Do you ever walk down a street, or through a park you’re certain you’ve never been to before and get an odd sense of déjà vu? As I wander through an archway of trees in this churchyard, I get that exact feeling. When idolising someone, I visualise their entire existence. Their family, their experiences, the place they call home. And as I walk past the pleasant church of Tanworth-in-Arden, I envisage Nick Drake’s entire life.
If not for an unassuming tribute I probably would’ve missed it. A small modest grave sits beneath a towering beech tree, a befitting metaphor really for the short, mysterious life and tragic death of Nick Drake. A scattering of flowers and guitar picks leave a subtle yet touching testimony.
When obsessing over a lamented musician, it’s easy, and probably immoral, to wale in self-pity and jealousy. Pity because you were born in this generation rather than the one of said musician. And jealousy of the people who were lucky enough to have experienced that era. Weirdly, adoration of Nick Drake doesn’t follow this same pattern. Even if you insist on having the best musical taste, and least musical prejudice. Even if you lived during the 60’s or 70’s, it’s unlikely you would have taken notice of him. But don’t worry, nobody did.
Drake was highly intelligent, his music is everlasting evidence of this. He even studied English Literature at Cambridge University but dropped out before his third year to pursue his music career. In 1969, his debut album ‘Five Leaves Left’ was delivered to the world. The world though, didn’t pay much attention. In fact, they didn’t even look up from their Daily Mail’s. Despite being released on major label, Island, it didn’t even register in the charts.
Years later, after Drake’s death, it started to receive the recognition it truly deserves. Alternative Press labelled it “one of the most beautiful and melancholy albums ever recorded”. It’s difficult to disagree. Songs such as ‘Time Has Told Me’, ‘River Man’, ‘Cello Song’ and ‘Day is Done’ are heart-achingly arresting. While not blessed with a powerful voice, Drake more than compensates with his gifted guitar ability and introspective lyricism. His voice seems to drift slowly, coating over hypnotic guitar picking.
Following his debut album he embarked on a small UK tour. Unfortunately, his hushed and timid nature crippled his performances. The crowd failed to connect with Drake, and he fell into a deep depression, he only did a few more shows in his entire lifetime.
Failing to make an impact on, well anyone, he retreated to a studio to work on his second album, ‘Bryter Layter’ (1971). The sequel would be more produced than the first , making it more accessible to a mainstream audience. Bryter Layter introduced drums and brass to his arsenal. The label were certain the jazzier folk album would be a commercial success, but it sold just 3,000 copies.
It features some of Drake’s most famous recordings, such as ‘Northern Sky’ and ‘One of These Things First’. Both are fantastic songs but are a strong contrast from the leading tracks on Five Leaves Left, as both feature percussion and piano. Biographer Trevor Dann noted that it “was the closest Drake came to a release with chart potential”.
Following the lack of recognition the album received, Drake sunk further into depression. He played one of his final gigs in Surrey and suddenly walked off the stage halfway through ‘Fruit Tree’.
Despite these setbacks, Drake approached Island in 1972 determined to make his third album. He was disappointed with the overall poppy sound of Bryter Layter. The entire record took just two nights to make, eleven tracks-long, coming in at a meager twenty eight minutes.
In the present day, most consider ‘Pink Moon’ (1972) to be a master piece. Contemporaneously though, it sold less than either of his first two albums. It is about as bleak an album as you could want to hear. But there’s something so incomparably honest about the whole thing.
I believe that his first two albums were made for everyone else, but this record was for himself. It perfectly represents Nick Drake. It is just heartbreaking. The titular song tells us “Pink Moon (depression/death) is on it’s way/ And none of you stand so tall/ Pink Moon gonna get you all”.
On the eighth track ‘Parasite’, Drake sings about busking in London, “Take a look you may see me on the ground/ For I am the parasite of this town”. There’s something so striking about this candid storytelling. Imagine feeling so low about yourself, you feel like people look down at you like you’re a parasite.
The conclusive track ‘From The Morning’, is perhaps the only elevating track on the album. There’s something that makes me feel very content about that. As if he poured all his depression into this album, and the last track is Nick’s departure from that dark and distressing period of his life. The lyrics read, “Now we rise/ And we are everywhere”. These are the same lyrics inscribed onto his grave. I kneel down to read the words and feel a lump rise in my throat. His family couldn’t have chosen more apt words for his memorial.
I rise to my feet and digest the beauty and tranquil of the place. My head was far too cloudy on my way here to realise. I walk back up to the village and have a drink at The Bell Inn, the only pub in this unassuming place. I sit and reflect on the thought that Nick Drake and his family may have spent many nights in this very place. He may have attended the school I passed by earlier. He probably walked down this high-street a million times. I try and figure out if that thought makes me happy or sad but come to no resolution.
Having died some twenty years before I was born, sometimes I have to remind myself that he did actually exist, its so easy to mythologise him. Perhaps that’s because it makes his tragic death easier to digest.
In 1972, Drake’s depression worsened and he decided to return to Far-Leys (his family home) with his parents. As I look on at that very house I can’t help but marvel. And while I can only get a glimpse through the bars of the front gate, I must admit it’s nothing like I expected, it’s way more impressive. It’s funny how when you unravel small details about someone it adds another piece to a vast and complex puzzle.
Drake died in the bed of his family home at 6am on the 24th November, 1974, at the age of 26. The cause of his death was an overdose of trypitizol, a prescribed anti-depressant that often helped him sleep. An inquest concluded that Drake had committed suicide, although this has been disputed ever since. His sister, Gabrielle Drake, has stated how she likes to believe it was not an accident, “in the sense that I’d rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible.” What do I like to believe? I am still undecided. I like to think that he didn’t succumb to the battle with his illness, but there’s a certain peacefulness that sits with the thought that he decided he would be happier at rest.
Between 1969 and 1972 he released three albums, leaving us with just 31 songs. Drake died in his house at the age of 26. Looking back, feelings of conflict arise. Sadness because of how little he left us, and grateful that we actually got what he was generous enough to give us.
Due to a severe lack of public exposure, we know only of Drake’s personality from two resources. The people who interacted with him, and through his music. Both would point to the conclusion that he was desperately fragile, fiercely emotional and very, very complex.
I am so glad that I visited the resting place of one of my favourite musicans. It furthered my understanding of the person that to me, is one of the best songwriters this country, and the world has ever seen. By understanding him, I’m allowed to understand his music and therefore will continue to enjoy it.