This week marks what would have been Nick Drake’s 65th birthday. A man who is often prescribed the accolade of being Britain’s most influential folk artist, many have described Drake as the ‘Vincent van Gogh of British music‘. Both led troubled lives, died young and were terribly under-appreciated in their lifetimes.
A brilliant poet, singer and guitar player, Nick Drake was tormented with depression and social alienation that made his music elegantly haunting. His songs are painted with rich imagery that weave in and out of a beautifully pastoral background. Although Drake is now synonymous with a virtuoso style of guitar finger-picking that has been left unmatched since he passed away more than 30 years ago, he is most notably famed for prophesying his own fate in the track Fruit Tree, where he sings:
“Fruit tree, fruit tree,
No-one knows you but the rain and the air,
Don’t you worry,
They’ll stand and stare when you’re gone”
Virtually unrecognised in his life-time, the 6ft 3in troubadour has gained a cult-following in the passing years since his death in 1974. Some, including his own family, have put the seed of this ever-blossoming fan-base down to a 1999 Volkswagen commercial that featured the title track off his third and final album, Pink Moon, seen below:
Brad Pitt also played his part in promoting Drake’s music, presenting a BBC Radio special about Nick Drake in 2005, after the programme’s producers heard he was a big fan. A little bit more on the spooky side, another famous actor Heath Ledger (who, like Drake, also passed away from an overdose) was so obsessed with his music that he made a video to accompany what was one of Drake’s last ever songs. Black-Eyed Dog, features the same eerily repetitive guitar pattern over and over, while his voice wails and whimpers. It was written and recorded at the peak of Drake’s depression, and only a short time before he overdosed on anti-depressants. Watch Heath Ledger’s music video for it below.
His gift for poetry is one reasons why his music has now become so perennial – “I could be here and now” is a cleverly spine-tingling lyric from One of These Things First, that encompasses just how immortal his music has become. On top of that, the timeless theme of nature centers heavily throughout Drake’s lyrics, with song and album titles like: Five Leaves Left, Pink Moon, Fruit Tree, River Man, Northern Sky, Things Behind The Sun and Harvest Breed. There is also, however, a dark contrast between these rich themes of nature, which Drake was clearly enamored by, and a vulnerable alienation from the rest of the world. He found it hard to understand and converse with people, which further exacerbated his depression; his songs map this melancholy with precision. Singing to an audience, he could communicate through his lyrics. On Hazey Jane II he sings: “if songs were lines in a conversation, the situation would be fine“. His distress was enough for fellow folk musician and friend John Martyn to write Solid Air, a song about Drake in the year leading up to his death. Weirdly enough, Solid Air is now widely considered John Martyn’s most accomplished track, among a large repertoire of folk gems.
Nick came from a musical family, and the teenage years he spent obsessively developing his own unique melodies and complex guitar-tunings are seen as a clear recreation of the sounds he grew up with. His mother’s piano playing, her phrasing, her own chords are very similiar in style to that of his own – Poor Mum by Molly Drake is a great example.
After both his debut album Five Leaves Left (named after the warning message found near the end of packs of smoking papers) and his follow-up Bryter Layter failed to sell, Nick became completely defeated. His confidence was at an all time low, and his first eight-city tour in the UK turned out to be his last. During this dark period he retreated back to his family home in the rural English countryside, seeing no-one – not even his own family – for weeks at a time. After spending some time in France, he decided to record what would be his last album, Pink Moon. Upon returning home he gave his mother Albert Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus – a book that deals with the philosophy of suicide. Whether or not this was a deliberate cry for help is open to interpretation, but what was undeniable was how deep Drake had fallen into depression. He could no longer play guitar and sing at the same time. He checked himself into a local psychiatric hospital for five weeks, then checked out. On 25 November 1974, Drake died from an overdose of amitriptyline, a prescribed antidepressant; he was 26 years old. Whether it was accidental or not remains unresolved.
Part of the magic for most Nick Drake fans is that among his ornate masterpieces stands this giant air of mystery around him. There is no video footage of him or his live performances, and his family have refused to release any. What remains is a 28-track bootleg album of home-recordings released in 2007 by his sister Gabrielle that Drake had recorded in his bedroom prior to the release of his first album. It gives us a small but quite intimate glimpse into who this man really was. The album, Family Tree, ended up being Nick Drake’s first and only album to ever chart in America, 33-years after his death. Below is one of the only recordings ever heard of Nick Drake talking, where he narrates his experience of driving the whole way home on the wrong side of the road after spending too much time in France.
In celebration of Nick Drake’s birthday, we’ve collated our favourite tracks from his discography below. We’ll leave you with a quote that Nick Drake’s sister gave the BBC last week in celebration of his 65th birthday:
“What so pleases me, and I do believe would have pleased Nick, is that his fame has been almost entirely created by his fans. In this age of heavy marketing and promotion, it’s the individual who has discovered Nick, and through love of Nick’s music and presumably a love for others, has been compelled to share it, and so the word has spread. To all those people, I say a huge thank you on my brother’s behalf. It’s hard for me to think of my little brother as an old-age pensioner, so I shan’t try.”[Big thankyou to nick-drake.tumblr.com – an amazing source for all things Nick Drake] *Dedicated to Avi Maletz – Nicks’s newest biggest fan
1. Place To Be
2. Hazey Jane I
3. River Man
4. From The Morning
5. Northern Sky
6. One of These Things First