WE left Nick Drake last week in the depths of misery after the commercial failure of his debut album Five Leaves Left. A series of disastrous live appearances at small venues in late 1969 did not help matters and his cannabis consumption spiralled. He became friendly with an East End villain who could supply any illegal drug required, and proved such a good customer that the pusher bought him a car.
One of Nick’s friends was the socialite Alice Ormsby-Gore, who it is thought introduced him to heroin – she would die of an overdose in 1995. He wore the same clothes all the time and dossed on friends’ floors until manager Joe Boyd installed him in a flat in Belsize Park, North London, in the hope that it would bring him stability as he prepared to record his second album, Bryter Later.
It was decided that the new record should have a brasher, poppier sound and Nick rehearsed with Fairport Convention’s bass player Dave Pegg and drummer Dave Mattacks. Five Leaves veteran Robert Kirby was asked to supply arrangements for strings and (horrors!) brass. Nick was also introduced by Boyd to John Cale, late of the Velvet Underground, who was ‘enchanted’ by the 21-year-old’s music and said he would like to work on the album. He moved into Nick’s flat for a couple of days and together they worked on two songs, Fly and Northern Sky. Given Cale’s admission that he was using heroin at the time, it was no doubt on the menu at Drake Towers.
Bryter Later was released in March, 1971. Introduction is a short instrumental pitting Nick’s acoustic guitar against Pegg’s bass, Mattacks’s drums and Kirby’s strings. It is followed byHazey Jane II, complete with the dreaded brass section which for me sits uneasily with the Drake sound and almost ruins the song. Little wonder that Nick professed himself unhappy with much of the album. Boyd, who produced, would later tell a radio interviewer: ‘He felt that it was too arranged, too produced, too many other personalities, I guess.’
Similarly, At the Chime of a City Clock features a busy arrangement including alto sax from Ray Warleigh. How much better a bare-bones production of these two songs would have been.
The title track, Bryter Later, is another instrumental and is, quite frankly, bland. Imagine a late-sixties light comedy series starring Wendy Craig and this could be the theme tune. Next, however, comes Fly, which sets Nick’s pleading vocals against beautiful viola and harpsichord from John Cale.
But then, m’lud, comes the evidence on which rests the case for the prosecution against Joe Boyd, accused of crimes against sensitive music. Poor Boy is, in my opinion, destroyed by the backing including Top of the Pops-style faux-soul vocals by PP Arnold and Doris Troy. I would so love to wipe it clean of embellishment.
Yet then comes perfection. Northern Sky is a joy from start to finish and has been described, albeit in the NME, as the ‘greatest English love song of modern times’. Bask, if you will, in Nick’s guitar and vocals, Cale’s piano, organ and celeste, Dave Pegg’s bass and Mike Kowalski’s drums.
‘Would you love me for my money?
Would you love me for my head?
Would you love me through the winter?
Would you love me ’til I’m dead?
Oh, if you would, and you could,
Come blow your horn on high.’
The album concludes with yet another mundane instrumental, Sunday.
So, a remarkably mixed bag. Three wordless fillers, three overproduced messes and four beauties, one of which, Northern Sky, is probably the best thing he ever did and will be one of the songs played at my funeral.
Just like Five Leaves Left, the album bombed. Boyd did his best to promote it but Nick failed to turn up for a BBC TV audition and had a hopeless non-interview with Jerry Gilbert of the music paper Sounds. ‘There wasn’t a bad atmosphere,’ said Gilbert. ‘There just wasn’t any connection whatever. Of the thousands of interviews I’ve done it was the strangest.’ Gilbert did manage to extract the observation from Drake that he was ‘not altogether clear about the album – I haven’t got to terms with the whole presentation’. You can imagine how well this went down with Boyd and Island Records. Nick also vouchsafed that he would not be performing live again.
Despite his lack of promotional effort, Drake was devastated at the LP’s rotten sales figures. Robert Kirby told the BBC somewhat anachronistically that ‘he took that like being hit in the stomach by Mike Tyson. I think that really did knock him back a long way’.
To make matters worse, Joe Boyd did a runner, taking a job with Warner Brothers pictures in Hollywood and leaving Nick minus his producer, agent, publisher and manager. Trevor Dann writes that ‘if there was one moment when his despair turned into clinical depression this was probably it’. He returned to Tanworth and told his mum that he had failed in everything he had ever tried to achieve, adding: ‘I don’t like it at home but I can’t bear it anywhere else.’ A neighbour was shocked at the appearance of this once charming, healthy public schoolboy, now a ‘fugitive hiding inside a long overcoat’.
