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The Death of Nick Drake

Suicide, Accidental Prescription Drug Overdose, or Heroin Casualty?
A reassessment based on official accounts, recent medical and pharmacological evidence, and hearssay

Introduction

There has long been conjecture as to whether the British singer / songwriter / guitarist Nick Drake died in 1974 from an accidental overdose of prescribed medication, or meaningfully used that medication to commit suicide. In recent years the spectre of death from an overdose of heroin has also been raised, though the question of accidental overdose versus suicide remains unanswered. Evidence either way at the time of Nick's death was apparently inconclusive. The local coroner did make a finding of suicide based on the facts available to him, and many of Nick's friends were not surprised by this verdict, however others have also rejected the suicide finding. Amidst all of this is the talk of a 'death-wish' by the artist, as revealed in the lyrics of songs such as Fruit Tree and I was made to love magic.

Fame is but a fruit tree / So very unsound. / It can never flourish / Till its stalk is in the ground.

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.

Fruit tree, fruit tree / Open your eyes to another year. / They'll all know / That you were here when you're gone.

Nick Drake’s death may be re-examined and various conclusions put forward in the light of recent medical and pharmacological discoveries, pointing to the high toxicity level of prescription drugs such as the antidepressant Tryptizol, and information contained in readily available sources such as biographies of the artist by Patrick Humphries (1998) and Trevor Dann (2006). Also of value are postings made on the Place-to-be listserv during 1998-2004 by individuals who knew Nick and his family, most significant of these being the American guitarist and musicologisy Scott Appel (1954-2003).

The case for Nick Drake as unknowing victim of a lethal cocktail of prescription and recreational drugs is initially argued. To understand this view, it is necessary to look at the circumstances of his death in some detail. Evidence exists in the form of first hand oral testimonies, information on the various drugs he was known to be taking, and comments by friends and practitioners regarding his state of mind during this period. Yet despite this apparent wealth of information, much remains unknown and unconfirmed about Nick's state of physical and mental health in the period leading up to his death. Pending the coming forward of Nick’s intimate associates to either confirm or deny the various rumours and assertions, the following assessment must remain largely unsubstantiated.

From the publically available sources referred to above, it can be suggested that Nick Drake’s untimely death at the relatively young age of 26 in 1974 was influenced by a number of factors. Apart from his own parlous mental state, we can point to the limited information available at the time in regards to the toxicity of certain antidepressant drugs; Nick’s weakened physical condition arising out of a period of depression lasting some 3-4 years and the need for strong medication; his involvement in the music industry during a time of much excitement and change; and other unspecified personal issues which are perhaps hinted at in his songs and family correspondence, including the breakdown of his relationship with long-time friend Sophia Ryde. These external, family, and personal pressures were imposed upon a somewhat frail mental state which ran deep within this young man. It remains unclear as to whether Nick Drake was a victim of his times, a victim to mental illness, or a combination of both. He can easily be lumped alongside contemporary pop stars such as Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Tim Buckley, all of whom died tragically and relatively young from the affects of drugs. However, it should be noted that heroin was the main drug involved in their deaths and no official account suggests heroin played any part in the death of Nick Drake, though this has been hinted at in recent years. In order to understand the assertion that Nick Drake was in some way an unknowing victim of prescription and recreational drugs, and not a premeditated suicide with sole responsibility for his action, we need to look to the events of 24-25 November 1974, and the days and weeks leading up to his death. The question as to whether he was a meaningful suicide who made use of prescription drugs to end his life is addressed by other authors.

It should be pointed out that the following scenario, initially developed by the author during November 2001, takes no account of the alternative "heroin overdose" scenario which was hinted at and denied in the Humphries biography, and which was further developed during 1999 by Scott Appel. The subject of Nick Drake and heroin is discussed at the end of this paper.

Finally, the following scenario is based only upon a reading of published sources. It is hoped that new commentary by Nick’s family and friends will eventually appear to help us better understand some of the issues highlighted below. Whilst the Humphries and Dann biographies are thorough and insightful, many questions remain unanswered.

The Night of 24th / Morning of the 25th November 1974

Patrick Humphries’ 1998 biography of Nick Drake brings together numerous oral and written sources which comment upon the circumstances surrounding the artist's death and events leading up to it. The most telling of these are by his parents Rodney and Molly and his sister Gabrielle, along with information provided by music journalist Nick Kent, friend Robert Kirby, and interviewer T.J. McGrath. Through these and other sources such as the two Nick Drake films and a number of radio documentaries, we can form a relatively clear picture of the events which took place at Tanworth in Arden on the evening of Sunday, 24 November 1974, and on into the morning of Monday, the 25th.

