Monday, 17 August 2009

Mastering the Bass

Last Wednesday night, or Thursday morning come to think of it, Sarah and I were slumped away in the back courtyard of the Bank Hotel in Newtown enjoying post-midnight drinks. We ended up chatting away to this emphatic though rather didactic Australian guy who really liked the sound of his own opinions. He had this effusive, quasi-psychic manner about him that compelled him to point the finger at us to tell us what we were, without knowing anything about us. Sarah was a singer who could pitch five octaves. He told her to just concentrate on the singing, all the while ignoring (or not ‘seeing’) her prodigious songwriting and piano-playing gifts. I caught the finger from Kenny too. Without saying a word about myself or who I was, Kenny told me “…you’re a bass player. I know you are. Look at you! You’ve got the body tone, the build. Stick with the bass because there’s too many crap bass players around and good bass players are needed everywhere.” Well, I do more than just play bass, I thought, but the idea of being a solely a bass player appeals to me. I’d just performed a gig on the bass at the Newtown RSL a couple of hours beforehand. And I love the power that the bass commands, and respects, from audiences and other musicians. It was quite a compliment to be told that “I’m a bass player”. It made me feel like Jaco or someone. Kenny was fun company that night.

And yesterday, Sunday, on my way to an singy-songwriter gig in Leichhardt, I stopped over at the Bass People shop on Parramatta Road, Petersham, to purchase a book they’ve been advertising on their automated emails. This is bassist Victor L. Wooten’s
The Music Lesson : a spiritual search for growth through music. I’ve only just started reading it and already I’m blown away by relevance the book has to me and my life. For the book is a pervasive look at music, or rather, Music, as an organic, spiritual entity open to everyone regardless of whether or not they play instruments, rather than music as being something to merely divide, study, practice, and finally “conquer”. One of the publicity quotes on the back cover has Wooten being compared to Carlos Castaneda, in obvious reference to the more esoteric nature of the subject matter contained within, relating to the spirituality of Music. And as far as I’ve read, the teacher Michael tells the fledgling Victor that nothing can be taught, it can only be shown. It promises to be an enlightening and entertaining read.

Even though I take Kenny's advice with a pinch of salt I can't help but be moved by his and other people's appropriations about my bass playing. My good friend, the chiropractor and percussionist/drummer Pete Thompson wets himself over my bass playing, and he's said in so many words that I'm a bass playing God, or the like. All I do is play the instrument very musically, and with passion. It's an instrument I've come to love more and more over the years. Originally I took up the bass for the same reason that a lot of musos do, and that's because everyone wants to play guitar and somebody, well, ends up having to play the bass. I was the one intrigued enough to pick up the four-string behemoth and to stick with it, although I was resentful for a long time that I wasn't the guitar hero. I felt lumbered with the bass and yet I felt clumsy or naked with electric guitar, so I was stuck between a rock and a hard place. It's only when I returned to the bass some years ago I felt my connection to the instrument deepen, to the point where now I'd like to play the bass a lot.

I feel right with the bass. It suits my personality. It fulfills me. It gives me a lot of room to exert my presence and yet it always remains understated and precise. I love the musical rush combined with the sexual exertion I feel when I play bass live. I feel that it really enforces my masculinity, and it allows me to dive deep into the music, and my music as I'm performing it. By "my music" I refer to the music I performing at the moment-to-moment basis regardless of who composed the song. I feel in total command of myself and am utterly confident of my musicality when I'm on the bass. It's that low-note authority of bass playing that often gives it the edge over piano playing or acoustic guitar playing - both of which I love - and not to mention the ukulele.

I love the classicism of bass. The bass guitar is an electric (and most fretted) version of the classical double bass. There are variations to be sure; 5-string, 6-string basses etc, yet the most common electric bass is the four-string fretted version. Basically, if you can read a chart for double bass on any classical score, you can play it note for note (though plucked) on the bass guitar.

I practice bass by playing the left hand of Bach preludes and I've even bought a book called J.S.Bach for Bass that includes transcriptions for bass of intermediate level suites and preludes. This is where I prefer to improve my playing. For all of its rock and jazz and fusion/funk mojo, I love perceiving the bass as a "classical" instrument. It reminds me of reading scores of Beethoven symphonies years ago at Uni, when we had to do such things, and taking comfort and enjoyment in reading through the bass-lines to observe what he composed for the double bass, and to see how these lines worked and applied themselves to the rest of the score.

