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The start of the all-too-brief recording life of Nick Drake, on his debut ‘Five Leaves Left,’ released by Island on September 1, 1969.
Don’t go looking for extensive chart statistics to map the career of Nick Drake, because there aren’t any. That’s to say that, however much we now rightly revere the quintessential sensitive singer-songwriter, his tragically short life was painfully unrepresented by commercial rewards on either the UK or US charts while he was alive. A far cry from today, when you hear his music playing everywhere, from album-oriented radio stations to supermarkets.
We’re celebrating the start of Drake’s all-too-brief recording span and his debut album Five Leaves Left. Produced by the great acoustic music frontiersman Joe Boyd and released by Island on September 1, 1969, the LP featured such timelessly haunting pieces as “Time Has Told Me,” “River Man” and “Way To Blue.”
Five Leaves Left, which took its title from the manufacturer’s message inserted near the end of a packet of Rizla cigarette papers, was recorded between the summer of 1968 and a year later. It featured contributions from Richard Thompson, then of Fairport Convention, on guitar, Danny Thompson on bass and others, as well as the beautiful arrangements of Robert Kirby.
The record has come to be internationally acknowledged as a classic, landing at No.280 in Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, 85th in a 2005 poll by the UK’s Channel 4 TV, and No.74 in an NME all-time list. In 1975, the NME’s Nick Kent described it as “one of those albums that seem tied to exhorting and then playing on a particular mood in the listener, like Astral Weeks and Forever Changes.”
Public indifference, critical approval
Indeed, the public’s apparent indifference to Drake’s singular talents was not for lack of some critical approval. Mark Williams, reviewing Five Leaves Left as a new release for the International Times, made the point that the newcomer’s voice would be compared with Donovan’s.
“But Don would get nowhere without his songs and Nick will get nowhere without his,” he wrote. “They are beautiful, gentle breezes of cadent perfection which carry along reflective poems like dancing, golden leaves.”
Bridget St. John talks to Atwood Magazine about her music influences, her emergence on the British folk scene, collaborations throughout the years, and about her music projects in the works.
By Guest Writer
Ambling down the aisles at Kim’s Records on Bleecker Street one day about twenty-five years ago, I picked up an album by Bridget St. John called Ask Me No Questions. The cover showed only the pretty face of a young English woman. It wasn’t overly fancy or decorative. Having become familiar with British Folk, and since it was in the British Folk section, I figured I’d give it a listen. Many of my most cherished music discoveries happened this way.
When I got home and listened to the CD, I was transfixed by the magic of St. John’s husky voice and spectacular guitar playing. More importantly, the songs were fresh and new. Each song was like a poem. And St. John’s guitar playing, while intricate and inventive, matched the words and moods of each song. Listening to St. John’s cello-like vocals felt very private, like I walked into a room where someone was playing alone. It didn’t feel like she was whispering in my ear, but I could feel the heat of her voice, as if she was right there singing to me. This intimacy is what makes Bridget St. John’s music so unique and special. More than just being technically interesting, her songs touched me then and continue to move me.
The entire Ask Me No Questions album is a masterpiece. Put out by Dandelion in 1969, Ask Me No Questions was produced by the British John Peel (DJ), who it was said, “created the label to get the music he liked onto record.” There is extraordinarily little production on the record. We hear St. John as she played.
There are a few gems that really stand out for me on Ask Me No Questions. “Curl Your Toes,” echoing the album title, asks questions with each verse, the melody sustained by St. John’s driving guitar picking. And the lyrics are enigmatic.
O, watch the mole as he buries in the dirt Ask him why he hides, why does it hurt? He’ll answer with a question: “Aren’t I escaping just like you? Blessings in shades of what I do.”
While her guitar work is sophisticated, she’s never over playing. Her fingers lightly gallop, adding to the song’s gushing flow of emotion. All music is poetry put to music, but in St. John’s case, this feels more so.
Of course, I went back to Kim’s in a few days and purchased St. John’s other album Songs for the Gentle Man, which I think was the only other CD that was available at the time, at least in the United States. This follow-up to her debut album was produced by Ron Geesin, who had worked with Pink Floyd and Roger Waters. Geesin expanded St. John’s arrangements from the solo acoustic guitar on Ask Me No Questions, adding cellos, flutes, bassoons, violins, horns, and backup voices. The album is described on Allmusic as “penetrating rainy-day folk/Baroque.”
Songs for the Gentle Man opens with “A Day Away.” Reminiscent of Donovan and the Beatles, St. John’s voice and guitar in “A Day Away” are, as mentioned, accompanied by flute and a bassoon. St. John also performs “Back to Stay,” a song written by John Martyn, perhaps in homage to her longtime friend and collaborator. St. John slowly articulates her words, floating over the dreamy landscape of the song.
Although there might be other people in my life You know, on my mind You will always find there’s only you And though you say you’ll journey
to some foreign land I will remember you Yes, and I’ll be true to your memory And there’s no need for you to cry
Because I’m back today I’m back to stay in your arms.