Painfully shy, with an aesthetic that seemed to be from another time, Nick Drake’s stunning music was an inspiration to many, including John Cale, Paul Weller, Kate Bush and Robert Smith. Although Drake sold very few albums during his short life, he was able to create a small but startling musical legacy.
“A black eyed dog he called at my door. A black eyed dog he called for more. A black eyed dog he knew my name.”
“Black Eyed Dog,” one of the last songs that Nick Drake (1948-1974) recorded before his passing, almost seems to be written by a person who is slowly dying – and, in a manner of speaking, he was.
The somber-toned folksinger who sang of black-eyed dogs and loved ones buried under sand would have been seventy years old this year, though it’s rather difficult to picture Drake recording music in the new millennium. A true lost romantic, he seemed to be living in the wrong century. Had he been around in the days of Keats and Shelley, he would have been right at home, composing romantic ballads for his friends and admirers. Upon listening to his albums, it becomes apparent that Drake is a walking contradiction. He sings of lost loves and relationships, yet according to his friends, never experienced an intimate relationship in his short life. Perhaps that’s why there is a recurring element of romanticism within his music – he simply couldn’t express his feelings in real life.
“Fame is but a fruit tree so very unsound. It can never flourish ‘til it’s stock is in the ground. So men of fame can never find a way ‘til time has flown far from their dying day.” –Nick Drake, Fruit Tree
Nicholas Rodney Drake was born on June 19, 1948 in Burma (now Myanmar). His father, Rodney Drake, was an engineer who worked for the Burma-India Trading Company, and his mother, Molly, was an amateur pianist. According to Nick’s sister, actress Gabrielle Drake, both parents were accomplished musicians, and Molly would often write songs at the piano while Rodney would record them on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. As a child, Gabrielle Drake remembers her father taking Molly’s tapes to Birmingham to have a record made.
In a 2014 interview, Drake recalled, “My dad was wonderful at the piano. He had beautiful hands. Long, long fingers that were nearly always stained with engine oil from gadgets in the garden that he was trying to put right.” According to Drake, Molly proved to be a musical influence on their son, and if you’ve heard any of Molly’s recordings (many are available on Youtube), it’s evident that her harmonies are prevalent in Nick’s recordings.
Joe Boyd, who produced some of Nick Drake’s recordings, recalled in his memoir, White Bicycles, “Many years after Nick’s and Molly’s deaths, Gabrielle gave me a tape of her mother’s songs. There, in her piano chorus’ are the roots of Nick’s harmonies. His reinvention of the standard guitar tuning was the only way to match the music he heard as he was growing up.”
“…when John Cale heard a few of the tracks that he and Drake were working on, he exclaimed “Who the fuck is this guy? I have to meet him, where is he? I mean, where is he right now?”
When Nick Drake was three, his father accepted a job as managing director of a Birmingham engineer company, and the family moved from Burma to the English village of Tanworth-in-Arden. Hailing from a middle-class family, at the age of eight, Nick was sent away to the Eagle House prep-school in Surrey. During his time at the boarding school, he learned to play the clarinet and saxophone, and would often play the piano in the school orchestra. In 1962, he attended Marlborough College where he developed an interest in athletics and rugby, though athletics would not hold his interest for long.
The following year, Drake began to fail his courses, which baffled his teachers, as he had done so well at his previous school. Unbeknownst to the staff, this was largely attributed to the fact that he was focusing on music instead of his studies. Rather than hitting the books, Drake was immersing himself in a diverse range of artists, from Bob Dylan to Brownie McGee, to the works of John Keats. At the age of sixteen, he bought his first guitar and within a few years began to write his own songs. Perhaps it was because of his affinity for English poetry that Drake’s songs were so dark and somber, though this was soon to become his signature style.
In 1966, Drake was given a scholarship to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, where he was to major in English literature. Much to his parents’ surprise, he took a year off and traveled to Morocco before moving to London. During his time there, Drake moved in with his sister, Gabrielle, who was by then an up and coming actress, and befriended high society college kids – namely relatives of the Astors and Ormsby-Gores.
His first year at Fitzwilliam College proved to be a huge disappointment. According to his friends, the school was completely different to what he had envisioned. Sitting in his claustrophobic dorm room, Drake became disillusioned. Still, during his time at university, he left quite an impression on his fellow students. Classmate and friend Brian Wells recalled, “[he was] a slightly isolated figure who lived in his own head a lot. He was the guy who would just get up in the middle of an evening and leave, and everybody would say, ‘where’s Nick going?’ He was probably just going back to his room, but it made him mysterious to people.”
By 1968, it would have been an understatement to say Drake was no longer fond of his studies. Rather than studying and cramming for exams, he was writing songs and performing in cafés around London. That year he performed at a benefit concert at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, where he supported the American psychedelic rock band Country Joe and the Fish. During his performance, he was spotted by Ashley Hutchings of the folk-rock group Fairport Convention, who referred him to the band’s producer, Joe Boyd. Shortly after meeting Boyd and giving him his demo recordings, Drake was asked to sign a recording contract with Island Records.