I don't like funk bass although I can be a little bit funky if I want to, or need to be. Most bass players are funky. You walk into a music store and invariably if someone's got a bass plugged in they'll be slappin' away. I might ask a shop assistant if I can try a bass and they always give me a full-minute slap-symphony before passing the bass on to me. I remain nonplussed, and kind of amused by it all. I just want to hear how the bass sounds and prefer to play only a few notes and maybe some simple folk lines. A mate of mine told me he used to know the bass player from AC/DC, whoever he was back then. This guy told my mate that he goes into a music store to buy a bass and gets the same sort of slap-treatment that's subjected to me everytime I attempt to play one of these four-string babies. He just wants to play a few notes, and he's the one making millions of bucks!!!

No. My favourite player is Steve Kilbey. This man is master of the bass, for his drive, his passion, his unbounded creativity, and for the way he divines such molten intensity through his instrument. He dives deep into the wells of the Earth and someplace beyond with his playing. I'm very fond of Sting's playing too, actually, and I believe him to be - and this is quite arguable - a finer bass player than he is songwriter. Another guy I really like is Chris Biondo who played on all of Eva Cassidy's recordings that required bass. To my ears I hear he plays an old Fender-P bass with the tone dialled down. There are many other players I'm fond of. I'm into Jaco but purely as a spectator. In no way do I wish to play like him but I do enjoy his genius from an admirable distance. His was a distinctive, almost other-worldly style of playing that is most wonderful and compelling to listen to. Jaco was a true genius on the bass.

But as I travel through the book I'm reading I may begin to break down my opinions about what I like and what I don't like. I'm looking forward to seeing where this book takes me, and I look forward to playing more bass. Anyone need a bass player??

Thursday, 13 August 2009


Pretty flowers bloom in night skies
And at season’s end, so they must die
Never to breathe their song again
Nor sing their charms and wishes
Never to live the love that they were
 Always eternal requiem…

I see the flowers floundering
Watching their petals drop in pain
Hear their heartbeat run with mine
Heart them dance to the war hero’s march tune
We shall celebrate their art once more
 Always eternal requiem…

And as people match and separate
In tact they leave their stamp of hate
Love is forgotten in the ashes of war
And that’s when I blacken my face once more
And walk the lonely crematory fields
 Always eternal requiem…

To congregate and meditate
In shadeless stony fields of slate
The distant sound of hazy cathedral bells
A clear reminder of your own private hell
The lowest phase of a star once known
 Always etermal requiem…

 Words & Music Copyright Ross B c.1990.1997.2006.

I've uploaded a new song onto my MySpace page, ‘Requiem’.  Well, it's not exactly a new song.  ‘Requiem’ dates back to 1990 and is the one notable example of my earlier better efforts at songwriting.  The lyrical 'Requiem' was inspired by the poems of Wilfred Owen, and the writings of J. Krishnamurti.  Musically it's influenced by both the Beatles 'Eleanor Rigby' and, more obliquely, Suzanne Vega's first album. For example, in reference to the Beatles, the C6 chord I use that plays off the incessant E-minor is a direct descendant of 'Eleanor Rigby' and that particular style of music.  I gave the song its trademark fingerpicking pattern six years down the track, in 1996, when I was learning acoustic fingerpicking guitar from a tutorial book.  At this time I’d recently discovered Nick Drake, in November 1995, and wanted to play like him although I never quite got to that level of playing.  Partly it's because I've always had this aversion to alternative tunings.  I much prefer the homeliness and sanctity of the standard EADGBE tuning where I don’t have to concern myself with unfamiliar fingerings.  This means I’ll never play like Nick Drake or Joni Mitchell, for that matter.  Oh well.

The chorus of 'Requiem' – “always eternal requiem” - is taken from the traditional Requiem mass that had been set to some of the most sublime music ever by masters such as Mozart and Gabriel Faure.  In particular, Faure's Requiem that dates back to the turn of the 20th century remains a musical masterpiece of the most sublime, stirring and transcendent nature.  I loved singing these masterworks in the University choir when I was active with that, around 1989-1990.  That lyrical phrase of "always eternal Requiem" stuck with me and this song and its influence is built around that.  ‘Requiem’ carries with it a maudlin, elegiac, “British” feel that would find itself sitting comfortably in any period of the 20th century.  I wrote the song a long time before I’d heard of Nick Drake either.

