Nick Drake: Way too blue.
I confess I don’t really know quite what it is that draws me to write on this troubling and troubled subject; after all I’m not Nick Drake’s biggest fan although heaven knows I have tried to be. Perhaps it’s some inner perversity, but I am always intrigued by those peripheral figures such as Drake and Syd Barret and any of those kindred spirits who shine a different light into our lives. Quite what is it that causes such figures to be completely ignored by the many and adored unconditionally by the few? Certainly Drake must be seen as yet another of those minor figures who emerged from that fertile period of the late sixties and early seventies- despite his records being championed by influential DJ’s such as John Peel and Bob Harris they sold quite poorly at the time but for many of those few who did shell out Drake was and remains an important artist more worthy of further exploration than most.
Most of us sixty somethings who found common cause back in the day will know at least something about Drake’s biography right up until his early death but as almost everybody connected with Drake at the time acknowledges he was a hard man to get to know. Drake, it seems was taciturn, almost certainly asexual and introverted. There is no extant footage of Drake which is surprising given his relative fame. What we do know is that Drake smoked prodigious amounts of dope, dropped in and out of Cambridge attending lectures only occasionally and hung out with John Martyn which is probably the most ill advised of all his activities. In his early days he was an accomplished athlete but this interest was swiftly jettisoned as unhip as Drake like many of us was beguiled by other temptations. Those few photos that do survive show a handsome man , fragile, pale skinned and inordinately tall.
And that’s about it. So much for so little, then, but there is a rather large elephant in a rather small room; namely Drake’s songs. As is usually the case with artists we can learn more about them through their work than ever we can by reading their CV’s. If we listen to a Nick Drake song- any Nick Drake song we hear a man with a sweet but fragile voice singing of a hostile and bewildering world from which he is palpably alienated. Drake does not sing of the pain we all know an unwanted separation from a lover brings- how could he, he never had one, it seems? The people who come and go in his songs are themselves alienated and while Drake certainly empathizes with them he is by no means intimate with them. What is surprising about Drake’s songs is the rather childlike quality of much of his writing -so childlike that one is tempted to ask if Drake was simply an extremely inept writer but in my view it is this very quality that gives Drake’s songs their uniqueness. Drake, in my view, was a child- a child trapped in a man’s body. His songs are those of the small child baffled by events he or she can not quite understand. In most of his songs there is a vague, unspecified menacing figure somewhere in the distance either in time or space. If anyone cares enough to take the trouble to read Drake’s lyrics in cold print isolated from the musical forms ordinarily associated with them it would be easy to conclude that Drake couldn’t write for toffee yet this is not the overriding impression I get when I listen to most of his songs. Drake has been criticized by some for the lack of variety in his songs and there is unquestionably a pervading fatalism which dominates the mood- some lines seem to indicate a death wish yet strangely he is never mawkish. Drake was a multi instrumentalist but his chosen instrument for the overwhelming majority of his songs was the guitar and even the least musically aware listener would spot the precision of his picking and the ease with which he handles subtle rhythms. I have to admit that I find it hard to listen to Drake for too long and for too often- there is no redemption in any of his songs which I find cloying as I do in any other songwriters who find life a bust flush. There are of course many writer’s who have written dark masterpieces -Dylan springs immediately to mind but it should always be remembered that he also wrote some wonderfully optimistic songs. Drake then is (for me at least) one of those enigmatic minor figures those turbulent times seemed to churn out effortlessly and I don’t know whether I mean this as a compliment or not but I find in Drake’s work certain similarities with Sylvia Plath’s poetry ( although Plath was vastly more articulate)- they both look into the darkness and see nothing beyond but more of the same. I suppose it this inability in Drake to step outside those confines that prevent me from ever being a huge fan but in certain moods, at certain times I listen to Nick Drake with pleasure and even a little envy.