Nick had been out during the day and according to Molly Drake he went to bed early that night - precisely what time is not known. It was Autumn and the sun had set at 4.04 p.m. on a generally dull, cloudy day. Nick slept on a single bed in a small bedroom at Far Leys, the Tanworth-in-Arden house in which the family had lived since moving returning from India in 1952.

Molly recalled duirng a 1979 radio interview that Nick "… went up to bed early. I remember him standing at that door, and I said to him: "Are you off to bed, Nick?" I can just see him now, because that’s the last time I ever saw him alive."

In regards to his general sleeping habits, she noted: "He didn’t often get up early - he sometimes had very bad nights." Molly had previously stated that from the age of 5 Nick experienced screaming nightmares, thereby hinting at what she meant by "bad nights". For this reason no alarm bells rang when Nick did not appear for breakfast the following morning. He was not only want to sleep in, but also to take off at all hours in his car on long drives, visiting a wide network of friends in locations such as London, three hours away. In addition to insomnia, Nick had suffered a depressive illness for a number of years. This illness, on top of a naturally shy and retiring personality, was at the heart of problems encountered in the latter years of his short life.

As to events on the night of his death, we have a fair amount of detail. There is a suggestion that he visited a friend early in the evening, before returning home. After retiring and supposedly sleeping for a period, at some point during the evening of the 24th, or early in the morning of the 25th, Nick awoke, went down to the kitchen, had some cornflakes and possibly also took some pills around this time. He then returned to his room and either immediately, or shortly thereafter, whilst standing by his bed, suddenly collapsed onto it.

Nick landed in a position sprawled across the bed, and not along it as in a normal sleeping position. It can be surmised that, due to the effect of the drugs he was taking, Nick Drake most probably suffered an initial fainting spell or seizure, then lapsed into a coma, underwent a cardiac arrest, and was dead by 6am.

Nick was discovered by Molly around lunchtime on Monday, 25th November, when she went to check his room. She subsequently noted that:

"..I never used to disturb him at all. But it was about 12 o’clock, and I went in, because really it seemed it was time he got up. And he was laying across the bed. The first thing I saw was his long, long legs …."

According to the doctor who first examined him early in the afternoon of the 25th, Nick passed away around 6am (or earlier) that morning. The fact that he was found lying across his bed, and not in a normal sleeping position, indicated the onset of a sudden seizure, such as a fainting spell or heart attack, causing him to fall in such an unnatural position.

Events that night can be said to have been a bit unusual in that Molly would usually join Nick in the kitchen for a chat when he woke, but she did not do so this particular night. His father, Rodney Drake, in the 1979 radio interview remembered the events of that evening as follows:

"Apparently he'd been down during the night, he'd been downstairs during the night, and had some cornflakes or something like that. And he often did that as a matter of fact, when he couldn't sleep. He often used to go downstairs. More often than not, Molly would hear him passing our bedroom door and she'd get up, put a dressing gown on, go down and talk to him. This occasion, she didn't hear him. And he went back and he took an extra strong dose of these pills that had been prescribed for him, called Tryptizol, which he thought were anti-depressants. He told us he was supposed to take three a day or something. We were always worried about Nick being so depressed. We used to hide away the aspirin and pills and things like that. These particular things we didn't think were in any way dangerous."

According to these comments, Nick took an extra dose of the antidepressant drug Tryptizol during the night, though there are no specific details of the dosage he consumed that evening, nor any medical corroboration of this statement.

Gabrielle Drake states in the 1998 BBC documentary on her brother, that he took 30 pills on the night of his death. The source of this statement is not known, and it is nowhere else corroborated. It is apparently her belief that Nick took an overdose of his medication that night, though she is somewhat vague about whether it was a meaningful, planned suicide or some sort of accident.

An inquest was held on 18 December 1974 and the coroner, H. Stephen Tibbits, recorded a verdict of suicide, with the cause of death given as "Amitriptyline poisoning self administered when suffering from a depressive illness."

It is possible, in the light of what is now known about the toxicity and side effects of the drugs which had been prescribed to Nick Drake since he had originally been diagnosed with a depressive illness, that no extra dosage was actually taken on the night of his death, but that overdose was the result of intake during the previous few days. It also seems possible from the above comments by Rodney Drake that he is merely assuming his son "took a bottle full of pills" in order to bring on death. Unfortunately it was not that difficult to achieve such a result with the pills prescribed to Nick, as they were extremely toxic and subject to overdose in relatively small quantities. Therefore, there was no need to take "a bottle full of pills" in order to commit suicide. In fact, if Nick happened to take just a few extra pills to help him sleep that night, then the effect may have been lethal.

Important details concerning the precise intake of drugs on the evening of 24th November and in the days immediately prior are subject to conjecture as the coroner’s analysis has never been released and Nick's body was cremated shortly after his death. Therefore, the amount of toxic chemicals in his body at the time of death are not publically known. We do not even know if any such analysis was carried out post mortem.