Boyd said, “The clarity and strength of the talent were striking. It was like the moment I heard Robin Williamson’s ‘October Song’ or Richard Thompson’s solo at UFO, but there was something uniquely arresting in Nick’s composure. The music stayed within itself, not trying to attract the listener’s attention, just making itself available. His guitar technique was so clean it took a while to realize how complex it was.”
In the following months, Drake traveled, between lectures, from Cambridge to London in order to record his first album Five Leaves Left. The title of the album is a reference to the slip found near the bottom of a packet of Rizla rolling papers, a marijuana reference that listeners were quick to pick up on. The album included various backing musicians, like guitarist Richard Thompson of Fairport Convention and bassist Danny Thompson of Pentangle. After Robert Hewson failed to deliver the string arrangements that Boyd and Drake were looking for, Drake insisted his friend, music student Robert Kirby, be given the job of scoring the album.
Upon the album’s release in 1969, the press gave Five Leaves Left favorable reviews, the critics picking up on Drake’s poetic style. After hearing his songs on the hip radio stations around London, and reading the album reviews, Drake felt confident enough to abandon his schooling at Fitzwilliam College so he could focus on his music career. In 1970, Drake made his first major concert appearance supporting Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London. Shortly after, Joe Boyd booked Drake on his first British tour, but less than twenty dates in, Boyd received a call from Drake telling him that he couldn’t complete the tour.
In his 2006 memoir White Bicycles, Boyd wrote, “I spoke to the promoter of one of the shows. He said people talked a lot and when Nick started tuning between songs they talked more and bought more beer. The noises of glasses clinking and conversation became louder than Nick’s music. He never said anything on stage, just tuned and sang, and when the noise became too much, looked at his shoes for a minute then got up and walked off the stage. I felt briefly angry with Nick. ‘Why can’t he just say something? Why can’t he be more professional?’”
Although Drake was unprofessional during his performances, it was evident that he longed for the comforts of home. Without any friends or familiar faces to boost his morale on the road, he was beginning to slip into a deep depression. However, Drake was not about to give up. Yet.
In 1970, Drake began to write and record songs for a new album titled Bryter Layter. The title was a jibe at the British weather forecasters, who would often remark that the weather was “cloudy now, but brighter later.” According to Joe Boyd, when John Cale heard a few of the tracks that he and Drake were working on, he exclaimed “Who the fuck is this guy? I have to meet him, where is he? I mean, where is he right now?”
It wasn’t long before Cale began to contribute to the album, recording tracks with Chris McGregor, Richard Thompson and P.P. Arnold. The end result was an album that contrasted greatly with Five Leaves Left, featuring upbeat and jazzy tracks (“At the Chime of the City Clock,” “One of These Things First”) as well as stunningly emotional performances in“Northern Sky” and “Fly,” which opens with the plaintive lyric, “Please give me a second grace / Please give me a second face”.
However, due to Drake’s lack of touring and promotion, the album received good reviews but didn’t generate much in the way of sales.
During this time, French yé-yé singer Françoise Hardy had expressed interest in Drake writing songs for her latest album. In an attempt to help Drake out of his depression, Boyd traveled to Paris with him, hoping that he and Hardy would agree to a collaboration. Once again, Drake’s shyness seemed to hold him back from conversing with Hardy. According to Boyd, “It was excruciating. Nick sat there, head down, drinking his tea and didn’t say a word the whole time; and I had to fill in the awkward silences. Nonetheless, the meeting ended with a resolution for Drake to write some songs. But somehow he never got round to it.”
Concerning his personal relationships, Drake was very much an enigma. Throughout the years, fans and biographers have questioned his sexuality, many wondering if indeed he was a virgin when he died. “There were girls at Cambridge who were crazy about him…” recalled schoolmate Brian Wells. “But nothing ever happened as far as I know.” When Drake left school to pursue a career in music, he was still just as shy around women as he was at university. It seemed none of his friends or fellow musicians remembered him behaving in a sexual way with anyone, though they never questioned him about it.
“Linda Thompson tried to seduce Nick once,” remembers Joe Boyd. “But he just sat at the end of the bed, fully clothed, looking at his hands.”
According to Thompson, Drake was “a detached character. But lovely, too, and absolutely ravishing. He would come over to my place in Notting Hill and stay the whole day, or overnight. Not saying much, but playing records and songs.” It seemed the only way Drake could communicate with people was not through talking, but through music.
By 1971, Drake began to distance himself from his friends and family. He retreated to his home in London, and with the exception of the odd gig or two around London, had given up on live performances. Friends speculated that his change in behavior may have occurred due to low album sales, and the fact that his mentor Joe Boyd had sold his record company, Witchseason, to Island Records in order to focus on producing soundtracks in Los Angeles. Whatever the case, Drake was worse for wear, and the amounts of cannabis that he smoked daily failed to ease his troubled mind.
