Nick Drake: A personal pilgrimage

Photo: Wikimedia

Much is made of the legendary 27 Club in musical circles — from Robert Johnson to Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison to Amy Winehouse, the tragedy of creative output halted prematurely grants a strange sense of what-might-have-been romanticism to a career. One name among a few who fell short of that fabled age is the hugely-influential Nick Drake. Such an epithet is often bandied about carelessly, but there is little doubt surrounding the amount of sway that the British folk singer, who died virtually unknown in 1974 aged 26, holds across genres to this day. From titanic names like Bob Dylan to towering figures like REM’s Peter Buck and the former guise of Father John Misty, J. Tillman, Drake’s intricate finger-picking, his frail tenor over sometimes stark, desolate guitar, sometimes florid, sumptuous string arrangements have shaped and impacted many.

On a personal note, aside from a two-and-a-half-year mediocre attempt at sporting his haircut, which has sadly just come to an end, Nick Drake has always been a source of fascination to me, not least because of a certain familial connection. The first I ever heard of the name was aged six or seven, when scrolling through my dad’s iPod Classic and seeing the name down from Nick Cave (my first foray into proper music — exceptional taste I know!), I asked who this was. The response from my father was unmemorable apart from the added remark, “Grandpa taught him at Cambridge — very cool.” Cool indeed, but back to my repeated listening of ‘Henry Lee’ and ‘Red Right Hand’ I went, and I promptly forgot all about it.

Eight years later when iTunes Home Sharing arrived —how exciting that was in those halcyon days before streaming services! — the name Nick Drake presented itself once again when I purloined his first album Five Leaves Left (1969) from my dad. From the first track ‘Time Has Told Me’, my strict diet of Cohen and Dylan was challenged by this blasé-sounding contemporary of theirs from the folk world’s ‘wrong’ side of the pond. The orchestral element of the accompaniment lends itself to the fresh-faced optimism and (for the most part) balmy, sultry mood of an artist not yet affected by the drudgery of the recording industry in songs like ‘Thoughts of Mary Jane’ and ‘Saturday Sun’. The lyrics possess an unfading and classic tendency towards nature and the metaphysical, unsurprising given Drake’s fondness for the verse of Blake (in particular among the Romantics), W. B. Yeats and Henry Vaughan.

His curtailed career at Cambridge has been well-documented — he had studied English Literature at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge from 1967-8, where my late grandfather, Dominic Baker-Smith, was his supervisor. Asking him over forty-five years later, he couldn’t remember much of his pupil — supposedly he was quiet, clearly bright, but otherwise disinterested and unenthused by the whole Cambridge experience. I am sure my grandpa had not listened to a huge amount of what Drake subsequently produced — it does not cry out to me as the kind of music he would have appreciated or taken seriously at the time. In fact, in 1968, as his tutee mulled over whether he should take the record deal he had been offered, my grandpa eagerly attempted in vain to persuade Drake to see out the year-and-a-half he had left at university — clearly, despite the third he had received in his preliminaries as seen in the record that my aunt found clearing my grandfather’s desk, the staff at Fitzwilliam saw something in this sullen, distant twenty-year-old.

Photo: Zeb Baker-Smith
Photo: Zeb Baker-Smith
Photo: Zeb Baker-Smith

Clearly, given the greatness of the debut album, the world should be thankful my grandfather (and indeed Drake’s father) failed in his task. But, had he listened and postponed until graduation, perhaps Nick Drake would have become a larger name than he did in fact become. Not one of his three albums could be called a commercial success nor were their productions at all easy. Drake’s shyness and unorthodox songwriting never lay well with audiences.

The middle album, Bryter Layter (1970)- the album to which I hitchhiked around Tasmania after school — is by far his most listenable, a jaunty, upbeat record, more reminiscent of jazz and pop than its predecessor, with blatant psychedelic reference to his heroin and cannabis use in the pair of ‘Hazy Jane’ songs. Joe Boyd, the highly-regarded Pink Floyd producer, of whom an early project was Drake, was certain of this sophomore effort’s success, but again it was not to be and began the bout of depression (and resulting drug abuse) in the artist that he would be unable to shake for the remaining years of his life.

Pink Moon (1972), his final release, a fragile collection of short, stripped-down tracks, display Drake at his most vulnerable and pessimistic, his voice more dulcet and faltering than before, the struggles of psychosis and nervous breakdown not difficult to discern in ‘Things Behind The Sun’. The aestival warmth of earlier songs evaporates into a bleaker, wintrier chill — not dissimilar to the day in January on which I visited Drake’s village Tanworth-in-Arden, the picturesque Warwickshire village on the outskirts of Birmingham, where in a state of serious clinical depression his life came to an end in November 1974. It is still unclear whether his death was self-inflicted or a tragic accident, but the overdose of antidepressants brought to an end a deeply painful two years of retrogression for him, a struggle with mental illness that had forced an incapacitated version of himself to live at home. His grave in the village churchyard is still paid visits by many fans still, and it was on the way back up to university this term that I made the stop having listened to all three albums that morning. Some would say it is an unusual thing to go to the grave of somebody one has never met, but it seemed a necessary thing to do, a making peace and a paying of compliments from professor to student, but due regard to a giant of my musical experience and that of many others.



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