‘Requiem’ builds up from its gentle introduction throughout the course of the song.  The build-up leads into the instrumental section that features a Nick Drake “Pink Moon” style piano phrase that juxtaposes with the melody-line performed by the strings.  I like the effect of how these two melody lines work alongside each other, a bit like the drawing of the vase, or is it two faces?  As a polyphonic exercise it works well, and as a listener you can only really concentrate on one line or the other.  I mixed this section so that neither the piano-line nor the strings would stand out from each other.

The song was recorded by my duo Candlewood in 1997.  Whilst this version is way less rushed, the original Candlewood version has somewhat more verve and “soul” to it.
I should perform 'Requiem' live more often, along with my other gentler songs.  These songs usually take a back seat to the more aggressive, Paul Weller-style material.  I always get a great reception with the performance of 'Requiem' and yet I invariably shy away from playing it.  The song requires practice and is quite a difficult song to perform well.  The delicate vocal needs to be perfectly in tune and demands total sobriety and concentration, these being not the sort of things that are mainstays of local pub culture.
Enjoy!  It’s a bundle of laughs, really…

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Sydney Park & the old brickwork site

And so, after last night's ego head-up-the-bum tirade of a blog, I've cooled down somewhat. I've pricked that headspace balloon, so I'm no longer a prick. As it is, I'm a bit over the whole muso thing anyway. I'd rather go back to playing the tennis clubs and bowling clubs in sydney's tucked-away leafy north-shore, and pick up the bass and acoustic and play along with others. I can't be arsed writing songs anymore, although that may change and move at any moment. I have my songs and work rotating on my myspace page. That's good enough for me. For now. Take it and leave it is where I'm at today. On the live front not too many people wish to see and hear a Paul Weller coverer. And I'd rather just breathe, take in the sunlight, talk to children and pat the dog, and not be hanging around the pubs watching and listening to blokes with acoustics who do have some good songs and perform them well, but who aren't in any way half the musician or artist that I am, intrinsically. Accolades?? They can have 'em.

So there you have it, changeable like the wind, ain't I?

After work this afternoon I drove over to Sydney Park in St Peters to join my nephew and his mum celebrate joint birthdays that happen to be 9 days apart. It was a good chance to catch up with my nephew and my brother too. My roguish brother shaved his beard, while I'm growing mine! The park is situated on the old brickwork site where my father worked for over a decade, working hard to make the other man rich - literally. My dad was on a casual rate and when made redundant in 1983 was not offered a payout. He didn't seem to care, my dad, he had this vivid streak of recklessness about him, a real 'fuck it' attitude. I seem to have this cavalier roughness too, albeit in smaller, more subtle shades.

All that remains of the original brickwork site are the chimney stacks over the one brickwork dome that's left standing on the Princes Highway side of the park. I wish I had my camera on me as these towers appeared quite striking in the afternoon sun. The park is made up of 44 hectares, and trees are continually planted throughout the park. Near the chimney stacks is a cul-de-sac style carpark, and as you walk in there's a cafe and an adventure park for kids. It's all very well laid-out and planned. Nothing of the original vestiges of the toxic dump that this place was 20 plus years ago remain. That is, unless you look hard enough, you can feel that this is a young park. There are many saplings of trees surrounded by sticks and protective plastic. And as you walk up toward the crest of the park and see the views of Sydney on all sides, you can smell the unpleasant industrial breeze that doesn't seem to avoid the general vicinity of Alexandria and St Peters, and this was a Saturday too.

Despite the breeze that definitely ain't alpine fresh, Sydney Park is a positive progression in what is a very grimy area, a geographical location that's definitely on the polish and has been for over the past decade or so. The area where we were today near the cafe and the children's adventure park was filled with young families. Kids and dogs bounded about. The older kids were playing ball games, the dogs were chasing each other and playing fetch. I wondered where these people lived. Perhaps they'd all bought into the apartments that keep springing up around the Euston Road side of the park in Alexandria, they may all have mortgages, good jobs. People seemed mildly happy to be out on a beautiful, cool sunny day like today. The kids were full of life, as were the dogs.

