Graham Reid | | 2 min read
Anyone hearing Nick Drake's hushed final album Pink Moon from '72 or looking at photos of that young man -- eyes averted, the frail figure hunched, the mouth rarely smiling – might have guessed here was a soul too sensitive for this wicked world.
And sure enough he was dead in late November 1974, at just 26.
But there's another view of this doomed and depressive romantic poet who taught himself guitar and left behind just three albums.
In his book Electric Eden; Unearthing Britain's Visionary Music, the writer Rob Young speaks of Drake as being “a strange, spidery ghost at the centre of a web of connections across society, class and celebrity”.
Drake had dropped out of his English literature studies at Cambridge University and had aristocratic friends, but also had assistance from the great producer Joe Boyd and John Cale, was ambitious and desperately wanted to make it.
His records sold in pathetically small numbers and there's a sense that he began to believe the image he'd created for himself, and consequently withdrew even further into his cocoon.
After delivering what would be his last album he retreated back to the family home and, perhaps through the antidepressant Tryptizol, became something akin to a barely functioning human. One of his final songs recorded in these years but not released in his lifetime is the eerie Black Eyed Dog where he sounds even more remote as he sings, “I'm growing old and I wanna go home”.
And Tow the Line opens “today is the day is we rise or we fall, tonight is the night we win or lose all”.
That must have been how it was for Drake. His music was much admired but subjected Boyd to a furious damning at their final meeting, blaming the producer for the failure of his first two records to sell. Drake's final album was produced by John Wood and it is just that voice and guitar.
As Boyd said to me last year, “Nick Drake barely performed at all because he was so shy and remote. It was very hard for people to connect with him”.
Yet in the decades since his death that small body of work has been explored, constantly reissued for new generations to discover and Drake's admirers include Kate Bush, REM and Lucinda Williams. When Boyd organised a 2009 tribute concert he had no trouble getting Beth Orton, Robyn Hitchcock, Martha Wainwright, Harper Simon and others to perform Drake's poetic folk songs which can have a transcendental quality but also hold coded messages about his emotional engagement or detachment from the world.
There's a timelessness about Drake's work because it was not attached to its era. There are hints of jazz influences on the fluid Bryter Layter album, and Boyd's productions on both albums are tastefully understated. And in arrangers Robert Kirby and Harry Robinson (who brought a graceful touch to the glorious River Man on his debut Five Leaves Left) Drake's mysterious songs were given beautiful settings.
But they didn't sell (fewer than 10,000 copies of each on release) and so Drake withdrew further and further into himself.
But he's back with the Tuck Box set – in a replica of his school lunch box – which has his three albums on separate discs, a disc of outtakes and the final five songs for his proposed fourth album, and a disc entitled Family Tree (originally released in 2007) of him playing Mozart on piano at nine, songs recorded at home when in his teens, some covers and other such things.
It's the least of the five discs.
This is not just a lot of Nick Drake, it's all of Nick Drake. But when confronted with the fragile beauty you do still wonder why so few got it.
It's never too late to discover Nick Drake, only too late for him to know you did.