It’s hard to avoid the nettlesome fetishizing of tragedy when you look at the life and times of Nick Drake. Terms like ‘too pure for this world’ and such like offer themselves up all too easily. His music wasn’t written on sheet lines, his half notes floated on spider silk or some other ethereal substance that somehow sustains the test of time. And when that fragile resonance collides with a tragic fate, myth was inevitable as his legacy unfurled.
Born to English parents in Burma, Drake returned to Warwickshire, England at the age of two. His middle-class home was one filled with music. And as it happens, the written compositions of his mother Molly, have a similar sense that they’ve abseiled from the ether on spider silk to bask a home in beauty as her son’s later went on to do for millions.
Thus, the effortlessness of the music we now know from Drake, exhaled like a sonic sigh, was naturalistic for good reason. Music was not only an ever-present in his home, but he himself also began playing piano at a very early age. He would later record his early songwriting efforts on a reel-to-reel tape recorder, but it says a lot about him that these were often kept under lock and key.
However, the trap of the myth of ‘Drake The Ethereal’ stops there, because in his teen years he was actually a great athlete. Naturally, he wasn’t a burly prop star, but he was a rugby player and an impressive sprinter. This surprise is a paradigm of Drake, even at the time, people struggled to grasp the depth and diversity of his character. “In one of his reports [the headmaster] said that none of us seemed to know him very well,” his father once recalled. “All the way through with Nick, people didn’t know him very much.”
This same surprise seemed to befall those around him when he opted for musical pursuits over his studies. This decision led Drake on a path towards dwelling in his dorm, smoking dope and strumming his treasured guitar. Thus, he began to busk and play small gigs which led him on a path to a performance before Fairport Convention’s Ashley Hutchings who recalled: “He looked like a star. He looked wonderful. He seemed to be 7ft.”
Naturally, word spread about this angelic giant, and soon he found his way into the industry. He almost instantly met his mentor, the producer Joe Boyd. Only halfway through the first track on his rough bedroom recorded demo, he offered Drake a record deal which he sheepishly, but secretly jubilantly accepted.
What followed was the trio of folk masterpieces we now know and love. The songs are synonymous with the mythologised view to now often look at him through. If the songs were any more silken it would be impossible to press them on something as bulky as vinyl, you’d simply have to go listen to them live somewhere where the acoustics suited their celestial refrain like a butterfly house or the warehouse where Aladdin’s carpet was made.
And it is at this stage where the myth is woven with reality because it almost seems like his songs were indeed destined to be trapped in a duvet. In the studio, the filigreed folk ditties were poked and pulled at by people wanting to fine-tune the production or make them more marketable. All the while, the rather meek Drake simply wanted his songs to stay humble and made rather naïve suggestions to enlist his college buddies to work on them rather than professionals.
While all this might have been ironed out eventually, as we now know with the beautiful products on hand, the tempestuous recordings did nothing to help with promotion and his debut, Five Leaves Left, in 1969, disappeared without much of a whimper. Once more, there is an anecdotal paradigm that defines this, as his sister Gabrielle once recalled: “He was very secretive. I knew he was making an album but I didn’t know what stage of completion it was at until he walked into my room and said, ‘There you are.’ He threw it onto the bed and walked out!” In truth, it might sound like a tragedy, but that is pretty much the perfect way to have a Drake record delivered.
His follow-up record Bryter Layter would take a more commercial approach, enlisting John Cale, who famously had absolutely no commercial success with the Velvet underground whatsoever. However, it would seem his songs were simply too humble for the gaudy light of the charts. And by this stage, Drake himself was also too humble for the gaudy spotlight of a stage too after abject audience responses caused him to withdraw. Naturally, this affected album promotion.
This tragically came to the fore one night when he walked off stage midway through his song ‘Fruit Tree’. “Something awful must have happened,” fellow musician Ralph McTell recalled. But no matter how easy it is to say that Drake was never fated for the spotlight, mismanagement comes into it too. Lest we forget that in his early shows, he looked like a 7ft giant. Yes, drug use and commercial problems might have led to his new dower demeanour, but mismanagement played its part.
Drake’s new tracks were ever-experimental, trying out elaborate tunings. Thus, he had to pause for an age between each song to retune. Nowadays, a road manager would immediately suggest a workaround to avoid all the awkward dead air which Drake was never suited to talk between, but back then it was allowed to descend like a led balloon and the ethereality of his magical music could never get the atmosphere floating again.
He never seemed to care much for musical success in the bombastic sense anyway, and it is the lie of retrospect to think of failed artists as cursed poets when it is self-evident that most basked in the catharsis of art and commercial success was never a prerogative anyway—but like everyone, he did want to feel appreciated. He didn’t, and this tragic moment coincided with his increasing drug take.
Nevertheless, it is a forgotten mark of his artistic defiance that he set about creating his most naturalistic record in 1972, despite Island Records not asking for one. He produced the masterful Pink Moon. He took the tapes straight to the label head. It was eventually launched with the tagline: “Pink Moon—Nick Drake’s latest album: the first we heard of it was when it was finished.” Combined with his previous two records, Drake managed to sell 4,000 albums in total. He decided to retire from music.
Two years later, after returning home to live with his parents, Nick Drake passed away at the age of 26. The cause of death, whether accidental or otherwise, was an overdose of antidepressant medication. And then slowly but surely, with no real signpost or definitive impetus, his music just simply began to creep into consciousness like a wildflower in spring, and by the mid-1980s, he was heralded as the star we now cherish as the sonic cup of tea to a hangover of reality. Beauteous and buoyant his legacy lives on, and the music itself should be testimony that he was not a troubled genius, but a genius with troubles.