The 1979 statement by Rodney Drake, and that made in 1998 by Gabrielle, are the only references we have to Nick having taken an extra dose of Tryptizol that night, on top of his normal dose. They conflict with other accounts by Rodney and Molly which make no reference to the additional dosage. Also, no information is given as to how Rodney knew that his son had taken an extra dose, and it may well have been conjecture on his part. In that same 1979 interview he states, in response to his wife’s comment that Nick was having a "rotten night":

"…..a rotten night and he said "to hell with it" and he took the whole lot of them, and I'm told now that they are dangerous to the heart and so on. And obviously, it was more than he could take. And it killed him. But there were many times before, that we would have been much more worried about Nick, doing something of that sort than we were at this particular time, that's the extraordinary thing about it.

Death was unexpected and "extraordinary" in the mind of his father. The tone of this statement also suggests that the elder Drake was rationalising in his own mind the supposed purposeful suicide of his son. The statement "to hell with it" indicates as much, though of course he never heard Nick say this, and it must be seen as mere conjecture. It also points to earlier, more serious and frequent episodes, when Nick was perhaps openly suicidal.

One unconfirmed account speaks of an attempt to hang himself from a roof beam at Far Leys during 1973. Nick used three belts nailed into the roof beams and jumped. The fall broke a number of bones, but did not kill him.

We can only imagine how Molly and Rodney Drake, and friends and family, dealt with Nick's mental problems (illness) over the years. When did it initially manifest itself to a degree which caused concern? When it did become a problem, did the family try to keep it as secret as possible? Who knew the full extent of it? Who did not know? Was it a treatable illness, or some form of self-imposed deep melancholia, as has been suggested? If it was a genuine mental illness, Molly and Rodney Drake would have been largely helpless onlookers who could merely stand by and offer support and comfort. Gabrielle Drake has pointed out how the life of her parents revolved around Nick during his time of illness in the early seventies, and that a good day for him was a good day for them. This indicates the seriousness of the problem, and of her brother’s fragile mental state.

Rodney Drake further described the circumstances of his son’s death in a letter dated 1 January 1975 to Dr. James Lusk, alluding to two additional drugs heretofore not mentioned or identified. The letter states:

"On the morning of November 25th Molly went in to his room to wake him as it was nearly midday and found him collapsed across his bed and the doctor when he came said he must have been dead for six hours or more. The cause of death was given as an over dose of tryptizol, which was one of the three things he was taking on prescription. The other two being Stelazine and Disipal…."

The Prescribed Antidepressant Drugs

The statement by Rodney Drake that his son was taking more than just Tryptizol at the time of his death is a revelation, as both Stelazine and Disipal may very likely have played a role in the overdose. Reference to this additional intake of prescription drugs has not been made in former discussions on the artist’s death. We can only assume that the coroner was also aware of the other drugs that Nick was taking, though no reference is made to this. The verdict of suicide was questioned by family and friends at the time, with the apparent lack of a suicide note and Nick’s recent positive state of mind following a visit to France given in support of such a view.

The suicide verdict was not based on any substantial evidence which has ever been made public. The "Amitriptyline poisoning" verdict was not doubted at the time, nor was the statement regarding "self administered when suffering from a depressive illness." However, to then imply suicide from this, as the coroner does - even though he merely places the word in brackets thus "(suicide)" in his report, as though it may be a tentative assessment - was not necessarily a logical step, either then or now.

On the other hand, it should be noted that various people felt that Nick had committed suicide, and there were signs to support this. Whilst some speak of an improvement in his mood just prior to death (e.g. Rodney Drake), apparently other friends and acquaintances did not agree with this and saw no obvious change to a long period of depression and withdrawal. The question of intentional suicide is perhaps unanswerable.

The accidental overdose scenario is open to further consideration if we look at the various drugs which had been prescribed to Nick Drake in order to help him deal with his depressive illness. It is in this area that the most interesting and relevant new information is to be found. Documents such as the coroner's report remain unsighted, however Rodney Drake has stated that at the time of death Nick was taking the following medication:

