Monday, August 3, 2009

Nick Drake

The following is an article I wrote on Nick Drake that got published in 1999. I have writer's block at the moment so I'm going to dig up my vaults for the blog until it I fall back into 'writer's mood'. The Block may pass tomorrow, like anything else we may care to think about, or mention. Reading back over this article again I'm still pleased enough with the way it reads; it was probably the best piece of writing I'd done up to that point sans my Uni papers. Writing is like walking up a steep hill carrying a 50 kilo backpack with a howling wind blowing directly down your face. Progress is arduous and is apparently slow. But that's my perception anyway and I'm my own worst taskmaster. I'll carry it over to Nick now...

Nick Drake was a singer-songwriter from Tanworth-in-Arden, a gentrified chocolate-box township set amidst the lush Warwickshire countryside of the English midlands. He made three albums for Joe Boyd's Island label between 1969 and 1972. He died in November 1974 at his parent's home in Tanworth of a fatal overdose of Tryptizol, a prescribed anti-depressant medication. He was 26 years old.
Yet Drake's music, which had attracted only fleeting interest and mediocre sales in his lifetime, did not die with him. You see, Nick Drake isn't your usual gifted or "promising" talent; he was a true Genius of transcendent grace and beauty. So much so that since his untimely death, sales of Drake's work have steadily increased so that he now sells more records than ever. First of all, Nick Kent of the NME ran a story on Drake titled "Requiem for a Solitary Man" in 1975. This was the first full-feature story written about Drake, albeit posthumously. His parents started to attract increasing numbers of "disciples" to their house. The first boxed set appeared in 1979. In 1986, a fourth album of Drake's unreleased demos and offcuts was released. Since John Martyn's Walking on Solid Air of 1973, songwriters have been verbalising and eulogising his praises, including Paul Weller and Robert Smith of the Cure. The Dream Academy's Life in a Northern Town of 1985 was a Nick Drake tribute. And in February 1997 Mojo Magazine ran a cover story on Nick Drake using a photo from 1972 as the cover shot. The first biography by rock critic Patrick Humphries appeared late in 1997 and in May of that year, Bruce Elder of the Sydney Morning Herald gave Nick Drake's box set a 5 out of 5 star rating.
So who was Nick Drake? He is of our contemporary era surely, but he is also something of the most recent of the line of Ye Olde English Myth or Legend. Not much can be said about Drake without delving into speculation and "what if". He was very shy, very quiet, and in his early adulthood he withdrew into a depression of such severity and intensity that it left him hamstrung and homebound until the day of his death.
Drake was also beautiful, his untimely death ensures that age will never taint this classically elegant figure, a figure that is rarely dissociated from his music. Drake had no role to play in the swinging London sixties thing, he was ions away, a modern day Keats or William Blake or Emily Bronte, his myth spun around the small Warwickshire township of whence he came and died.
Nick Drake was "discovered" in 1968 whilst performing in Cambridge where he was studying literature and pre/after hours guitar, perfecting his phenomenal technique with constant practice. Drake was a fingerpicking acoustic guitar virtuoso. He loved to use odd tunings, his playing was both percussive and polyphonic, technically outstanding. And like Hendrix, Drake's playing has that celestial almost "outer-worldly" quality about it. Drake and Hendrix are probably two sides of the same coin; where Hendrix was all fire and brimstone, Drake was hushed and whispery, yet none can deny the power of their playing as it stands today.
And then there are the songs. Well, there are now four albums, three of which Drake finished in his lifetime and they all markedly differ from each other and yet are all unmistakably Nick Drake. Joe Boyd, who described Drake upon first meeting as "shy and quiet", liked the tapes passed on from a mutual friend's recommendation and Drake was given the contract. He was 20, it was 1968 and by September 1969 after a year of intermittent Cambridge and recording, Drake's first opus, Five Leaves Left, came into the world.
Five Leaves Left is a remarkable work given that its gentle, self-contained wisdom and musical breadth belies the composer's tender age. It is well produced and performed featuring members of Boyd's stable, namely Fairport Convention, on backing instruments. The double bass used by Danny Thompson adds to the homely acoustic quality. Congas and light percussion feature occasionally, more prominent are the lush string arrangements of Drake's Cambridge friend, Robert Kirby. Finally there is Drake's enchanting voice which is both whispery and bassy in tone, and his celestial guitar.
The album is most ornately and historically English in its manner, its sound and expression; lush, green, pastoral, rainy, melancholy, ornate, reflective. Robert Smith once said that Five Leaves Left is an album "I come back to in moments of great stress on tour." This is an apt appraisal for listening to Five Leaves Left is akin to taking a long walk amidst cool pine forest or seaside on a late autumn afternoon. An air of existential cool and wonderment pervades the entire piece and one comes away feeling just that little more enlightened and rested for having listened to it.
