A new book explores a musical friendship entailing joy, anger, ‘mountains of drugs’ … and tragedy. In this extract, the pair’s friends examine a complex rivalry
In 1967, Robin Frederick, a singer-songwriter originally from Florida, returned to London from studying in Aix-en-Provence, where she had met a young, beautiful, meandering and tantalisingly unattainable young Englishman called Nick Drake. Frederick “spent the summer in London with John Martyn, listening to Sgt Pepper and the Incredible String Band, watching John learn to play sitar in about 10 minutes, living on toast and tea”.
She wrote the beautiful Sandy Grey about Drake, which cast him “in the role of wandering, rootless, fatherless boy”. Martyn recorded the song on his debut album, London Conversation. At the time, he didn’t know it was about Drake, or indeed even who Drake was. Perhaps he saw something of himself in it.
Introduced by their mutual friend Paul Wheeler, Martyn and Drake met for the first time in 1968, a year before the release of Drake’s debut album, Five Leaves Left. “Nick laughed a lot at John’s perceptive and witty comments,” Wheeler says. “Those were qualities which John used to win over live audiences … I think John was impressed by Nick’s ‘cool’.”
By 1969 and 1970, the social circle at the basement flat on Denning Road which Martyn shared with his wife Beverley and her young son, Wesley, was drawn largely from the Witchseason production and management company, and the Island label. It offered a familial, nurturing camaraderie. Nick Drake often dropped in; he, Martyn, and Richard Thompson would play in each other’s company, but almost always individually rather than interacting with one another. “I never remember them jamming together,” says Linda Thompson. “They were all brilliant guitarists, very different and stylised, so you couldn’t just jump in. They were careful not to tread on each other’s toes. It’s a dick thing; they all wanted to be better than each other.”
During this period Martyn and Drake became very close. In 2005 Martyn told me, “Nicky was one of my favourite human beings in the world.” Throughout his life, Martyn’s friendships with other men could be intense: tactile, tempestuous, thoughtful and surprisingly gentle, with lots of kisses and hugs. “John was different from other people in Glasgow; he was very free,” says Linda Thompson. “He wasn’t at all uncomfortable or frightened of loving a man – not in a physical way – which was quite unusual in those days. Nick and John loved one another. It was quite Greek, without the sex.”
Drake was living in Haverstock Hill in Belsize Park. The Martyns were a single stop down the Northern line in Hampstead. Half a mile apart. Drake was accustomed to being looked after – it had been that way at home, at school and at university – and the pattern continued among his friends. “Whatever Nick had, we were all helpless in front of it,” says Linda Thompson. “He had this messiah thing, which he did not try to cultivate at all, which made it all the more powerful. He truly didn’t care if you were there or not.” He enjoyed company “as long as he could choose to come and go,” says Wheeler. “He was like one of those cats which turn up at many households, all of which are under the impression that they have a unique role in providing food, shelter and company.”
At Denning Road, “he would come around and babysit sometimes,” Beverley, Martyn’s then wife, says. “He smelled the food cooking. I don’t think he had money to eat. He wore his father’s cast-off suits and his shirt was fraying at the edges.” When the Martyns went on holiday to Hastings, staying in the house they would eventually buy in the old town, Drake would sometimes come with them, sitting on the beach in his shabby suit, gazing out to sea. “He was the most introverted character I’ve ever met,” says Beverley, whose love for Drake was powerfully maternal. “I realised how sensitive he was, and John was very good with him, very gentle. Nick was no threat, so John looked after him. He was the only person John allowed, apart from Art Garfunkel, to visit me when he was away. We’d make jokes, take the piss and try to make him laugh. We’d open the door and go, ‘Oh no, not Nick Drag again!’”
On the surface, Drake and Martyn were poles apart. “Nick was a bit of a fragile lad,” says Pentangle’s Danny Thompson. “He was the kind of performer who would come on stage and stare at the floorboards during his whole set, then walk off without saying anything. John was completely the opposite.”
Posthumously, Drake has been almost deified, artfully moulded into the platonic ideal of a tortured artist, a beautiful young man too sensitive for the cut and thrust of the music industry or, indeed, the modern world in general. Some of that is true, and some of it is a feat of retrospective branding which has little romanticism about it. The resurrection of Drake in the 1990s as the quintessential cult artist was driven by a hard-headed marketing decision by PolyGram. Having bought Island Records, the company were keen to recoup losses on artists who had never sold any records.
