Darkness Can Give You the Brightest Light
by T.J. McGrath
[From Dirty Linen #42 Oct/Nov 1992]
Addendum, October 1998: Please note: Far Leys, the house that Nick Drake lived in, is no longer owned by the Drake family. We encourage you to respect the privacy of the current owner.
His room is quiet now. The bed is neatly made. A picture of a rough-and-tumble sea storm is framed over the bed. His old school desk, complete with coffee stain and pen, is pressed against a far wall. Volumes of Chaucer, Blake, Flaubert and Shakespeare peer down from a corner bookshelf. An old-fashioned radio sits ready and lonesome. His shirts are carefully folded in his dresser; his black sportcoat hangs loosely in his closet. Nick Drake isn't coming home tonight.
His songs cast an eerie spell on first-time listeners. They hold you in their grip, and rarely let go. It's not only that Nick Drake has produced some of the finest melodies and lyrics ever to grace the spiral grooves of a record, or that he worked with some of the best musicians in the business, or that he influenced many a romantic young man to take up the art of song. It's the emotional intensity and the sincerity of his music that makes me want to play the songs of Nick Drake over and over again.
Drake was an original, a man who dared to throw his hat to the wind. Uncompromising and strong-willed, he had a vision of how each of his songs should be presented to the audience. Those songs remain to spin the story of his life. Delicate and fragile slices of experience, they are meant to tease and bewitch the listener -- little shadows dancing on a pink moon in the northern sky.
Far Leys is a comfortable brick house at the end of a tree-lined cul de sac. It is a warm and charming retreat. The rooms are painted in subdued swirls of yellow and blue and the practical furnishings put the guest at ease. The grounds are lovely, with carefully tended flower gardens and walkways that overlook a sweeping view of the distant hills. Far Leys is the house where Nick Drake grew up, and where he spent his final hours.
Nick's parents, Rodney and Molly Drake, still live at Far Leys. They accept the occasional late-night phone call from one of Nick's fans as part of his legacy. They welcome tourists with open arms. Young and old Nick Drake purists arrive sometimes without warning -- in crippled vans, smart roadsters, or even on foot. They come knocking at Far Leys and they come looking for Nick.
His parents enjoy the attention Nick is getting nowadays, because he never received much while alive. His albums sold poorly, his concerts were sparsely attended, and he thought of giving up music many times. Over in the States, David Geffen was captured by his music and expressed interest to Island; Island said no thanks, and Drake remained an obscurity. Some say his poor reception contributed to the awful bouts of depression and melancholy that tormented him. In any case, he felt his music was beyond the reach of many. Only after his death did his parents realize that this is not true. Nick's music enchants and enthralls; the spell cannot be broken.
Rodney Drake is a tall, handsome, articulate English gentleman who has spent some time traveling around the world on behalf of a British lumber firm. In the early 1940s he met and married Molly, an aspiring singer and songwriter, and together they left England to live in the Far East. It was in Burma in June 1948 that Nick Drake was born. Two years later the Drake clan (including Gabriella, Nick's elder sister) returned to the British Isles and settled down in the sleepy English hamlet of Tanworth-in-Arden, a stone's throw from Stratford-on-Avon. It was there, in the large and snug house called Far Leys, that Nick first displayed his talent.
"As a baby he loved to conduct," recalls Molly. "Whenever the music started he would be up out of chair waving his hands. I think at one time that he had an ambition to become a famous conductor. He dearly loved classical music and listened to it all the time." "He picked up on the piano quite early and was rather good," Rodney chimes in. He was fascinated with some of the legends and myths incorporated into classical pieces. He loved a good story, even if some of them scared him half to death."
Nick attended local schools and then was shipped off to Marlborough, an upper-crust private school that prepares boys for entrance to topnotch universities. At Marlborough, Nick distinguished himself by winning several awards in track and field (his record for the 100-yard dash still stands) and playing clarinet and saxophone in the school orchestra. He also showed a keen interest in folk and rock, especially the Beatles. He begged his parents for a guitar. They finally relented, sure that this new instrument wouldn't last long and that he'd soon be back to the old piano. Nick rushed out to buy himself an acoustic six-string at a local shop and enthusiastically plunged into learning the mechanics of guitar as quickly as possible. According to his parents and friends, within a few months he was playing well and within a year he was playing at private parties and functions. The piano was left to gather dust.
Nick could listen to a song once and then repeat it from memory. This gift allowed him to practice advanced folk-guitar techniques such as open tunings, double-pick rhythms, and two-finger rolls. John Renbourn, Bert Jansch, Davey Graham and Joni Mitchell were a few early influences. Around this time he was also developing his own singing style, a blend of twisted syllables and slurred consonants. That became the Nick Drake trademark: cool, distanced phrasing with just the right touch of timing. Some critics contend that he sounds as if he were singing on the moon. Ethereal and angelic, his voice seems to float over instrumentation.
