Nick Drake - And Now We Rise

Written by Simon Wells
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One morning late in 1974, twenty-six year old singer-songwriter Nick Drake failed to stir. His mother was the first to find him, upstairs in the bedroom of their home in the chocolate-box environs of rural Warwickshire. On his bed Nick lay motionless; his troubled features finally at peace. The depression that had wracked his brain with demons for the last few years had finally claimed him, aided by an overdose of tranquillisers. There was no suicide note.

Drake’s brief aural legacy would lie in darkness before finally emerging two decades after his demise; re-lit with the patronage of Paul Weller, REM and countless others, drawn by his slow burning enigma. Despite his minuscule cannon of work, Nick Drake’s extraordinary aura continues to develop; documentaries, tribute albums and concerts, all pay homage to this troubled, but supremely gifted soul. For the uninitiated, Nick Drake is unique within the congested history of British popular music. A genuine cult figure standing high above far too many drab pretenders and badly drawn boys, Nick’s songs tell of anguish and frustrations, discovery and loss. His peerless voice is a gorgeous, rich infusion of pleasure and pain; as sweet as honey and as dry as a vintage wine.

Adding to his attractive mystery, Nick’s roots are poles apart from the dead end streets of his 1960’s contemporaries. Born Nicholas Rodney on the 19th June 1948 to Molly and Rodney Drake, Nick first saw light in Rangoon, Burma; the distant location courtesy of his father’s overseas posting. Returning back to Blighty four years later, the family Drake moved into the affluent Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in–Arden. From his earliest years, Nick had showed a musical leaning, which to his parents was no great surprise; performing being something of a family trademark. Indeed, Nick’s mother was a budding chanteuse who’d already recorded several of her own compositions. At the tender age of eight, Nick would be sent to prep school in Berkshire, where he’d excel in all the traditional disciplines and be commended for his singing in the choir. As popular and competent as Nick was, he harboured a quiet reserve that set him apart from his peers: ‘None of us really know him’. Nick’s Headmaster would record on one of his reports. Even then it seems, Drake’s enigma was a prominent part of his make up.

Despite his aloofness, Nick’s educational credentials were impeccable. He’d soon transfer to the prestigious Marlborough College in Wiltshire.  Again, Nick adapted well to his new environment, excelling in his studies and taking advantage of college’s vast musical resources. Intoxicated by the mid-sixties Beat Boom, Nick would pick up the guitar for the first time, embarking on a love affair with the instrument that would stay with him for the rest of his life. Having all the classic attributes of a burgeoning rock and roller, Nick was immensely popular with both sexes; his
striking angelic beauty, coupled with a tacit dismissal of school discipline, offering yet another dimension to his character.

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Once emancipated from Marlborough in the spring of 1966, Nick revelled in his newly found freedom, dividing his time between his parents home in Warwickshire and travelling around Europe. France particularly captivated him with its musical heritage of raw emotion, chanson and bohemia. With a retinue of close friends, Nick would often gatecrash cafes to serenade the locals with old blues standards. It was during these trips that Nick would expand his musical exploration into his first self- penned compositions. What emerged were beautiful, wry observations; tantalisingly held together with sublime chord sequences and complex tunings. Around this time he’d also begin a heavy flirtation with various substances, notably Marijuana.

As a predictable rite of passage, university soon beckoned, and in October 1967, Nick moved to Cambridge to study Literature. In tandem with his educational commitments, Nick’s songwriting was advancing at a remarkable pace. This was encouraged by fellow Cambridge alumni like Robert Kirby, who’d later arrange some of Nick’s recordings. Taking full advantage of the copious social gatherings on offer, Nick found himself performing around the Cambridge Fringe scene to ecstatic receptions. Spreading his wings further afield, Nick also appeared at a benefit concert at London’s Roundhouse theatre. Sharing the bill that night were Fairport Convention, whose bass player Ashley Hutchings was impressed enough by Nick’s performance to recommend him to his manager Joe Boyd; then in charge of Witchseason, a production agency with an eye for the unusual. Boyd, who’d also been handling managerial duties for Pink Floyd, was instantly smitten with Drake’s demos and he had no trouble in arranging a contract with Island records. This in turn led to Nick’s first recording sessions.

The resulting album Five Leaves Left, (a coy homage to an advisory notice inserted into Rizla’s tobacco papers) gently signalled Drake’s arrival in the music industry. Released in September 1969, the collection revealed the broad canvas of Drake’s broad abilities; basking as it does in a detached, rustic charm. Astonishingly perceptive is the track Fruit Tree, Drake’s almost clairvoyant predication of his own posthumous standing.

