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Nick Drake

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Aug 09, 2017
Category: Rock

You remember the Volkswagen commercial.

A moonlit night. A VW Cabriolet convertible. Two young couples driving along a lake road. Acoustic guitar music. The car reaches its destination: a club. We see people coming in and out, sense the excitement and noise within. Close-up on the kids in the car: They’ll skip the thrills of the club. And off they drive into the night.

The music was "Pink Moon," by Nick Drake.

It made him a star.

Alas, he had been dead for almost three decades.

There are musicians born for fame — big-chested, thick-skinned, driven guys like Bruce and Bono — and then there are musicians who just don’t have the toughness for the game. Their music may be as good as that of the greats. But they drop by the wayside, and when they do, so does their music.

One of the goals of Head Butler is to find those artists — and here, the word "artist" is apt — and bring them to a community capable of appreciating them. Not that Nick Drake needs to be discovered. He’s a cult. And has been, ever since he did or didn’t kill himself in 1974 — at age 26.

It’s a sad story, and that, of course, is part of its attraction. Nick Drake was a riveting character — six feet, three inches tall, with broad shoulders that he hunched up, like a turtle preparing to hide its head. He started playing guitar at an English boarding school, where, in the mid l960s, he could not help but be influenced by the Beatles. He moved on to Cambridge University, where he was an indifferent student — all he cared about was writing songs and perfecting them. At 20, a producer signed him to a recording contract, and he made "Five Leaves Left" — the title comes from the warning message found near the end of packs of cigarette papers. It got great reviews. It didn’t sell. [To buy the CD of "Five Leaves Left" from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

He made another CD. Same story. Crushed, he left London. When he returned, he brought with him a "a black fog" that lasted for three years. A friend recalls: "He has a daily routine of sitting in a chair, gazing out of the window or staring at his feet. Sometimes he sits there in total darkness. He has by now moved back to his parents, but he is now and then driving to London. Sometimes he will change his mind half way there and drive back."

One night he decided he was ready to record again. He went into the studio and — in two hours or two days; accounts differ — made "Pink Moon." There were no arrangements, just his guitar and, on the title song, a piano. The album contained just 30 minutes of music, but that it exists at all is impressive; by this point, Drake was so withdrawn he could hardly speak. [To buy the CD of "Pink Moon" from Amazon, click here. For the MP3 download, click here.]

"Pink Moon" suffered the same fate as its predecessors: great reviews, no sales. Drake returned to his parents’ home, spent five weeks in a psychiatric hospital. Nothing worked: "I can’t cope. All the defenses are gone, all the nerves are exposed." And then he overdosed on an anti-depressant. The coroner’s verdict was suicide. But there was no note.

There’s a boxed set of Drake’s best songs, but it’s built on a fallacy — all his songs are his best. So start with "Five Leaves Left," his first CD, recorded when his career was still ahead of him and his sensitivity was leavened by flashes of hope:

Strange face, with your eyes
So pale and sincere.
Underneath you know well
You have nothing to fear.

So few words! Such beautifully spare music! You have to lean in to hear him. But look at the reward: Here is an artist who always understands how you feel when you’re alone at three in the morning.

There’s an irony here. Nick Drake had no way to help himself, and yet his music helps us. Don’t get caught up in that. Enormous pressure is put on coal, and, over time, we get diamonds. We  can, if we like, remember how the coal suffered. But the diamonds — how they shine.