Nick made many tapes right before he left Marlborough. His favorite spot for practicing and recording was an orange armchair, and he used to lounge around for hours slumped in that chair working on chord progressions and tunings. Nick worked best at night. Often while working on a new song he never slept at all. "I used to hear him bumping around at all hours," Molly Drake says. "He was an insomniac. I think he wrote his nicest melodies in the early-morning hours."
These early tapes also reveal Nick's penchant for choosing the desolate and disturbing themes that mark just about all his later work. Many of the songs tell of defeated love and heartbreak. Others dwell on alienation and the dark shadows of loneliness. Numbers like "Blues Run the Game" and "Summertime" demonstrate Nick's ability to re-interpret other people's songs and make them his own.
The original compositions such as "Princess of the Sand" and "Joey" are romantic odes to lost youth. The songs are beautiful in their simplicity and intent, but also uncommonly sad. If you listen carefully you can hear the makings of a lonely boy caught up in a world he doesn't quite understand.
Rodney Drake owns these tapes and he plays them for visitors. "Nick recorded them right here in the sitting room on a primitive tape recorder. He was quite a perfectionist and was always erasing songs that he deemed inferior. I managed to grab a handful of tapes one day before he found out." The Nick Drake Cassette is a collection of these tapes. Even with the poor sound quality and the occasional hum and hiss, the music is a cut above your average folk album. Some of these cuts were digitally cleaned up and appear on the posthumous 1986 release, Time of No Reply.
Nick left Marlborough for Fitzwilliams College, Cambridge. He was accepted as a scholarship student in English. He read voraciously, taking special interest in the poems of William Blake. Blake's view of the world as heaven or hell corresponded with Nick's private feelings. Blake took refuge in his woodcuts; Nick concentrated on playing guitar.
Nick was performing often. His gigs now included proper charity balls and coffeehouses. He was playing at the Roundhouse, a favorite Cambridge haunt, when Fairport co-founder Ashley "Tyger" Hutchings spotted him and brought him to the attention of Joe Boyd of Witchseason Productions. Hutchings thought Nick an outstanding talent. Boyd, after listening to Nick's audition tapes, agreed. The 20-year-old Drake was given a contract and a recording studio. It was all happening too quickly, says his mother. Nick just wasn't prepared for all of it.
Boyd, whose production credits included early Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention, and the Incredible String Band, was taken with Nick's music. "I've always had a strong taste for melody and it has obviously been reflected in the people I have worked with. And it was Nick's melodies that impressed me. There was also a sophistication and maturity about his songs and the way they were delivered. I really did feel that I was listening to a remarkably original singer."
Nick brought in a Cambridge friend, Robert Kirby, to help with arrangements and string parts. The first arranger got sacked when Nick felt that his songs "weren't getting through." Kirby, who had no previous studio experience, was looked upon by Boyd with skepticism. Kirby's plan was to use just strings and Danny Thompson of Pentangle on bass. When Boyd heard the finished tape, he was delighted.
The title of Nick's first album, Five Leaves Left, refers to the warning sign printed on a roll of cigarette papers. When you're down to five it's time to buy some more. Nick thought it an excellent title, though it lacked any particular significance at the time despite its now-prophetic hint of transience. The album jacket shows a pensive Nick staring out of an attic window at some object a long way off. He is dressed in a favorite black sportcoat that always looked a bit too tight.
Whimsical at times, with just the right touch of English melancholy, Five Leaves Left is an anthem to grand dreams and desires unrealized. "Time Has Told Me" sets the tone for the entire album with its hauntingly world-weary bluesy melody. The song is subtly startling in its eclecticism: a cozy piano tinkling country-and-western fills; Richard Thompson's rock-guitar trills, Drake's own folk-guitar chording, and his mixture of blues and jazz vocal inflections.
"River Man" promises a stark look at spiritualism: "Going to see the River Man, going to tell him all I can.... I don't suppose it's meant for me.... Oh, how they come and go." The lyrics weave through Harry Robinson's swirling strings, as though the listener were set adrift in a small boat down some forgotten river of time. "River Man" continues to be one of Nick Drake's finest moments.
"Three Hours" develops the theme of the eternal seeker with its low African drums, driving bass, and murky vocal. The story revolves around a London lad names Jacomo going "down to a cave/ In search of a master/ In search of a slave." False paths and false starts can only lead to more searching, Nick tries to explain, but enlightenment is elusive.
"Day is Done" and "Way to Blue" are perfect vehicles for Kirby's lush and melodic string arrangements. Kirby recalls that Nick's songs were introspective to the point of being morose. "Nick was remarkable for his ability to observe. I see his work as a series of extremely vivid, complete observations, almost like little epigrammatic proverbs. The music and the words are welded together to make atmosphere the most important facet."
