I was standing in line at the AMC Rosedale theater last week waiting to see the new Pixar film “Up” when I heard something shocking over the PA system. AMC’s lobby soundtrack was advertising a brand new band and billing them as “being compared to singer-songwriter Nick Drake”. As the nothing-like-Nick-Drake, Xeroxed acoustic emo band played their song I thought about this: Nick Drake was just name dropped over the lobby PA system of a 14 screen movie theater in 2009. I felt like this was the perfect time to give a little history on one of my favorite musicians of all time and why my experience was so surreal. Who was Nick Drake?
Nick Drake was born in 1948. His parents were living in Burma at the time for his father’s job. In 1952, the family moved back to England and settled in a village called Tanworth-in-Arden and a house called Far Leys. I love how things in England are named. As a youth, Nick was a great student, an accomplished athlete and a staple of his school’s choir. Both Nick’s mother and sister were musical as well and early recordings exist of the family playing music together. In his late teens, Nick began to develop a love of music – learning the clarinet, saxophone and piano. Soon a friend taught him some guitar chords and his fascination with the instrument was kindled. His friends remember him and a joyful person, though shy and introverted.
After school, Nick took a year off and traveled with his friends around Europe. It was during this time that he began writing songs and devising his own guitar techniques. It was also during this time that he began to smoke marijuana. This was 1966 and marijuana was a huge part of the youth culture at that time, however this habit became something that Nick struggled with the rest of his life.
Nick enrolled at Cambridge in 1967 to study English. He was now writing many songs and playing them for his friends and at folk gatherings. It was at one of these gatherings in 1968 that a member of the folk powerhouse “Fairport Convention” heard him play and asked Nick if he could get him in touch with a record executive. Nick accepted the invitation and was soon signed to a deal with Island Records.Nick set to work crafting his first album while studying at Cambridge in late 1968. By July, he was ready to head into the studio to record it. Joe Boyd, the producer, envisioned Nick’s songs backed by a 15 piece studio orchestra, but Nick didn’t like how they sounded. He asked if one of his Cambridge friends could arrange the backing instruments instead. Though Nick was a shy and soft-spoken person, he had a clear vision for what he wanted his songs to sound like on tape. This perfectionism and scheduling conflicts caused the sessions to last almost a full year. Finally, Five Leaves Left was released in September of 1969. The album garnered a number of good reviews, but did not sell very well.
Island Records encouraged Nick to get out and play some live shows and sell his music, but Nick’s personality and artistry were not suited for the stage. There are accounts of Nick playing at coffee houses and not completing his set because people were talking instead of listening. Nick simply was not comfortable performing his songs in front of people. Unfortunately, this made it difficult to build a fan base to buy his records.
Nick’s style of guitar playing was and is totally unique. He started out playing blues standards and progressed into intricate finger picking and alternate tunings, devising cluster chords of the guitar to create impressionistic arrangements. Nick’s vocals are also instantly recognizable. His hushed tones evoke misty spring mornings or crisp autumn afternoons. He also often breaks from typical vocal convention by drawing out consonant notes instead of vowel notes. “River Mannnn” instead of “River Maaaaan”. While these things may seem trite, they were very unique in Drake’s day. Plus, Nick constructed these hallmarks solely on his own without instruction. Nick was truly a musical prodigy.
In late 1969, Nick dropped out of Cambridge to pursue his music full time. He moved to London and kicked around while writing songs for his second album. He went back into the studio in early 1970 and began laying down what would become Bryter Layter. The sessions went slowly again and the album wasn’t released until November of 1970. Nick’s producer was present for the sessions and encouraged Nick that this would be the album that really sold well and brought him recognition and praise. However, upon release, the album again sold poorly in spite of a large number of good reviews. Nick told his producer that he wanted his next album to be just him and his guitar, nothing else.At this point in his life, Nick began to settle into a deep depression. He stopped playing gigs completely and moved back to his parents’ house in Tanworth-in-Arden. His friends and family noticed that his shyness and introversion had become something much darker and arranged for Nick to see a psychiatrist. Nick was prescribed anti-depressants, but they seemed to have only minimal effects. He remained at his parents home for a year. His parents would later say that he would stay up all night played guitar and singing in his room and then sleep most of the next day.
At this point in his life, Nick began to settle into a deep depression. He stopped playing gigs completely and moved back to his parents’ house in Tanworth-in-Arden. His friends and family noticed that his shyness and introversion had become something much darker and arranged for Nick to see a psychiatrist. Nick was prescribed anti-depressants, but they seemed to have only minimal effects. He remained at his parents home for a year. His parents would later say that he would stay up all night played guitar and singing in his room and then sleep most of the next day.After a year, an executive at Island Records lent Nick his villa in Spain in an attempt to help him overcome his depression (though the company did not want or expect another album from Nick). Nick stayed there for a time and appeared somewhat rejuvenated upon his return. He informed his producer that he was ready to record his third album.
