to bed early, never to return. On his turntable at home was an album of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos, bought in Aix in 1967, which he may have listened to on that final night. He would often have bad nights, and Molly would find him downstairs in the kitchen in the early hours, unable to sleep and eating Corn Flakes. On this occasion, she didn’t wake until the next morning and when he hadn’t emerged at midday, she went into his room and found him lying across his bed. The verdict was suicide, a deliberate overdose of Tryptizol, and he was believed to have died around 6am that morning. Gabrielle believes that he made an impulsive decision out of anguish to keep taking more and more of the tablets so that at least something would change and the horrible rut he was in wouldn’t continue in its present form.
The riddle that has continued is about what really did happen to Nick Drake that caused his life force to drain away. There are rumours of a romance or even engagement to a lady in Paris (presumably not Francoise Hardy) that may have fallen through just before his death and tipped him over the edge. Presumably, his access to recreational drugs was very limited in Warwickshire but one chilling occurrence happened after his death when John Martyn took the NME’s Nick Kent, who later wrote a much-lauded obituary to Nick challenging the suicide verdict, to a squat in Ladbroke Grove in West London that was full of heroin addicts. Nick had apparently spent a lot of time there while living in Hampstead and had visited just 3 days before his death, asking ‘do you remember me? I used to be somebody. What happened to me?’. Brian Wells definitely remembers Nick expressing a desire to try heroin, followed by a rather comical phone call to score some which ended with the paranoid dealer getting freaked out and hanging up.
It would be nice to report that the rock world suddenly took notice of his death and paid it great mind, but he’d faded out of the spotlight two or more years earlier and there was little response. Friends were shocked but not particularly surprised though those closest to Nick had noted some recent improvement in his mood. Perhaps inevitably, Robert Kirby and others expressed guilt at not trying to do more and not contacting Nick more often when it was clear that he was on the decline, but as often happens in this harsh world we are all too busy trying to survive and protect ourselves so don’t take the time to look out for others or contact them without a particular practical reason. It’s fair to say that Nick would probably not have responded anyway had friends tried harder.
The bright spot of this story, though it came far too late, is that now of course Nick Drake is a popular and highly-respected musician and his albums sell by the bucketload, or at least they were before the age of digital downloads. It is popularly believed that the use of ‘Pink Moon’ in a Volkswagen commercial in 1999 and the emergence at that time of the Internet led to Nick’s current status, and it’s true that they made a huge impact, but the interest started quite a bit earlier and there was a gradual rise in interest as more and more established stars started to mention his name, and the sheer quality of his music along with the poignancy of his story could no longer be contained.
Nick Kent’s NME feature on Nick in early 1975 got noticed, and in March 1979 Island released the box set ‘Fruit Tree’. In 1985, the trio ‘Dream Academy’ dedicated their hit ‘Life In A Northern Town’ to Nick, and soon after came the first Nick Drake compilation, named ‘Heaven In A Wild Flower’ after a line from one of Nick’s favourite poets, William Blake. By the mid-1980s, enough unreleased tracks had been unearthed for an unofficial fourth studio album called ‘Time of No Reply’, the title track one that Nick had played live and recorded for his first album but curiously decided not to release. The album was mostly fresh songs, including the ‘final four’, with some alternate takes included to stretch it to album length. It was a wonderful surprise for Nick’s growing army of fans to hear these new tracks, all fitting the Nick Drake mould and quality-controlled by both Nick’s parents and Joe Boyd.
Musicians such as Kate Bush, Paul Weller, The Black Crowes and REM’s Peter Buck started to cite Nick as an influence, and Robert Smith stated that The Cure’s name came from one of the lines from ‘Time Has Told Me’. His parents would quite frequently find visitors at their door asking about Nick, and the momentum continued to grow as he came to represent ‘a doomed romantic hero’ and the quality of his music shone through. In the late 1990s, prior to the Volkswagen ad, there was a radio documentary called ‘Fruit Tree’ and two wonderful documentaries called ‘A Stranger Among Us’ and ‘A Skin Too Few’, the latter featuring interviews with Gabrielle Drake, Joe Boyd, John Wood, Robert Kirby and others. More compilations of previously released material followed and then in 2007 came ‘Family Tree’, the official release of home demos made in the two years prior to the release of ‘Five Leaves Left’. His sister performed on one song and there were two originals performed by his mother Molly. Listeners also finally got to hear Nick’s speaking voice, sounding upbeat and happy, at one point imitating a German accent as he asks rhetorically (or to a silent observer), ‘what could I play that would be interesting?’. A fanzine was already in circulation by this point and there would be tribute concerts and further radio documentaries.
At a loss at how to end this look at Nick’s life and music, I will instead quote the last two paragraphs of Patrick Humphries’ excellent book ‘Nick Drake: A Biography (albeit written in 1997, in which subsequent time the situation has changed somewhat) and thank you for reading this far.
‘At times, the myth has threatened to drown out the melodies and the audience have imposed their own flaws and fantasies on to a virtually blank canvas. The cult of Nick Drake is, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde, Narcissus glimpsing his own reflection, unable to tear himself away from the beauty he finds in the mirror. For some, the real beauty lies in the emptiness.
There are no easy answers. Perhaps in the end facts can only diminish the myth, but ultimately the life is more important. For whatever the truth about Nick Drake’s life, it remains a tragedy – just as his legacy of extraordinary songs remains a triumph, and a joyful one at that’.
1 thought on “Thoughts on Nick Drake”
Beautiful podcast. Your podversion of this sent me back to Nick’s music for the first time in years. Like you, I’ve never considered it depressing. Comforting and beautiful, other worldly perhaps, yes. But not depressing. Listening now, in my forties rather than in my late teens, I also realise what a great guitarist and singer he was. And songwriter of course.
So, in short, thanks for this! Have also ordered the book you recommend.
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