The rest of Five Leaves Left demonstrates just how much "atmosphere" Nick Drake was capable of producing. "Cello Song" is a rich meditation on leaving things behind forever. "Saturday Sun" and "Man in a Shed" are quirky little jazz-flavored pieces. The most telling piece, however, is "Fruit Tree" -- a song that Molly Drake adores. It seems to be autobiographical. It outlines the fragile beauty of fame and how it lies just out of reach. It also seems to sum up the direction in which Nick was traveling:
Safe in the womb
Of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can
Give the brightest light
Safe in your place deep in the earth
That's when they'll know what you're really worth
Forgotten while you're here
Island Records, which bought out Boyd's Witchseason in 1970, was enthusiastic but bewildered about Nick Drake. The company had no idea on how to market Nick's talent. One of its press releases at that time shows this confusion: "Nick Drake is tall and lean. He lives somewhere close to the university... because he hates wasting time traveling, [he] does not have a telephone -- more for reasons of finance than any anti-social feelings and tends to disappear for three or four days at a time, when he is writing, but above all... he makes music."
Critics enjoyed Five Leaves Left but sales were disappointing. Nick was taken back a bit by the chilly reception. He was having a hard time performing his private songs in public now. A gig with Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall proved frustrating; a tour of eight clubs in the north country turned out a disaster. Nick Drake gave up touring forever.
But he wanted to try again. He enlisted Robert Kirby to handle the bass and string arrangements. He hired Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, and Dave Pegg (all from Fairport Convention) to help out on lead guitar, drums, and bass. He asked John Cale to sit in on viola and celesta. He found Chris McGregor and Ray Warleigh playing at local jazz clubs and brought them in. Pat Arnold and Doris Troy, two highly respected backup singers, were asked to join the sessions. His next album, according to Nick, was going to be his saving grace.
Bryter Layter is in many respects a flawless album. Joe Boyd and John Wood both call it a masterpiece. Wood, Nick's engineer, found him determined to come up with a winner. If nothing can be said about Bryter Layter, it is that the album if chock-full of good intentions.
And sad intentions. "Introduction" is a taste of things to come, with its gloomy strings and soaring bass lines. "Hazey Jane II" and "At the Chime of a City Clock" explore city living among strangers. "Hazey Jane" stops the show. Nick's voice has never been filled with such wonder as he asks: "Do you curse where you come from?/ Do you swear in the night?/ Will it mean much to you/ If I treat you right?" Also noteworthy is "Northern Sky," one of prettiest love songs ever recorded. It is not just love Nick is after, but acceptance. The imagery is blinding in the little word dances that accompany the melody. Again, sadly, Nick is reaching out for something that he knows he'll never get.
After Bryter Layter, Nick's growing disenchantment with his music and his life reached an all-time high. With few close friends and his new album wallowing in obscurity, Nick closed the door. He took to living at home at Far Leys, spending hours looking up at the sky. For some crazy reason Nick felt he failed family and friends, and took his failure to heart. Island Records had given up on Nick Drake ever becoming a big-selling folk artist, though it did not drop him. Joe Boyd was off in the United States racking up hits for Maria Muldaur. It looked like Drake's career was over.
But Nick pulled himself together and gave it a final go. He contacted John Wood to reserve some hours in a recording radio and arrived at the studio with guitar in hand. Pink Moon was recorded in two days.
Nick was so depressed during the recording that he rarely spoke two words to Wood. At one point Wood asked Drake what was wrong. Nick just mumbled something and walked away. The tunes took a heavy toll on him; you can hear it in the music. The songs are stripped to bare emotion. No lighthearted and melancholy verses -- these songs are cloaked in despair. Wood says Nick was adamant about what he wanted -- just voice and guitar. At first, Wood thought Drake was planning to use these takes as demos for future sessions. Then it dawned on him that Nick wanted the songs released exactly as recorded: stark and spare. Pink Moon gives no quarter.
Connor McKnight wrote in Zigzag, "Nick Drake is an artist who never fakes... [his] mood is reflected in the album. Without the arrangements, and with [printed] lyrics for the first time, it is impossible to avoid the seering sensibility behind the record. The album makes no concession to the theory that music should be escapist. It's simply one musician's view of life at the time, and you can't ask for more than that."
Pink Moon is a brittle collection of songs. Robert Kirby has said that it's his favorite because "Nick pushed himself. He was an absolutely phenomenal guitarist, a fact which is all too often glossed over." The songs show Nick's guitar pushed to the limit. His best playing can be heard on songs like "Things Behind the Sun" and "Free Ride." His guitar at time goes into a frenzy, chopping off notes and bending others to the breaking point. The tuning has puzzled many a professional musician, too, and Mr. and Mrs. Drake get monthly inquiries from all over asking if they'll send out Nick's tuning pattern. Of course, they have no idea. "He kept it all in his head," Rodney explains.