He arrived at the studio in October of 1971 late a night and began recording. When he was finished, the producer asked what Nick would like to keep from the session. Nick said “All of it.” He came back the next night for another session and declared that the album was complete. With only one overdub and two nights of recording, Pink Moon is a huge departure from Nick’s first two albums. Later that week, Nick arrived at the Island Records offices with the master tapes in hand. He sat in the press officer’s office in silence for about 30 minutes before muttering that he should be going. He dropped the tapes off at the receptionist’s desk and left. Pink Moon sold fewer copies than either of his first two records, but again gained some positive reviews.
Nick again retreated to Tanworth-in-Arden and considered his next move. He was evidently convinced that he would gain no success as a musician and began considering other careers. Depression weighed heavily on his shoulders, however, and the anti-depressants were a continual part of his life. He would borrow his parents’ car, drive until he ran out of gas and then call home for a ride. He would visit friends, but hardly say a word and then leave again. He went through periods of neglecting hygiene and his friends would note his change in appearance. In 1972, Nick was checked into the hospital after suffering a nervous breakdown. It was becoming clear that Nick’s depression and mental illness were spiraling out of control.
In February of 1974, Nick seemed to be experiencing a period of diminished symptoms. He contacted Island Records and stated that he was ready to record a fourth album. The ensuing recording sessions were difficult. Producer John Wood was quoted as saying that Nick’s new songs were angry and bitter. Nick’s appearance and demeanor had changed and he could not play guitar and sing at the same time anymore. Nick also told the producers that they had told him he was talented, but he wasn’t because he had nothing to show for it. Four tracks were laid down in a one-day session and Nick’s spirits seemed to rise after that. These four tracks were the last that Nick ever recorded.
In November of 1974, Nick was still living at Far Leys with his family. It was the morning of November 25th that his mother decided to check on him in his room. She entered to find his body sprawled over his bed. Nick had overdosed on his anti-depressant medication and died in the night. There was no suicide note and it is still unknown if his death was accidental or deliberate. His family maintains that the fall of 1974 had been a time of relief for Nick and that he seemed happier than he had in the last three years. They maintain that his death was accidental. Accidental or not, Nick was obviously a very tortured person in his later years.He was buried in a cemetery in Tanworth-in-Arden. His tombstone bears a lyric from the closing track of Pink Moon: Now we rise / And we are everywhere.
Ironically, his music began to find a much larger audience in the 1980’s. Popular musicians began citing Nick’s music as their inspiration and a demand for his music grew. Island Records released a collection of non-album recordings and realized that an improbable fanbase was springing up around Nick Drake. In 1999, British paper The Guardian named Bryter Layter the #1 Alternative album ever! And in 2000, Nick Drake’s music was heard by more people than ever when “Pink Moon” was featured in a Volkswagon commercial. Soon, more compilation albums were being released and Nick’s music was being heard in more films and soundtracks. The recognition and acclaim that Nick never saw in life was everywhere thanks to word of mouth and the power of the Internet.
It’s a tragedy that a talent as great as Nick Drake’s was never fully appreciated, that a life of promise was crushed by depression and mental illness. Drake’s mother was quoted as saying that Nick was “born with a skin too few”, meaning he was an incredibly sensitive person and found it difficult to function in a harsh world. I’ve often wondered if Nick would have had a longer artistic career had he been born 30-40 years later. With modern musical technology, anyone can record an album in their bedroom, distribute it online and gain a large audience and acclaim. But the fact remains, Nick’s depression was deeper than simple lack of fame. Nick had a troubled soul and found no relief in this life. What he really needed was something to heal that troubled soul, he needed to find Christ. Sadly, it seems that did not happen. Even so, Nick left us many beautiful songs that depict the joys and struggles of living this temporary life. From the brightness of “Northern Sky” to the contemplation of “River Man” to the darkness of “Pink Moon”, Nick drew an arc through his music and his life that may look eerily familiar to many listeners. And that is why his artistry is now gaining the delayed admiration it enjoys today. There was and still is no one like Nick Drake.
UPDATE: I was surprised and flattered to find that Joe Boyd (one of Nick’s producers) had left a comment here. I thought I’d add it to the post as he provides some sharper focus to the story and some personal insight. Thanks for your comment, Mr. Boyd! And go read his great book “White Bicycles – Making Music in the 1960’s”. It contains many great stories about this important era of music and about Nick Drake himself.
It’s always good to read about people appreciating Nick Drake’s music and recordings. The timeline is mostly accurate, but there are a few errors/omissions. As the producer who signed him to Island Records, I shared Nick’s vision of recording with strings and arrangements. Nick didn’t mention Robert Kirby, his friend at Cambridge, until after we had recorded one session, which we both agreed was not good enough. I immediately agreed to work with Robert Kirby when Nick suggested him.Nick and I agreed he would tour after the release of the first album – Island Records did not interfere much in Nick’s affairs.
Pink Moon was recorded immediately after the release of Bryter Later. Island Records was not informed or consulted. I had moved to the US, so Nick contacted engineer John Wood, and he produced Pink Moon. The period in Spain came after Pink Moon.
The “last sessions” grew out of a meeting I had with Nick in early 1974. He was in bad shape and I felt recording might be a good kind of therapy.