Nick Drake: Out from the Shadows

This story originally appeared in Issue #8 of Paste Magazine in Feb/Mar of 2004, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.


It was a bad fit all along. Painfully shy people don’t make good pop stars, and Nick Drake may have been the most awkward and unlikely ever to grace that category. You can see it in the cover photo for his second album, Bryter Layter. Drake is shrouded in shadows, his face barely visible. He peers out uncertainly toward the camera, his shoulders hunched over his guitar, his right arm extended as if to fend off some unseen attacker. It is the pose of someone who doesn’t want to be where he is. Like Planet Earth, maybe.

But by now the myth has overtaken the man, and it is fashionable to view Drake as the prototypical doomed romantic poet; Keats or Shelley with a guitar and a wounded psyche, a lovely hothouse flower too beautiful and fragile for this cold, cruel world. Three albums of altogether lovely but morose folk music followed by a very early death—either by suicide or accidental overdose, no one really knows—have only added to the mystique. But that hasn’t stopped the meddlers and marketers. Once the carefully guarded treasure of a small but avid following, Drake’s songs now appear as the background music for Volkswagen commercials. This is how we treat our poets. They end up peddling 10-year, 100,000-mile warranties.

Drake’s been dead for almost 30 years now, and maybe it’s time to re-examine the myth. He wasn’t a fragile hothouse flower; he seemed to live a fairly normal life for most of his 26 years. He had family and friends who loved him. His musical counterparts—among them troubadour John Martyn, the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, and guitarist-songwriter Richard Thompson—thought the world of him, and were thrilled to support his albums. He wasn’t a world-class poet, and no one will mistake his lyrics for the Dylans, Thomas or Bob. He was simply an uncommonly talented musician and songwriter. But that’s enough. Listening to the three albums Drake made, barely an hour-and-a-half of music, you realize it’s more than enough. Every song is essential, every note perfect. Nick Drake wrote the soundtrack for sadness, and no one has done it better.

We know a lot more about depression today than we did 30 years ago, and maybe what we know today could have saved Nick Drake. Certainly there are warning signs everywhere in the music. The song “Fruit Tree” from his first album, Five Leaves Left, sounds a prophetic warning that proved to be all too true:

Fame is but a fruit tree?
So very unsound.
?It can never flourish
?’Til its stock is in the ground

But no one paid much attention at the time. Twenty-five years after Drake was planted in the ground, Volkswagen used one of his songs to peddle its cars. And an album that sold 5,000 copies in his lifetime was suddenly resurrected. Fifty thousand people bought the song and the album Pink Moon within the first weeks of the launch of that commercial, captivated by the hushed, pensive sound of a man cracking up. The car may or may not have mattered. What mattered was that remarkable voice, the quiet urgency of the lyrics, the unforgettable beauty of the melody. The rest of the world had discovered Nick Drake.

Pink Moon is his masterpiece, a bleak song cycle so starkly gorgeous and so stifling in its unrelenting nihilism that it’s genuinely painful to listen to. The album clocks in at less than 30 minutes—ridiculously short by modern standards—but it’s impossible to imagine an addendum to the music. The album is perfect as it is, and thankfully it has been reissued without the dubious padding of alternate takes and bonus tracks. Drake was sick during the recording of Pink Moon—silent, shuffling, barely functional. Producer John Wood had to coax the music out of him. The lyrics are almost haiku-like in their simplicity, shocking and brittle, all the more powerful for their distilled despair:

Know that I love you
Know I don’t care
Know that I see you
Know I’m not there

And then he wasn’t. Two years later Nick Drake was dead. In one of the many ironies of his life, he overdosed on the anti-depressants intended to help him function. He was in and out of mental institutions during those two years, recorded a few demos for a fourth album that was never released. The demos would later resurface on a collection of outtakes and rarities, but for all intents and purposes, Pink Moon was the end, and Nick Drake probably would have wanted it that way.

Now 30 years later and out from the shadows, Drake has finally been recognized as the superb guitarist, singer and songwriter he was. Half-a-dozen times in my life I’ve passed along Fruit Tree, the boxed set of his entire recorded works, to friends unfamiliar with his music. “You’ve got to hear this,” I tell them. It’s like sharing a secret, the best kind of secret. And I always have to beg to get the music back.