The message behind the songs is clear. "Now I'm darker than the deepest sea/ Just hand me down/ Give me a place to be" -- these lines from "Place to Be" spell it out. Nick was in desperate trouble. His pleas for help also surface in "Parasite": "Take a look you may see me on the ground/ For I am the parasite of this town." But no song is more troubled than "Know": "Know that I love you/ Know I don't care/ Know that I see you/ Know I'm not there." Nick's ghosts were closing in fast.
After Pink Moon, Nick retreated to Far Leys. He refused to see his old friends or talk to anybody. He just sat on that old orange armchair and looked off into space. His parents tried to seek professional help and doctors prescribed antidepressant pills; it was no use. Nick was gone.
Then life picked up. He roused himself long enough to venture into the recording studio one last time in 1974. The four songs that he recorded can be found on the Fruit Tree compilation. They are ragged and uneven but give some insight into Nick's private hell. "Black Dog" tells of being chased by a supernatural beast. "Hanging on a Star" reaffirms Nick's view that all hope was lost and that his life was one big failure. To call these songs "depressing" would be too kind a word.
Nick was down and out, but not yet finished. He took off for France in October 1974 and lived on a barge for a while. He contacted a French folksinger named Francoise Hardy who had once expressed interest in recording an entire album of Nick's songs. He arrived back at Far Leys confident that he had finally found some sort of direction.
But life plays cruel jokes. On November 24, 1974 he was up and about as usual at night, planning and writing songs. Nick still had trouble falling asleep and his parents were quite used to him pacing the floor. He was apparently in a good mood as he had a Brandenburg Concerto on the turntable. His mother recalls him going into the kitchen for a midnight snack of cornflakes. "I usually would wake up and join him at the table. For some silly reason, that night, I rolled over and went back to sleep." Nick's insomnia was bothering him. He picked up a bottle of Tryptizol, his antidepressant pills, and thinking they were sleeping tablets, took a few. He overdosed. Apparently one Tryptizol over the limit was lethal. The doctors had never told Nick or the Drakes. His mother found him dead in his bed the next day. The beasts were silent at last.
Nick lies buried in a Tanworth-in-Arden churchyard, his crumbling gravestone overlooking a wide expanse of closely-cropped hills and carefully tended meadows. It is a good view.
Inside the church next to the cemetery is a magnificent pipe organ. The organ is used to accompany the church choir as it practices hymns and devotionals. Above one of the organ stops is a brass plaque with Nick's name on it. His father and mother donated the necessary money to keep the church organ going strong. Once a year the church organist plans a special recital of Nick Drake's songs. The church is packed and the townspeople lift up their voices to pay tribute to a native son. They say you can hear the singing for miles around, and I know Nick would have liked that.
Nick Drake's legend continues to fascinate a growing number of musicians. In 1985, the British progressive pop group Dream Academy had a hit single with "Life in a Northern Town," a tune dedicated to Nick. Back in 1979, Island released a three-LP box set called Fruit Tree, which included all the previous Drake albums with new cover art and a lavishly produced booklet with photos and a well-researched biography by Arthur Lubow. The four tracks from Nick's last recording session were tacked onto the end of Pink Moon. In spite of being a fairly good seller, Island deleted it in 1983.
While rooting through the Island vaults in 1985, Boyd and fellow American researcher Frank Kornelussen turned up five tracks that had been recorded for Five Leaves Left but were never used. Those tracks with selected digitally cleaned-up tracks from The Nick Drake Cassette and the four songs from the 1974 session make up a new fourth album called Time of No Reply. This album was originally included in the Hannibal version of the Fruit Tree box set. This four-LP version retains all the albums' original art as well as the Fruit Tree booklet. Time of No Reply was also released as a separate entity from the box set in 1987. To date, all the albums are available on CD separately or as a box set from Hannibal/Rykodisc.
There has been much talk about several Nick Drake tribute albums, but to date very little has surfaced. Scott Appel recorded an album in 1989 called Nine of Swords, which included songs of Nick plus some original Appel compositions in Drake's style. Island, Hannibal, and Imaginary Records have all expressed interest in releasing a tribute album. Artists as far afield as Elton John, Phil Collins, John Martyn, Robyn Hitchcock, Henry Kaiser, and Richard Thompson are mentioned as contributors. There is even the promise of a movie -- a filmed biography of Nick Drake. Recent quotes by Robert Smith (The Cure) and the lead guitarist with The Black Crowes have made mention of Nick Drake's incredible influence on their music. The BBC has plans for a radio documentary by producer Dave Barber, who has painstakingly tracked down and interviewed all the key people in Nick's life. And so the story goes...
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