Nick Drake: The Biographyby Patrick Humphries
Singer/songwriter Nick Drake was only 26 and largely unknown when he died of a drug overdose in 1974. With only three albums -- and nary a hit among them -- he hardly seemed the most likely candidate for rock 'n' roll canonization. But Drake's reputation has been steadily on the rise in the nearly quarter of a century since his death. Each ensuing generation of fans and artists, it seems, discovers him anew: His songs have been covered by the likes of Lucinda Williams, the High Llamas, Airlines, and Sebadoh. Now Patrick Humphries, author of Richard Thompson:The Biography and Small Change: A Life Of Tom Waits, attempts to satisfy the curiosity of the ever-expanding Drake cult with a biographical look at the star-crossed artist, Nick Drake: The Biography.
In his lifetime he sold fewer records than Garth Brooks does in an afternoon. He performed no more than a couple dozen times, most often in tiny London folk clubs where his frail voice and intricate guitar playing were lost in the noise of the crowd. His records received only sporadic mention in the music press, and he gave only one major interview. Yet, since his death in 1974, his music has managed to beguile one new generation of fans after another, and his records regularly show up in the fin de siècle Top 100 lists of influential musicians and writers.
So who is this artist, and what is it about his work that continues to touch the souls of new listeners with every passing year? That's the question Patrick Humphries set out to answer in Nick Drake: The Biography. In researching the book, Humphries, who also penned biographies of singer/songwriter giants Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson, interviewed Drake's schoolmates and musical contemporaries, tracing the arc of his brief life from childhood through his years at Cambridge in the late '60s, the release of his three albums of stunningly intimate English folk, and his slide into the mists of depression and isolation that eventually took him away, dead of an overdose of prescribed antidepressants.
It couldn't have been an easy task to pull together into a coherent story the strands of Drake's life. Like the first blues scholars to go south searching for the voices captured on strange and haunting 78s, the author followed those few leads available to him, sifting through scraps and ephemera, comparing stories of acquaintances and friends, many of whom admit that, even to those who knew him, Drake was something of a mystery. He would show up unexpectedly, only to sit, barely speaking, until he disappeared again. Researching his life is a bit like trying to find the man by studying the shadows left on the walls as he passed.
Nick himself left precious little behind: a single notebook, the contents of his room at his parents' home in Tanworth-in-Arden, and a body of work that includes little more than the three albums released in his lifetime (a fourth was compiled years later). Like Robert Johnson before him, most of what we know about him is in the grooves. In his music -- the achingly beautiful pastoral strains of "Five Leaves Left," the more urbane "Byter Later," with its elaborate arrangements and augmentations by Richard Thompson and Velvet Underground alumnus John Cale, and the haunted introspection of "Pink Moon," recorded with just voice and guitar -- we experience both his fragile genius and his quick decline in spirit. Then there are the four recordings made shortly before his death, some of the starkest "dark night of the soul" music ever committed to tape. In "Black Eyed Dog" you can almost hear Johnson's hellhounds baying in the distance.
As Brian Pendreigh is quoted as saying, "Drake is probably the first rock singer to be discovered after his death. Death certainly boosted the careers of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and others, but they were already major stars. They were too wild to get through life. Drake was the opposite. Drake was too delicate."
The cult that has grown since Drake's death has raised many questions about the man that the author does his best to address. Was Drake abandoned by an uncaring music industry, or was he in fact given every break, considering that he sold very few records, rarely toured, and only once talked to the press? (Producer Joe Boyd, for example, apparently treasured Drake's music, and on selling his Witchseason Productions to Island in the '70s, did so on the condition that Drake's records never go out of print.) Was Drake a drug user, and, if so, was that a factor in his decline? Or, like Syd Barrett, was Drake a victim of clinical depression whose drug use only disguised his condition until it was too late? Was Drake's late-night overdose of Triptizol a suicide, or simply the mistake of a troubled soul who couldn't get to sleep? And what is it about Drake's music that makes people still ask these questions, even 25 years after his passing?
Some of these questions may never be fully answered, but Humphries does help to flesh out our picture of Drake, offering little-known discographical information (that the first ever cover of Drake's music was by Millie Small of "My Boy Lollipop" fame, for example, and that Elton John recorded several never-released covers in his Reg Dwight days), firsthand accounts of his few concert appearances, studio reminiscences, and more. If you've ever been touched by the timeless beauty and haunting ache in Nick Drake's work and so desire to know more about the man behind the songs, Nick Drake: The Biography was written for you. There may never be a better telling of his story.
John Neilson, barnesandnoble.com
- Bloomsbury UK
- Publication date:
Read an Excerpt
Teak first drew the British to Burma. A heavy, durable timber, it was much favoured in the building of ships at a time when the British needed more and more vessels to service their expanding Empire. Even when the wooden hulks gave way to steel dreadnoughts, Burma still had plenty to offer far-away Britain, not least the fruit of its rubber trees. Rich in teak forests, and with rubber plantations stretching to the far horizon, Burma enriched the Empire.
