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Nick Drake at Age 75
On a milestone birthday, I revisit a singer-songwriter nobody ever really knew
Today would be Nick Drake’s 75th birthday. But the only thing about Drake that reached maturity was his music. He died at age 26, back in 1974—possibly as a result of suicide. His legacy is secure nowadays, and Drake is considered one of the great singer-songwriters of the 1970s. But during his lifetime, few paid much attention to this troubled, introspective young man.
Almost nobody bought his albums back then. There are no film clips of him in concert—because he rarely performed. One press interview has survived, and it doesn’t say much.
But the music says a whole lot. It did back then, and still does today—maybe even more so now when so many disaffected young people show the same symptoms of detachment and depression that plagued Drake.
His birthday gives me a good excuse to revisit the life and times of this artist, and assess the few recordings he left behind.
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Nick Drake at 75
By Ted Gioia
I didn’t know Nick Drake’s music back when his albums were first released—but I’m hardly the only music fan who missed out. Those records sold in minuscule quantities. His final studio album, Pink Moon, released two years before his death at age 26, might be a classic nowadays, but it didn’t even sell 5,000 copies on its initial release
So I give a pass to the fans who never heard those songs during Drake’s lifetime, especially those in the US. They hardly got a chance. But I’m more puzzled by the reviewers, who heard Drake’s music and dismissed it out of hand.
Back in the 1970s, a critic for Melody Maker noted that Nick Drake was so “embarrassed and shy” that “perhaps one should play his albums with the sound off and just look at the cover.” Yet that was kinder than the assessment of Creem, which declared Drake’s songs were “weak” and “not awfully good.”
My Nick Drake initiation story is almost as embarrassing. Because I first head his music at a marketing conference. And I was told about it in a presentation from an advertising guy.
This marketeer was totally obsessed with a new Volkswagen TV commercial. He said it represented the best use of mood advertising he had ever seen, and especially because of its music.
He then played the commercial so we could judge for ourselves.
I’m not used to getting music tips from advertising professionals. But I watched the commercial that day, and as soon as I heard the song “Pink Moon,” I knew that this was a magical track—haunting and deeply personal, filled to the brim with the artist’s inner life.
Hell, it might even sell some cars.
In all fairness, a lot of people were still vague about this Nick Drake guy even after his sales took off. Drake’s biographer Patrick Humphries recounts his trouble pitching his book to various publishers, and recalls an editor who reviewed a detailed chapter-by-chapter summary, and responded that there was no market for a “book on Nick Cave.”
The music survived all this. But the story of Nick Drake’s life also deserves our attention. He’s like a harbinger of our own times—a singer for those caught adrift in our fragmented, isolating society.
By the way, I got an even bigger surprise when Nick Drake songs started showing up on jazz albums. This would be unusual for any post-1960s songwriter—the jazz repertoire has grown as predictable as a Saturday Night Live skit. But somehow an exception was made for Nick Drake, whose music I now hear on various jazz albums—especially those by Brad Mehldau, who has done more than anyone to make this happen.
Drake’s sister Gabrielle recalls him composing songs even when he was just three or four years old. Back then, his music was focused on things that were meaningful to him, even if not to others—she recalled a song about a cowboy Nick had learned about from a book, and another song about food. But this was normal stuff at the Drake household—both parents were musicians, and the mother even composed a suite of songs for her children. Like many youngsters, Nick took piano lessons.
Gabrielle recalls that these childhood years were happy ones. But they didn’t last long. Nick got sent off to boarding school at just age eight, and from that moment onward his development was shaped more by teachers and schoolmates than family. His musical talent was noticed, especially his singing in choir. But his father later recalled a report sent back home which mentioned: “Nobody knows him very well.”
Did anyone ever know Nick Drake well?
“He was the most withdrawn person I’ve ever met,” later recalled his friend and fellow singer John Martyn. “We were never that close. Except I was as close as anyone could be. He was an impossible man to get close to. . . . In another age he would have been a hermit.”
“He was the most withdrawn person I’ve ever met….In another age he would have been a hermit.”
Drake only gave one documented interview during his entire life, and it offers almost no insight into the artist. His responses were short and vague. “We sweated through three-quarters of an hour trying to get three words out of him that weren’t yes and no or um,” the record label publicist later recalled. Interviewer Jerry Gilbert’s assessment was more blunt: “Nick clearly didn’t want to do it.”
There aren’t many other primary sources, except for the recordings. Besides a few childhood home movies, no film footage of him has been found. Even photographs are rare. Some people saw him play live, but not as many as you might think—Drake didn’t work the folk club circuit, and was ambivalent about performing in public.
As far as we can tell, he only gave a few dozen concerts after he became a recording artist. Many of them were strange and unsettling—at one performance he even walked off stage in the middle of a song.
