Poor Boy

Joan Baez once observed of Bob Dylan’s music that it either left you indifferent or went “way, way deep.” A similar claim, on a far lesser scale of renown, could be made for Nick Drake, the English singer-songwriter who produced three exquisite but largely unnoticed albums between 1969 and 1972, sank into depression, and died of a prescription-drug overdose in 1974. Until his rediscovery a little over a decade ago, his music remained the preserve of the happy few, revered by those who had found their way to it and ignored by everyone else. Even now, a compendium of Drake ephemera like Remembered for a While might well strike some as strictly a niche affair.

For the cognoscenti, however, Drake casts a long shadow, his influence claimed by musicians across the indie spectrum, from Beck and Paul Weller to Everything But the Girl and the Black Crowes. His ghost hovers over the likes of Belle and Sebastian, Elliott Smith, and a host of other melancholic troubadours. He has inspired an ever-expanding number of biographies (the first, by Patrick Humphries, appeared in 1997), websites, documentaries, and tribute albums, to a degree reserved for very few of his peers. Meanwhile, his trajectory from cult secret to posthumous icon has generatedits own mythology, much of it centered on what one author terms “the fetishisation of Nick Drake as a kind of depressives’ pin-up.”

Admittedly, that label is hard to peel off: Drake’s music, which ranges in tone from gently wistful to starkly grim, and the well-charted deterioration of his last years evoke powerful images of a gifted but hypersensitive mind spiraling into blackness. But as with any life, the part that makes good copy is only an incomplete truth. Remembered for a While does not try to capitalize on Drake’s tragic story; rather, with its plethora of photos, reminiscences, selections from letters and journals, complete lyrics, and gearhead analyses of every song (including those weird tunings that have long bedeviled copycat guitarists), it sets out to show just how much of value has gone unrecognized.

Born in Burma in 1948, Drake, the second child of an upper-middle-class family, grew up in the quintessentially English rural town of Tanworth-in-Arden, near Birmingham. His father, Rodney, an engineer, was the very model of a solid citizen, his affectionate nature buried under layers of reserve; his mother, Molly, was musically talented and “desperately shy.” (In the book, Drake’s sister, Gabrielle, an actress and upholder of her brother’s legacy, paints an extensive, if rather sunny, portrait of family life.) Young Nick was raised in a privileged, insular environment, in which his musical interests were encouraged and “successful performance” expected.

Before following family tradition and attending Cambridge, the teenage Drake spent several months in Aix-en-Provence, France, in early 1967, exploring the burgeoning counterculture with other guitar-toting expats. It was in Aix, and during a detour to Morocco (where he playedfor the Rolling Stones and was mistaken for Mick Jagger), that Drake really began to hone his skills. The singer Robin Frederick remembered both his standout technique and his eagerness to show it off: “He knew he was good and, like a proud bird, he liked to display his feathers.” Once at Cambridge, he continued to perform for friends, debuting many of the songs that would soon appear on record.

While still a student, Drake was spotted by the folk-rock group Fairport Convention and introduced to the band’s producer, Joe Boyd. Impressed by the young man’s “mysteriously original” repertoire, Boyd signed him, and in 1969 the prestigious label Island Records issued Drake’s first album, the romantic, pastoral Five Leaves Left. The record features some of Drake’s best-loved compositions, such as the delicately haunting “River Man” (a “sky-high classic of post-war English popular music” that dazzled his Cambridge friends, according to historian Ian MacDonald), the premonitory “Fruit Tree,” which predicts fame only after death, and the moody, North African–seasoned “Three Hours.” With its beguilingly complex guitar picking, accented by strings reminiscent of Ravel, Debussy, and Vaughan Williams and overlaid by Drake’s smoky, hypnotic voice, Five Leaves Left is today considered a landmark of late-’60s folk. But in a year dominated by Woodstock, Tommy, Steppenwolf, and Led Zeppelin, it was hard to hear such soft-spoken, introspective stylings, and the album, as Island’s publicist put it, “didn’t sell a shit.”