In 1824 a Burmese invasion of Bengal had led to fears of further incursions into British-ruled India, but the two nations managed to maintain their uneasy alliance for another sixty years until, in 1885, Burma's King Thibaw decided to confiscate the assets of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation (BBTC), the leading Anglo-Burmese firm which would later employ Nick Drake's father, Rodney. This sequestration led to a full-scale invasion by 10,000 British and Indian troops, and by 1886 Burma had become a fully integrated part of the British Empire.
Long before Nick Drake was born there, and long before his father worked in the country, Burma was already the subject of fiercely divided opinion. Rudyard Kipling had written of his love of Burma in the poem 'Mandalay'. George Orwell hated the place with a vengeance, having spent 'five boring years' there between 1922 and 1927, as an officer in the Imperial Police. Burma may have disgusted Eric Blair, as Orwell was then known, but it inspired some of his best writing, notably the short stories 'A Hanging' and 'Shooting An Elephant'. In 1934 his first novel, Burmese Days,though enthusiastic about the country and its landscape ('It was a good life while one was young and need not think about the future or the past'), displayed real venom towards the petty snobbery and pinched racism of the expatriate British Empire-builders.
For the British inhabitants of Burma during the 1920s and 1930s it was a good life. Servants kept the mundane at bay during the day, while the evenings were spent socializing and fulminating against progress and native independence with those of a like mind. There was a prosperity in Rangoon and other capital cities of the British Empire which kept the expats buoyant. Back at home you might have been born to trade and struggling for acceptance, but in Burma you were unquestionably part of the ruling class. It could be an idyllic and undemanding life, with no reason to change. The Empire had survived a mutiny in India in 1857 and no other nation had since had the temerity to challenge decisions made in Whitehall on its behalf.
If you came from the top drawer, the product of a public school, the far-flung reaches of the Empire were a good place to finish your education, in the teak or rubber trade, or the Army. Clive and Livingstone, Rhodes and Wellington these were the gods of Empire, in whose shadow you walked.
By 1937, though, another sun rising further to the East was beginning to cast shadows. Long-time British residents in the Far East had never paid much attention to the threat of Japan, dismissing the barbarities meted out by its army to the Chinese since 1931 as like against like. The British Empire surely had no reason to fear the tiny, rather jaundiced-looking troops of the Emperor Hirohito. Here was racism they would live to regret.
Just before eight o'clock on the morning of 7 December 1941, two years and three months after Hitler unleashed the Nazi blitzkrieg on Europe without warning or declaration of war, Japanese dive-bombers zeroed in on the American fleet at Pearl Harbor. Within half an hour over two thousand Americans lay dead or dying, and the European conflict had exploded into a global war. Just three months later the Japanese had subjugated the Far East, and the Empire of the Sun had spread its tentacles from the tip of the Soviet Union all the way to Australia, thousands of miles across the Pacific.
Before Pearl Harbor, Burma had been seen as a safe outpost of the British Empire, the likelihood of war reaching its inhabitants remote. Even as Nazi tanks trampled across Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and France in the spring of 1940, the residents of Rangoon were untroubled by the war which raged half a world away from them. Others scoffed at such lassitude, and a rhyme, popular in the officers' messes of the Far East, ran:
'Where was I when the war was on?'
I can hear a faint voice murmur,
'Where was I when the war was on?
In the safest place, in Burma.'
Within three days of Pearl Harbor, the British territories of Singapore and Hong Kong had been bombed, and Japanese troops had landed in Malaya. By 12 December the war was inching towards Burma, and Victoria Point, the Burmese town nearest to the Thai border, was evacuated. Rangoon itself was bombed during the following December, and as the Japanese swept along the Malay Peninsula, Burma's rich rubber and teak plantations offered a succulent prospect.
As Singapore 'the Gibraltar of the East' fell in February 1942, the full extent of Japanese barbarities became apparent. On capture, prisoners were bayoneted or beheaded. Survivors were treated contemptuously by their Japanese captors, who believed they had sacrificed all honour by allowing themselves to be taken alive. A living hell followed, in the steaming jungles of the Malay Peninsula, where the Japanese built their prison camps.
As the Japanese swept on, bombing Australia, taking Java and the Dutch East Indies, they seemed unstoppable. Early in March 1942 Japanese troops entered Pegu, forty miles from Rangoon, and within days General Alexander ordered the evacuation of the city. Burma fell soon afterwards.
By July the country was occupied by the Japanese, who sought to build a railway connecting their forces in Burma with those in Thailand. For over a year 46,000 Allied prisoners of war laboured on the line which became known as 'The Railway of Death'. By the time the last sleeper was laid, 16,000 POWs and 50,000 Burmese labourers had died of starvation, brutality and disease. It was said that every sleeper laid along the 258 miles of track had cost one prisoner his life.
As the Japanese thrust deeper into Burma during the spring of 1942, my Uncle Jim led a group of British subjects and loyal Burmese out, by car, train, raft and on foot. He was doctor and leader to the straggling column for two months as they made their escape, sometimes only hours ahead of the advancing Japanese. In his journal he wrote of professors and bankers, planters and policemen, all fleeing. As the detritus of the European community in Burma lay all about them, they knew they were witnessing the end of something and that, inconceivable as it had seemed a few months before, this Empire too might fall.