Only Tryptizol poisoning is given as an official cause of death by the coroner, with no apparent reference to the other two. Precise dosages and the period of time over which Nick had been taking these drugs is not known, though he sought medical treatment of his depressive illness in 1971 and was briefly hospitalised the following year. This, along with his subsequent behaviour and deteriorating physical condition, would suggest that Nick had been on medication for a lengthy period of some 3-4 years at the time of death.Based on information contained in the Humphries biography, a picture of the artist’s general state of health can be formed. Born in 1948, of parents who lived to a relatively ripe old age, Nick grew to be a tall (6’ 3") young man in a good state of health and fitness during his school years. He played rugby and was a top athlete, excelling at the sprint. During high school Nick took up smoking, and upon leaving school experimented with drugs such as marijuana and hashish. Nick was also an occasional drinker, though nothing out of the ordinary. Humphries mentions that he had an operation to remove painful kidney stones around the time of the recording of Bryter Layter in mid 1970, which suggests some problems in that area. Generally, he was a healthy, fit young man. It was only in later life that he became pale, gaunt and sickly.Nick was also a very sociable person, a leader and confident in his abilities. Yet, at the same time we have accounts of him as being quiet and withdrawn from an early age. There is no clear picture of Nick Drake in this regard. We can state that after 1970 that aspect of his personality which tendered towards melancholia did become pronounced. Yet even then, and right up until the time of death, he was interacting with friends and acquaintances on almost a ‘normal’ level. Evidence of this is seen by the comments of photographer and friend Keith Morris in the recent film on Nick, where Morris strongly takes exception to the presentation of Nick as a grim, doomed artist. Nick Drake travelled a lot during his life and visited friends regularly, continuing to do this even in his final days, though in a somewhat scaled down fashion. As a musician he performed in public, yet he was naturally shy. His lifestyle was not generally sedentary, though it later became this way, possibly due to the drugs he was administered. As a result he kept more to his own company, spoke less freely, and concentrated on playing and practicing his music, whilst retreating more and more into his own world.If we try to divide Nick Drake’s life into pre-illness and illness periods, then problems arise and the division can be shown to be arbitrary and inconsistent. It would perhaps be better to talk of Nick Drake’s illness as a slowly developing manifestation which became prominent after 1970. The actual cause of the depressive illness is unknown. He was always a somewhat shy person, and his songs reflect a melancholic sentiment. But he was also lively, creative and mentally and physically strong. His could not only run fast, but he could also take on hardened record industry folk and win battles there, in order to defend his music.His use of mind altering and illegal drugs such as LSD after leaving school in 1967 may have caused some irreparable damage to his psyche, as they did to other well known musicians such as Peter Green (Fleetwood Mac) and Syd Barrett (Pink Floyd). We will never know whether it was a drug-induced psychotic reaction which caused the onset of the illness diagnosed as depression in Nick Drake after 1970, or some other cause. We do know, however, that around this time everything changed.

Perhaps he had a genetic predisposition to this illness, and it was set off during 1970 by the stresses associated with his physical illness (kidney stones), public performance, and recording pressures. If we assume that Nick was relatively healthy and mentally stable prior to this, and that there were no major health problems in his immediate family, then we can bear this in mind when discussing the possible effects of the various drugs prescribed to him upon the onset of depression. A brief description of each of the three drugs referred to by Rodney Drake is given below.

Tryptizol

Tryptizol is one of many brand names for the antidepressant drug Amitriptyline – the local coroner recorded Nick’s death as resulting from "Amitriptyline poisoning". It is one of a family known as Tricyclic Antidepressants (TCAs). It encourages sleep (a sedative) and alleviates anxiety in depression. When taken in overdose it can cause coma and abnormal heart rhythms. It has an anticholinergic action and blocks the transmission of signals through the heart. An overdose of the drug may not necessarily result in a reaction for many hours, but may in fact take days. Its antidepressant effect is reduced by smoking, therefore a smoker such as Nick Drake could tend to take a larger than prescribed dose in order to achieve the effect gained by a non-smoker. Also, it can impair mental and physical abilities required for the performance of tasks, whether these be working, driving, or even playing a guitar.According to a 1989 study, tryptizol is the antidepressant "most likely to be associated with death from overdose" and its toxicity "appears to be greater than all antidepressants." Additionally, it "may induce suicide more than other antidepressants" and "increased suicides may result from inadequately treated depression." It should not be taken with other antidepressant drugs, such as Disipal.

All in all, Tryptizol is a drug which must be subject to close monitoring and is undoubtedly dangerous. The lethal dose is a mere 8 times the therapeutic dose. If Nick Drake was given it as an antidepressant, was unaware of its many dangerous side effects, and used it to deal with insomnia, then we have all the ingredients for a fatal outcome. It is unclear as to whether the dangers of the drug were fully known in 1974.

Stelazine

Nick Drake was also taking Stelazine (Trifluoperazine hydrochloride) at the time of his death. Stelazine is used to treat severe mental disturbances and anxiety. It is a highly potent anti-psychotic drug which can cause lethargy and sleepiness. It has numerous side effects, inducing drowsiness, eye problems resulting in a state of fixed gaze, a totally unresponsive state, and heart attack. It should not be taken in conjunction with central nervous system depressants, such as Disipal (see below). Stelazine can mask or hide the effect of overdose of other drugs. Overdose of Stelazine can induce coma, similar to that of Tryptizol and Disipal.

