For most people my age, Nick Drake is pretty much known as “the guy who had a song in that one VW commercial”, but I grew up with his soulful, ethereal music and have always loved him. His music is all delicate, unique guitar (and sometimes cello) paired with a fragile voice singing songs that evoke nature, sorrow, and peace in equal measures.
I won’t go in to his entire biography here, but I will sum it up as briefly as I can, interspersed with songs of his. Drake was born in 1948, and was encouraged to play music at an early age. As an adult, he was
described by many as someone who seemed to live his life somewhat removed from others, more an observer than a participant, and was sometimes described as aloof. His first album, Five Leaves
Left, was released in 1969. The album was accurately described as “beautiful and melancholy”. I want to say “and it contains some of my favorite songs of his”, but ALL Nick Drake songs are some of my favorites. However, here are some highlights:
Time Has Told Me is a beautiful love song, for a friend or a lover, describing someone as “a troubled cure for a troubled mind”. Though I doubt this was it’s intention, the lyric about wanting to “leave the ways of making me be/what I really don’t want to be” reflect Drake’s experience of being pushed towards any kind of stardom, as he was far too uncomfortable with such a thing to ever be a star:
River Man is the single from this album, and always sounds to me like an eerie, dark fairy tale. Per Wiki it’s also one of the few Drake songs to be played in standard tuning.
Finally, Saturday Sun is the perfect song to listen to on, you guessed it, a sunny Saturday.
Drake’s next album was recorded after he left Cambridge early, leaving school 9 months before he was to graduate. During this time Drake attempted live shows, but seemingly hated them as he just did not have or wish to have a stage presence. During one show, he simply stopped halfway through “Fruit Tree” and walked off the stage. He was also suffering from depression and was given antidepressants. Still, Bryter Layter has a more generally accessible and more upbeat sound. Speaking of
accessible and upbeat, the song “Hazey Jane II” is one I often recommend to people who think of Drake as nothing but sad sack music. It’s jazzy and fun, and a clear predecessor to bands like Belle and Sebastian.
However, my very favorite song on the album IS pretty sad, and that one is “Fly”. The song sounds like Drake is pleading for some kind of help, saying “I just need your star for a day”. It’s achingly beautiful,
emphasis on aching.
I could list why I love every song on this album, but I’ll leave it with one more, “Northern Sky”. I can’t describe it any better than Patrick Humphries, who wrote Nick Drake: The Biography “again sounding alone and vulnerable .. he pleads for the brightness to come.”
Drake’s third and final album was Pink Moon, which is as simple and bleak as Bryter Layter was accessible. Around the time of recording, Drake was becoming very withdrawn,
showing signs of psychosis, and smoking a ton of pot. The extremely short album features some lovely songs that are sometimes hard to listen to considering how much Drake seemed to be suffering while it
was recorded and before he died. Drake retired from music professionally after the album was done.
Many of the songs clearly come from a depressed mind, but several still offer glimmers of hope and appreciation of beauty. “From the Morning” seems almost written just for enjoying on a beautiful day when all you need to smile is to look around you:
The titular (and famous years after his death) song Pink Moon is also just pleasant to listen to:
However, in my mind the song “Know” is the one that speaks to his state of mind during that time, and maybe just in general. It’s hard to sum up how removed he was from those who cared for him more perfectly than the lines “Know that I see you/know I don’t care”. *
Be prepared to be sad, because things really went downhill from here. Drake moved back to live with his parents in Tanworth-in-Arden. He was described by family and friends as extremely withdrawn, showing up at their homes unexpectedly, not speaking, and leaving just as unexpectedly. He would stop taking care of his basic hygiene. In 1972 he was hospitalized for five weeks. At one point he attempted to record a new album, but his performance was apparently awful in studio.
As I mentioned before, Drake was on antidepressants. On the night of November 24th/25th of 1974, at his home in Far Leys, Tanworth-in-Adren, Drake passed away from an overdose of them. He got up in the middle of the night to take pills to help him sleep, and took too many. This was ruled a suicide, though some family members have insisted it was accidental. He was cremated and his ashes interred under an oak tree. He was 26 years old.
A lot of people who know I am a huge fan of Nick Drake ask me if I believe his death was a suicide or an accident. Because of how internal and private Nick Drake has been described as being by almost everyone close to him, I always tell them I feel like it isn’t proper for me to speculate. It feels like invading his privacy somehow. What I do know is that despite the fact that I don’t believe Drake could have ever been a music superstar, his death was a huge loss to music and the music he did give us was a huge gain. There’s nothing I would rather listen to on a day where I just need some extra beauty in my life than a collection of Nick Drake songs.
If anyone is interested in reading more about him, my favorite book written about Drake has always been Darker Than the Deepest Sea: the Search for Nick Drake by Trevor Dann. I’m also happy to recommend more songs, discuss songs in deeper detail, or basically talk Nick Drake in any way in the comments here. Also, if you listen to a song suggested here or any other Nick Drake song due to this and like it, please share here! It’s one of my greatest pleasures in life to know I’ve turned someone on to a Nick Drake song.
*Funnily enough, I once told a best friend that I loved him via a link to this song. Despite the fact that it’s not a very romantic way to do so, he and I were together five years. So thanks, Nick Drake!