Since his suicide 30 years ago, Nick Drake’s legend has grown and now the discovery of his final recorded song has cast new light on that fateful night in 1974. Family, friends and Drake’s former lover reveal for the first time the inner life of an other-worldly singer.
By Peter Paphides THE GUARDIAN April 2004.
Sheltered by a mighty oak tree in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden, Nick Drake’s headstone lies beside a well-beaten path. In accordance with the notice on the tree – ‘fans are requested to pay their respects by leaving only small tokens or flowers’ – the stone is surrounded by all manner of tiny ephemera. In March, 2004, these included a harmonica, two bracelets, a ring, a framed picture of a girl dancing on the brow of a hill and the reminder from a packet of Swan rolling papers that prompted Drake to call his first album Five Leaves Left.
If anyone gets around to making a biopic of the great singer-songwriter, chances are this spot, gazing over the valley towards the Warwickshire countryside, will be where the closing credits begin and the prescient tones of ‘Fruit Tree’ fade up: ‘Fruit tree, fruit tree/ No one knows you but the rain and the air/ Don’t you worry/ They’ll stand and stare when you’re gone.’
Drake’s sister would be lying if she said she hadn’t entertained the notion of a film at some point. There have been several approaches. But in the end, as the guardian of Drake’s legacy, the actress Gabrielle Drake finds it hard to see what would be served by such an exercise: ‘He’s a wonderful romantic hero. But any films about the lives of artists end up making them smaller, not bigger. It’s hard to think of someone capturing those almost uncapturable nuances. Also, any film, in the end, is trying to be an explanation of the artist.’
And besides, what could any film hope to explain? As Gabrielle is at pains to point out, there was no unhappy childhood to avenge; no traumas to shove into the creative crucible. Shortly after arriving in Tanworth from colonial Burma, Nick was the head boy at his prep school; a champion sprinter at Marlborough; exceptionally quick to pick up the guitar. At Cambridge, where a passing familiarity with folk and blues guitar was de rigueur among English students, Drake’s friends felt he was destined for great things.
One of those students was Paul Wheeler. Himself a singer-songwriter, Wheeler’s suggestion that Cambridge merely stoked the creative furnace is borne out by what we already know. Months previously, on a holiday in Aix-en-Provence, Drake wrote his first songs. In 1967, within weeks of his arrival at university – aided by the recreational relaxants of the day – the minutiae of Cambridge life began to take shape in his subconscious, creating some of the songs that would define him as an artist. ‘Gonna see the river man,’ went one mesmerising new song, ‘Gonna tell him all I can/ About the plan for lilac-time.’ Wheeler recalls: ‘He would cross the river every time he went into town. That would be a daily ritual. I’m sure that’s reflected on “River Man”.’
Even by Nick Drake’s suddenly prodigious standards, this new song was exceptional. That Drake must have been proud of it is reflected in the many accounts of people who remember him playing it at the time. Of all Drake’s friends, Robert Kirby had more reason than most to be excited.
Kirby, a music student, had presented him with some arrangements for his songs. Deploying the vernacular of the day, Drake told his parents: ‘He’s quite hip to my stuff.’ A few weeks later he bagged a slot at the Camden Roundhouse (supporting Country Joe and the Fish) and strolled into a record deal. In the audience was Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings, who forwarded Drake’s details to producer-cum-label manager Joe Boyd. Having licensed his Witchseason roster to the nascent Island records, Boyd had been instrumental in kickstarting the careers of Fairport Convention, John and Beverley Martyn and the Incredible String Band. Potentially, Nick had qualities that could eclipse them. ‘He looked like a star,’ says Hutchings. ‘That made me want to get a bit closer.’
Early on in the sessions for Five Leaves Left, Boyd discovered that Drake’s silence served at times to conceal his deep-rooted obstinacy. That he knew what he wanted became clear when Boyd drafted in arranger Richard Hewson for ‘I Was Made to Love Magic’. Drake patiently waited for Hewson to complete work on the track. Then, when the musicians had gone home, he let it be known that his friend at university could do a much better job. With Drake already having resolved not to return for his third year at Cambridge, the promise of work on a proper album was enough to encourage Kirby to follow suit.
