Born to Die

Knowing how Nick Drake expired helps bring his music to life

Dec 20, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

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.

As it turned out, Drake didn't, either; Bryter Layter, made the next year with producer Boyd and many of the same supporting players, is a skosh more optimistic (how could it not be?). The opening "Introduction," an appealing orchestral snippet, is more elegiac than somber, and "Hazey Jane II" sports a reasonably jaunty brass section, a jazzy melody and couplets about taking time to enjoy the day that fall notably short of being doom-laden. The Van Morrison-like "Northern Sky" finds Drake inviting an unknown entity to "brighten my northern sky." Such statements seem especially touching when juxtaposed with the hushed despair of Five Leaves Left; they hint that Drake, though still a bit timid and cautious, is backing away from the ledge.

But no. After the apathetic reaction of the masses to Bryter Layter, Drake all but disappeared. During the next two years, according to the text of an Island Records bio penned in late 1971 by press officer Dave Sandison and put out in conjunction with the original Pink Moon, Drake stopped by the record company's offices twice -- the second time to drop off the tapes that became his third LP, which Island personnel had no idea he was making. That wasn't all Island didn't know; Sandison wrote that execs weren't even certain where Drake was living at the time. Still, Sandison notes, Island put out Pink Moon anyhow, even though "his first two albums haven't sold a shit," because "we believe that Nick Drake is a great talent ... and maybe one day, someone in authority will stop to listen to [his records] properly and agree with us."

This yearning wasn't satisfied before Drake went down for the count, but in view of the insular quality of Pink Moon, that's no great surprise. The recording, produced and engineered by John Wood, dispenses with Boyd's ornate production techniques and the accompanists he brought along with him: Aside from his acoustic guitar, Drake is entirely on his own. As for the songs themselves, they're generally dour musical miniatures, mere fragments that Drake mates with spare, elliptical poesy. Some of his performances are oddly charming, whereas others are subtly paranoid or mildly disturbing (he casts himself as the star of "Parasite"). But despite the occasional glimmer of hopefulness, as in his declaration "I can take a road that'll see me through" (in "Road"), the disc as a whole evokes retreat -- from his music, from society, from himself. Emblematic is the emaciated blues tune "Know," whose lyrics consist of four truncated lines: "Know that I love you/Know I don't care/Know that I see you/Know I'm not there."

Would songs like these still be prized had Drake simply faded away instead of flickering out in the way that he did? Perhaps: The sustained misery of Five Leaves Left is quite an achievement -- the platter makes Morrissey seem like Mr. Cheerful by comparison -- and both Bryter Layter and Pink Moon have their moments. But it's as clues to Drake's eventual destiny that these albums achieve their greatest impact. Or, to put it another way, the information about the singer that people bring to his compositions makes his music more memorable than it might be without it. Betcha Nick would understand.