Nick Drake’s Road

An Appreciation of a 1971 Folk Classic

By Damon Shulenberger


1.

In his early work, Nick Drake has the wistfulness of a wanderer who does not know which way he is going, but takes pains to document the journey. A tapestry of thought and emotion that he could not (apparently) easily express in real life. By the time of Pink Moon three years later, there is a resignation that was not as apparent in Five Leaves Left. A lot of doors have closed for him, a lot of pain and isolation will follow.

Nick Drake’s Road impresses me in a similar way to Van Morrison’s acoustic shows circa 1971, its chords are so discordant and plain. Nick Drake strums with a drone that is thumb-heavy and floored. It is off-lowly tuned, with a deepness that you only hear in a few old folk blues. At the same time it possesses an English country calm, what Jimmy Page was trying for in Going To California and didn’t quite get, because he was flying it; Nick Drake was living it, far from the madding crowds. Using fingers to create folk country essence, a vehicle for expression of words that urgently needed utterance.

I imagine Nick Drake’s road as one undertaken alone.

Far from his wishy-washy image, Nick Drake means quite decisively in Road that he can no longer change tracks. The song seems so highly personal I can’t imagine he wrote it without a specific person in mind—going over a well worn arguement “You can say the sun is shining if you really want to, I can see the moon and it seems so clear.” We have different perspectives. Things will never change, they will go in different directions. As long as we accept these differences, we will not lose connection.

Unfortunately, these differences have a way of creating walls, boundaries, and in Nick Drake’s case may have come to mean “to the exclusion of others.” One thing is certain—by the time of Road, Nick Drake had lost all affectation and his songs lay spare, on the ground, bleeding.

Later Nick Drake is not all resignation—songs like Pink Moon and Place to Be strike me as being wistful expressions of hope, a stab out against the clouding of reality. As stated in Counterbalance No. 160 “You’d have to be some kind of robot to listen to this [music] and remain unmoved.”

But the later songs are more about fragments of clarity, than about driving force. The hopeful, fragile words in a poem turn to despair when they don’t find their settled place. And Nick Drake never found his settled place—the resignation of Road involves two friends on conversational terms, finding acceptance of differing views. By the time of Parasite, Nick Drake is no longer having that conversation, he is trapped in his isolation “take a look, you may see me on the ground, for I am the parasite of this town.” (Incidently, Radiohead’s Subterranean Homesick Alien is an excellent bookend to Parasite.) And this isolation has become a driving force—in Black Eyed Dog there is no return. A great loss, I think—if Nick Drake had identified the darkness within, embraced it, he could perhaps have found a way through.*

On a visit to Hatley Park.

2.

As a personal aside, I remember traveling down the Washington coast after a summer spent on a fishing boat in Alaska. To Oregon, Northern California, and points beyond (college in Santa Cruz). With European hostelers in a rental car listening to a mixture of (I remember it well) Neil Young (Comes A Time), Bad Brains (why? the German guy liked it, and the English girl seemed to as well), Nirvana (it was ‘92), Pixies?—(no, I knew about them from my high school desert trip, but I started on the wrong album). And Nick Drake was also there, slipped into the mix by my friend from Sweden. Ah she slipped it right in there, dreams of silver screen flotation, when the rain was battering us along the coast for hours. On a road trip “In search of a lifetime, to tell when he’s home—in search of a story that’s never been known.” (Was this the spark of the “woman who’s never, never, never been born” Robert Plant sang of in Going to California? Well, we were going to California.) And what of the Chili Peppers, the California act par excellence of the era? This was the dark ages of cassette-equipped rental cars and all my good stuff was on CD.

Even then I dug those complex, unique chords arranged in relaxed, multilayered runs. The complexity of Nick Drake’s songs, in all their outward simplicity, was reminiscent of Leonard Cohen or Van Morrison. It also reminded me of life in The Village, trapped among the geriatric, boldly patterned, distinctly sinister umbrellas. This was the quintessential sound forged in my mind, of Northwest Pacific vistas—the rainy day strums of Nick Drake. We were listening to the first album, Five Leaves Left, which to me starts with four amazing, original songs and descends into over-orchestrated pathos & schmaltz (it’s as if Leonard Cohen’s eponymous debut was only half finished.)** But Nick Drake’s songs seemed to stand out beyond those others on that trip, expressing the ineffable. He is the one that I still regularly listen to. That trip I remember we camped along the Humboldt coast watching fluorescent plankton glide the gentle surface with their lights. And we found a place together, if only for a few nights.

3.

There is one more aspect of Road and its drone patternings that interests me. Nick Drake came from a musically inclined family, and his parents met in Rangoon, where they worked and lived. They settled in rural England before he was born. I imagine Drake was touched to the core with a passing knowledge of Southeast Asia, second-hand stories and whisps of sounds of a country he had never seen. This is one reason (I imagine in creative flights) that Nick Drake used the droning clip to such stunning effect. Not only in Road, but in From the Morning and, earlier, in Three Hours. From the Morning seems imbued with a slip-and-slide echo of the old Burma rail*** and, even more, hints at the subtle complexity of the raga. This is freedom of a sort, an open road, where you hear currents of cultures not your own. One of the books I read that resonated with me the most during my time in the Philippiness was Kipling’s Kim and this is to me the aural equivalent. An endless flight of life in monsoon latitudes, where time flows in an inevitable weaving of chaotic, yet loosely ordered, forms. Seen through a pastoral English lens.

Secondhand smatches of distant lands. Jardine April Limuran’s “In the Clearing” from Earth Fabric, a poetry-art collaboration.

Notes

*I explore this idea further in the poem In the Clearing.

**The Independent reported in June, 2014, that folksinger and Nick Drake mentor Beverley Martyn is auctioning an early reel of Drake’s songs, recorded shortly before the release of Five Leaves Left. She says “He was young… and his guitar playing is absolutely excellent. It really shows that he didn’t need to have this whole layer cake of strings.” My fervent hope is that these recordings are released, allowing me to construct a personal Five Leaves Left (presumably with different songs) that replaces the overwrought strings of the second half with something more meaningful, organic.

***Naturally, the wandering of the earlier Three Hours is more localized than that in From the Morning—going down to London from the province, to leave the dull academic world behind. Dropping out from Cambridge just shy of graduation to roam. Different perspectives, young and old(er). Still, Three Hours has an outwardly consistent philosophy with Road, “different tracks, can’t go back.” A prescription to continue in one’s vocation, whatever clouds emerge.

From Northern California, Damon Shulenberger is currently engaged in projects such as the mystery-thriller Arisugawa Park and the nonfiction work A One Drop Companion: Inside Poker’s $1 Million Tournament and the Players Who Risk It All. He also writes on burning topics such as krill oil and donut pies.