Nick Drake - Biography
BY J Poet
Since his sad passing on November 24, 1974, probably of an accidental overdose of anti-depressants, Nick Drake’s stature as a musician and songwriter has taken on legendary proportions. Several generations of serious young men have followed in Drake’s melancholy footsteps - quiet, pensive songwriters intent on delving deeply into the gloomy corners of the heart. Today, Drake shows up on almost every list of influential artists of the 20th Century. His music still sounds fresh and new and seems to exist outside of time and space.
Drake was born in Rangoon, Burma, where his father worked for a British company. After moving back to England, Drake attended a private school and Marlborough College where he was popular and athletic. His dad was an engineer, and long before any other family had recording equipment, he would record the whole family, in particularly Drake’s mother who also wrote songs. The posthumous recordings of Drake’s songs are from early, home made family recordings.
At Marlborough Drake learned to play sax, clarinet, piano and guitar. In 1966 he spent a few months in France and started to get serious about his guitar playing and songwriting. When he came back from France and played his songs for his family they were amazed. In 1967, Drake was at Cambridge studying English and playing his songs for friends. Ashley Hutchings, bass player for Fairport Convention, heard Drake sing at an anti-war demonstration and introduced Drake to producer Joe Boyd. In a recent interview Boyd recalled his first encounter with Drake’s music. “Nick gave me a tape and in 10 seconds I was hooked and offered him a deal. I loved the way the music stayed within itself. It didn’t ask you to notice it, but it was so sensuously pleasurable, with staggering guitar technique. I knew at once these songs were not like other songs.”
Boyd hired Robert Kirby to arrange Drake’s debut, Five Leaves Left (1969 Island, 2007 Universal) and his settings give the melancholy tunes a deep, soulful resonance with dark string charts that anchored Drake’s jazzy guitar work. The album’s opener, “Time Has Told Me” sounds chillingly prophetic as Drake sings, “you’re a rare find, a troubled cure for a troubled mind.” His vocals, hardly more than a whisper, are free of affectation and sound as disheartening as the songs themselves. Even when the playing is sprightly, as on “Three Hours” and “‘Cello Song,” the lyrics are full of images of loss, loneliness and death. Rarely has a singer made unhappiness sound so appealing. At the time, critics compared Drake’s Celtic-tinged tunes with Van Morrison’s work, but even at his bluest, Morrison’s music was buoyant where Drake always seems to be on the verge of sinking beneath his anguish.
Five Leaves Left fared poorly on its initial release, so the title of Drake’s second album, Bryter Layter (1970 Island, 2007 Universal) seems morbidly ironic. The title track is a beautiful blend of pop, baroque folk and jazz, with Lyn Dobson’s flute adding hopeless, lyrical accents to Drake’s simple melodic line. Kirby’s arrangements are more up tempo here, with many characteristics of early 70s British folk/rock, including Gospel-tinged backing vocals on “Poor Boy,” but again Drake’s grim lyrics and his aching delivery imbue the tunes with a distressing emotional resonance. The last song on the album is “Northern Sky,” one of Drake’s most optimistic love songs, with Dave Mattacks playing a gentle bossa nova beat on drums and John Cale adding some classically influenced keyboard, but Drake still asks “Would you love me through the winter, would you love me ‘til I’m dead?”
Boyd considers Bryter Layter the best thing he ever produced but it tanked too. For Pink Moon (1972 Island, 2007 Universal) Drake recorded alone, just vocals, guitar and piano, a stark 28 minutes of desolate music. It’s his last and bleakest album. “Know” could be his suicide note, if indeed he did knowingly end his life. A simple repeated guitar line, moaning wordless verses and a brief chorus “Know that I love you, Know I don’t care, Know that I see you, Know I’m not there.” The original cover art featured a negative image of Drake’s face that made him look like a smiling ghost. “Parasite” is a wrenching song of self-loathing, the title tune is an ominous song of coming apocalypse and “Harvest Breed” is another gentle ode to approaching winter and limitation. The album ends with “From the Morning,” a song of resurrection that’s painfully poignant knowing, as we do, what comes next.
His commercial failure, paralyzing stage fright and an inability to help Island promote his albums sank Drake into a clinical depression. He moved back home to live with his parents and on November 24, 1974, they found him dead in his bedroom.
Drake’s albums stayed in print, slowly selling and gaining fanatical fans. When Boyd sold his mater recordings to Universal, he has a clause in the contract that kept Drake’s albums in print. Drake’s renaissance started in 2000 when Volkswagen used the title track of Pink Moon for a Cabrio ad. Joe Boyd convinced Gabrielle Drake, Nick’s sister and musical executor, to license the song to Volkswagen. There’s no voice or sound in the ad except for Drake and his music, then it fades to black. The commercial boosted Drake’s sales instantly and started a Drake revival that continues to gather momentum today. Volkswagen kept running the ad for a long time, so it must have done them some good as well.
As fans clamored for more Drake material, Gabrielle Drake compiled Family Tree (2007 Tsunami). It’s a collection of early recordings that includes renditions of folk songs, half finished Drake originals and covers of tunes by Bert Jansch, Blind Boy Fuller and Dylan. It shows Drake in a slightly more upbeat mode. The astonishing guitar technique and the sexy, somnambulant vocals that made him a great artist are already evident. It’s another album of casual, luminous virtuosity that makes his early death seem even more tragic.