The album's packaging lends itself to the Drake myth. The album title was meant as a harmless take on cigarette packet messages of the time and yet Drake was to die five years after the album's release. And that cover is as evocative and timeless a piece of portraiture as is the cover of Syd Barrett's The Madcap Laughs of the same year. Here though, Drake is pensively peering out of an attic window. Like the Mona Lisa we are left wondering, what the hell's he thinking? Jumping maybe, just musing in general, but whatever that expression belies, there is no doubt that this image matches the flavour and breadth of the music contained within.
The lush rainy English quality of the album is most evident in those songs that feature the string arrangements. Songs like Way to Blue, Day is Done, and the prescient Fruit Tree. Fruit Tree proved for Nick to be an onimously prophetic utterance, the song is all to do with posthumous fame. It's a touch patriarchal with its "men of fame" line, it's also very funereal but it is a sublimely beautiful piece.
Riverman is one of Drake's most celebrated songs. It's a canon with a most mesmerising chord pattern made all the more sinister by Drake's haunted, whispered vocal; the song's mystic eeriness is enhanced by the strings. This is one of those songs that compel the listener to attempt to discover more about its enigmatic creator. Riverman influenced Paul Weller to create one of his greatest songs, Wildwood.
Three Hours features that celestial outer-worldly guitar work that is to feature more prominently on Drake's third album, Pink Moon. Drake's lingering and simmering melodies abound in all songs, Cello Song and The Thoughts of Mary Jane are especially pretty in this respect. The album's opener, Time Has Told Me, is remarkable in that its learned gentle and homely wisdom belies the composer's youth; more ironic is that the wisdom and reflection that is Time Has Told Me wasn't able to save its author from the debilitating depression that was to eventually consume him.
Saturday Sun closes this set and is one of the special highlights of Drake's entire canon. It is unique in that it features a piano performance from Drake instead of his customary guitar. It has that square blues pattern in C just like McCartney's Let it Be. Saturday Sun is just gorgeous, it's ostensibly a song about the sun coming up on Saturday and people getting out and about etc. But greater themes abound; the existential beauty of life, transience and recurrence, that all people and places flower and pass away and yet come again and again in other forms and guises. Saturday Sun, with its sunlit perfumed Godly omniscience, sounds as though it had crystallised from the aether rather than being an egoic expression of a "songwriter" as such. There is nothing else quite like Nick Drake's Saturday Sun.
Drake moved to London around the time of the album's release in September 1969 and began writing and recording for his second album to be titled Bryter Layter. Drake also gigged but this caused him great distress and anxiety and he gave up live performance by 1970.
Bryter Layter is a sunny and worldly departure from Five Leaves Left, the material reflecting Drake's move to the big smoke. There's also a lot going on as far as arrangements and guest musicians are concerned. Bryter Layter is often cited to be Drake's masterpiece although a lot of fans tend to disagree making note of the three instrumentals and the poxy brass on Hazey Jane II. Some people prefer Drake with just his guitar and voice as is on Pink Moon.
But if it's necessary to label any of Drake's albums as masterpiece then Bryter Layter is it. It is as much of a suite as it is album, the entire work is enhanced by the perfect flow and tracking which allows the work to gather and sustain its inherent mood and momentum. Three evocative instrumentals grace this album, one at the start, middle and end, adding flavour to the overall work. Drake is at his most self-confessional on Bryter Layter and subtle and obvious references are made throughout of his shyness and communication difficulties, his need to find a perfect niche, to be loved and understood. Drake's singing sounds a little less convincing on Bryter Layter as it does on Five Leaves Left. He sings with a quivering detachment a lot of the time, almost as if he's not quite "sitting" with the arrangements as comfortably as he had on Five Leaves Left. Velvet Underground's John Cale who did a superb job as session man on both Fly and Northern Sky, had noted to Nick Kent that Drake was a "genius musician but a zombie, just a dead personality."
Whereas Five Leaves Left is all autumnal/wintery cabinessence with just a glimmer of spring in its finale, Saturday Sun, Bryter Layter is the full bloom of late spring and summer. It's an album of timeless, leafy prettiness and gentle tranquillity. Bruce Elder's five-star review made note that "...the album is so impossibly beautiful it defies description." And it made Q magazine's Top 100 readers' poll (February 1998).
Bryter Layter commences with Drake's mellifluous guitar of Introduction which seems to signal a sunny dawn, followed by Hazey Jane II with its oft-discussed horn section; it's nonetheless a great song that features strong lead-ups into the horn sections. At the Chime of a City Clock is the strongest song of this first part of the suite, Drake here observes life in the big ben with a kind of winsome detachment. It's kind of cloudy with a chill wind blowing, but it's not melancholic. It features nice sax and background strings, and Drake's expressive guitar adds real drama in the instrumental sections.
One of These Things First is a nice flowing piece of whimsy that leads into the breathtaking Hazey Jane I. This is one of the two best songs of Bryter Layter. It really lifts the album with its dramatic arpeggiated guitar entry and its noble and chivalric first verse. Hazey Jane I is as lovely and beautiful as the rest of the album with Drake coming across as some sort of romantic hero or knight in shining armour. The song carries with it such a sense of nobility and rightness in both its lyrics and its delivery that the inherent emotional sincerity of it cuts through like a white charger.