A "fixed gaze, [and] totally unresponsive state" was noted in Nick Drake on a number of occasions after 1970. Whether this was a side-effect of the Stelazine or due to some other cause is not known. Once again, Nick Drake may have suffered severe side effects from the use of this drug.

Disipal

Disipal (Orphenadrine) is an anticholinergic muscle relaxant used to relieve muscle pain. It effects the central nervous system and can cause dizziness and light-headedness. Overdose may result in fits or coma. It is dangerous if the patient has long-term kidney problems and should not be taken in conjunction with TCAs (e.g. Tryptizol) which can increase the side effects such as mental confusion and increased heartbeat.

Nick Drake’s kidney stone problem of 1970 has been noted above, and may have exacerbated any side-effects of the Disipal he was prescribed.

A Lethal Cocktail?

This brief summary of the pharmacological and medical effects of the drugs which Nick Drake is known to have taken clearly indicates their toxicity and danger. All three can produce life threatening side effects such as coma and heart arrhythmia. All three are dangerous in excess and may have a cumulative effect on the central nervous system and heart. They should not be prescribed in tandem, and their use should be limited (time-wise) and closely monitored. The patient should be made aware of the high probability of accidental overdose, which is as little as 8 times the therapeutic dose with TCA drugs such as Tryptizol. Also, a recent study has found that between 25-50% of patients admitted to US hospitals for drug overdose have TCA toxicity, indicating that it is relatively easy – either knowingly or unknowingly – to overdose on these drugs. Comments by Rodney and Molly Drake would suggest that the family was unaware of the toxicity of the drugs Nick was ingesting at the time, and that therefore Nick was also unaware of their danger, even though he was fully cognisant of their undesirable side-effects. This was obvious from the comment by his parents that he did not like taking his medication.

Based on a preliminary reading of the now known toxicity and possible side effects of Tryptizol, Stelazine and Disipal, it is entirely feasible that they were, either alone or in combination, the direct cause of Nick Drake’s death. The coroner stated as much, though he limited his comments to Tryptizol.

Suicide or Accidental Overdose?

In regards to the non-pharmacological elements of Nick Drake’s death, the local coroner brought down a verdict of suicide. This was perhaps a logical conclusion at the time, based on the subject’s medical record, a previous history of long term depression, and indications of recent suicidal tendencies. However, the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ evidence for meaningful, premeditated – or even spontaneous – suicide does not exist.There was apparently no suicide note. There was no definitive evidence that Nick actually took an extra dosage of his medication on the night of his death. There is no evidence that Nick or his family were even aware that drugs such as Tryptizol were toxic and could be used in a suicide attempt. But perhaps more tellingly, many of Nick’s family and friends noted that he had been in a relatively cheerful mood in the months and weeks immediately prior to his death. Or so they thought. There was no evidence that he was in a suicidal state at this time, or that he had made any statements that he was considering such action.

Robert Kirby, Nick’s longtime friend and musical collaborated, stated in an interview with Jerry Gilbert published just two weeks after his death, that Nick appeared happier than usual, though this was not enough to rule out suicide in his own mind. The comments are insightful, but send a number of different signals in regards to the psychological causes, if any, of Nick’s death.

"He was the happiest I'd ever seen him just before his death, but he was usually despondent simply because he had nothing to do and couldn't see a direction for himself. I think London upset him, and he didn't like it here at all, in fact he was upset by a lot of things that he saw and heard, he was just too sensitive. He was ready for death alright, I just think he'd had enough, there was no fight left in him. All his songs were epigrams - little extracts of philosophy and you could either take them optimistically or pessimistically. Yet I get the feeling that if he was going to commit suicide he would have done so a long time ago."

These comments, from someone who knew Nick well, indicate the difficulties in understanding the complexities of his life and times. Whilst Kirby is clearly rationalising the case for meaningful suicide, he is also suggesting the opposite.

Nick Kent, a music journalist, spoke to some of Nick’s wide circle of friends shortly after his death. He was fortunate enough to contact a group (drug addicts?) who had spent time with Nick just prior to his death. Kent recorded the following chilling observations:

And what I remember is that there was a woman there who seemed to know him very well, and she spoke very, very affectionately about him …. It’s awfully, awfully sad. The thing that she said to me …. I just started crying when she said it, because she said he came round to this flat three days before he died, and he said to those people: "You remember me. You remember me how I was. Tell me how I was. I used to have a brain. I used to be somebody. What happened to me? What happened to me?" (Humphries, 192).

These comments indicate that, just prior to his death, Nick Drake was aware of the state he was in, both physically and mentally. His medication and any other non-prescription drugs he may happen to have been using were all having an effect on him. Whether we can, from this information, proclaim him suicidal, is questionable. He was obviously concerned about his health and his future. He saw that he was unable to function normally in his current state, and may have therefore have been at a turning point.