With Gabrielle’s acting career taking off, it made sense for her younger brother to move into her Hampstead flat. But despite sharing the same roof, he became no less mysterious to her. ‘He was very secretive. I knew he was making an album but I didn’t know what stage of completion it was at until he walked into my room and said, “There you are.” He threw it on to the bed and walked out!’
As the reviews in September 1969 confirmed, Five Leaves Left offered a full vindication of Drake’s insistence that his Cambridge friends be on hand to do the arrangements. On the face of it, the exuberant, working-class Kirby couldn’t be more different from Drake, but Kirby seemed to intuit exactly what Drake needed to communicate: ‘Mozart was my favourite composer but the Beatles ran him a close second,’ Kirby recalls.
It was in homage to George Martin’s arrangements on ‘Eleanor Rigby’ that Kirby set about creating a setting for Drake’s ‘Day is Done’. When Drake played him ‘Way to Blue’, Kirby brought out its hymnal qualities, scoring an arrangement that owed more to Handel than the undergraduate favourites of the day.
With the release of Five Leaves Left came new obligations. As was customary for any act with a new album to promote, Boyd sent Drake out on tour. The bustling venues he was booked to play in couldn’t have been further removed from the shows he had played in Cambridge. The string octet that accompanied him then had provided a safety net of sorts. Away from the underground happenings of London, away from his friends, performing hitherto unheard songs to unappreciative punters was a daunting prospect.
In the audience for his show at Keen and Nettlefolds Works Social Club in Smethwick was Robert Jones: ‘Nick came on at about 9pm. They were still clearing away the tables and chairs [from an earlier dinner]. Without a word he proceeded to play and an audience of 10 to 15 people gathered in front of the stage. The rest of the people in the hall continued to arrange chairs, clean up after the meal or just chat. After five or six numbers he just packed his guitar in its case and walked off stage.’
Despite a well-received performance supporting Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall, the dates on his 1969 tour were to be his last. Beverley Martyn, who befriended Drake around this time, suggests that his self-belief took a battering from which it never quite recovered: ‘He didn’t have the confidence and joke-telling that John [Martyn] had. If someone was being noisy at the bar, John could somehow find a way of winning their attention.’
So he would be there with the eventual intention of knocking on the door?
‘If he’d got the bottle to do it, yes. He would just come and spend the day or the night. I would make up a bed for him. You just had to let him do what he wanted, really, which was often to play the same album over and over again – or look out the window with a cup of tea in his hands for four hours.’
The silences were getting longer. Exasperated by his friend’s behaviour, John Martyn wrote one of his most famous tunes, ‘Solid Air’ for Drake: ‘I know I love you/ And I can be your friend, I can follow you anywhere.’
Drake’s most specific grievances seemed to converge around the man who had offered him a recording contract. Joe Boyd remembers the meeting at which things came to a head: ‘He called me and said he wanted to see me. So he came in and he was like, “If I’m so good, where’s the money?”‘ In response, Boyd suggested to him that success was never guaranteed, no matter how good the artist. Furthermore, while Drake was unwilling to go and perform, his chances of building up an audience were meagre. But how to build up an audience when facing individuals was hard enough?
The late Rodney and Molly Drake were beginning to receive calls from their son asking them to pick him up. On his customary drives he would sooner run out of petrol than ask the attendant to fill his tank. These futile excursions – the attempt to escape, running out of fuel – seemed a painfully apt metaphor for his adult life. ‘I don’t like it at home,’ he told his mother, ‘but I can’t bear it anywhere else.’
Following abortive plans to join the army and get a job as a computer programmer, Drake made one final attempt to take control of his life. In the summer of 1974, following his 26th birthday, he stayed with friends in a barge on the Seine. His letters home suggested some kind of new-found resolution – but the songs he recorded on his return to London told a more complex story. ‘Why do you leave me hanging on a star,’ asked one of them, ‘when you deem me so high?’ Joe Boyd recognised the complaint from their meeting a few months previously.
