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.”