I felt no wave of remorse or nostalgia as I looked out over the Princes Highway and stood gazing back toward the old chimney stack. On all levels practical and quantum, my dad's era with the suburb is past, gone, never to return. It is like a different country around there now. St Peters and the brickyard, as I remember it scantly from the late '70's, was once the absolute fucking pits, a total fucking dreghole. And now, there's more of an air of progression, of cleaning up, of transforming and making fresh that which was once most unpleasant.

Of course, it is also "smart money" doing its work. St Peters is the next suburb down from Enmore which itself is one suburb down from Newtown, a suburb that has been vicously gentrified, and artrified, over the course of the past 20-25 years.

It moved me today to witness the passing of ages and its positively slow-motion effect on an area; seeing happy people out to play on a beautiful day in a nice park on what was once a dumpsite, the kids, the dogs, the parents. In Alexandria and St Peters, it's getting better all the time.

I just wish my dad was around to see it all...

Friday, 7 August 2009

my Egoic obsession

(Wed 5 Aug)

I have this one overriding obsession in life, and that is to perform music.

I've carried this obsession over since my late-teens. It’s an obsession that has not since abated; in fact my musico-mojo becomes more pressing or urgent as the years go by. Perhaps because I was so washed-out with baggage during my early twenties that my need to play dimmed to a large degree in those days. I was still active on the listening side of things though, discovering new and wonderful musical loves all the time. And now, at 39, my need to perform and express myself musically remains as strong as ever.

The buzz, in other words, remains eternally addictive.

One of the things I regret as a musician is that I haven't played in a great band intensely for a long period of time, a band like say, Cold Chisel. I've got what it takes to be a good musician, more so than the majority of people I observe around the scene. For one thing, I want to play more than pretty much most people I meet. Secondly I possess a vast, glue-like memory for songs and pieces. I have a vivid lyrical capacity. I remember words to songs like they're always floating in front of my face, even of songs I haven't performed for years and years. I can sing and play bass at the same time, and quite adeptly too. Moreover, I have this copious, volcanic passion on a Beethovian scale, a pure passion that translates so well to live work. When I'm on stage I feel naturally belonging. I rarely, if ever get nervous, I do what I do, and I just wish to stay there and never leave the heaven that's called a stage, particularly if I'm playing in a band or duo.

Although I don't consider myself to be a technically great musician at the best of times, I do have a reasonably wide musical vocabulary and a firm musical instinct that fits well into a wide range of musical styles. My strength as a musician is playing with other people both as a bassist or acoustic guitarist, and sometimes as a piano player. I became fairly ok on the piano when I played keys in an originals bluesy

band some years ago. The bluesy band is still going as an occasional acoustic combo where I now play bass, and the drummer is now the djembe player. And when I record and produce my own material I find I excel myself as I move along with the project.

My singing, slowly but surely, continues to improve. As does my guitar-playing and everything else musically related. My stylistic palette is wider than every other songwriter I know. I was a musicology student at uni and transcribed an Australian Aboriginal song onto western notation. I can rock, do folk, jazzy-blues, baroque and classical. I’m basically the male Eva Cassidy. Or the Australian Paul Weller. I won't be comparing myself to Ray Charles just yet!!!

I can say all this because existentially, I don’t care, in a few years time none of it will matter anyway! And most importantly, I know it’s not the most important thing on Earth, except sometimes, so I can stand back and just say what I say, and what I feel.

The one thing I seemingly look forward to in this life's journey, particularly as evinced throughout my thirties, are the gigs that lay ahead of me. Like little bits of starlight they lead me on with a (sometimes) smile on my face as I prick each date with my gig-presence and proceed to look forward to the next gig. Sometimes I do tire of it and keep away, particularly if I'm travelling where all I care about is stomping around places that I've never visited before, or places that are just too lush and beautiful to care about making music. Nature is even more perfect music than making sounds with man-made instruments.

And yet, for much of the time, I just wish to stay indoors and implode, snug and safe in my own being. Where the whole pizzazz of performing just doesn't cut it for me, instead preferring beautiful solace and solitude. And my dear close friends. Being at gigs can be a tiresome experience. It often is.