After his death and rise to posthumous fame, many former classmates and acquaintances came forward with testimonies of various sorts. But the picture they paint remains indistinct, out-of-focus, filled with platitudes about Nick’s niceness or shyness or talent.
But we can trace Drake’s musical development. His tastes were eclectic during those early formative years. We hear of his passion for rock and roll, but also his interest in Odetta, Charlie Parker, Booker T. & the M.G.'s, Andrés Segovia, and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. I’m especially intrigued by a friend’s recollection that he listened to bossa nova, and was especially fond of Stan Getz’s “Desafinado”—because even before I learned this fact, Drake always reminded me of João Gilberto, the great Brazilian singer who introduced that song back in 1959.
Like Gilberto, Drake had a paradoxical power to touch the emotions of the audience even when it sounded as if he were singing just for himself. Both had soft, almost whispery voices, and every syllable seems infused with private meaning. I’m told that Nick Drake rarely spoke between songs and looked down at the ground when he played in public—which is exactly what Gilberto did when I saw him in concert. The audience almost feels like it is intruding on a private moment, although it’s taking place on a stage under bright lights and surrounded by rapt listeners.
When rock started evolving rapidly with the rise of the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Bob Dylan, Drake immersed himself in the new zeitgeist. He played gigs with classmates and friends, and the range of his musical skills was evident from the start.
He’s best remember nowadays for playing the guitar, but those early bands found Nick performing on saxophone, clarinet, and piano. “Nick didn’t want to sing,” one of the band members later recalled, “but the truth was the he was the only one of us who could sing in tune. So he was kind of forced into the leader-of-the-band role.”
When he finally bought a guitar for £13, Drake learned how to play it in just a few days. He traveled to France, where he spent some of his happiest times, and played for tips on the streets. And later he went to Morocco, where he may have met with the Rolling Stones and tried LSD. He also was writing songs, and friends were struck by how good they were—as if he had skipped all the beginning and intermediary stages, and had already found his personal sound and style.
“Time Has Told Me” and “River Man” date from this early period. There’s a recording of Drake playing the latter song in his dorm room while he was still at Cambridge, but this is not a student effort by any measure. In fact, I have never heard a popular song in 5/4 which floats so comfortably over the beat—you can feel the relaxed ebb and flow of the river in the music.
Things began to accelerate at this stage, and it almost seemed as if Nick Drake might be destined for stardom. Drake decided to leave Cambridge before earning his degree, much to the consternation of his parents. But he had already secured a record deal, and now had a whole batch of finely-etched songs.
He was 20 when he started work on his debut album Five Leaves Left, and had just turned 21 when it was released. But Drake is absolutely in command at every moment. That debut record matched Drake with a string section, but he confidently sang live without overdubbing, sitting on a stool in the middle of the studio, with the instrumentalists in a semi-circle around him.
But he was already approaching the end of his recording career. The rest of the tracks released in his lifetime would be recorded over the next 28 months. And it’s not much. Five Leaves Left is a short 42 minutes, while his follow-up album Bryter Layter is only 39 minutes. His final record Pink Moon is just 28 minutes long.
Each of these is a cherished classic nowadays, but sales were dismal back then. Reviewers offered up the most vague responses. "This is a difficult album to come to any firm conclusion on,” explains one. The songs “take time to work through to the listener,” said another.
The write-ups are so evasive that it makes you lose faith in the very notion of music criticism. “I'm sorry I can't be more enthusiastic.” “Nick Drake is likely to remain in the shadows.” I don’t want to overstate my case—there were a handful of encouraging, even enthusiastic, write-ups. But for Drake to keep going he needed more of a boost, and the music media wasn’t going to give it to him.
Bryter Layter, Drake’s follow-up release, was better matched with hit radio formats. The tracks were smartly arranged and produced, with well-known musicians in support—including members of Fairport Convention and John Cale of Velvet Underground fame. Pet Sounds was an obvious influence, and some of the tracks are very danceable—not something one expected from Drake given his earlier outing.
If there had been just one hit single from these first two records, Drake’s whole career might have taken a different trajectory. But he couldn’t find a signature song that captured the public’s imagination, so album sales remained lackluster. Drake’s reluctance to perform didn’t help, and his when he did show up on stage, he did little to endear himself to the audience.
We can only guess at what was going on in Nick Drake’s mind at this juncture. But judging by his last studio album Pink Moon, I can’t help but conclude that he had stopped chasing after stardom, and was intent instead on making music to please himself. Over the course of two days in October 1971, he set down eleven tracks without any supporting band—just relying on his guitar, voice, and a tiny bit of piano.
And what an extraordinary album it is.
The time was ripe—the singer-songwriter movement was just taking off, and Nick Drake was ideally suited for the temperament of the early 1970s. So why didn’t Pink Moon find an audience?