Nevertheless, and over his parents’ entreaties, Drake dropped out of Cambridge and moved to London to pursue music full-time. On his next album, Bryter Layter (1970), Drake more directly courted public appeal by bringing in some pop heavyweights (John Cale, Richard Thompson) and scoring the songs with jazzier, more upbeat arrangements; Drake, Boyd, and Island’s Chris Blackwell were convinced they had a winner. But Bryter Layter foundered as well—in part because Drake, having discovered that playing for dazzled roommates was very different from commanding a rowdy barroom’s attention, refused to tour. By the time his third and final album, Pink Moon, was released two years later, the aloof but affable Cambridge boy had turned into a recluse, bitter over his lack of success and unable to communicate even with close friends.

Pink Moon is one of the most harrowing records ever made, a cry of disillusionment and raw nerves. Where Five Leaves Left conjures images of lush countryside on a summer Saturday, and Bryter Layter an urban Sunday in autumn, Pink Moon evokes a winter Monday in a barren field. All orchestration has been stripped away; apart from one brief piano overdub, there are only Drake’s voice and guitar. The effect is spare and frightening: On the song “Parasite” (“Take a look you may see me on the ground / For I am the parasite of this town”), the descending bass line tolls like a death knell. The album was recorded over two nights, with only the engineer in attendance, and the master tape silently dropped off at Island Records. Following its release, Drake checked himself into a psychiatric ward, then returned to his parents’ house.

Nick Drake, ca. 1967.
Nick Drake, ca. 1967. © Julian Lloyd

His final years were a repetitive cycle of despondent lows, abrupt disappearances, treatments started and abandoned, and aggressive outbursts, often toward his loving but mystified family. (Though not exclusively: Boyd recalled a conversation in which the singer angrily demanded to know why, if everyone “deemed him so high,” he was unknown.) Doctors diagnosed him with everything from severe depression to schizophrenia, never with certainty. Among the most fascinating, if heartbreaking, revelations of Remembered for a While is Rodney Drake’s diary of those years, in which the engineer father soldiers on in the face of his son’s mood swings (“extremely withdrawn, silent and seemingly hostile this morning”), which he sometimes annotates with a bemused “What a strange chap he has become!” In a rare moment of self-revelation, Drake confided to his mother that he’d failed utterly and had “no spark of music” left in him.

Drake did reenter the studio in the summer of 1974 to work on a fourth record, but the resulting tracks—notably the bleak, gripping “Black Eyed Dog”—hardly suggest a spiritual uplift. Referring to depression, or possibly death, and played as a tremulous raga, “Black Eyed Dog” is one of Drake’s most disturbing songs, a “three-minute evocation of . . . a heightened condition of mortal fear,” as one author writes. Sung in a keening wail, the guitar lines both brittle and whip-sharp, it stands as the singer’s devastating last testament. Four months later, on November 25, Nick’s mother entered his room to find he’d overdosed on antidepressants. Rodney’s diary entry for that day reported laconically, “Naw [the family nanny] . . . found him lying across the bed and called to Molly who went in and found him dead.” He was twenty-six.

In the decades that followed, Drake’s music languished in record-shop back bins: The fact that the albums were never deleted from Island’s catalogue speaks more to Chris Blackwell’s loyalty than to their earning potential. It wasn’t until the year 2000—via, of all things, a Volkswagen ad—that his work finally began reaching the larger audiences he’d craved.

Of course, “larger” is a relative term—many people still have never heard of Nick Drake, and Remembered for a While likely won’t increase those numbers. This is not a book for the uninitiated; its layered bits of information, nested within other bits like Russian dolls, require a certain familiarity with the life and legacy. It is, in essence, a handsomely produced scrapbook, a stocking stuffer for Drake aficionados—of whom, I admit, I’m one.

As with any scrapbook, the sheer volume of material may overwhelm even those who have already absorbed Drake’s music way, way deep. But this is a flaw born of love, not hubris, the result of people trying to make sense of a personal tragedy and set the record straight. One of the authors’ stated missions is to correct the image of Drake as tragic bard, and in this they largely succeed: Despite the book’s elegiac title, it is not Drake’s wake. Instead, at its best, it frequently sheds new light on who Nick Drake was and why he still matters. It also provides much raw material for the definitive biography yet to be written, the one that will solve the enigma of Nick Drake once and for all. Why anyone should want to solve it, rather than simply appreciate it, is another story.

Mark Polizzotti’s books include Revolution of the Mind: The Life of André Breton (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995) and Bob Dylan: Highway 61 Revisited (Bloomsbury, 2006). He lives in Brooklyn.