It’s a name that was floating around in my world in the early 90’s, but in truth, I hadn’t really investigated Nick Drake in any depth. Then I ended up sharing an office with a fella called Vinny whose mum was an old hippy and who had amassed a fantastic English Folk record collection. Through listening to Vinny’s stories and his name checks on the artists within his mum’s collection, I picked up on the likes of The Incredible String Band, Vashti Bunyan, and Jon Martyn and finally found out more on Drake.
In some ways, it is a tragic tale of a musical genius, and I don’t use that word lightly, ending up in a world that he wasn’t really cut out for. Namely the record business and its expectations of live performances, which were, of course, essential for spreading a word on a performer and furthering a career.
From the words often used in association with the Drake of the late 60s/early 70s, ‘fragile’ ‘sensitive’ and ‘withdrawn’, you just guessed perhaps that rough and tumble and on occasions cutthroat world wasn’t meant for him.
Before too long, I had bought the albums ‘Five Leaves Left’ (named after the ‘warning ‘message in a packet of Rizla tobacco papers), ‘Bryter Later’ and ‘Pink Moon’ and had read the biography on him by Patrick Humphries and so immersed myself in his ultimately brief, but oh so beautiful legacy.
‘Fruit tree, fruit tree, no one knows you but the rain and the air
Don’t you worry, they’ll stand and stare when you’re gone.’
Nick Drake was born in Burma in 1948. Burma because his folks had been out working there since the 1930s, before returning in 1950 to live in Tamworth in Arden, just south of Birmingham.
His mother Molly was a keen musician herself and Nick learnt the piano as a child and composed from an early age. Prep school where he was head boy, lead to Marlborough College where he was a keen and accomplished athlete, Drake would grow to an impressive 6ft 3 inches.
His studies were soon taking a back seat in favour of his love of music however. He picked up his first Levin acoustic guitar in 1965 and was soon developing his fingerpicking and open tuning technique. He attended Cambridge on a scholarship to study English Literature, after first spending six months at the University of Aix- Marseille. There he was a familiar sight around the town busking to earn extra money.
The early signs of his natural withdrawn demeanour were in evidence at Cambridge. It is said he spent a great deal of time in his room, smoking dope and just absorbing himself in music, either by listening or playing.
In 1967, Drake met Robert Kirby who would later go on to arrange strings and woodwind for Drake’s early two albums. Not long after that Nick was performing live in small clubs and coffee houses and picking up the occasional decent support slot. Introduced to the producer Joe Boyd, an American who had a fine reputation of breaking folk acts into the mainstream, through a licensing deal for his Witchseason label with Island records.
Upon hearing a demo from Drake, Boyd signed him up.
‘The songs were just wonderful.’ said Boyd, ‘and the guitar-playing was astonishing.’
Drake’s debut album ‘Five Leaves Left’ was released in 1968. Notable backing musicians on the recording sessions included Danny Thompson on bass and Richard Thompson on guitars. For me and many others, ‘River Man’ is the stand out track from what was at the time, poorly received work. Only DJ’s ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris and John Peel gave it any significant airplay.
‘Gonna see the river man, gonna tell him all I can, about the plan for lilac-time.’
Drake decided to leave Cambridge early and he moved to London, settling in Belsize Park. He was now playing the occasional live gig, but he often failed to connect with audiences, as he rarely spoke on stage.
His second album ‘Bryter Layter’ was a little more up-tempo in sound, moving perhaps a little towards the pop idiom. Sales again were poor, but the album itself, picked up more favourable reviews.
Boyd then left him to return to the States and this is said to be a significant factor towards a further downturn into depression for Drake.
His last live gig was in 1970 and again, the silence from him between the songs left an uncomfortable atmosphere hanging in the air.
‘If songs were lines in a conversation, the situation would be fine.’
Drake was prescribed a course of antidepressants in 1971, and these mixed with his copious use of cannabis virtually made him a recluse.
He did, however, emerge to lay down the album ‘Pink Moon’ which was a move back to a more bleak sound. Again, it sold very poorly. Attempts were made to get Drake to promote it, but he flatly refused and soon after stopped playing music altogether.
‘I’m growing old and I wanna go home.’
He moved back to his parent’s home. He deteriorated very badly, not washing, or cutting his fingernails. He was suffering from major depression, which resulted in a nervous breakdown, and he stayed in hospital for five weeks. Despite all this, work did begin on a further album in late 1974, but his voice had noticeably deteriorated. Work eventually ended on that and his financial retainer from Island Records ended.
He died, aged just 26, on the 25th of November 1974 from an overdose of Antidepressants. Suicide or a mistake?
That is still the matter of some debate.
‘A black-eyed dog he called at my door.
A black-eyed dog he called for more.
A black-eyed dog he knew my name . . . ‘
In subsequent years, his music and career began to be reappraised. Books, and radio and TV documentaries on him began to appear. His sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, wrote a biography of her brother.
The song ‘Pink Moon’ became an unexpected hit in America after its title track appeared on a Volkswagen advert. By 2014, more than 2.5 million Nick Drake albums had been sold in the UK and the US.
One day a few years ago now, I found myself in Tamworth in Arden and I was shown Nick Drakes headstone that simply states…
‘Now we rise and we are everywhere…’
It was truly a very sobering moment
The Mumper of SE5