So Very Unsound: Nick Drake’s Paradox


”Fame is but a fruit tree/So very unsound/It can never flourish/Until its stalk is in the ground”

 

The day Nick died was cold, to say the least. The sky, in a state of perpetual grey, was dressed appropriately for the occasion.

Nick’s room was inside a posh home in the sleepy village of Tanworth-In-Arden, nestled in rural Warwickshire. His parents were well off – Rodney, the patriarch of the Drake family, was the chairman of a successful plumbing company. His mother, Molly, was a member of the Indian Civil Service, and also a semi-professional musician. Her artistic qualities were passed on to her two children – Rodney’s qualities as a stern and stoic businessman, were not.

Well, they certainly weren’t passed on to his son.

Nick was a quiet and introverted young man. Although he was popular and well-liked, his reputation at school was somewhat that of an introvert. He was a gifted sportsman, however, and was even captain of his school’s rugby team, which explains the popularity he had in his formative years. In addition, he was also an active member of the school orchestra – playing piano, clarinet, guitar, and saxophone. Nick decided to develop his musical interests, and abandoned his sporting ones.

In 1969, Nick released his first album – Five Leaves Left. It did not sell very many copies.

Five_Leaves_Left

Despite its quality – the album did not generate any buzz – being overshadowed by his contemporaries’ more extroverted offerings. It was 1969, a quiet folk album was not going to resonate with the public as much as a loud, drug-induced protest about the Vietnam War.

Nick was depressed and frustrated by the album’s performance, he couldn’t understand why his work was so harshly shunned. Nick wanted recognition. Nick felt he had something to say, something to offer.

Two years later, he tried again. This time, he offered a more jazzy offering – Bryter Layter. This work had more bells and whistles, more pomp and circumstance, and way more instruments. Once again, the album had serious quality and perhaps contained his best-ever song- the seminal Northern Sky.

Bryter_Layter

The album tanked just as much, if not more, than his first. One paper described it as ”an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz” – whilst another one praised his musical capabilities as a ”beautiful guitarist”. Overall, critics at the time were indifferent – and Bryter Layter passed through 1971 completely unnoticed. Again, it was the time of psychedelia and social upheaval. Nick’s work was way too ‘pleasant’ sounding to make any waves in the charts at the time.

Nick was devastated. The meager sales of his albums were embarrassing to him – and he entered a deep depression after the release – as nobody seemed to care about his work. I don’t know if Nick wanted to be famous or not, but I do know he wanted his work to matter to someone, somewhere.

It was this lack of purpose that ate away at him. The feeling of complete and total dispensableness slowly eroded his soul. He returned to the studio in 1973, a broken, malnourished shell – and it showed in his work.

NickDrakePinkMoon Pink Moon (1973) – Nick’s last album

 

Plagued by self-loathing and depression, Nick Drake’s final album is the sound of a man who has given up. ”None of you stand so tall/Pink Moon gonna get you all” – he writes, the pink moon perhaps being a representation of death. Nick’s hopes with the album are unclear, he had been so jaded by his first two offerings, and I think he knew this one would not sell either. In fact, he made the album almost entirely alone. The sole overdub being the brief piano interlude on the title track. Nick’s dream of being the spokesman for his generation had remained just that – a dream.

Nick retired from music after Pink Moon, at just 25 years old. He almost embraced his self-labeled status as a failure and returned home to live with his parents.”If I only I could feel that my music had ever done anything to help one single person, this would all be worth it” – he once remarked to his mother.

Nick died in 1974, at the age of twenty-six. I do not know whether his overdose was intentional or not, and I do not wish to disrespect his family by suggesting it was.

I don’t think fame would have saved Nick – he seemed too aloof, too introverted, and too indifferent to handle being the artist behind a Platinum album or a Grammy. I think Nick Drake was stuck in a paradox and false paradigm that we can all relate too – we chase after what we *think* will be the solution to our problems, but it is this chase that has us miserable in the first place.

The great irony in all this is that Nick did become a spokesperson, and it was his perceived failure that made him so. Millions of people around the world listen, and relate to, Nick’s lyrics of pensiveness and self-reflection. That is not to typecast him as a ‘moody’ artist – as a number of his songs are positive ones. Had Nick gotten his initial wish, I don’t think we would be talking about him today.

Nick is buried in a grave reading ”now we rise, and we are everywhere” – a lyric from his final song on his final album, and it is a message that, once again, it is steeped in irony. After his tragic demise, his legacy did indeed rise, and it is indeed everywhere.

Nick’s great paradox was one I don’t think he could have got out of. What his story does teach us, however, is that what we chase after so much may not be the answer we are looking for.

10 thoughts on “So Very Unsound: Nick Drake’s Paradox

  1. A wonderfully real read about a wonderfully real artist.

    “Black-Eyed Dog” was a reference borrowed from Winston Churchill, the former Prime Minister would call his depression his “black-eyed dog”. Also, I was mesmerised when learning Heath Ledger’s deep appriciation for Nick.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. i came across Nick Drake just a few years ago after having heard his name applauded by the most talented and successful artists in the music industry. He seemed to be one of those underwhelmed artists who influenced so many without achieving worldwide success (in the sense of fame and fortune). Thanks for the retrospective.

    Like

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