Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Ballad of Nick Drake

Music history is littered with the dead, many of whom died young from suicide or vices.  It is therefore always interesting to wonder what if:  what if this artist had lived on?  How would he or she have changed the musical landscape?

English folk musician Nick Drake was someone who could have changed the world of late 1960s-1970s poet-balladeers.  In fact, he did change the world just in his too short span of years and three albums.  There are no live recordings of Drake, no concert films.  Just his albums—“Five Leaves Left” (1969), “Bryter Layter” (1971), and “Pink Moon” (1972)—and various demos he made containing some new material or alternate recordings of the album cuts.  He died in 1974 at the age of 26 from an overdose of anti-depressants.  There is some discrepancy over whether he was a suicide or an accidental death as he was being treated for lifelong depression and mental illness.

Drake’s music was rediscovered in the 1990s when several songs were used in commercials and on soundtracks.  The word spread, and his albums were re-released on CD, introducing a whole new audience to the pioneer whose words and music sound as current today as many other folk acts.  Now, a new book—Nick Drake:  Remembered For A While, The Authorized Companion to the Music of Nick Drake (Little, Brown and Company, 2014)—compiles journalism on Drake, essays and reviews by friends and critics, and first person accounts of his life together in one beautiful volume printed on heavy paper with restored photographs.  The tome is part coffee table book, part scrap book, and part autobiography.

The writing comes from Drake’s sister, fellow musicians, and music journalists; however, it is not a biography in the true sense of the world, as the subject remains distant, locked in his own mind so that we only catch glimpses of him through the windows offered here.  I caught the milieu, the excitement of English folk rock in the 1960s and 70s in the book, but Drake himself was illusive.  His mental difficulties kept him isolated, but they also add to the mystery of his haunting voice and lyrics.

What is clear in the book is that Drake was a monumental talent, and that given more years, may have become as important as Bob Dylan or the Beatles to the evolution of rock.  His illness limited his ability to reach a wider audience in his time, but it is also evident that his mental problems may have fueled his art.  The artist’s life is a precarious one, and fame is fleeting.  Nick Drake was the real deal, though.

The book charts his course from childhood into his years as a musician.  He signed a record contract while still at university, and included in the book is the correspondence during that time with his parents as well as his father’s journal entries about Drake’s growing mental problems.  They were remarkably supportive of their son when he considers leaving school to focus on music.  It is in their house in Warwickshire that Drake died.  They handled their difficult son as best they could, and their anguish over his death and efforts to spread his music to the world after he is gone are truly heartbreaking.  As with most musicians gone too soon, pilgrims show up at their door, and they are always glad to share their son and their memories of him with these interlopers.

The editors of the book take great pains to include extensive analysis of Drake’s music and lyrics.  One can clearly see his tentative steps in the writing on his first album.  It is “Bryter Layter” and “Pink Moon” that stand out as classics, especially the former.  Drake utilized unusual tunings on his guitar, and experimented with sounds and strings.  He worked hard to develop his facility with his instrument.  His voice is not magnificent, but conveys a quiet intensity that reveals his artistry.

This book is perfect for those who are fans of Nick Drake and the folk rock world of the 60s and 70s.  Others should experience Drake’s music first, and then purchase the book.  To understand the full scope of the loss of this great musician, the book is a necessity.  It is truly the definitive compilation of everything written about this singer.  It is not a biography per se, so those interested in a recounting of Drake’s life should consult some of the books already published.  However, to get inside the music and the life, to try to understand the tragic brokenness of this man, this is the book to have.  Like Drake in life, though, he remains strangely illusive in death, a bright and shining star far away across the universe.

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