The instrumental title track comes next. It conjures up all the pretty images of children playing in the park on a sunny weekend afternoon. Lyn Dobson's flute improvisations rate a strong mention, the track as a whole being something of a musical equivalent to the simple and unabandoned enjoyment of nature's leafy and flowery pleasures in the full sun of day.
After Bryter Layter we have the pleading and plaintive Fly, followed by the distinctly jazzy Poor Boy. Lyrically, Poor Boy is an excursion into forlorn navel-gazing, but it's a vibrant track nonetheless that features some great jazz piano from Chris McGregor and backing vocals from Doris Troy.
Island's Press Officer of the time, David Sandison, would have especially been referring to Northern Sky when he told the press after Drake's death that "he (Drake) wrote songs that'd tear your soul out". Northern Sky is oft-regarded to be Drake's finest song. It is based mainly around the movement of Eb to Fm7, and the tremendous longing of the melody and fragile lyric is just so sweet, so beautiful, that it really tears the heart as you listen. Most commendable is John Cale's piano and celeste, the latter instrument in particular lends to the song a tangible potency and magic. Drake sings Northern Sky very quietly and impassively, almost as if he's afraid of being overcome by its excruciating beauty and emotionality. But at the end as he sings "brighten my Northern Sky", he falters on the last word and heaves a sigh as if to signal his awareness that the hope and longing of what he's singing for remains for him, an unattainable dream.
The closing song of Bryter Layter is the third and finest instrumental Sunday. It has that specific feel of a late Sunday sunset afternoon, a little blue, a shade of melancholy etc. Despite the beauty of its melodies played by the flute, an air of trepidation hangs over this piece. No more than in the final eight bars where the beauty of the melody is matched by an equally ominous foreboding that sends chills up the spine. The clouds were rolling in for Nick Drake.
Drake's depression was purported to have intensified after the release of Bryter Layter (Nov 1970). Drake re-entered the studio late in 1971 with engineer John Wood to record his third and final album, Pink Moon. Drake recorded Pink Moon over two nights. He was apparently so depressed he barely spoke at all.
Pink Moon is an intensely compelling album. Stripped of all superfluous arrangements, it features Drake's whisperingly intimate voice and guitar only, with just a smattering of overdubbed piano on the title track. (That sparse piano overdub in itself is a first-class example of inspired musicality. Sheer brilliance.) The voice in particular reverberates with a genuine immediacy and potency. The guitar work is extraordinary, unbelievable almost in its rich tonal and polyphonic dexterity given there are no overdubs. On Pink Moon, Drake as guitarist matches Jimi Hendrix's gift for cosmic expression that words just cannot describe.
Pink Moon is a stark, bare and harrowing work. The eleven tracks add up to a playing time of only 28 minutes. Drake revisits the same landscape that had graced Five Leaves Left but instead of finding lush green rainy meadows, Pink Moon's backdrop is one that is parched, brown, singed and bare, with of course, a blood-coloured moon for effect. But such is the genius of Nick Drake that despite the surface despair and desolation, a kind of intimate warm glow pervades the work. The beauty that was Bryter Layter is still present, hidden beneath the debris.
Drake returned to the studio in July (not February) 1974 to record four new songs. It's possible he was prompted to do so by a recent article on him that had appeared in ZigZag magazine. By this point, friends say that Drake was physically shaking. Since the recording of Pink Moon, Drake had returned home to Tanworth-in-Arden, visited psychiatrists and was even institutionalised for a period. Those four songs he recorded in 1974 are as harrowing as anything on Pink Moon. On Black-Eyed Dog which has rightly been compared to Robert Johnson, Drake's voice is quivering as he sings of a black-eyed dog coming to his door.
Drake's condition purportedly improved as he visited Paris in the fall and he even met up again with French chanteuse Francoise Hardy. She was once mooted to collaborate with Drake, ie, her singing his songs on projects that never came to fruition. Drake finally died at home on the morning of 25 November 1974. It seems likely he'd gotten up around dawn after a possibly sleepless night (Drake had sleeping problems), had his cornflakes and gorged on one-too-many Tryptizol. His mother discovered his dead body around midday, lying across the bed.
In 1986 a fourth Nick Drake album appeared. Time of No Reply features early Drake demos, Five Leaves Left offcuts and those last four songs recorded in 1974. As with the remainder of Drake's work, this is a strong body of songs. Perhaps the greatest value of Time of No Reply is in being able to witness on one album Drake's path as he travailed from the poshly mannered Time of No Reply and Mayfair to the stark and straining Black-Eyed Dog and Hanging on a Star. The closing song of the set is Voice From a Mountain, arguably the best of the 1974 set. This song fades out into an unknown abyss with its jarring chord pattern. After that there is no more.
It was up to the rest of the world to discover Nick Drake and discover him they did. Drake's music didn't die with its shy and withdrawn creator. That would have been incredulous for Drake's body of work is the finest, most noble and sincere expression of singer-songwriting that can be. It doesn’t come any finer than this.

Ross B @1999

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