In an article for The Guardian, Robert Kirby shed some light on the state that Drake was in. “I think there was a great deal of embarrassment around his peer group that what he- and we- thought was going to happen hadn’t really happened,” he recalled. “Having made the break before completing his degree, I feel that maybe [he felt] he was letting his father down. I mean, it must have knocked his self-confidence if nothing else.”
During this time, Drake’s parents grew more and more concerned about their son’s well-being. At their insistence, he visited a doctor whose ‘remedy’ was to prescribe him the antidepressant Tryptizol. Sadly, it was this drug that would eventually lead to his death. Shortly after Drake’s doctor’s visit, Chris Blackwell, founder of Island Records, invited him to stay at his villa in Spain. It was evident that the troubled singer needed some ‘alone time’, and Blackwell hoped the trip would lift his spirits.
It seemed that Blackwell had the right idea. Drake, for the time being, returned to England motivated and ready to record a new album. The album, Pink Moon, was recorded within two evenings, and at his insistence was a solo acoustic album, featuring just Drake and his guitar. “Nick told me he wanted to make his next record alone,” recalled Boyd. “No arrangements, no sidemen, nothing.” Without any session musicians to back him up, the end result was a bare folk-oriented album that, despite selling fewer copies than his previous albums, would prove to be his masterpiece.
Shortly after the album’s release in early 1972, Drake moved out of London and back to his family home in Tanworth-in-Arden. Since he refused to tour and would not attend most events to promote his new album, the sales were staggeringly low, which meant that he was living on a weekly £25 retainer from Island Records. It wasn’t long before Drake began to sink into a deeper depression, eventually checking himself into a psychiatric hospital for several weeks.
By 1974, Drake was to have his last meeting with Joe Boyd, in which he demanded to know why he wasn’t rich and famous. He simply couldn’t understand that by being withdrawn and refusing to tour, the sales of his albums had suffered. Boyd recalled, “He looked far worse than I had ever seen him: his hair was greasy, his hands dirty, his clothes rumpled. More unnervingly, he was angry. I had told him he was a genius and others had concurred. So, he demanded, why wasn’t he famous and rich? This rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years. I confessed my own disillusionment – I had thought a great record would open all doors. Some good reviews, a few plays on John Peel – with no live shows, it hadn’t been enough.”
“The noises of glasses clinking and conversation became louder than Nick’s music. He never said anything on stage, just tuned and sang, and when the noise became too much, looked at his shoes for a minute then got up and walked off the stage.”
Shortly after this incident, Boyd, perhaps to appease Drake, booked some studio time for him. To his concern, he was in a terrible state and was unable to record guitar and vocals at the same time. By the end of the recording session, he was only able to complete four songs and no album ever came to fruition.
In a 2014 interview with Stuart Jeffries of The Guardian, Gabrielle Drake said, “I suppose that the thing you sort of dread and fear most in your life…well, you sort of know it’s going to happen. And I always knew, to some degree, that it was on the cards with Nick. And yet, at the same time, I was totally unprepared for it.”
On November 25, 1974, Drake’s mother entered her son’s room to find his body sprawled across the bed, a recording of Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos left on his turntable. According to the coroner’s report, 30 Trypitzol tablets (the antidepressant medication that Drake was prescribed months earlier), had been found in his system, and the death was ruled a suicide. This verdict was ruled out by many of his friends, including Boyd, who believes that Drake wouldn’t have succumbed to death.
“The coroner’s inquest returned a verdict of suicide…” stated Boyd “…but I wasn’t convinced. The anti-depressants Nick had been taking were different from modern drugs; doses were far stronger and the side effects only beginning to be understood. Nick’s parents said he was very positive in the weeks before his death, planning a move back to London and starting to play guitar again. But the drugs have been known to cause patients to ‘rollercoaster’.”
Whatever the case may be, Drake’s music would live on. Although his albums never sold while he was living, in the mid-1980s the sales of his records began to increase each year. Throughout the years, musicians Robert Smith, Kate Bush and Paul Weller have cited Drake as a musical influence, and have played tribute concerts in his memory.
By the time Volkswagen aired their commercial featuring Drake’s song “Pink Moon” in 1999, viewers who owned computers were able to download his music. That year, the sales of Drake’s albums soared, and for the first time, Pink Moon made it to the Billboard Top 100. While it had taken more than twenty years for listeners to appreciate his music, Drake has since developed a cult following. In 2003, Rolling Stone included all three of his albums on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list. With Five Leaves Left ranking in at 280, Bryter Layter at 245 and Pink Moon at 320, it’s safe to say that the fragile virtuoso is having the last laugh.
Boyd noted, in his memoir, “His refusal to include my favorite – “Things Behind the Sun” – and his insistence on including those three instrumentals were his way of stamping his foot. His ghost is having the last laugh: the stark Pink Moon is his biggest selling album while Bryter Layter trails in third place after Five Leaves Left.”