In 1970, British singer-songwriter Nick Drake played a handful of live performances in the U.S. that were, by all accounts, dismal. He had an itinerary of colleges and pubs booked in support of his quietly released first album, Five Leaves Left. Fragile as glass, Drake couldn't abide inattentive audiences and venues that swallowed his intimate, confessional musical expressions. After several gigs, he returned to London pretty much shattered. A downward emotional spiral lasted four years, but the trajectory was certain.
Three Drake albums were released during his life, all on Island Records: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972). One of his last recorded songs was 'Black Eyed Dog'--a stark lament, sort of a cool, across-the-pond version of a Dock Boggs holler. With the dryly pleading refrain, 'I'm growing old and I wanna go home,' it's all the more poignant in light of Winston Churchill's own deep melancholy, which he privately referred to as his 'black dog.'
There was a time, not so long ago, when alienated teenagers kept posters of James Dean on their walls, listened to 'adult' music (usually jazz or classical), smoked cigarettes and read Kerouac. They were different from everyone around them and they knew it, even reveled in it. For the past 30 years, Nick Drake has been the patron saint of bright but troubled kids, with emotions like exposed wires. When his songs connect, they hit on deep, lasting levels. Drake has achieved a degree of fame but also, and more importantly, a degree of widespread comprehension that he never believed possible in his brief life.
The first thing you notice is the voice. His songs weren't so much sung as melodically whispered. Drake's small voice, with its soft edges, perfectly conveyed the ennui, vulnerability, puckishness, pain and melancholy that hovered over his songs like a fog. It could sound playful, dejected, wistful, self-mocking or just plain indifferent. When a Drake recording gets under your skin, you're certain he's singing to you alone.
The reassessment and embrace of Drake's catalogue began the day he died and shows no signs of letting up. The box set Fruit Tree, originally released in '99, will be reissued by UME/Fontana in a limited edition pressing Nov. 6 with a new 108-page booklet. It also contains a DVD of a new documentary, Jeroen Berkvens' A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake.
A Skin Too Few is an evocative work. There is no existing film footage of Drake, save for his family's home movies taken when he was a tyke. Still, present-day shots of Drake's various locales are colored with his mystique, including his former schools. (Though well liked, a headmaster wrote of Nick: 'none of us seem to know him very well.') Drake drifted through Cambridge for a couple of years, studying English. His friend Brian Wells describes that period as 'a three-year holiday,' with drugs, of course.
Drake's mother was also musically inclined, and a tape of her singing one of her own songs links directly to her son's simple constructions. Drake's guitar work--strummed chords that were evenly administered--was his musical bedrock. Arranger Robert Kiley recounts that Drake's songs were so well-conceived that he didn't have to do very much to them.
His sister Gabrielle Drake notes that there were no dramatic changes in Drake in his last years of life. His depression merely deepened and, after his aborted tour, he began to isolate himself. At one point he lamented, 'I've got no more songs.' The end came in the form of a prescription medication overdose, but it's not entirely clear that he intended suicide.
A creative arc in Drake's work is hard to trace; in a sense, he arrived fully formed. His first album contains one of his best songs, 'River Man.' The words are spare, matter-of-fact, though layered and full of innuendo. Yet he wasn't allergic to cheap rhymes, as the tune is full of them ('Said she hadn't heard the news, hadn't had the time to choose, a way to lose...'). Then, on Bryter, 'Hazey Jane II' is jammed with words, like the work of a high-school kid on meth. Consider the lyrics 'And all the friends that you once knew are left behind they kept you safe and so secure amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime.'
Kiley and producer Joe Boyd enlarged Drake's music immeasurably. In the movie, Kiley remarks that the songs had a large degree of completeness, so it was easy to craft instrumental accompaniment. The additions are masterful--understated in their support and quietly powerful. On 'River Man,' the strings hang like the clouds in a Turner painting, moving glacially, unmistakable in their majesty. A pedal steel guitar gently laps at the sides of 'Time Has Told Me.' A soul-singing backup duo acts as a mocking, finger-wagging Greek chorus on 'Poor Boy' ('Oh poor boy, so sorry for yourself, oh poor boy, so worried for his health'). A flute navigates somewhere between Celtic and jazz on 'Bryter Layter.'
Drake remains one of the great what-ifs in pop music. He showed great promise, but his death makes a long-term assessment impossible.
Would his work have been commensurate with that of Van Morrison? Would he have evolved quickly and dramatically like Joni Mitchell?
Both scenarios seem doubtful, given Drake's inability to perform in front of audiences. Morrison, always uncomfortable live, has made his uneasy peace with the stage, dark glasses and all. Mitchell, an artistic omnivore who thrived on personal interaction, still never seems to run dry of creative expression. Drake's measured output and palpable frailty underscores the idea of his songs as being written with his own blood.
Still and all, anyone who came up with the three recorded gems that Nick Drake left us had to have something else in the tank.