via youtube.comSinger songwriter Nick Drake died of a prescription drug overdose in November 1974 at his parents’ house in Tanworth in Warwickshire at the age of 26. The coroner pronounced it a suicide, although many of his fans maintain it was accidental.
What isn’t in dispute is the fact he was heavily depressed, a condition in part triggered by the failure of his music career. Despite being signed to Island records straight out of Cambridge University as an English version of the then hugely successful Leonard Cohen, Drake’s three albums received negative reviews and sold only a few thousand copies.
Yet, three and a half decades later, Nick Drake is one of the most beloved English singers of all time. There have been numerous books and TV specials about him, his final album, Pink Moon, has posthumously gone platinum, and, as Green Gartside, lead singer of Scritti Politti puts it, “every indie band in America lists Nick Drake as an influence”.
When Hollywood is looking for an atmospheric and introspective piece of music for a film, a call will go out for a Nick Drake song. Countless cover versions by everyone from Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams to the jazz piano tunes of Brad Mehldau have been made.
At least one musician, Keith James, has made a career of performing Nick Drake covers. “I could work every night of the year singing Nick’s songs if I wanted to,” he says. Drake’s producer from the time, Joe Boyd, says: “Each year there is apparently more interest and more sales.”
Symptomatic of his increasing popularity is a tour curated by Boyd as a tribute to Drake’s work. It features a stellar cast, including Danny Thompson (who played bass on Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left), Green Gartside, Teddy Thomson, Martha Wainwright, Robin Hitchcock (who has recorded a song I Saw Nick Drake) and the highly-rated young American singer Krystle Warren – all of whom revere Drake’s music intensely. The Barbican date in London has already sold out.
So how did Drake, an obscure footnote in English music when he died, reach such levels of posthumous admiration? Why he never had much success when he was alive is a slightly easier question.
Unlike Leonard Cohen, who had a network of college stations to promote him in the States, British musicians in the Seventies had to rely on live performances. Unfortunately, Drake was painfully shy. Danny Thompson recalls: “Unlike others on the folk circuit, such as John Martyn, he had no stage patter or anecdotes. He would spend ages tuning his guitar between songs.”
After a tour in 1970 on which he was third on the bill below Billy Connolly, Drake abandoned live performance completely.
In the whole of his career, he managed only one interview – with Jerry Gilbert of Sounds. It didn’t go well. Gilbert recalls: “There was no eye contact, lots of mumbling, and he spoke in a monotone.”
Danny Thompson recalls Drake during the recording of Five Leaves Left as being “a lot of fun at times”, but later, as Drake became more depressed, Thompson, along with everyone else, found Drake increasingly difficult to deal with. “I tried patronising him, tried to kick him up the backside, but it was impossible to get through to him. I had a few months of being depressed myself, and you do become selfish. It’s draining to be around you.”
Yet it is Drake’s disastrous career and personal problems combined with the incredible potency of his sparse, beautiful music that have made him such an icon for later generations of musicians.
Green Gartside, one of the few who latched on to Drake’s music in the Seventies admits: “I was sniffy about him for a while because of his privileged background, quite irrationally.” But he says he felt connected with Drake through his own experience of stage fright, depression and alienation in the music industry.
Drake has also found a strong resonance with younger singers like Krystle Warren, who discovered him, like millions of Americans, after Volkwagen used Pink Moon in a commercial in 2000. “I was astonished,” she says, “by the vulnerability, the sense of truth in his songs.”
Following the release of her first album last year, Warren relates to the difficulties of, “promoting yourself but remaining true to yourself”. She admires the fact that, unlike many artists, Drake never turned into a parody of himself. She believes that his lack of success during his lifetime means he is not associated with the Sixties or Seventies. “His music has become timeless,” she says.
Danny Thompson, who also played bass on John Martyn’s classic Solid Air, which is about Drake, says: “Ultimately, it’s the real beauty of his music that draws people in and his stunning guitar playing, which was so clean.”
But Thompson also recognises that Drake’s tragically short life gives him a glamorous allure. There are, he points out, no videos of Drake, which “makes people use their imagination” about him, and he believes that, without the powerful mystique that came to surround him after he died, he might not have