Summary

Nick Drake was obviously suffering a mental illness, diagnosed as depression. It was treated as such by his doctors, and the medication he was given has now been shown to be highly toxic and subject to overdose. The fact that three drugs were prescribed, or were being taken simultaneously by him, possibly along with other illegal or recreational drugs, was a recipe for disaster. Unfortunately, nobody at the time saw it coming, least of all Nick.This author is swayed by the argument that the prescribed drugs killed Nick, and were largely responsible for his fragile mental and physical state at time of death. They may also have led him down a path to suicide, though this is less clearly indicated and can only be suggested. Whatever the actual truth, the mixture of Tryptizol, Stelazine and Disipal was a potent enough cocktail which a fragile personality such as Nick Drake was unable to withstand.Nick’s sister Gabrielle has stated in regards to her brother’s death: "I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide, in the sense that I'd rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible….." (Kirk, Melody Maker).Saddening as it may be, it appears that Nick’s death was indeed a tragic mistake, and that Nick did not want to die, but passed away alone in the night primarily as the result of an unintentional overdose of prescription drugs. He and his family looked to those drugs to help him, yet at the end of the day they appear to have been incredibly destructive. They not only deprived him of his ability to create music, but they also took away his life. Such a fate is indeed tragic.


Descent into darkness – the Heroin overdose scenario

Prelude

Nick Drake lives on through his music. If we knew nothing at all about his life and times, then the music recorded by him between 1967-74 would still be recognised and appreciated for what it is – timeless, moving and beautiful. It therefore matters little, at the end of the day, as to the precise details of his life, though fans obviously get much pleasure from going down a path of knowing the man behind the music.The point to be made here is that it is irrelevant to the listener whether Nick Drake died from an accidental overdose of prescribed medication; whether he meaningfully committed suicide using these drugs; or even whether he was, in his later years, a heroin addict and that this drug played a major part in his accidental / premeditated death. What matters most is the music. Everything else is ephemeral.The beauty of songs such as Strange Meeting II and Fruit Tree, written early in his career, is in no way affected by knowledge of the so-called truths of his life. Their only use, perhaps, is in helping explain why Nick Drake had so many problems in writing, recording and performing his music after 1970, when the onset of physical and mental illness caused major changes in his life and personality.A true fan of Nick Drake is not going to "turn-off" because various elements of his life are revealed to be less than wholesome and pure. In fact, the truth may enhance interest, as we come to understand the human qualities of our subject. The truth about Nick Drake – warts and all – should therefore be revealed, without fear or favour. After all, the early 1970s were a time of widespread drug use amongst the rock industry, and the onset of many casualties. If Nick Drake was in some way a victim of his time and of the music scene, then so be it. To hide or deny this aspect of his life is ultimately a betrayal of Nick himself.

The following information and discussion is therefore provided in the hope that it will better enable us to understand the beauty and wonder of the music of Nick Drake.

Heroin and Depression

According to comments made public during 1999, substantially by the late Scott Appel, Nick Drake died of a heroin overdose on the night of 24 November 1974. Specific information relating to this subject includes the following:

  1. Nick Drake had been using – snorting – heroin on a regular basis for perhaps 1-2 years prior to his death.
  2. A close friend helped provide the artist with a supply of the drug.
  3. Nick scored a small amount of heroin from his friend on the night of his death.
  4. Nick regularly scored heroin and other drugs from amongst his coterie of friends in London and beyond.
  5. A friend of Rodney and Molly Drake was successful in efforts to convince the assistant coroner not to mention that heroin had been found in their son’s body at the time of death.
  6. In Nick’s room after his death, Molly Drake found a sealed letter to his fiance. She delivered it to the woman, who later stated that it contained "pretty much what you would expect’. It is therefore suggested that it was some form of suicide note.
  7. Nick Drake had long been a user of drugs – from his late teens (circa 1967) he had used marijuana, hashish, LSD, Mogadon and Nembutol. Heroin was apparently a late addition to this list.
  8. Many of Nick’s friends from this period believed that he had committed suicide, intentionally overdosing.

If these statements are ultimately substantiated by Nick’s friends and acquaintances – and there is every reason to believe that they bear a large element of truth – then some reassessment of Nick’s death will obviously need to be made. If we take them on face value, then we can perhaps present a scenario outlining Nick Drake’s final years and his descent in darkness.

