Music, Recorded

Remembering Nick Drake: English pastoral on six strings

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Fifty years ago, a wind stirred, a slight breeze, a melodic air if you will. It rose and died. It barely touched the earth during its time of life.

It was the sound and soul of Nick Drake. The young singer-songwriter released three albums from 1969 until 1972, the first when he was 21. He hardly performed in public. There is no footage of him doing so.

In 1974, aged 26, Drake departed. A coroner found that he had entered into a fatal sleep from an overdose of antidepressants.

Those three records, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Lyter and Pink Moon (which ran to barely 30 minutes) sold barely 10,000 copies each. They all lost money. The first, Five Leaves Left was released in 1969, the year of men landing on the moon, of civil rights clashes, of the Vietnam War, of Woodstock and Altamount, of Space Oddity, of Led Zeppelin’s first album and The Beatles last performance, of Bird on the Wire and Both Sides Now.

Drake’s music seemed to float through this reality. The songs on Five Leaves Left, such as Time Has Told Me, River Man, Three Hours, Way to Blue, Day is Done and Cello Song, carried an ethereal quality that should have heralded to the world, here is someone to watch. This is special.

Producer Joe Boyd, who was at the helm for the first two albums, has said of Drake “nothing he ever did was less than striking and he had the gift of writing melodies of incredible beauty”.

No one really knew him. Not his family nor his friends. He was entirely unto himself.

But Drake’s claim to fame lay beyond the grave.

“If songs were lines/In a conversation/The situation would be fine.”

But they weren’t. He opened for Fairport Convention once, did a few more gigs that would supposedly set him on a journey to recognition, or at least a low-key career. But nothing came of it. He hated touring, hated having to battle with competing noise, whether it be from the audience or life generally. Before the music, he had gone to Cambridge University to study literature, but found it deathly dull and dropped out.

No one really knew him. Not his family nor his friends. He was entirely unto himself. Let the songs speak for themselves, let them speak for me. As me. Others do now, of course. He is cited as an influence by many in the industry, acknowledged for his work by Kate Bush, Paul Weller and Peter Buck, for instance. A tribute show toured internationally, including Melbourne, to sell-out crowds.

In an article in the London Telegraph his father Rodney said that a school report by one of his headmasters said that no one seemed to know him very well. “And I think that was it all the way through with Nick. People didn’t know him very much.”

And yet, people can know him briefly now, and in a way that would puzzle him. He is an entry in Encyclopaedia Britannica.

“Nick Drake, in full Nicholas Rodney Drake, (born June 19, 1948, Rangoon [now Yangon], Myanmar [Burma]—died November 25, 1974, Tanworth-in-Arden, England), English singer, songwriter, and guitarist known for emotive vocals, sombre lyrics, and rich melodies. Drake never achieved widespread recognition in his lifetime but inspired a cult following in the decades following his death.”

Singer-songwriter John Martyn was a friend, and Drake would often visit him in London. Martyn wrote one of his most well-known songs about Drake. The song was Solid Air.

“Don’t know what’s going ’round in your mind
And I can tell you don’t like what you find
When you’re moving through solid air, solid air.

I know you, I love you
And I can be your friend.”

Drake’s songs have the shadows and light of the English pastoral through an acoustic six strong. It’s not blues, but blue. Vaughan Williams on a Gibson. There’s wisps of high cloud, a storm coming in from the horizon, sun setting at the end of a summer’s day, the rise and fall of a heartbeat. There are traces of musical influences, bit of blues here, bit of the playing of Bert Jansch or Davey Graham there.

But, in the end, it was the art of one man, who played out his soul to the world, and yet found it wasn’t enough.

Nick Drake: River Man

Nick Drake: Cello Song

John Martyn: Solid Air

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