There's no way I can imagine myself getting up on stage in a theatrical piece. I have only one conduit to the performing arts, and that's music. And it's music that is done my way. My expression is paramount to my satisfaction and happiness and, curiously, this satisfaction is often more pronounced when I play with other people rather than on my own. I value and cherish my musical collaborations as they keep me happy, fulfilled, and sane. And the people who I've ever played have valued me because I'm such a musical administrator, what with my memory and remembering songs, and having a natural instinct for structure and feel for the songs performed.

Music brings out the best in me, and the worst. I confess to having a large musical ego that bumps and grinds about at gigs, even if it's bumping and grinding in my own mind and emotions which it mostly ever really is. I admit to a competitive streak. I want people to know how much this all means to me. Sometimes my performances are on the aggressive side, like Paul Weller. Yet I'm probably mostly like Paul Weller in substance and style, as far as famous people go. I readily keep a leering eye out for other singer/songwriters or musicians who are confident with their own style and strut themselves about like peacocks. If I consider them to have a heightened sense of their own talents – ie, if I don't like their music - then I really have it in for them, especially if they don't acknowledge me...

Like attracts like doesn't it, or shouldn't that be dislike attracts dislike. I can be as needy and indulgent as anybody, even if this narcyness does shoot through me only sporadically or fleetingly like sudden ink-blotches in my line-of-sight. The ‘scene’ can and does bring out the worst aspects of my character.

And there are some great players out there who are not only great, but they’re better presented on-stage than I am, and with that a whole lot more approachable and charismatic off-stage too. I accept that. Maybe I should do what they do. Talk in-between songs and tell stories, and start writing some more songs again, dammit!

And very few of these people can do what I do in play all the instruments (except drums) and produce and mix to make it sound good, even if I’ve only got a day or two to get the whole lot done from scratch. I’m a lot like Prince in that respect. And I know lots of jazz chords. The majority of singer-songwriters don’t.

…Life would be much easier if I didn’t have this urge to play, and the monstrous ego that gets carried away with this urge. I’d rather be a gardener, actually. Life would be easy being green, I don’t care what Kermit says (or sings about…)

What I am pleased about however, is that all the good musos tend to respect me. I like that. I always respect a good musician and will be amongst the first to say so. Why do I have this need for the respect of others?? Perhaps I’m more Italian than I think, more of a Godfather than I care to admit. “you show me reshpect, I’ll show you reshpect!” Hmmm….

I don't always have the greatest respect for singer/songwriters – albeit there are some very notable exceptions - who play or perform only their own material. Because to me, it's just not musical enough to only learn or play your own material. It's a bit like reading only your books (or blogs!), or perhaps just eating your own shit. I like to mix covers with originals when performing solo spots. The covers I choose not many people know of, for the most part. And these are songs that are incorporated into my blood every bit as much as my own songs, perhaps even more so. Performing other people's songs for me is simply a demonstration of my love for their songs, their craft, and my craft. It becomes my music, and my expression, totally. This is why I’m so good at collaborating musically with other singer-songwriters either on keys, bass or acoustic guitar. We’re talking about singer-songwriters I deeply respect though, nothing less than that.

I've never wished to be famous or anything as such - I've never had that kind of drive - but it would be nice to have more time to do that which I love. It's more than something I love, it's my whole being, my whole life, a damned mission, in other words.

Despite all I've written I have a shy side. That demonstrates itself most if not all of the time during my non-musical life. In my non-musical life I take interest in other people, I’m generally always kind and considerate of others. I’m like that too in my musical life but sometimes, the ego bug bites and …aghh!

As a musician I will say I've never been taken to play electric guitar except around the time when I started with this at about 16. Electric guitar is fun and all, and I've used it a bit live, but I find it to be too showy for my taste. I feel kinda naked playing electric six-string. Besides, I don't gravitate to the playing styles that are empiric to the electric; all those heady solos, bending of strings, pedal-effects of all sonic persuasions. I feel embarrassed with all of that. Instead I play acoustics exclusively, and the lovely, beautiful deep and rich bass.

More on the bass guitar in another blog!

And as a musician, generally, I feel I'm just a beginner. I wish to explore, explore, EXPLORE! It never ends...

And now, I'll go off and limp like a leaf as I generally do, until my next gig where I'll be powering on all cylinders, or grinding to a halt like an old engine, making an awful noise in the process...

Monday, 3 August 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

Paul Hewson shooting star

i'm in the sunshine A mate of mine produces a monthly songwriter newsletter which goes out to a hundred or so mainly Sydney-based...