Friday, October 03, 2008

Why I Love Nick Drake

His catalogue extends to just three proper studio albums and a clutch of posthumous compilations, but Nick Drake’s influence has been enormous. His records didn’t sell much when he was alive, but his legend is now such that in 2007 a BBC Radio 2 documentary on Drake was narrated by Brad Pitt. More importantly, he was an extremely gifted songwriter and talented musician. Sometimes I feel that the fact that he apparently commit suicide overshadows his work, and it can be tempting to portray Nick Drake as a desperately lonely, depressed voice crying in the wilderness. Personally, I think Drake was a great artist, and as is the case with all great art, the truth is a little more complicated than that.

By all accounts Drake was a shy, withdrawn figure. Here’s a short extract from Joe Boyd’s book “White Bicycles”, where the author talks about calling Nick for the first time to express an interest in hearing some of his demos:

“Uh, hello?” The voice on the other end of the line was low and soft, almost embarrassed. In the years to come, I would get used to Nick Drake’s way of answering the telephone as if it had never rung before. When I told him why I was calling he was surprised. “Oh, ok, uh, I’ll bring it in tomorrow.” He appeared at my office the next morning in a black wool overcoat stained with cigarette ash. He was tall and handsome with an apologetic stoop: either he had no idea how good-looking he was or he was embarrassed by the fact. He handed me the tape and shuffled out the door.

Stories like the one above have contributed to the mythology surrounding Nick Drake. It helps that on record, Drake’s voice is soft and gentle. So the image of the middle class, university educated poet is hard to resist; Drake is seen by some as a depressed, isolated figure who had led a rather charmed life in some respects. Drake was born in Rangoon, the son of a doctor, and he had attended public school in Marlborough. Well-posh. In Patrick Humphries’ excellent Nick Drake biography he mentions that, at one point at Marlborough, Drake had played in a band with one Chris De Burgh, adding that De Burgh was sacked from the band for being too short! It seems that many people admire rock’s outsiders, and while Drake certainly had links to the proper establishment (not just the rock establishment), I think it is his singularity, his peculiar talent for addressing subjects like the fleeting nature of fame and human isolation which endear Nick Drake to so many people so many years after his death.

I’ll write a little here about Nick Drake’s three main albums, all of which I believe to be essential listening for fans of English folk, or rock music of the late 60s/early 70s. Starting with 1969’s Five Leaves Left which was produced by Joe Boyd. Initially it was felt that Nick should work with a professional string arranger, but after some faltering sessions with Richard Hewson (James Taylor’s arranger) it was decided that Drake’s friend from Marlborough Robert Kirby should take on that role. Kirby had worked with Drake before any recording contracts or studio time had been negotiated, and it was felt by some people at those initial Drake-Kirby sessions that this was a bit of risk; to let an ‘unknown” amateur take the reigns could be an expensive folly. As they soon discovered, and as we all know now, Kirby’s arrangements are beautiful, and it’s impossible to overstate their importance on Nick Drake’s records. When they combine, Nick’s loud, ringing, finger-picking guitar and Kirby’s strings are one of the great joys of modern English music. Five Leaves Left is the example par excellence of this sound. It is sustained over ten extraordinary songs. On “Way To Blue” we’re left with just the strings and Nick’s vocal and it is probably my favourite song on the album. “Time Has Told Me” which opens the set is a combination of chiming acoustic and electric guitar and piano. Elsewhere “Cello Song” is as hypnotic a song as you could wish to hear in Drake’s catalogue. For me, it’s a record that’s full of colour and changes of pace and mood; there’s never an overly abrupt break in this mood, but listening to the cold wintry sounding “River Man” and then thinking about the bright “Thoughts Of Mary Jane”, I can’t help but be struck by the broad palette of sounds and moods contained on this album.

On 1970’s Bryter Layter, it sounds like an effort has been made to make a glossier, more produced-sounding record; perhaps an attempt at having a proper hit album. It seems that Nick was uncomfortable with being a marginalized talent, that he yearned for recognition, and the constant waiting for success to happen bothered him immensely. “Hazy Jane II” is startlingly upbeat. If it does represent a proper attempt to make an obvious pop song, I’m not sure it’s entirely successful. It isn’t tremendously catchy, and it sort of shambles along on a wind of brass. Drake is further back in the mix and sounds a bit lost. It is quite out of step with the rest of the album. “At The Chime Of A City Clock” is more representative of Nick Drake’s output overall – more downbeat and introspective and subtly arranged. Here we encounter a lone saxophone, which actually sounds like it has a right to be there and adds to the song where on “Hazy Jane II” the brassy bits distract the listener. The highlight of Bryter Layter for many, myself included, is “Northern Sky”. Joe Boyd, impressed by John Cale’s arrangements on Nico’s The Marble Index invited the ex-Velvet Underground member to contribute and the end result is just wonderful. “Fly”, was recorded at the same time, also with John Cale. Another personal favourite from this LP is “One Of These Things First”, again just a gorgeous mélange of piano and guitar with a drum part so subtle it’s almost subliminal. Perfect music for hangovers. “Poor Boy” is jokey and self-mocking in a way which is just great and a nice reminder that Nick Drake wasn’t necessarily this tortured artist, as he is so often portayed. It features a chorus of female backing singers bellowing “A poor boy! So sorry for himself!” It’s a solid album, but in some ways it feels like an end of the road, because from here on Nick became withdrawn to the point of losing contact with his friends and all of the people who wished to further his career and nurture his talent.

Nick had lost contact with his record company, management and friends by the time Pink Moon was recorded in 1972. An announcement/advert was issued in the music press to this effect: “PINK MOON – NICK DRAKE’S LATEEST ALBUM: THE FIRST WE HEARD OF IT WAS WHEN IT WAS FINISHED”. This is how the album was launched on the public. Nick had recorded the album without telling anyone but the engineer. By this time Nick was utterly disenchanted with the music business and seemed resigned to being a cult figure. The album itself is bleak and initially intimidating but it has gone on to be his biggest selling album. The standout tracks for me are the title track, “Road” and “Things Behind The Sun”. It’s a terrific, introspective record. Within months of its release Drake had a mental breakdown and was hospitalized. His subsequent recordings can be found on a compilation called “Time Of No Reply”. If anything, they’re even darker than the “Pink Moon” material. “Black Eyed Dog” is especially painful to listen to, Drake’s voice is shaky and distant – here he does sound like a man at the end of his tether.

The “Fruit Tree” box set has recently been reissued and features the three studio albums and a documentary DVD (parts of which are also available on YouTube). I’d recommend the box to anyone, but if you wanted to just tip your toe in the water as it were, the “Way To Blue: An Introduction To Nick Drake” CD compilation on Island is an excellent place to start. You’ll want to buy up everything else by the man anyway. I also recommend Joe Boyd’s superb autobiography “White Bicycles” and the Patrick Humphries biog “Nick Drake: The Biography”. Both books are examples of rock writing and its absolute best. Therein you can read about Nick’s formative years, in-depth analysis of his recordings and anecdotes and commentary from his family, friends and colleagues. I like the stories about Danny Thompson joking around with Nick in the studio, and Beverley Martyn plying Nick with chicken soup.