On 25 November 1974, Nick Drake, a 26 year old English guitarist, singer and songwriter died at his parents Tanworth-in-Arden home from an overdose of the anti-depressant drug Tryptizol. The coroner at the time declared the death a suicide, yet family and friends suggested it was an accidental overdose, following upon a long period of depression. According to official accounts, there was no suicide note discovered and friends said that Nick was in a relatively good frame of mind at the time. Whatever the truth surrounding his death, there is no doubt that it was a tragedy, both personnally and musically, for Nick Drake was a rare talent. For this reason his fan base contunues to expand and his music remains on general release around the world.
The young musician left a legacy of just three albums – in all 31 songs - issued on the Island label between 1969-72. They were Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), and Pink Moon (1972). The albums sold poorly upon initial release, and Drake performed infrequently in public to promote them. The 6’ 3" tall Englishman was shy, good looking, and elegant, though he walked with a stoop and dressed scruffily as time went on and his depressive illness took hold. During his pop star years he gave just one interview, such was his shyness, preferring instead to express his thoughts and feelings through his music.
Despite this apparently inauspicious, short-lived career, Nick Drake today is a cult figure. His albums and cds continue to sell, with his three albums having been reissued and remastered. A boxed set compilation of the original albums plus additional unreleased material has been made available, whilst bootleg recordings also exist for the diehard fan. Numerous books and articles dealing with Nick Drake’s life and times have also been published. A BBC documentary (A Stranger Among Us: Searching for Nick Drake) appeared in 1998, and a short film on his career (A Skin Too Few – The World of Nick Drake) has been produced and has done the rounds of various international film festivals. All of this is despite the fact that no actual film of Nick Drake in performance exists, nor any live performance tapes.
Such is the quality of his music that, in recent years, it has featured in numerous movie and television soundtracks (e.g. Star Maps, Practical Magic, Twentyfourseven, Heartland), and in advertising commercials (e.g. Volkswagen US). Nick Drake web sites and discussion groups proliferate (see below), and he is now more popular than at any other time.
Why, you may ask, is there all this acclaim for a young man who died, relatively unknown, back in 1974? Why the ongoing interest and cult status? Do we have here just another ‘dead musician’ story in a vein similar to that of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley? The answer is, in part, yes, but there is more to it than that. Nick Drake may have died a tragic, lonely, untimely death as a result of a drug overdose during the early 1970s, just like the aforementioned artists, but his career was very much less public than that of Hnedrix, Joplin or Buckley. Also, he was rare talent who followed a very different path to those aforementioned pop icons.
Nick Drake was an extraordinary musician - his dexterity on the acoustic guitar still amazes his fellow guitar players. He was a competent songwriter and a singer whose breathy voice had a melancholic and emotional quality about it which haunts the listener and remains a unique part of the present cult-status phenomena. His masterly guitar work, comprising complicated tunings and fingered arpeggio runs intimately linked in with the words and melodies of his songs, was groundbreaking for its day and often breathtakingly beautiful.
His official recordings – made between 1968-74 - mostly have a timeless quality about them. They are not tied to any era, or trapped in a tradition of late sixties / early seventies English folk / blues / pop. They could have been recorded yesterday, yet due to their complexity few modern day guitarists can replicate them, and it is no easy task to sing them. They are often referred to as "timeless" works, and we must thank his record company and producers at the time for the manner in which they nurtured his talent.
Drake’s lyrics are dense, mysterious, beautiful and romantic, reflecting his upbring and years as a student at Cambridge University studying English literature and French poetry. They speak of the earth, nature, trees, the sky and moon, the beach and love. They are melancholic, but not depressing, and in the blues tradition, with obvious reference to contemporary singers and songwriters such as Bob Dylan and Donovan. Unknown to his contemporaries, his music was a relection of a deep seated depressive illness which took over his life after about 1971. Fruit Tree, a song off his first album, uncannily foretells the artist's fate, and reflects the bittersweet irony of the public acclaim which he sought at an early age:
Fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound.
It can never flourish, ‘till its stalk is in the ground.
So men of fame can never find a way
Till time has flown far from their dying day.
Forgotten while you're here, remembered for a while
A much updated ruin, from a much outdated style.
It is clear that, as time went on and his music matured, Nick Drake fed off his inner angst – the natural shyness evolved into a love of solitude, where it was just the artist and his music, writing and practicing - perfecting his art. A general lack of public acclaim following the release of the first two albums in 1969-70 coincided with in the onset of depression, requiring the intervention of professional psychiatric assistance. His subsequent songs became darker and more solitary, reflecting this state of mind. Friends and relatives were unable to alter his path towards an untimely and unexpected death.
Whilst Nick Drake’s first two albums were full-blown commercial productions (as much as he would allow), featuring strings and additional instrumentation, and recorded over a period of months, his last album – Pink Moon – was more along the lines of a modern day ‘unplugged’ session. At the time the artist, when he considered that the moment was right, rang producer John Wood to arrange a studio. He then rolled up and in two short sessions over two evenings in 1971 Drake recorded an album’s worth of material (refer Chronology for further precise details of his life and recording career). It featured just the artist and his guitar, with no overdubbing, no strings, no backing musicians. Live.The resultant album - Pick Moon - is stark, like his early homemade bootleg tapes. It remains a favourite with many fans, for it shows Nick Drake stripped bare – just voice and guitar, and nothing in the way. As though he was sitting in the room with you, like a modern-day Robert Johnson, face to the wall, head down, and producing a magical, moving sound. And that is the way it was meant to be. Nick Drake lives on. Nick Drake is found.
Recommended ListeningFive Leaves Left, Bryter Later and Pink Moon (all Remastered 2000-1), Island.
Fruit Tree (box set), Hannibal, 1992. Contains four cds, including Time of No Reply, plus booklet.
Patrick Humphries, Nick Drake – The Biography, Bloomsbury, 1998, 279p.
Site last update: 6 February 2011. Michael Organ Home page.