Sometimes you wonder how an author can focus so clearly on a subject so fuzzy. The story of Nick Drake, obscure English guitarist and lyricist, is a case in point. Folkie Drake was so little recognized in his lifetime that his total sales from three albums (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon) amounted to about 5,000 copies. His onstage presence was variously described as “no showmanship” and “painful to watch.”
Yet this shy, chronically depressed pretty boy, who once spoke on a private voice recording of “the lies, the truth, and the pain” that pervaded his short bleak life, has become a minor cult hero to many English youngsters who now, we are told, seek out his earthly habitats. “Most summer days, or anywhere near the anniversary of Nick’s birth or death,” biographer Dann (former head of BBC Music Entertainment) tells us, “you can find little knots of people in the churchyard or on the pilgrimage to the end of Bates Lane where the Drakes’ old family house stands rather self-righteously behind its big wooden gates.”
Born in Burma and raised in England in stodgy upper-class privilege, Nick Drake flopped out and dropped out of Cambridge, not for lack of smarts but because he was drifting passively into an introverted world of drugs and his own quirky kind of music. His talent as a guitarist was never in doubt, but he mumbled and constantly re-tuned whenever someone gave him a break and let him play in front of the public. His most loyal booster, a record promoter named Steve Boyd of the now-defunct Witchseason, tried manfully to sell Drake’s albums, but there was always something wrong – the cover art was inappropriate to the material, the pitch wasn’t aggressive enough, whatever. At times, I’m bound to say, this book reads like a Monty Python send-up of the life of an unknown-and-for-good-reason effete artiste. It was almost as if Drake sought failure, accepted it as the foregone conclusion to his sad, short life.
After his death at age 26, arguably a suicide from an overdose of pills, some of Drake’s songs took on a new life. Posthumously promoted by his sister, an actress named Gabrielle who manages his estate, his work popped up in a VW ad and in some lesser-known films. Bryter Layter was selected by The Guardian as number one in their top alternative albums listings (one suspects some influence-peddling there, however). This success would be a good average for a living singer-songwriter, but would have to be underpinned by constant personal appearances and publicity. It’s obvious from his painfully withdrawn life on earth that Drake was incapable of pushing his songs. It’s possible he wouldn’t have cared about their current success. One could say that the limelight now focused on this “poor boy” (the title of one of his songs) stems from the avidity of others, and borders on the ghoulish.
Drake’s tombstone is writ with one his lyrics, “Now we rise and we are everywhere.” Perhaps in death he has lost his many fears and can let his songs fly. We hope he’s not bothered by the groupies flocking to his grave.