Anyone new to Drake might well question the mystique that countless articles (like this one) and TV documentaries have generated around a man who, in the final result, died after years of depressive illness at the tragically young age of 26. For the late Ian MacDonald – whose essay, “Exiled From Heaven: the Unheard Message of Nick Drake”, remains by far the most absorbing study of Drake’s music – the appeal of Nick’s work lies in its awareness of the spiritual realm in an age of rampant materialism. Of course, newcomers might find this a little hard to swallow, but even the most cynical listener would concede that within the hypnotic lilt of tracks like River Man there is a profound sense of things beyond.
But first things first: what were the origins of this extraordinary music? Born to well-heeled British parents in Burma in 1948 and brought up in the Midlands town of Tanworth-in-Arden, there is little to suggest that Drake had a troubled or particularly eventful childhood, aside from early indications of his obvious gift for music. He followed a prescribed path of the era, through public school to Cambridge in the late ‘60s, and it was here that he captivated fellow students (including MacDonald) with his increasingly fluid guitar playing and songs that, at one stage, seemed to be pouring out of him. Given his innate reserve, it’s fortunate that he was ever heard outside a common room, but through a handful of tentative performances, he came to the attention of Joe Boyd, already a legendary figure in London through his involvement with psychedelic club UFO. Now fronting folk label Witchseason – home at the time to Incredible String Band, among others – Boyd was astonished by Drake’s own home demos, and wasted no time in beginning a protracted period of recording with renowned engineer John Wood at the controls. Sufficiently encouraged, Drake dropped out of his studies to complete the album that would become Five Leaves Left (1969).
By any standards, it’s a remarkable debut. Although bearing some affinity to the folk music of the day, the record evades categorisation, not least thanks to Drake’s propulsive guitar playing and the wraith-like string arrangements of Cambridge contemporary Robert Kirby. It should have established him as a major talent from day one, but as Drake appeared to foresee himself (on another of the album’s highlights, “Fruit Tree”), it was simply not to be. Inevitably given his early demise, much latterday debate focuses on the origins of his depression. Whether, as claimed, it began around the time he was working on Bryter Layter, is impossible to verify, but there does seem to be an awareness of Drake’s own otherness throughout this deceptively accessible second album. “Northern Sky” is key: an unalloyed love song borne from this heightened awareness of nature, brought to life by early advocate John Cale’s rich celeste and organ playing.
There is no doubt, however, that Drake was a changed man when he returned to Chelsea’s Sound Techniques in late 1971 to record his final album, Pink Moon. Possessed of a growing sense of failure, Drake sounds bereft on a beautiful but oblique set of songs. Taken at face value, “Parasite” indicates a shocking level of self-loathing, but many of the songs invite multiple interpretations, and closing song “From the Morning” is even suggestive of hope through the arrival of a new day
Entirely out of keeping with a musical scene busy delving back into the dressing-up box, it’s not surprising that an album as stark as Pink Moon received little attention. Seemingly giving up on music, Drake attempted to restart his life in several different ways (even considering a career in the Army, absurd as it seems), but finally went back to the studio in February 1974 to record a clutch of final songs. If confirmation was needed of Nick’s fractured state, one listen to “Black Eyed Dog” provided it.
Whether the result of a conscious decision or not, Drake died of an overdose of the anti-depressant Tryptizol in November 1974. Convinced that his legacy would languish in obscurity, he could not have conceived of the subsequent reappraisal of his work which would ultimately lead to a new collection of rarities, Made To Love Magic, in 2004.
In collating stray songs for a new generation, engineer John Wood hit upon a genuine find – “Tow the Line”, recorded at that final session in 1974 but somehow forgotten for 30 years. In providing the errant full-stop to Drake’s career, there’s no little irony in the fact that this brief song of resignation ends with Nick putting down his guitar and seemingly leaving the studio. David Davies