Nick Drake Tribute
New York City, June 19, 2002
I felt awful the night of the Nick Drake tribute. I was in one of those “spirals.” Walking up Lafayette St. to the Fez, I was visited by a reliable stableful of dismal thoughts, beginning with “you are getting nowhere and will die alone” and going downward from there. At the Fez, a dark, casual-swanky club in New York, I found my friend Jennifer O’Connor, who was playing in the show, sitting in a booth near the back. She had the sick pallor of someone who’d thought she was second on the bill but has just learned she’ll be second to last, leaving an evening full of time to get nervous. I tried to give her a friendly beam, conveying my firm belief that she’d be great, but it was dark in the club, I wasn’t beaming very well, and it felt like a lost cause. I ordered a Sierra Nevada.
Certain musicians are dangerous to listen to when you’re down. I hadn’t been thinking about that aspect of the evening. I’d been to the first Nick Drake tribute at the Fez, three years ago, when I was relatively new to New York. I didn’t know any of Drake’s music then – I was just excited to be out, at a show for a singer I was only beginning to learn about, and to be talking to some of the other people at my table, who were friendly and interesting. It was a prove-to-yourself-you’re-human-and-so-are-others kind of night, and the music wasn’t the most important thing.
But by this time, I knew some of Nick Drake’s music. He’s notorious for his deep sadness, though a few of his songs are buoyant and even playful (like Pink Moon, in my opinion). But some have a frailty to them, the lyrics acknowledging a touch-and-go relationship with existence, almost casually, that’s haunting in light of Drake’s suicide when he was only 25. Suddenly I felt the irony of being at a Nick Drake tribute show while feeling exceedingly depressed. I briefly considered running out of the club. The first performer, Jon DeRosa, got up to play (on time, in the Type A tradition of New York rock shows), and he was very good. He had a gentle, tender voice a lot like Nick Drake’s, and he played guitar extremely well, with sensitivity and skill. He cast a spell over the attentive crowd with heartrending versions of Drake’s beautiful song “Road” and his cover, “Smoking Too Long.” Then Linda Smith came up and did “Way to Blue.” She used an eerie organ sound for instrumentation, perfect for the song’s haunting atmosphere. She sang the frail vocal line effectively, but it was chilling. There was a feeling of death about it. I began to marvel at the fact that people venerate Drake as much as they do. Doesn’t his inescapable sadness and suicide haunt the music so much that it almost breathes a death wish, the way some of Sylvia Plath’s poetry does? And do we want to be that close to it? I was leaning toward no.
How will I get through the night, I wondered. The familiar answer, getting really drunk, presented itself, but I wondered if even that would work. My Sierra Nevada felt like lead in my stomach.
“These are really downer songs,” I said, stating the obvious.
“I know,” Jen said. We weren’t even in good enough moods to laugh at the grimness. We’re both inclined to melancholy, and I could see us sweeping out with the tide.
Luckily our friends Pete, Jessica and Matt arrived then. They’d come to honor Jennifer’s last night in New York (she lives in Florida now) and see her play, and they were in ebullient moods. Pete, a musician himself, always makes fun of musicians who take themselves even slightly seriously, a quality I love him for. During a reverential version of “River Man” Pete warbled a quiet imitation of the earnest singer. Despite the bad taste involved in laughing at performers while they are performing, this amused some of us quite a bit. When James McNew from Yo La Tengo got up to do his song with a sampler box that allowed him to sound like a full band, I knew things were picking up. McNew, billed as “Dump,” played an imaginative interpretation of “Know,” complete with thumping bass, strange sound effects and a crash of startling feedback at the end, that made us all happy.
Pete was in an expansive mood and felt like ordering rounds. “I didn’t move to New York to grub for money,” he said to me, even though grubbing for money is what he’s doing and I’m doing and everyone else I know is doing. But I knew what he was saying. Sometimes you just have to answer the city’s grandeur with extravagance of your own. He recommended Stella Artois to me, and I decided to try one. Wow! Stella Artois is definitely a brighter, lighter beer than Sierra Nevada. I started to feel better. I was glad to be with my friends. I was excited for my friend, Jennifer O’Connor, the rising singer/songwriter.
And musically, I realized as soon as the fog in my head cleared away, you can’t lose with Nick Drake. His songs are compelling on first listen or thirtieth – you’re immediately drawn in to a mood, whether it’s wistful, playful or glancingly tragic. The notes and rhythms are so unusual but so right, and the tunes go all over the place, but as soon as they start you’re lodged inside each one like you’ve known the song forever. Drake’s tunes are also quite short, and the performers respected that, with no one indulging in long un-Drake-like solos. Highlights were James Baluyut (late of Versus) – unfortunately, I forget what he played, but his staggered timing on the electric guitar was perfect for Drake’s unconventional rhythm. The Mendoza Line sang “Which Will” and “Falling fast, and falling free” in soft voices that blended in unpredictable harmonies – an apt answer to Drake’s own eccentricity. He was such a risk-taker in his songwriting that any performer at the show who took risks, or went off-key or dropped a beat, seemed to be in tune with Drake, almost channeling him.
Alan Licht was the last performer – he did “River Man” again – with an experimental guitar accompaniment that was innovative and feeling and surreally good. It was a perfect end to the evening. We went to another bar for one more beer and to celebrate Jennifer’s performance, which had gone really well. (She played “Time Will Tell You,” a dark, haunting song, and her low voice and sensitive playing put the song across beautifully.) We toasted her in the smoky backroom of some East Village dive. I had to work the next day and it wasn’t fun waking up, but it was worth it. The night had scooped me out of the doldrums into love for my friends and for music. Sometimes there are no other reasons to be happy, but there’s nothing wrong with those reasons.