I wonder what poor old Nick would make of the respect in which his music is held now. [John Peel, All Time Festive 50 2000]
Nick seems to have become the patron saint of the depressed – I am in no way criticizing this fact. But the danger is that when fans take on this intensely personal relationship, they can want to be the only ones to own the experience. They sometimes want everything to be just him and guitar and do not want to believe that, particularly with ‘Bryter Layter’, he was crying out for commercial success. Apart from his last year I can assure you that he did have many crazy, happy spells. [Robert Kirby, arranger for NIck Drake]
This year, Eddie Vedder and Dave Grohl, whose music is a world apart from that of Nick Drake’s beautiful, dreamy rhapsodies, and yet they are appearing on a tribute album to him this year. Nick has been dead for 35 years: however, time only seems to enhance and romanticise his persona. Jesus’ oft-quoted ‘a prophet is not without honour but in his own country’ could not help but be applied to him: his albums met with a singular lack of success in the UK on first release, the public seemingly having marked him down as a drugged-out hippy with a chip on his shoulder (the title of this post is a reference to Michael Chapman’s assessment of the hostile reception Nick received at a gig in Hull). It is true, Nick preferred a spliff to a rugger ball when he was at Cambridge, and didn’t go to Morocco for the coffee, but maybe he just came along at the wrong time. The world was hungry for change, and Woodstock had come and gone, the last-flag-waving of a dying culture. The use of the title track to the extraordinary Pink Moon on an advert meant that he sold more records than he had in his lifetime.
But think of Ian Curtis and Kurt Cobain, to name but two: premature death was, in a sense, the only logical outcome to their tortured existence. To the world at large, it justified what they had done and made it all the more precious. So it was with Nick Drake: his depression and insomnia seeped through to the songs, in the same way that Curtis’ sense of failure in personal relationships and Cobain’s inability to exorcise his own demons dominated theirs. He took an overdose of antidepressant pills and died at the age of 26 in 1974, leaving only three completed studio albums. Hearing Northern Sky (All-Time FF 2000 #42), from the aforementioned Bryter Later, makes it difficult to reconcile the man who withdrew from the music business to live in his parent’s home with the blithe carefree optimism of such lyrics as these:
I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.
Members of Fairport Convention and John Cale backed him on the album, and it’s quite possible that was what he needed: support from like-minded fellows, rather than being allowed to withdraw into the solitude of him and his beloved acoustic guitar. The latter side of him can be sampled on the tantalising fragment available to us of his only Peel Session, all of which remains is the conclusion of ‘Time Of No Reply’ and all of ‘Three Hours’, thanks to the BBC’s usual artistic sensitivity of not repeating it and wiping the master tapes. For once, I do not have to urge a reassessment of his music: the world has finally woken up to it.
Nick Drake, Northern Sky
Nick Drake, Peel Session 1969-08-05