Left of the Dial: Nick Drake

Welcome to Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t. Tonight we light a candle for one of the unsung heroes of the British folk scene whose music has reached more people in death than his entire life. I am talking of course about Nick Drake.

The recent death of Amy Winehouse has reminded us that there is a long line of musicians who have left this world before their time: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Kurt Cobain, Tupac Shakur, Aaliyah, the list goes on. All of these artists were widely celebrated in their lifetime, but it was after death that their legacies really began to expand. Some go out with a bang and leave a good looking corpse in their wake, but others aren’t so lucky. Nick Drake’s death went virtually unnoticed since he barely sold any records during his time as a professional musician, but when legend of him spread decades after his tragic downfall, his catalogue would have new life breathed into it and it would go on to inspire a whole new generation of listeners. But who exactly is this enigmatic figure that most don’t know by name? Well that’s exactly why I’m writing this.

The music of Nick Drake is a little hard to pin down. His songs, characterized by a haunting voice and masterful guitar playing, are craftworks of chilling, somber beauty. His outlook was often bleak and unsettling. Sometimes the melancholy he expresses can be soul crushing, and other times it’s disguised by very comforting melodies that contradict his overall tone. This is probably why his music resonated with many of the alternative rock artists of the 80’s and 90’s. Some compare him to Van Morrison, but they differ in one major way. While Morrison was just as sincere, Drake’s honesty borders more on the brutal. To say he wore his heart on his sleeve would be a gross understatement. He was like a heart with legs and no skin, and his emotion would touch everyone in the room whenever he sang.

Nick Drake was born in June 19, 1948 in Burma, but was raised in Warwickshire,England, where he lived for most of his life. With the encouragement of his parents, his mother in particular, Drake dabbled in music from an early age, first taking up the piano, then the clarinet and saxophone, and then the guitar. For the majority of his adult life, friends and colleagues remembered him as a brilliant person, but at the same time very distant, introverted, frustrated and unsatisfied with everything. While most would say that was just his nature, it has lead to an inexplicable depression that has sometimes crippled him, but at the same time can be thought of as the source of his melancholy lyricism. This didn’t stop him from writing and playing music however. In fact, some would say that this was his only source of happiness.

It’s also noted that Drake’s secretive and introverted nature lead to a near pathological refusal to perform live, which is why his albums initially did so poorly. It was at a 1968 live performance, during which he was attending Cambridge University, that he was discovered by Ashley Hutchings, bassist and founding member of Fairport Convention, one of the most important bands of the 60s folk rock movement. Hutchings introduced him to producer John Boyd, which lead to a contract with Island Records at the age of 20. This alignment would lead to the creation of three very different yet equally brilliant albums: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon.

In 1969 they recorded Five Leaves Left, the first in the Nick Drake trilogy. The album is a collection of reflective lyrics and rich melodies accompanied by beautiful string arrangements that bring a new color to the songs without over-powering it. Songs like “Cello Song” and “Time Has Told Me” are merrier in tune than the heavy handed lyricism would have you believe, but songs like “River Man” and “Day Is Done” are very direct in where they’re coming from.

Five Leaves Left failed commercially, but nevertheless was immediately followed up by Bryter Layter in 1970. It was once again produced by Joe Boyd, and the instrumentation was helmed by members of Fairport Convention including Richard Thompson, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Velvet Underground’s John Cale. Drake got to show a more playful side to himself, proving he wasn’t a constant king of depression. This collaboration lead to a much jazzier, lounge-like sound than what few fans he had expected. This is where a lot of the Van Morrison comparisons started to slide in. While Drake was still the chief songwriter, he had little control over this part of the album. All the big decisions like what instruments would go on what songs and who would play them were directed by Boyd and composer Robert Kirby. This added strength to songs like “Poor Boy” and “Northern Sky”, both of which are more piano driven as opposed to the usually guitar structured songs.

The initial failure of these two albums lead Drake’s already worrying depression to sink even deeper, sometimes leaving him unable to play music, work, or even speak. He was becoming more and more withdrawn, smoked copious amounts of marijuana, was constantly running out of money and often times finding himself crashing with friends unannounced only to leave a few days later without a word. After a year of inactivity, Drake found it in him to record one last album. On October of 1971, Pink Moon was created in two night sessions with only Drake and engineer John Wood present. Pink Moon is considered by fans and critics alike to be his most powerful album. For his last big blowout, all the excess fat was trimmed, leaving his voice and guitar as the only instruments. (The exception to this being a pre-recorded piano line that was dubbed over the title track.) The song “Pink Moon” is widely thought of as his undisputed masterpiece. The words are simple and the chords are basic, but the emotion that is squeezed out is extremely effective in the most simplistic way, evoking the impending doom that seemed to always cloud Drake’s mind. The same can be said about every other song, from the poignant “Parasite” to the blissful “From the Morning”. It only has eleven songs and clocked in at less than half an hour, but has just as much emotion and weight as other big contenders of the British folk scene.

After Pink Moon, Nick Drake was completely disillusioned. Unhappy with the direction of his career and the lack of sales, he officially quit recording in 1972. This decision was made final after his condition reached a critical point, leading to a nervous breakdown and a five week hospitalization. After that he was more or less gone. Out of money and with no one to turn to, he returned to his parents’ home where he remained until 1974 when he died of an overdose on antidepressant medication (perhaps one last attempt to escape his tormenting depressive state). He was 26.

His death went unnoticed until around 1979 when Island Records released the retrospective album Fruit Tree, which boosted Drake’s profile significantly. Afterwards, more and more artists were citing him as an influence including R.E.M.’s Peter Buck, The Cure’s Robert Smith, Kate Bush, Beck, The Black Crowes, and several others. Over the years, more compilations were released with each one bumping Drake’s name further up.  His reputation reached an all time high when “Pink Moon” was used in a 1999 Volkswagen commercial. Within three months, Drake had sold more records than he ever did in his lifetime.

Nick Drake’s rise to fame is similar to that of artists throughout the centuries like Emily Dickinson and Vincent Van Gogh: unheard of in life, but legendary in death. With a cult following and a slew of big name artists giving him the seal of approval, I think it’s safe to say that Drake has finally been given his dues. If he were alive today, I think he would be very happy. Several books and documentaries have been made about him, but for a real in-depth analysis, I suggest the documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, or the untitled radio documentary narrated by Brad Pitt, both of which can be found on YouTube. For more information on Nick Drake including tabs and lyrics, visit this website. http://www.nickdrake.com/ This has been Left of the Dial, I bring you the music because the radio won’t.

1 thought on “Left of the Dial: Nick Drake

  1. One of the most distinct and compelling singer-songwriters of the 20th century. His sound was so individual that people weren’t accepting of it because they couldn’t recognise things they were familiar with. And the amazing thing is, these traits of Nick’s music don’t seem to have come from any other style – he just had his own method. What a genius!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s