An illness that could not be seen

It seems clear that up until 1970 Nick Drake was a relatively normal, if somewhat shy, individual. Highly motivated, talented, and strong, he spent the years 1967-70 refining his skills as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. He was lucid, charming, intelligent and not averse to performing. We have the story of his visit to Marrakesh in 1967 and of how, when he ran into the Rolling Stones there, he had no hesitation in fronting up to them and performing. This indicates an air of confidence and fearlessness.Yet during the early part of 1970 everything began to change. He pulled out of the various performing dates set up for him to support his album and build a public profile. His physical illness and the recording of Bryter Layter mid 1970 added to the stresses confronting him. Perhaps as a result of all this he suffered a psychotic episode, which was later diagnosed as depression. This episode may have some origin in his use of recreational drugs from 1967 onwards.The debilitating effects of such an illness can be extreme. It appears from published testimony that Nick Drake’s mental illness was very real, and that in dealing with it his parents Rodney and Molly played a central role. After 1971 Nick was forced to return home in order to deal with his illness. He could not survive alone, in his London apartment, but needed extra care.His parents would have assisted financially in having his illness diagnosed, in enabling Nick to be hospitalised during the most extreme periods of illness, and in ensuring that he had access to the various medications which could help him deal with the depression.It seems that the precise details of Nick’s illness and treatment were kept largely quiet, and within the family, perhaps due to the stigma then attached to mental illness, and fears that it could affect his career as a musician. It is unclear what was made public whilst he was still alive, though obviously a lot came out after his death, e.g. his hospitalisation and use of prescription drugs.Nick was therefore forced to lead two lives, or rather, he chose to lead two lives. One life was that of a medicated, homebound depressive, living a quiet life in the country at Tanworth in Arden. In this he had no option. The other was as a working musician and composer, mingling with friends and lovers in London, where drug taking and music were the order of the day.When Rodney and Molly spoke of their son disappearing for days on end, and of their not knowing his whereabouts, this was the manifestation of his efforts to survive. Nick was a young man trying to lead a normal life, yet he was continually constrained by the harsh realities of his illness, which forced him to dispense with his independence and return home.It is freely acknowledged that Nick Drake compartmentalised his life, keeping one group of friends in the dark in regards to any other group. And he was good at this. The development of a secretive persona would protect him from being found out as a person of unstable mental disposition. It would also allow him to lead a relatively normal social life amongst one group, whilst able to disappear and recuperate with another.It could therefore be asked – did Nick’s family know the details of his life in London? Did they know about the drug taking, the women, and the music? Likewise, did his music industry friends know of his prescribed mental illness, of the medication he was forced to take in order to stabilise his moods and limit any suicidal tendencies? Did they know of the many dangers and side effects of his prescribed medication?It seems not, and it seems that Nick meaningfully decided to keep this aspect of his life secret. There is also the possibility that he rejected the diagnosis of mental illness, and lived in denial. His ‘secretiveness’ may also have been one of his symptoms.It seems that whilst many of Nick’s friends observed examples of his strange behaviour, few, if any, were fully aware of its causes. These strange behaviours were most likely the result not only of his illness, but also of the drugs he had been prescribed. For example, Brian Wells tells a story in the 1998 BBC documentary on Nick of a friend visiting his house and seeing Nick sitting motionless in his room staring blankly at a wall. As we have seen above, such a behaviour is one of the known side-effects of Stelazine.Whether or not Nick was informed at the time by his doctors of the side effects of the drugs they were prescribing is unknown. It is possible the precise side effects were unknown, or that Nick choose to ignore them. There is a strong suggestion that his parents were ill-informed as to the toxicity of the three prescription drugs he was taking at the time of his death. Likewise, we do not know if Nick and his doctors discussed the possible effects of mixing his prescription drugs with the "recreational" drugs he had been taking since at least 1967. We now know that these so-called recreational drugs can not only accelerate the onset of psychotic episodes, but they can have a dangerous effect when taken in tandem with prescription drugs. Perhaps his doctors told him to stop taking these social drugs whenever he was on his medication. However, Nick’s parents have stated that their son did not like taking the psychiatric drugs.This is of course understandable, if we remember that, at the time, Nick was a young man embarking on a career as a musician, with women and men swooning about him, enchanted by his talent and good looks. However, the fragile state of his being following the onset of mental illness is readily evident. His recording of the album Pink Moon in 1972 was a somewhat strained affair, and an effort to record in 1974 was downright painful for all involved.Many of his friends and colleagues noted that after 1970 Nick slowly withdrew into himself and had difficulty in communicating verbally. Once again, perhaps this was due in part to the mood stabilising drugs he was taking.Nick Drake’s mental illness did not simply go away like a cold, and he did not ever recover from it. Between 1970-4 the evidence of this was manifested in a variety of forms – the inability to verbalise; the aloofness and distant manner; the physical deterioration; his increasingly unkempt appearance; his inability to make music as time went on; and his descent into a dark world of suicidal thoughts, depression and heroin abuse.Nick’s parents indicate in various interviews that their son was, just prior to his death, in a relative happy and content state, unlike their recent experiences where suicide was an ever present worry. Therefore they believed that he did not commit suicide on the night of 24 November 1974. And there is no doubt that they were the most capable of making such an assessment, even though they may have been wrong. The existence of a possible suicide note to his girlfriend could settle this question, though its existence has yet to be confirmed.The presence of a Nick Drake "death by heroin overdose" scenario does not necessarily answer our question in regards to suicide versus accidental overdose. It merely adds another lethal ingredient to the drug cocktail which formed part of his life at the time. The precise chemical and psychological effect of heroin on Nick Drake during 1974 are unknown. However, it has been shown that the three prescribed medications were dangerous in combination. The addition of even a small amount of heroin to this mixture could easily have been enough to tip the scales and cause death. Apart from that aspect, the reality of Nick Drake as a user of heroin is incidental, as he apparently used a wide variety of recreational drug, like so many of his friends.Whatever the truth in regards to the life and death of Nick Drake, this author would hope that those with knowledge in regards to some of the issues raised above would come forward.

