Nick was born on June 19, 1948 and died on November 25, 1974. His years were filled with an olio of solitude, creativity and depression; his death, in fact, was the result of an overdose of the prescription antidepressant amitriptyline. Whether the overdose was intentional or accidental is a question still debated, never answered. He had the fortune of being born to a talented family; while neither did so professionally, both his parents (Rodney and Molly) were decent musicians and composers, and his older sister Gabrielle (his only sibling) became a successful film and television actress. Nick was particularly encouraged and inspired by his mother, and due largely in part to her influence, he learned piano at a young age. He even began writing songs and recording them on a reel-to-reel recorder his mother kept near the piano. Some recordings of Molly Drake's songs came to light over the course of time; I've never heard them myself (add to bucket list...), but those who have say Nick's work bears a strong similarity in style and tone to his mother's. In 1962, Drake began attending Marlborough College and, while still quiet and private, seemed to blossom in the college atmosphere. Somewhat surprisingly, he developed a taste for sports, competing both as a sprinter and on the rugby team; he achieved notable success in both sports. He also played piano in the school orchestra and learned to play clarinet and saxophone. He formed a band circa 1964/5, and it was obvious the music bug had bitten him hard. In 1965, he bought his first acoustic guitar; by then, his academic performance was beginning to suffer due to the time and attention he was paying to music. While he still earned a scholarship to study English literature, he put off those studies, instead spending six months at a French University, avidly practicing guitar. By now, he was already fascinated with open tunings and fingerpicking techniques, which became trademarks of his recorded music. Besides guitar, Drake also discovered pot while in France and became a regular and heavy user of such; it is also likely that he experimented with LSD during this time.
When he returned to England, he enrolled at Cambridge University. He was an intelligent man who had the capability to be an outstanding student, but instead was described by teachers and tutors as unenthusiastic and unwilling to apply himself to his studies. He was already becoming withdrawn, preferring to spend his time in his room with music and dope. Drake had discovered for himself both the American and British folk scenes and did some performing in coffee houses around London. He managed to land a gig opening for Country Joe and The Fish in February of 1968; one of those in attendance was Ashley Hutchings, bassist for Fairport Convention. Hutchings was impressed with Drake and introduced him to producer Joe Boyd. Boyd had a production and management company with ties to Island Records, and by early 1968 was impressed enough with Drake's work that he wanted to begin working on a record. Drake had apparently already decided to not complete his third year at Cambridge in favor of music, so his decision to accept Boyd's offer was most likely a very easy one to make.
Five Leaves Left (1969)
Later in 1968, Drake (with Boyd as producer) began working on his debut album. Reportedly, the initial sessions did not go well, and tension began to grow between Drake and Boyd. Boyd wanted a full and produced sound for the sessions (he was a huge advocate of George Martin's style of "studio as an instrument" method of recording); Drake wanted a simpler approach to the songs. A man named Richard Hewson initially provided string arrangements for the songs, and neither Drake nor Boyd were happy with them. Nick suggested they let Robert Kirby, a music student he befriended in college, take a shot at the arrangements, and while Boyd wasn't sure about letting a student with no experience whatsoever into a recording studio, he was taken with Drake's uncharacteristic assertiveness about it. "The Kirby experiment" worked so well that he would go on to do arrangements for the second album as well.
Once the recording was finished, post-production held up the release even further. Upon release, it received generally enthusiastic reviews, got BBC airplay from some influential DJs and was backed by full page interviews with Drake in the pop press. The album's opening track was also included on an Island Records sampler album, so despite accusations that Island didn't support the album well, the foundation does seem to have been in place. The one element that was seriously lacking, however, was cooperation from Drake himself, particularly in the realm of live performances. His bouts of depression were beginning to grow, which only made his ineffectiveness as a live performer worse. Live shows were already inherently difficult. First, Drake's songs didn't fit neatly into any niche; he surely wasn't rock, folkies wanted something more of a sing-along nature and there just weren't that many places where his material would be effective live. Second, there was no way he could match the intricate arrangements of his material in concert, and the deep and simple beauty of his songs didn't necessarily transcend in a live setting. Third, he used so many different open tunings that there were often lengthy gaps between songs, and fourth, due to his nature and depression, Drake rarely if ever addressed or acknowledged his audience. That's a very poor recipe for a successful show, and after a lot of lukewarm receptions to his performances, Drake made the decision to simply eschew almost all live performing. I can't imagine Island Records was terribly happy with that decision.
