Nick Drake: Bartleby the Musician

I saw it written and I saw it say...At the risk of seeming rude or insensitive, to say that death becomes him in a way that life never did—at least so far as his public career is concerned—is not far off the mark in the case of Nick Drake, at least based on the information contained in the biography by Trevor Dann, Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake (DaCapo Press; 288 pp.; $16.95). That is, Dann points out that Drake, who died in 1974 at age 26, put out three albums. “In the first 15 years after his death,” Dann calculates, “Nick’s music appeared on just one commercially available collection. In the subsequent 15 no less than 30 CDs have featured his songs.”

Arguably, the biggest driver of his most recent success is predicated on the use of his song “Pink Moon” from the album of that name in a Volkswagen Cabrio TV ad that appeared back at the turn of the century. Apparently, if you watched the ad on VW’s website (it isn’t there anymore) you were given the option to learn more about the car or to buy the music. Dann writes that as a result of this: “Nick Drake sold more albums in the USA in one month than he had in the previous 30 years and Pink Moon found itself in the Billboard Top 100.”

In the case of Nick Drake, like Stein’s Oakland, there’s no there there. This so-called “search” for the artist is really a search for the quotidian pieces of a life not lived long, a life in which there was, certainly, some wonderful music created, but not very much evidence of much else. To be sure, few of us live lives of adventurousness, the stuff about which action movies could be made, but in Drake’s case, it seems, there was even less. The short form is that he grew up in England to parents who were fairly well off, went to Cambridge after not nearly making it into the school, then dropped out. Prior to starting Cambridge, he’d spent some time in Provence, ostensibly for the purposes of studying, not for the Grand Tour. He made music. He performed infrequently and not vigorously.

And on November 25, 1974, having moved back to the family home with his parents, his mother “opened the door of her only son’s bedroom to find him lying across his single bed dressed only in his underpants. His 26-year-old heart had stopped beating.” Apparently he’d taken too many Tryptizol capsules, an antidepressant he’d been prescribed. The death certificate, Dann relates, puts the cause of death as “Acute Amitriptyline Poisoning—self administered when suffering from a depressive illness.” He adds, “In brackets was added the word ‘suicide.'” Whether it was, indeed, deliberate or not is something that will never be known. Given the descriptions of Drake’s interactions with other people in the time preceding his death, it certainly doesn’t seem like the medical examiner’s speculative assessment is off the mark.

When writing of Drake’s career and of the early management by Joe Boyd (“he had been production manager at the famous Newport Folk Festival when Dylan went electric, tour manager for Muddy Waters, and, from 1965, the London-based ambassador for the highly influential Elektra Records. He was one of the founders of the UFO (Underground Freak Out) Club, which was at the epicenter of ‘swinging’ London, and had produced the earlier recordings by both Soft Machine and Pink Floyd.”—a figure who seems like a riper subject for biography than Drake), Dann points out “any criticism of Joe Boyd’s management of Nick’s career must be seen in the context of the artist’s non-participation in nearly everything he was asked to do.” Bartleby the Musician. He’d prefer not to.

Drake’s debut album, Fives Leaves Left, was released in 1969; the following year, on June 25th, “the audience at Ewell Technical College witnessed Nick Drake’s last ever concert performance. Ralph McTell was headlining: ‘Nick was monosyllabic. At that particular gig he was very shy. He did the first set and something awful must have happened. He was doing his song, Fruit Tree, and walked off halfway through it. Just left the stage.'” Later that year, on November 1, his second album, Bryter Layter was released. Still, “As 1970 drew to a close, Nick Drake’s career was no further forward than it had been two years earlier when he left Cambridge.” Which leads to this: “Disappointed, disillusioned and despondent, Nick spent the winter of 1970/71 in his cold ground-floor flat, venturing out only to play an occasional folk club gig to make some money to buy drugs.” And although Pink Moon was to appear in ’71 (Dann, who evidently respects and admires the music of Drake, describes it as “28 minutes of bleak solo guitar and vocals”), there is no rising. Drake seems to spiral inward, downward, into some sort of dark, solitary abyss.

Later, fame. The musician gone, but not forgotten.

4 thoughts on “Nick Drake: Bartleby the Musician”

  1. When I was 19 and living in Scotland for a semester, a beautiful, troubled girl with cigarette burns on her arms made me a tape with Nick Drake on one side and Leonard Cohen on the other. I wonder how she’s doing these days.

  2. I have the unimaginatively titled Nick Drake: The Biography by Patrick Humphries. I don’t know how the two books compare; I don’t think Humphries’ gets into his posthumous success as much as his life story. But yeah, that VW ad resuscitated his career. I know that’s where I first heard of him. I also own (coincidentally, I might add) three soundtracks he appears on, all movies that have come out in the last 5 years. Impressive for a guy that’s been dead for 30 years.

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