Addenda

{Richard Brooks, The Sunday Times, London, 26 January 2006} 'Heartbreak letter clue to death of cult singer'.He died in obscurity more than 30 years ago, but since then his cult following has boomed, headed by stars such as Brad Pitt and Sir Elton John. Now a newly discovered letter may contain the key to the death of Nick Drake, the singer-guitarist whose life ended with an overdose of antidepressants at the age of 26. The letter, addressed to the woman he adored, was found on Drake’s desk near his body. He had written it the previous afternoon, expressing his heartbreak at the end of their relationship. The letter is likely to add to the romantic legend that has surrounded Drake since his death. The singer, who made only three albums, did not have his first single released until 2004, and in that year more of his records were sold than all those purchased between 1969 — the year of his first album — and 2003. Sophia Ryde, the woman for whom the letter was left, has disclosed its existence to the author of a new book about Drake. The details that Ryde has been willing to provide do not give conclusive proof of whether or not Drake killed himself, but they betray his state of mind. “It is clear with Sophia that he was very, very upset that she had ended their relationship,” said Trevor Dann, a former head of BBC music entertainment and author of the new biography, Darker Than the Deepest Sea, to be published next month. The coroner at Drake’s inquest issued a death certificate stating he had died from drug poisoning, adding the word “suicide” in brackets. The scant details have fuelled speculation ever since. The biography includes interviews with Drake’s two closest female friends — Ryde and fellow musician Linda Thompson. While he was attracted to both, it appears he never consummated either relationship. Ryde became the nearest he ever had to a girlfriend, although she preferred the description “best (girl) friend”. Dann has discovered that Ryde, who met Drake in 1967, had told the singer about a week before his death that she wanted “more space in their relationship. I couldn’t cope with it. I asked him for some time. And I never saw him again”. The singer was born in 1948 in Burma where his father was an engineer. The family returned to England and Drake, whose sister is Gabrielle Drake, the actress, was educated at Marlborough college, in Wiltshire, where he became the lead in several schoolboy bands. There then followed a life-changing year for Drake before he went to Cambridge. In 1967 he had nine months off, spending part of it in Aix-En-Provence and part in north Africa. One of his companions was Richard Charkin, now chief executive of Macmillan, the publisher. The pair arrived in Tangier, Morocco, which, said Charkin, was “where you could get the best pot”. They then went to Marrakesh, where they met the Rolling Stones and Drake even played some Bob Dylan and Donovan numbers for the Stones as they all sat in a cafe.
Charkin recalls Drake, then 18, as “a good-looking sort of bloke but definitely shy”. His shyness, according to Dann, meant Drake was unable to form any intimate relationships and eventually stopped him performing live. Drake left Cambridge early to make his first album in 1969. He was praised by some critics but attracted only small numbers of fans. Melody Maker, the music magazine, assessed Drake as “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”.

Drake was found dead in his parents’ house in Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, on November 25, 1974. There was no suicide note, but the letter to Ryde was left on the desk along with an exercise book containing the lyrics of all his songs written in longhand. Drake’s mother Molly gave the letter to Ryde at his funeral. Although Ryde has not divulged the exact words, she is not convinced by the official version of how Drake died.“ Sophia didn’t think it was suicide, but more likely the tragic effect of taking too many of his pills, which, although antidepressants, were also used to help him sleep,” said Dann. Pitt, the Hollywood star of films such as Troy, presented a BBC radio programme about the singer in 2004 and Sir Elton John told Dann of the influence of Drake’s first album Five Leaves Left: “I loved that album so much — the melodies, the non-conformity of the songs, their bleakness and their beauty, I found solace in them.”

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