Bryter Layter (1970)
For all that, Joe Boyd was anxious to record a second album. Drake's talent was undeniable, and even if he wasn't anything of a commercial success yet, he seemed to have the support of some prominent members of the music industry, including a lot of musicians. Five Leaves Left had featured excellent performances (including contributions from Richard Thompson, among others), and for the second album, he got more help from various members of Fairport Convention as well as contributions on two songs from John Cale. Drake was disappointed with the sales of the first record, so at Boyd's suggestion, he agreed to have bass and drum tracks included as part of Bryter Layter. "I imagined it as more commercial," said Boyd in a later interview. The feel of the album is more upbeat and a bit jazzier (though the songs still feature generally pastoral and often grey images), and there was a lot of confidence that the resulting album had a good chance at being a commercial success. It sold fewer than 3,000 copies. Reviews for the album ranged from praising Drake's beautiful guitar work and arrangements to calling the album "an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz." His label wanted desperately to back the album with the standard array of interviews, radio appearances and concerts, but Drake flatly refused all offers.
Soon after the album's release, Boyd sold his company to Island Records and decided to relocate to the States to work on film soundtracks. With two good albums that were commercial flops under his belt, the loss of his industry mentor signaled a deeper retreat into the depression that had already often consumed Drake. The very few live shows he gave were generally disasters; during one of his last shows ever, he simply walked off the stage halfway through a song and didn't return. As his depression grew deeper and more severe, he was finally convinced by his family to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed antidepressants. His sister recalls that this entire period of time was among the worst in Drake's life. He stayed home, withdrew from family and friends and essentially only ever left his place to buy drugs or, rarely, play a few songs live.
Pink Moon (1972)
By now, Island Records neither expected nor really wanted a third album from Drake. However, somewhat surprisingly, in October of 1971 Drake approached John Wood (who had engineered the first two albums) with material for a third album. Drake was unhappy with the arrangements on both his previous releases, generally calling them too full and too intricate. He wanted a very barren sound to the recording of the new record and got his wish. The sessions for Pink Moon lasted only two nights, most likely made much easier by the length of the completed album (eleven songs, about twenty eight minutes) and the fact that except for a single piano overdub, the album is strictly Drake's voice and acoustic guitar. Wood later recalled that Drake was "determined to make this very stark, bare record," and obviously got what he sought. Still, the sheer emotional depth of the songs makes it a very powerful recording, perhaps even moreso in retrospect after learning more about Drake's life. When Island released the album (and after reading Drake's story and the history of recording Pink Moon, I'm shocked it was released at all), the label did so with a very unusual ad, declaring in print: "Pink Moon - Nick Drake's latest album. The first we heard of it was when it was finished." The rest of the story is very familiar; mixed reviews and a complete unwillingness on the part of Drake to promote the record in any way. With no momentum, no real track record, no artist cooperation and a very difficult album to sell, it's not surprising at all that Pink Moon was Drake's worst selling work.**
It's also not surprising that Drake retreated even further following his latest career disappointment. He went back to live with his parents, which was difficult both on Nick and on the rest of the family. He has been variously described by friends and fellow musicians as the most withdrawn person any of them had ever met; he had a habit of disappearing from his folks' home, turning up a few days later at a friend's house, crashing and saying nothing, then disappearing again. The downward spiral continued, with Drake's little bit of self-esteem seemingly eroded to the point where his personal appearance was no longer of concern to him. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1972 and was hospitalized for five weeks... yet, somehow, in February of 1974, Drake contacted John Wood again and stated that he was ready to work on a fourth album. Old friend/mentor Joe Boyd happened to be in England at the time and agreed to attend the recording sessions. While four tracks were completed, both Boyd and Wood noticed a severe deterioration in Drake's performance; vocals now had to be overdubbed, for example, as Drake seemed incapable of playing and singing at the same time. Drake's attitude not only hadn't gotten better, but now anger at being told he was a genius while remaining poor and obscure were added to the mix. Still, for all that, his mother recalled that the sessions seemed to somewhat raise Drake's spirits for the first time in recent memory, and family and his few friends were encouraged by that.