I’m still mystified. Drake’s voice is hauntingly expressive, with his guitar providing a perfect match. He is totally committed to these performances, and it comes across in each phrase he plays or sings. By any fair measure, this should have been a huge commercial and artistic success at the time.
The irony is that Pink Moon did become a hit, but far too late for Nick Drake to reap the benefits of it. The big boost happened 25 years after his death.
Drake’s pride must have been severely hurt when he moved back home with his parents. In April 1972 he suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent five weeks at a nearby psychiatric hospital, where he lived on a £20 weekly retainer from his label—and even that was cut off in late 1974. As a result, he often lacked the money needed to buy necessities.
As far as we can tell, he never enjoyed a serious intimate relationship during these years. The closest thing he had to a girlfriend, Sophia Ryde, was by her account more of a platonic friend. She ended even this shallow relationship shortly before Nick’s death.
His mental condition had been unraveling, and after-the-fact experts now argue over the precise diagnosis. But you don’t need to probe deeply to find reasons for his frustration and depression—Drake’s career seemed to have stalled out before his 25th birthday and now his private life was also falling apart.
Despite all this, he still pushed ahead with his music, but with a fatalistic atmosphere permeating everything he did from this moment onward. Brian Cullman, who was present at Drake’s 1974 performance at a London club, describes an almost nightmarish situation:
“His shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent. A tall man, his clothes—black corduroy jacket and pants, frayed white shirt—hung around him like bedclothes after a particularly bad night’s sleep. He sat on a small stool, hunched tight over a tiny Guild guitar, beginning songs and, halfway through, forgetting where he was and stumbling back to the start of that song, or beginning an entirely different song which he would then abandon midway through if he remembered the remainder of the first. He sang away from the microphone, mumbled and whispered, all with a sense of precariousness and doom.”
Cullman’s final verdict of Nick Drake in concert is both eerie and eminently quotable: “It was like being at the bedside of a dying man who wants to tell you a secret, but who keeps changing his mind at the last minute.”
It’s hard to believe that Nick Drake wanted to work on a fourth album at this stage—but what other options did he have? Two years after Pink Moon, he returned to the studio. But he was no longer the confident young man who, for his debut album, sang without overdubs surrounded by a string orchestra.
He now laid down guitar tracks, and sometimes didn’t seem to have a clear sense of the lyrics. He envisioned an album with ten tracks, but it was never completed—although versions of half the tracks were issued years later to capitalize on his posthumous fame, along with other scraps and demos.
If anything, this music is more introspective than Pink Moon. Even if Drake had completed this project, it probably wouldn’t have made much of a difference. The singer-songwriter trend was in its final stages, and the folk-rock scene was already in decline. The British commercial music scene in the second half of the 1970s would be dominated by punk, disco, metal, and other styles that had no place for a moody, introspective artist such as Nick Drake.
His death on November 25, 1974 was every bit as vague as his life. There is no agreement on a cause of death. His mother found his body in bed around noon. An album of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos was on his turntable, and a copy of Camus in the original French by the bed. His mother held on to that book—Le Mythe de Sisyphe—and tried to read it, hoping it would explain what happened to her son. But there were no comforting answers.
The coroner determined that a self-administered overdose of amitriptyline, an antidepressant, had killed the young man. Suicide is possible, of course, perhaps likely—but there was no note (although a letter addressed to Ryde was found in his bedroom). Nick’s parents said his mood was upbeat in those final days, and that he was planning to move back to London to relaunch his music career. It’s plausible that his excessive use of antidepressants was part of his plan for doing just that.
Around 50 people showed up at the funeral service on December 2, many of them old friends from school, rather than music industry people. You might think that the posthumous revival would have begun at that juncture—boosted by the tragic death of a young artist. But his record label Island couldn’t even be bothered to reissue his albums.
But this music couldn’t be erased so easily. A fan base gradually grew—some of those fans were on the team that masterminded the Volkswagen ad campaign, which gave a huge boost to Nick Drake’s audience.
Yet his following continued to grow long after the marketeers went away. Drake is now more than a music star, almost an emblematic figure. And I say with some sorrow, but with complete conviction, that his life and times remind me of so many people nowadays who have been cast adrift in our society—suffering in ways spookily reminiscent of what he experienced fifty years ago.
Nick Drake gets my love and admiration, maybe yours too. But he hardly needs it now—he somehow has been transformed from a living presence into a misty legend from the past. So the best way of showing how much we care might be to look at the others around us whose plight reminds us of his. They probably don’t have his musical ability (but who knows?). Yet maybe they need our care and help all the more for that fact.
I think Nick Drake sings for them. That’s what I hear in these songs. And that’s a remarkable legacy in itself for someone at age 75. Or any age, for that matter.