 ‘Fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound.
It can never flourish, ‘till its stalk is in the ground.
So men of fame can never find a way
Till time has flown far from their dying day.
Forgotten while you're here, remembered for a while.
A much updated ruin, from a much outdated style.’
Joe Boyd: ‘Nick, in a way, he said it all. I mean, he predicted it. You can almost see him wilfully setting this whole thing up. God knows why. But why would a young man of nineteen, with his whole future ahead of him, write a song like Fruit Tree? “Fame can never flourish till its stock is in the ground”. I mean, it's extraordinary.’

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Despite glowing anticipatory noises from Island, the album sold poorly, due in part for Nick’s dislike for any form of promotional activities. The critics, saturated with bombastic prog-rock noises, didn’t know what to make of it. While Melody Maker found it ‘interesting’, the NME observed that there was ‘not nearly enough variety on this debut LP to make it entertaining.’ As a formality, Nick did play at a few gigs to promote the album, but performing live had become a tortuous experience, as fellow Island artist John Martyn witnessed during a gig at the Royal Festival Hall.

‘He was cripplingly nervous,’ recalled Martin. ‘He was distraught before the gig. He was distinctly uncomfortably on stage. The music was fine, but he didn’t like being there at all. I get the impression it was just costing him too much to go on the stage. It was just like no amount of applause or anything else would ever have paid him back the mental effort and energy he had to expend.’

Despite the fear of playing live, Nick was convinced that his time was better spent writing and recording music than studying. As a result, Nick drifted away from university, relocating to a small flat in North London to compose his next collection. It is testament to the belief that Island held for Nick, that the likes of Richard Thompson and Velvet Underground founder, John Cale, were recruited for the project.  Nine months in the making, Bryter Layter is critically regarded as Drake’s most complete work; its undeniably optimistic air making it his most accessible piece of work. Released in November 1970, the critics certainly liked it, Sounds magazine observing that ‘nothing has been spared to make this album a success.’ Lon Goddard of Record Mirror was impressed too: ‘One of the prettiest and most impressive albums I’ve heard.’

Critical plaudits aside, the album did scant business. Finding a niche within the ‘Progressive Rock’ fraternity in 1970 was always going to be difficult, with introspective songwriters two a penny. Compounding this, Nick still wouldn’t countenance any publicity to promote the album. Another blow was dealt in 1971 when Nick’s staunchest alley Joe Boyd, moved away to Hollywood to work for Warners. During this period, Nick’s musical friends would also begin to see cracks in what they’d initially perceived as his cool, detached persona. Unable or unwilling to answer the door to his North London flat, Nick eventually retreated back to his parents’ home, spending hours alone in his bedroom. Shocked by their son’s withdrawal, Nick’s parents sought psychiatric help for their son’s growing depression, resulting in him being prescribed tranquillisers.

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Aware that Nick was suffering, a welcome ray of light came from Island Records MD Chris Blackwell. Aware of his trauma, Blackwell encouraged Nick to take a holiday at his villa in Spain in an attempt to reverse his dark mood. Acquiescing to this lifeline, the change of environment momentarily lifted the clouds above his head and after a couple of weeks in the sun, Nick returned, signalling his desire to record again. Over two nights with just an engineer, Nick laid down what would be his final collection entitled Pink Moon. Stripped to just guitar and vocal, the album would present Nick without any of the tinsel that surrounded his previous offerings. Like a jagged nerve ending, Pink Moon offers an incredible insight into Nick’s fragile mindscape.  Personally transporting the finished tapes to the Island records HQ, Nick couldn’t even bring himself to discuss their arrival, and simply left them unannounced at the reception.

Amidst a full-blown Glam and Glitter explosion during 1972, Pink Moon failed to chart; the few reviews preferring to centre on Nick’s state of mind than its musical content. Island records too, were non-plused by their artist’s remoteness as evinced in Pink Moon’s press release.

‘Nobody is really sure where Nick lives these days,’ ran the document. ‘We're pretty sure he left his flat in Hampstead some time ago. We have a bank agreement for him so that he's always got his rent money and some spending bread, so there's no need for him to make more appearances than he does. The chances of Nick actually playing in public are more than remote.’