Rodney Shuttleworth Drake was born at his parents' home in Redhill, Surrey, on 5 May 1908. The Drakes were a medical family and his father, Ernest Charles, was a surgeon who had trained at St Bartholomew's Hospital in London. At the age of fourteen, Rodney followed family tradition by going to Marlborough College, but he left the school just a few months after his seventeenth birthday. He trained as an engineer and later took the long voyage out to Burma, to work for a British firm dealing principally in teak.
Rodney fitted in well in both Burma and the company, and his name occurs frequently in A.C. Pointon's official history of the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. It was in Rangoon that he met Mary Lloyd, known as Molly. On 14 April 1937 a quarter of a century to the day since the Titanic had sunk they were married in the cathedral in Rangoon. Molly was twenty-one years old, Rodney almost twenty-nine.
During early 1942, caught up in the chaos as the Japanese armies cut a swathe across Burma, Rodney and Molly Drake, along with others employed in Burma, were evacuated to BBTC's headquarters in India. By the end of the year Rodney had taken over sawmills at Poona and Jhelum.
Nick's older sister, Gabrielle, was born in Lahore, while the Drakes were stationed in India. One of her earliest memories is of living in an inventive house built by her father. Rodney had been sent a sawmill from America, and in addition to erecting this he used the enormous packing cases to construct a home for the family.
Within three years Rodney was back in Burma. He returned to Rangoon just weeks after its liberation in May 1945, to inspect what remained of the milling capacity after the long years of Japanese occupation. BBTC officially resumed trading on 1 January 1946, with the intention of returning the company to its pre-war eminence. But things had changed in Burma.
Despite initial cooperation with the Japanese, whom they saw as a means of overthrowing British imperialism, the Burmese nationalist movement had eventually fought alongside the Allies against the Japanese. But with the war over, and buoyed by the announcement of independence for India in May 1946, the nationalists once again took up arms against British imperialism. With weapons supplied by the British to fight the Japanese, the Burmese began their fight for freedom. Soon struggles within the movement led to a civil war in Burma, with fighting between nationalist guerrillas and communists continuing until Burma was granted full independence, on 4 January 1948, some five months before Nick was born.
Like other British companies, BBTC was concerned about the effect Burma's independence would have on trade. It fell to Rodney Drake to formulate a plan, and early in 1949 he put a proposal before the Burmese Government to terminate BBTC's responsibilities in exchange for 'a form of payment for all it would surrender'.
Walter Snadden worked alongside Rodney in Rangoon in 1948, and nearly half a century later he still remembered Nick's father fondly as 'one of the old school'. Rodney, he said, was 'an Englishman of the past, of the colonial past, and well respected'.
On 19 June 1948, while the eyes of the rest of the world were on the divided city of Berlin, where an Allied airlift was bringing supplies to the starving population, my late uncle, Dr J.W. Lusk OBE, MD, ChB, the Drakes' family doctor in Burma, delivered Nicholas Rodney Drake, at the Dufferin Hospital in Rangoon.
Nick's birthplace was the one exotic and faintly exceptional thing about him. A scion of the English upper middle classes, the Drake's second child was born where his parents' business had taken them. Those who dealt in Empire business, whether in commerce or on active service, were well used to a life of dislocation.
Rodney continued to work in Rangoon, supervising the gradual hand-over of mills to the Burmese Government. In 1949 he travelled to Borneo to negotiate with the North Borneo Trading Company over the possibility of expanding BBTC's operations into their territory. The Drakes left Rangoon in 1950, when Rodney was made Company Manager in Bombay, but by 1951 he had decided that it was time to take his wife and children back to England.
The following year he joined the Wolseley Engineering Company, in Birmingham, installing his family in a small village half an hour's drive from the city. The company Rodney joined, and of which he became Managing Director in 1953, manufactured cars. In later years he would remember that in 1900 his own father had bought a car from the pioneering Herbert Austin then of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company and driven it all the way back to Redhill: 'quite a feat in those days'.
Coming back from the bright sunshine of Burma to the grey austerity of Britain in the immediate postwar years must have been a shock. During the war Britain's cities had been pummelled by Nazi bombs and rockets while it stood alone against Hitler's aggression, and by 1950 the nation was counting the cost. Determined that returning troops would not suffer the humiliation which had greeted returning survivors of the Great War, the new Labour government embarked on a massive wave of public spending. Money was poured into houses, schools and hospitals. In the chill winters of the Attlee government, the Welfare State was painstakingly constructed, brick by brick, from the bomb craters and blitzed buildings of a Britain which had won the war but was already in danger of losing the peace.
It is questionable how much of this change impinged upon life at Far Leys, the large comfortable house in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, where the Drake family settled on their return from Burma. What we do know is that this beautiful little village would remain home to the Drake family for as long as Rodney, Molly and Nick lived.
Meet the Author
Writer and journalist Patrick Humphries is the author of acclaimed biographies of Paul Simon, Bob Dylan and Richard Thompson. He lives in London, England.
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