That Drake had hit a new low was perfectly apparent – not only from the rest of the songs in that final session but from his inability to sing and play the guitar at the same time. ‘He looked pretty bad that night. I remember being taken aback.’
Wheeler remembers feeling ‘shock and respect’ when he heard ‘Black-Eyed Dog’, with its declaration, ‘I’m growing old and I wanna go home.’
Shortly before Drake died, John Martyn paid him a visit in Tanworth, but he seemed unreachable: ‘No matter how much you told him you loved him,’ he recalls, ‘he still couldn’t take it on board. You know, if you gave him everything, he still wouldn’t understand that he was loved.’
Everyone was concerned, but no one really knew what to do. His parents had hidden all the pills in the house that they had thought to be potentially dangerous. So when he went to bed on 24 November 1974 there was no undue cause for concern.
‘He went up to bed rather early,’ said Molly Drake shortly after her son’s death. ‘I remember him standing at that door, and I said to him, “Are you off to bed Nick?” I can just see him now, because that’s the last time I ever saw him alive. And that was it, and the next morning … ‘
Rodney Drake, also speaking after Nick’s death, recalled: ‘Apparently he’d been downstairs during the night, and had some cornflakes or something like that. And he often did that, as a matter of fact, when he couldn’t sleep. He often used to go downstairs. More often than not Molly would hear him passing our bedroom door and she’d get up, put a dressing gown on, go down and talk to him. This occasion, she didn’t hear him. And he went back and he took an extra strong dose of these pills that had been prescribed for him, called Triptyzol, which we thought were antidepressants. These particular things we didn’t think were in any way dangerous.’
‘I suppose,’ says Gabrielle Drake today, ‘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.’
Of all Drake’s songs, ‘Fruit Tree’ continues to dictate how the world has come to understand his story. The song once even prompted Joe Boyd to surmise: ‘He seemed to know everything that was in store for him. I mean, he says it all in that song.’ Perhaps it’s worth bearing in mind though that Drake was still a teenager in thrall to the romantic poets when he wrote the lyrics. The same year, Drake and his roommate at Aix-en-Provence were buying copies of Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal.
Idealism was unencumbered by the need to keep the wolf from the door. Indeed, these days, Boyd’s more complex appraisal of the song suggests that Drake’s resolutely metaphysical outlook gathered its own tragic momentum: ‘Nick was obviously a more sensitive, literate character than Pete Townshend penning the words, “I hope I die before I get old”.
Some people do get trapped in a persona and find it difficult to survive as a result. What I mean to say is that, even if Nick imagined at the age of 19 that he would only be remembered when he was gone, that’s a nice easy thing for a 19-year-old to think. Because you’re not thinking about what it will actually mean to confront mortality before you’re 30. But when I met him in 1974, I think he saw what it meant. And he was very upset by that, and angry. He saw that it was a dead end. And no fun.’
While the world has never wanted for introspective singer-songwriters, no artist since his death has sounded like Nick Drake. And yet, if you took the reviews section of any music paper at its word, half a dozen albums are released every month that remind you of him. This may not tell us much about those records but it speaks volumes about our relationship to Drake’s music.
In one sense his legacy is huge yet there remains achingly little of it. As his relevance increases so does the insatiable yearning for their source to yield more. Hence the constant referencing. Hence the steady stream of bootlegs, umpteenth-generation copies of home recordings made by Rodney and Molly as a thank you to fans who had knocked on their door. Somehow, it seems that we can’t quite accept the fact that this was all that he left behind.
After 1977, when Drake’s final four recordings were appended to the US release of Pink Moon, the official line on unheard songs has been that there is nothing left ‘of releasable quality’. Four years ago, Gabrielle yielded to the inevitable and agreed to examine the possibility of putting out ‘properly cleaned-up versions’ of the blues and folk tunes that formed the kernel of all those Drake bootlegs. According to Robert Kirby, the objective was to try to ‘get the definitive best version of everything that’s worth listening to’.