The lack of Pink Moon’s success only compounded Nick’s depression. Within a few weeks he’d be admitted to a psychiatric hospital before returning home to Tanworth to stay with his parents. Unable to call upon his songwriting skills, Nick fruitlessly looked elsewhere for a career away from music. A visit to an Army Recruitment Office rejected him at the preliminary interview, while a job with a computer programming company that his father had arranged, found him floundering within an environment he was totally unfamiliar with.

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Turning on his frustrations, Nick previous tacit acceptance of his traumas turned to anger, manifesting itself on those who’d supported him. Even Nick’s staunchest alley Joe Boyd, felt the lash of his bitter tongue when he returned to the UK.

‘He immediately launched into this kind of tirade about his career, about money, and basically it was accusatory,’ Boyd would recall. ‘He said, “You've told me I'm great, but nobody knows me, nobody buys my records. I'm still living on handouts from the publishing company. I don't understand. What's wrong? Who's fault is this?” And he was very angry.’

During February of 1974, Nick signalled his desire to record again and he briefly returned to London to record some demos for a projected fourth album. These stark tracks reveal the true depth of his isolation, a postcard from his inner turmoil. The most chilling of these is Black Eyed Dog; its maudlin lyrics revealing the 23-year-old’s complete despair.

‘I'm growing old and I wanna go home.
I'm growing old and I don't wanna know.
I'm growing old and I wanna go home.’

Any hope that recording again would see some revival of fortune was soon dashed; the return to the studio only served to highlight his past traumas. During these sessions Nick would only complete four tracks before informing engineer John Wood that he’d be abandoning singing forever. ‘I can't think of words’ he’d tell Wood. ‘I feel no emotion about anything. I don't want to laugh or cry. I'm numb - dead inside.’

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Freed from recording and back within the bolthole of his parents’ home, Nick felt confident enough to commute to Paris during the autumn of 1974 for a short holiday. Like his previous sojourns to the continent, Nick would relax in the gentle bonhomie of Paris, and as a result some of his old optimism returned. While there, Nick would make contact with singer Francoise Hardy, who’d shown interest in recording an album of his songs. With his spirits momentarily raised, Nick returned to his parents’ home with ideas to write again. As a gift for his mother, he’d bring back a copy of Albert Camus' Le Mythe de Sisyphe; its existentialist subject matter riddled with suicide references.

Seemingly riding an emotional helter-skelter, Nick’s elevated demeanour after returning from Paris soon evaporated. Increasingly, the powerful tranquillisers that controlled his sleep and waking hours would rob him of his creative process, chaining him to his bedroom for days on end. Little has surfaced about Nick’s final last few weeks, although he was reported to have made a final foray down to London to meet up with some old acquaintances in Notting Hill. While there, Nick had allegedly collared an old girlfriend, shouting, ‘You remember me? You remember how I was. Tell me how I was. I used to have a brain. I used to be somebody. What happened to me? What happened to me?’

Three days later Nick was found dead.

Ultimately Nick Drake’s sensitivity, so eloquently expressed in his music, was to be his nemesis. There were a few heartfelt obituaries in the music press, but no public outpouring of grief; Nick would have to wait a further twenty years for his music to find the audience so tragically missed in his lifetime. Today, his fan base is phenomenal. Numerous fanzines and websites feed a community of devotees so passionate, that many will travel to Tanworth-in-Arden to catch some of the residual energies left from Drake’s brief stop on planet Earth. Early on, Tanworth’s locals were mildly bemused when the occasional fan turned up to peer over the gate of Nick’s home, or to lay a bouquet beside his headstone in the churchyard. In recent years it has become a busy thoroughfare, alerting the sleepy village to its most famous son. Today, Nick’s appeal continues to unravel and broaden; you’re likely to hear a song of Nick’s crop up on Heartbeat these days, while Volkswagen in the States have employed his song Fruit Tree for a TV commercial. Now that surely would have drawn a wry chuckle out of Nick.

Nick Drake’s headstone lies under an oak tree in the grounds of Tanworth-in -Arden’s churchyard. On the side of the tree is a notice requesting that worshippers leave only modest gifts and flowers to his memory. Etched into the rear of the headstone are two lines from From The Morning, one of Nick’s final recordings.

‘And now we rise And we are everywhere.’

You can rest in peace now Nick, your time has finally come.

© Words - Simon Wells/ ZANI

Read 6224 times Last modified on Saturday, 10 April 2021 13:41
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Simon Wells

Simon Wells

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