Rodney and Molly Drake sought psychiatric help for their son’s depression but he was concerned about the side-effects of the drugs he was prescribed, combined with cannabis and heroin, so he didn’t bother with the pills and would sit for hours staring at his feet. But somehow he summoned up the will to create a third album and, in October 1971, called up engineer John Wood to book him and his London studio, Sound Techniques. ‘We went in one night, put up four microphones and did five or six songs straight off,’ Wood told the BBC. ‘Nick was very quiet throughout.’
Linda Peters, the future Mrs Richard Thompson, was a former girlfriend of Nick although they never slept together. She called in at the studio and found him ‘in a dreadful state, totally incommunicado’. After a second evening’s recording, Wood assumed that Nick would wish to bring in Robert Kirby for string arrangements on top of his guitar and vocals, but was told: ‘I don’t want anything on.’ Wood replied: ‘Absolutely nothing?’ ‘No, that’s all I want.’
The album, Pink Moon, was quickly mixed and Nick took the tape to Island Records chief Chris Blackwell. ‘I got a call from reception that a Nick Drake was here to see me,’ Blackwell told Dann. ‘So I went downstairs. He was very uncommunicative, very introverted – “Hi Nick, how are you?” “Oh, fine, here’s my new record.” I asked him what it had cost and he said 500 or so pounds, so I gave him the money there and then. It was hard to put pressure on someone who wouldn’t tour when their record only cost 500 quid!’
Pink Moon comprises a mere 28 minutes of stark acoustic guitar and vocals, plus Nick’s piano on the title track. Dann writes: ‘This was a collection of songs from the edge. There was no room for artifice . . . Nick was coming apart and Pink Moon was the journal of his experience.’
The album begins with the title track, a warning of impending doom:
Saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna get ye all.
Although the beautiful second track, Place To Be, was written some years earlier it fits in with the album’s general mood of despair:
Now I’m darker than the deepest sea
Just hand me down, give me a place to be.
Despite his obvious misery, there was still nothing wrong with Nick’s guitar technique, as revealed by his complex finger picking on track three, Road. This is followed by the lovely, haunting Which Will, later to be covered by Lucinda Williams on her Sweet Old World album. Horn is a brief and bleak instrumental; then comes the longest track, Things Behind The Sun. This was written in about 1968 and Joe Boyd had wanted to include it on Bryter Later. Thank heavens he didn’t – it would probably have ended up with Mrs Mills on piano, Kenny Ball’s Jazzmen and a breakdancing pig.
Know probably the darkest track on a dark album – a brief and anguished vocal with guitar accompaniment on just two strings. By comparison, Free Ride is positively lush. Parasite is another accomplished song from Nick’s earlier days, then comes Harvest Breed – ‘Falling fast and falling free, this could be the end.’ The album concludes with the lovely From The Morning.
Pink Moon, released in 1972, sold even fewer copies than its predecessors. Nick spent the next two miserable years living with his parents and occasionally visiting friends including John and Beverley Martyn, in Hastings. John wrote the song Solid Air about him – ‘I don’t know what’s going on in your mind, but I know you don’t like what you find.’
At one point Nick bizarrely decided to join the Army but was rejected after turning up for his interview with shoulder-length hair. He was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for observation and was prescribed Tryptizol, an extremely heavy-duty antidepressant.
In 1974 Joe Boyd came back to the UK and received a visit from Nick. ‘He looked terrible. His hair and fingernails were dirty and he was wearing a shabby coat.’ Nick began accusing his former mentor. ‘You told me I’m great but nobody knows me. Nobody buys my records. I don’t understand. What’s wrong? Whose fault is this?’
To pacify him, Boyd booked a session with John Wood at Sound Techniques and Nick recorded Black Eyed Dog, a tortured piece of work with the line ‘I’m growing old and I want to go home.’ He returned to the studio in July but Boyd was devastated at how far he had sunk. ‘He couldn’t even sing and play the guitar at the same time.’
Linda Thompson recalled that Nick had ‘no interest in living at all’, adding: ‘I don’t remember him ever laughing. Just before he died he looked like Howard Hughes. There was this beautiful boy with the milky-white, almost see-through skin, who always took great care of his hands and fingernails, and now he was dirty and unkempt and his nails were too long to play the guitar.’
On November 25, 1974, Molly Drake found her 26-year-old son lying dead on his single bed. He had taken an overdose of Tryptizol and the coroner recorded a verdict of suicide. Nick Drake’s ashes were interred under an oak tree in the graveyard of the Church of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth. There is a gravestone inscribed with a line out of the song From The Morning – ‘Now we rise and we are everywhere’.
Nick’s suffering was over, but his career was just beginning. I shall deal with his posthumous success – and his mum’s too – in a future column. Next week I promise something a bit more cheerful.