On November 24, 1974, Nick spent the afternoon visiting a friend. He returned to his parents' home and went to his room early. His mother recalls hearing him in the kitchen near dawn the next morning; most likely, he had been up for hours and perhaps all night, as was his custom. Due to depression and insomnia, it wasn't unusual for him to stay up late and sleep well into the following morning. On November 25, his mother checked in on him about noon and found him lying in his bed, dead. There was no suicide note. The coroner determined that the cause of Drake's death was an overdose of his prescribed antidepressants and labeled the death a suicide. Family members dispute the finding; however, there is little doubt that even though he was in the midst of recording a new album, he had pretty much given up on life in general. The world lost a musical genius... even if his genius was still years and years away from being discovered by the masses.
As stated before, Nick Drake's legacy is only three albums. The four songs he had recorded at the time of his death made it to a boxed set of Drake's work, entitled Fruit Tree (after a song from the first record), and in 2007 Island released Family Tree, essentially a cleaned up version of several bootleg recordings of very early Nick Drake. Like most projects of that nature, the material was never meant to be released in any form, and probably shouldn't have been; it adds nothing to Drake's legend. The man's obscurity was so pervasive that his funeral was attended by his family and best friends... and not only had his family met virtually none of those friends, but they hadn't met one another. He hated performing, he wouldn't talk to the press, he suffered from a silent and debilitating disease that is as tragic as any medical condition known, yet somehow he became revered for his musical talent, his insight and his brilliance. He has been publicly cited as a major influence by artists as diverse as Robert Smith (The Cure), David Sylvian (Japan and solo), Peter Buck (REM), Kate Bush, Paul Weller, Beck, and even The Black Crowes. "Life In A Northern Town," a significant hit for The Dream Academy, was an homage to Drake, as was John Martyn's brilliant song "Solid Air."
Obviously, I'm personally glad for it. Once I bought my copy of Pink Moon, it was a chore, but I finally acquired copies of both Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter (though in the wrong order, I believe) and immersed myself in those three albums. They're not perfect by any means; of the 31 total songs released, I can pick out five or six that I'd call clunkers, either because they just aren't of the quality of the rest of the catalog or because I'd agree that they were ruined in the recording and arranging of them. Still, even those are tolerable and I can find a little something about every one of them to appreciate. Of course, when he was good, he was very, very good, and in fact "brilliant" is not too strong a word to describe his art. Of the three albums, I still have a special place in my heart for Pink Moon, both because of the accidental jumpstart it gave to my writing career and because of the natural tendency to most appreciate the first work one hears by any great artist. I consider it a near-perfect record and it's high on my list of favorite albums of my lifetime. I really did do Nick Drake backwards, hearing his most bleak and bare work first before experiencing the more produced records, and I have wondered how I would have reacted had I heard them in proper order. I can't help but thinking that I'd have been a lifelong devotee of his regardless; no matter the treatments, the music is just that good.
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** When I discovered that the album sold fewer than 3000 copies, I found myself shocked that a high school kid in Orlando, Florida somehow wound up with one of those copies. Such an influential album in my life, both as a journalist and as a music appreciator! The world can indeed work in strange ways...