Drake was gentle and withdrawn and enigmatic, certainly, but the reverence around him obscures part of the picture. Paul Wheeler maintains that he and Martyn were not quite so far apart as the mythos suggests. “I was in the middle of Nick and John, and I had a close relationship with both of them,” says Wheeler. “They are often cast as opposites – upper-class versus working-class and all that – but none of those things are actually true. It depends what bit you look at. In terms of sensitivity they were quite close, and Nick could get very angry indeed.”
If Danny Thompson became Martyn’s wildly extrovert alter ego, his sharp, bright, full-beamed reflection, then Drake was his dark shadow, something like a conscience: a hazy likeness of the more vulnerable, private and guarded part of his nature, the one revealed in song but rarely in person. “I think John’s spirit related to Nick’s spirit,” says Bridget St John. “He might have been outwardly different, but inwardly he and Nick were very, very similar. They both could tap into the really deep beauty in things.”
Drake sold so few records in his lifetime he was scarcely a professional threat, but his blank immunity to approval and his unshowy refusal to compromise presented a form of unspoken challenge to Martyn, who affected not to care about such things but probably in the end cared too much.
Sitting by the window in Denning Road, Martyn would see Drake descending the steps down to the basement and immediately rearrange his demeanour. If he and a friend were exchanging ideas on the guitar, that would stop. Drake would usually go into the kitchen first to talk quietly with Beverley. Martyn would twitch and mutter impatiently until Drake loped through to the living room. Early on, he made attempts to persuade his notoriously performance-averse friend to gig more frequently. When Drake released Five Leaves Left in the summer of 1969, Martyn played the record in the company of friends, skipping impatiently from track to track: “What do you think of that? What do you think of that?”
He was naturally competitive, but he was also attracted to Drake’s talent and the manner in which it contrasted with his own. “He just couldn’t believe Nick’s technique,” says Joe Boyd. “John was a spectacular guitar player but with a rough edge; there was a lot of approximation going on. That was John. He was always reaching beyond, [whereas] Nick would sit there for hours and work out a part and then play it absolutely impeccably and perfectly every single time. All those tunings were more sophisticated and complicated than what John was doing. So I think there was a fascination.”
There were less lofty connections. “They did mountains of drugs together,” says Linda Thompson. There is also the suspicion that, however superficial, Drake’s artfully faded officer-class credentials appealed to Martyn, who was not averse to concocting a heavily mythologised personal biography, in much the same way that Bob Dylan had a few years previously.
In Martyn’s case, his imagined CV betrayed a surprising degree of intellectual insecurity. A public schoolboy and son of a managing director, whose family home in Tanworth-in-Arden was sufficiently grand to come with a name attached – Far Leys – Drake had access to a social cachet that could neither be bought nor earned. Martyn very obviously appropriated parts of his backstory, as well as that of Paul Wheeler, telling several friends at the time that he had also attended Cambridge University, “which was certainly bollocks,” says Wheeler. “I think John wanted to be Nick Drake, and that’s what he did,” says Beverley Martyn. “He got Danny Thompson together and they went free-form.”
The title track of Martyn’s classic 1973 album Solid Air was written for Nick Drake, who in February 1972 had released what turned out to be his last album, the mordantly beautiful Pink Moon. “I remember John going to see Nick,” says Wheeler. “The day he got back, he rang me and sang Solid Air to me over the phone, unaccompanied.”
By now, Drake was increasingly withdrawn and taking antidepressants. His friends shuttled between exasperation and despair. “I tried everything to wake Nick up,” says Danny Thompson. “Being nasty to him, being kind to him, inviting him to my home in Suffolk – and John did the same. Maybe Solid Air was meant as a kick up the bum, but it was very difficult. As John says in the song, there was a lot going on in Nick’s mind.”
Martyn said the song was “done for a friend of mine, and it was done right, with very clear motives”. Triangulating between murmuring empathy, frustration and foreboding, he divines not only Drake’s quietly devastating emptiness, but the maddening impossibility of reaching him. There are declarations of unconditional love and solidarity, and the solemn promise to “follow you anywhere”, wherever it might lead.
