Friday, 21 June 2013

"A Man Made of Solid Air": Nick Drake

by Emma Bell

The singer songwriter Nick Drake would have been 65 this week and it seems more than appropriate to remember him today. Nick was a truly magical and unique musician and his reputation has grown in the years since his death on June 19th, 1974.

Born in Rangoon, the son of a diplomat, he grew up in Warwickshire after his family returned to England. There is something magical about the centre of a space (as the Midlands is, where Shakespeare, Elgar and Housman were born), something that feels special, something that you feel when you move about the county, under the sprawling oaks and soft rain, a sense of the pastoral which seeps through Drake’s music. The moon, stars, sea, rain, trees, sky, mist and seasons are all commonly used, influenced in part by his rural upbringing. Images related to summer figure centrally in his early work; from Bryter Layter on, his language is more autumnal, evoking a season commonly used to convey senses of loss and sorrow.


Drake went to Marlborough and then Cambridge to study English Literature and was very drawn to the works of William Blake, William Butler Yeats and Henry Vaughan, his lyrics reflecting such influences. Whilst he was there he found a music student, Robert Kirby, who became a long-term collaborator. What is interesting about that is that it determined a sound of orchestral arrangements that owes more than a nod to Mozart and Handel. The ongoing folk scene in Cambridge and London added to the mix and created a wholly new and rich style of singer-songwriter music.

He left Cambridge before completing his degree and moved to London in 1969 where he strolled into a record deal with Island Records and recorded his first album, Five Leaves Left. Such was his talent that musicians such as John Cale, who later formed The Velvet Underground, were clamouring to record with him. Even now, guitarists are utterly perplexed at the complexities of his playing and its intricacies.

But with record deals came obligations to perform live; and these songs, with intricate tunings and orchestral arrangements were difficult to replicate on stage; the delicacy of the lyrics and melodies were drowned by the chatter of working men’s clubs and lost in the echoes of half-empty town halls. He often stopped to retune his guitar for five minutes at a time, and changed his guitars over so he could use different strings and achieve different sounds. He often walked off stage before finishing a set, despondent that his music was not being listened to.

Nonetheless he carried on writing his second album, Bryter Later, released in 1972. However, despite garnering good reviews from the music press, he was hampered by his own unwillingness to perform live and the album flopped, selling only 3000 copies.  Drake then wrote what would be his last album: Pink Moon. Only 28 minutes long and largely stripped back to only Drake and his guitar, it is a sad piece of work; suffering badly from depression, he withdrew from both live performance and recording.

The last two years of his life were spent back at Far Leys in Tanworth-in-Arden, and were sadly marked by unhappiness and hospitalization. On 25 November 1974, Drake died from an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant; he was only 26 years old. He is buried in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth, a very beautiful spot, the churchyard looking over the rolling hills and oak trees of Warwickshire.

Nick Drake, thanks to the use of his music in advertisements and films, begin to be rediscovered in the mid- 1990s, and he is now recognised as one of the most talented guitarists and songwriters of his generation. Such a turn of events isn't without a certain irony. 

Towards the end of his life, Drake appeared to long for the vindication that comes with commercial success. And yet he seemed incapable of compromising himself to the pursuit of recognition. His only compass was the music he created and whether he was proud of it. He was, as John Martyn wrote, a man made of Solid Air – no-one truly knew him or could help him in his darkest days. Yet he left behind three albums that are incredibly beautiful and hugely influential. I hope that I might have inspired you to discover them fully for yourselves.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this Emma, thanks. Back in the late 1960s (& just out of PGS) I was a young aspiring musician on the fringes of the London scene. The band I was in listened to lots of new stuff including early Fairport Convention from which came two 'encounters' with Nick Drake. Firstly we heard Richard Thompson playing on "Time Has Told Me" from which discovered the whole first album. Secondly we had a pal who got us into the Festival Hall backstage to see Fairport in September 1969. Support was John & Beverley Martin and Nick Drake on one of his rare appearances. I think he looked pretty nervous/isolated and I can't recall now much of the gig - things were a bit of a whirl back then - but I've retained my fondness for that album in particular. Lovely stuff.

    Dave Allen


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