Among the archives unearthed were a version of ‘Three Days’ featuring the late Kwaku Baah on congas – and a tape of Drake performing ‘River Man’ in Kirby’s room at Cambridge. Kirby also informed Gabrielle that he still had his original never-recorded arrangements for ‘I Was Made to Love Magic’ and ‘Time of No Reply’. A string octet was duly summoned to the studio, in the process astrally chauffeuring Kirby 36 years back to Cambridge, where these arrangements were last performed: ‘You know sometimes, when you catch a smell from long ago, and it knocks you for six? Having the musicians there, and Nick’s voice coming out of the speakers once again … I momentarily lost it. Quite amazing.’
For his part, Wood listened to every reel in the archive. Alighting upon the final four songs recorded by Drake, he pressed play and began to make notes before setting about mixing them for this putative release. After ‘Black-Eyed Dog’ ran its course, Wood let the tape run on. Gabrielle picks up the story: ‘That day I was dashing off to rehearsals somewhere else and I just nipped into the studio. I walked down the passageway and John said, “We’ve got another song!” He had forgotten. They had a fifth song, but he had forgotten all about it. The funny thing was that afterwards I came across a piece of paper with five titles written on it – one of which was “Tow the Line”. They had ticks beside them. In Nick’s writing.’
So … a ‘new’ Nick Drake song. If the notion sounds odd, the reality is only slightly less unnerving than having a black-eyed dog call at your door. Regardless of what it sounded like, ‘Tow the Line’ would have been the most significant Drake discovery since his death. But the song itself is extraordinary; propelled chiefly by an insistent repeated note on the bass string, the haunting lyric takes on the form of a direct address to its subject: ‘This day is the day that we rise or we fall/ This night is the night that we win or lose all … If you call we will follow/ If you show us we can tow the line.’
John Wood says: ‘It seems to me that if “Hanging on a Star” is about Joe Boyd, then “Tow the Line” probably is as well.’ Boyd himself reserves judgment ‘pending more listens’. He only heard the song for the first time when being interviewed for this piece. Robert Kirby feels that Drake’s final song is a direct address to the muse which had all but deserted him in the latter two years of his life, a final attempt to shed his Cambridge persona – an admission that finally ‘he is prepared to play the game. He’ll go on the road. He’ll be commercial’.
With almost comical understatement, Gabrielle describes it as ‘a song of some resignation’. As well she might – its sentiments seem to tally closely with Gabrielle’s long-held explanation of what may have been going through her brother’s mind in the moments before his death: ‘My feeling is that what happened was that he had all these pills, it certainly wasn’t premeditated, that he just tipped them out into his hand, and threw them into his mouth and swallowed them – and thought, “What the hell, either I die or I live and things will be changed. Something different will happen.”‘
Before their son’s death, Rodney and Molly Drake had assumed that their helplessness in the face of his illness was something to do with their inability to communicate with him, that somehow they could have done more if only they had known what to do. At his funeral, surrounded by the various groups of friends that their son had ‘compartmentalised’, it became apparent that everybody who had known Nick Drake felt the same way. ‘He was barely there, really,’ says Linda Thompson. ‘I’m not even sure if I’d call it shyness. I never felt like he really belonged here at all. He was spectral.’
Rodney Drake once said: ‘I remember in one of his reports towards the end of the time at his first school, the headmaster said that none of us seemed to know him very well. And I think that was it. All the way through with Nick, people didn’t know him very much.’
In view of the people Nick Drake has reached since his death, his father’s words are not a little ironic. In 2004 Drake has become so much more than the sum total of his work. The greater our fascination with him, the more we reveal about ourselves. Perhaps these songs succeed in reconnecting us with a part of ourselves that has all but died away. And if, as a result, we feel a little less like ‘a remnant of something that’s passed’, then let’s be thankful Nick Drake stayed as long as he did.