“I think Solid Air was written at an early stage of Nick’s withdrawal into disillusionment and depression, moods which were shared by many of those who had invested heavily in the ideals of 1967 and watched those ideals decay, as chronicled by John Lennon in particular,” says Paul Wheeler. “At that stage, I think John [Martyn] took the line that friendship was a panacea. The ‘you’ in Solid Air was a projection of how John would wish to be treated, as an extrovert who always wanted company; for an introvert like Nick, who valued solitude, I think it would be perceived as intrusive that somebody should ‘follow you anywhere’.”
In the decades since Drake’s death in November 1974, the song has become a kind of requiem. At the time, it was something more complicated, a necessary release of things that could not be expressed face to face, left floating in the ether. “I’ve no idea if Nick was aware [that Solid Air was about him],” says Danny Thompson. “John would not be the kind of person to phone up Nick and say, ‘I’ve written this about you’. But the song allows the listener the freedom to hear how he feels about it. It’s very astute and tender. All John’s stuff is very personal. He didn’t make up fanciful stories; it was from the heart.” Attempted several times in the studio, the final cut is a work of almost casual brilliance: fragile, unanchored, barely in motion.
On the morning of 25 November, 1974, news reached Cobourg Place, Martyn’s home in Hastings, that Nick Drake had died at his family home in Tanworth-in-Arden from an overdose of antidepressants, a death deemed to be suicide by the coroner, though the verdict has been contested publicly by his family. He was 26.
His death was not entirely a surprise, but it shook the Martyns hard. Beverley felt she shared at least some understanding of the pain Drake had been in. “I was taking antidepressants in 1972 or 73,” she says. “I knew that he was ill and he needed help, but who could you go to? Sometimes he would talk, sometimes he wouldn’t talk, sometimes he would have a cup of tea and hold it for three hours looking out at the sea.”
In contrast to the romantic myth that Drake simply dissolved passively into a kind of bleached nothingness, he harboured a large amount of active anger towards the end of his life. “I think Nick had gone beyond disillusion into rage,” says Paul Wheeler. Drake had stayed at 10 Cobourg Place not long before his death and seemed uncharacteristically confrontational. Returning from a visit to the pub, where he had observed his friend chatting up a barmaid, he called Martyn “devious” and refused to hug Beverley when he left. “It was as if John had said or done something that night that had really upset him,” she wrote.
That visit was the last time Beverley saw Drake, although Martyn reportedly made a trip to Tanworth-in-Arden not long afterwards where, Martyn claimed, Drake disclosed disclosed the extent to which he felt he had failed with his musical career. “I never realised Nick Drake was ambitious until he confided to me that he was, and it took me greatly by surprise,” Martyn once told me. “It crushed him that he was ignored, because he was used to excelling at everything: as a student, as an athlete. In his eyes, it was the first time he’d ever failed at anything. It astonished me that he actually valued commercial success, but then I’m not ambitious at all, believe it or not.”
Exactly who the ambitious one was in their friendship, and to what extent, is open to question. “Nick was very honourable, and had the highest integrity,” says Wheeler. “He really did believe in the ideals of the 60s and he was very distressed at those ideals disintegrating … I felt that Nick felt that John had sold out [and] Nick really didn’t want to sell out.”
Island producer Phill Brown, Martyn’s friend and neighbour during the second half of the 70s, recalls Martyn telling him that he’d had “this terrible argument with Nick Drake. Nick had accused him of selling out because he had gone electric and was using pedals and things. John did his usual, wiped the floor with him verbally, which was a tough thing to do to Nick – and they were the best of mates. Within a month he was dead, and John had never phoned up to say sorry. That really haunted John. I remember being with him not long afterwards, and he was just destroyed.”
It was Wheeler who called Martyn to tell him the news that Drake had died. “I remember him just laughing, and I remember being totally disturbed at the time. The laugh scared me. John had a number of different characters which he would adopt in different circumstances. On first hearing about Nick’s death, I think he adopted the character of a tough guy who had no time for those who rejected help, probably as a defence mechanism to guard his own sensitivity and fear of isolation.”
Speaking years later, Martyn said: “I laughed, for which my wife never forgave me. I don’t think I’ve ever cried for Nicky. It seemed so obvious that it would come.” According to Beverley, Martyn simply said, “He did it,” and walked out of the room, not to be seen again for two days. There is no record of him attending the funeral on 2 December, and by the middle of the month he was back on the road.
• Extracted from Small Hours: The Long Night of John Martyn by Graeme Thomson, published by Omnibus Press on 9 July. Minor edits have been made for context and legibility.