Born to Die

Knowing how Nick Drake expired helps bring his music to life

Genuine musical objectivity is tough to come by because most listeners, try as they might, can't help but bring biases to what they hear. Sometimes these predispositions are personal; for instance, my beloved can no longer listen to the Beach Boys' "Help Me, Rhonda" without displeasure because it was playing on her car radio when she was sideswiped by a hit-and-run driver a few years back. (Terrific: Another burden for Brian Wilson to bear.) But nearly as often, such notions are generated by the public personae of the performers themselves. Rightly or wrongly, we bring assorted expectations to the work of Marilyn Manson or Shania Twain or practically any other popular musician whose stories we know (or think we know), and that can't help but color our reactions.

Few examples of this phenomenon are more illustrative than the strange case of Nick Drake. A singer/songwriter in the English folk tradition, Drake made three albums -- 1969's Five Leaves Left, 1970's Bryter Layter and 1972's Pink Moon, all of which have just been reissued on the Hannibal imprint -- that earned mostly respectful reviews but piddling sales at the time of their original release. Yet after his death in 1974 at age 26 after an overdose of anti-depressant medication that may or may not have constituted a suicide, Drake's legend began growing, and it hasn't stopped since. Today he's widely perceived to have been a tortured artist in the van Gogh tradition -- a fragile fellow whose creations were cruelly underappreciated during his lifetime but can now be recognized as beacons of beauty almost too good for this nasty old world.

In actuality, relatively little is known about Drake. Only one interview with him was published while he was still aboveground. Moreover, he spent most of his last two years as a recluse (he holed up in his parents' house in Tanworth-in-Arden, where he died), living mainly in his own head. But that hasn't prevented a growing number of chroniclers from trying to tell his tale. The BBC produced a radio documentary about Drake in 1999, New York Times contributor Arthur Lubow is in the midst of writing a Drake biography and A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake, a 48-minute film about the singer, debuted in Amsterdam on Sept. 11. And that's not to mention the many cybershrines to Drake that populate the Internet. Sprawling sites such as include photographs, essays and virtually every sentence ever written about this terminally shy character. All of this helps explain why Volkswagen recently used the Drake song "Pink Moon" in a television commercial. That's immortality, new-millennium-style.

Nick Drake in the early '70s.
Nick Drake in the early '70s.
Nick Drake in the early '70s.
Nick Drake in the early '70s.

Given all that, is it possible to listen to Drake's newly restored catalog (which comes complete with lyric sheets, pristinely remastered sound and a plethora of rare snapshots) and impartially, dispassionately judge the music he left behind? Probably not, considering there's no way to tell whether the eerie, fated quality so many of his songs seem now to exude was present before his dramatic demise. Indeed, what may be most striking about the CDs is how logically the ingredients of his ultimate artistic martyrdom are assembled there. He couldn't have done a better job if he had planned it -- an observation that raises a few questions of its own.

Five Leaves Left, Drake's Boyd-produced debut, features fine playing by guitarist Richard Thompson and other members of the then-hot folk-rock act Fairport Convention, as well as our protagonist's casual vocalizing, which was being likened to Donovan's long before his lungs filled for the final time. But whereas Donovan during his prime tended to seesaw back and forth between fey pastorales and pop-rock goofs like "Mellow Yellow" and "Sunshine Superman," Drake mainly stuck to the dark end of the street. The first verse of "Time Has Told Me," which opens the album, seems a bit self-aggrandizing at first ("Time has told me/You're a rare, rare find/A troubled cure/For a troubled mind"), but Drake immediately undercuts that sentiment with an air of weary resignation ("And time has told me/Not to ask for more/Someday our ocean/Will find its shore").

The metaphorical use of natural forces to symbolize an environment beyond Drake's comprehension extends through many of the songs that follow. "River Man" sweeps along on a slow wave of strings and a sense of cosmic bewilderment ("If he tells me all he knows/About the way his river flows/I don't suppose it's meant for me") and ""Cello Song" gently depicts a dialogue between Drake and what seems to be a not-so-avenging angel. At its conclusion, he sings, "So forget this cruel world where I belong/I'll just sit and wait and sing my song/And if one day you should see me in the crowd/Lend a hand and lift me to your place in the cloud."

The loveliness of this death wish probably could have spawned the Drake cult all by itself. But his appeal among young depressives was guaranteed by "Fruit Tree," arguably the most explicit portrayal of the I'll-be-appreciated-when-I'm-gone fantasy generated during the rock era. After likening fame to a fruit tree ("so very unsound"), Drake keens, "Safe in your place deep in the earth/That's when they'll know what you were truly worth." Morose songwriters have come and gone since then, but no one's ever been able to top that.

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