Nick Drake is an enigma
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