November 18, 2018

Ash Wednesday with Nick Drake

Ash Wednesday with Nick Drake

When the world seemed too remote, too difficult to negotiate, I recognised in him a spirit brave and brilliant enough to articulate in music what was an incoherent fog within me.

• Monty Don, about Nick Drake

Each year, either on Ash Wednesday or during Lent, I try to focus some of my attention on a musical artist or album from the popular culture of my lifetime in which I find echoes of the Lenten journey. In past years we’ve considered the music of Townes Van Zandt, Bob Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, and last year we followed the long, strange  journey of Neil Young.

Here in 2018, on Ash Wednesday, I’m thinking of one of the best singer-songwriters most people have never heard of, whose three brilliant albums weren’t appreciated nearly as much during his lifetime as they have come to be in later years. This is Nick Drake, the prodigious young English guitarist and singer at the turn of the 1970s, whose haunting songs and tragic death from an overdose of antidepressants at age 26 earned him a cult following for a time. However, as the years have passed Drake has gained wider recognition for his genius, and his influence has grown exponentially.

Here is Drake’s bio at Rolling Stone:

Since Nick Drake’s death, his eerie, jazz-tinged folk music has had an ever-growing cult following. Born to British parents, Drake spent his first two years on the Indian subcontinent before moving to the English village of Tanworth-in-Arden. He played saxophone and clarinet in school but turned to the guitar at age 16. Two years later he began writing his own songs. He was a student at Cambridge University in 1968, when Ashley Hutchings of Fairport Convention heard him performing at London’s Roundhouse. Hutchings introduced him to Joe Boyd, who managed Fairport, John Martyn, and other leaders of the British folk revival. Boyd immediately signed Drake to Island Records and put him on Witchseason concert bills. In 1970 Elton John was hired as a session vocalist to record Drake’s songs to use as demos to entice established singers to covet Drake’s compositions.

Drake was a shy, awkward performer and remained aloof from the public and press. By all accounts his isolation and confusion, results of severe mental illness that at times would leave him catatonic and requiring hospitalizations, grew more severe. By the end of 1970 he had stopped doing concerts. He lived for a short while in Paris at the behest of Françoise Hardy (who never released the recordings she made of his songs) and then settled in Hampstead, where he became increasingly reclusive, allowing the company of only his close friends John and Beverly Martyn. He recorded Pink Moon totally unaccompanied, submitted the tapes to Island by mail, and entered a psychiatric rest home.

When he left the home months later, vowing never to sing another song, he got a job as a computer programmer. In 1973 he began writing songs again. Drake had recorded four when he died in bed at his parents’ home in 1974, the victim of an overdose of antidepressant medication. Suicide was considered probable by the coroner, but Drake’s friends and family disagreed. Fruit Tree is a box set containing his three albums plus the four songs recorded in 1973. In 2000 Drake’s music reached a much larger audience than during his lifetime after Volkswagen used his “Pink Moon” in a car commercial, which greatly spurred sales of his recordings. This music also turned up on a few film soundtracks and became the subject of tributes performed by such artists as Duncan Sheik. Drake’s original albums were remastered and repackaged on CD in late 2000.

Nick Drake made three classic singer-songwriter albums: Five Leaves Left (which featured players from seminal British folks groups such as Fairport Convention and Pentangle), Bryter Layter (the most commercial of his records and one in which Drake intended to emulate the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds), and Pink Moon (a solo album featuring only Drake and his guitar). The one song many of you might recognize is Northern Sky, which has been featured on TV and movie soundtracks. The beauty and melancholy is tangible.

 

Despite his remarkable gifts, Drake, an introvert crippled by depression, was uncomfortable with public performance and the commercial aspects of the record business. An accurate statement of his struggles with life and the fight for public recognition may be seen in his song, Fruit Tree:

Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound
It can never flourish
‘til its stock is in the ground
So men of fame
Can never find a way
‘til time has flown
Far from their dying day

Forgotten while you’re here
Remembered for a while
A much updated ruin
From a much outdated style

One of his songs that captures the essence of Ash Wednesday for me is Day Is Done, from Nick Drake’s first album. A few of the songs there, including this one, have an “Eleanor Rigby” ambience, with chamber string arrangements that hauntingly evoke our mortality.

When the day is done
Down to earth then sinks the sun
Along with everything that was lost and won
When the day is done

When the day is done
Hope so much your race will be all run
Then you find you jumped the gun
Have to go back where you begun
When the day is done

When the night is cold
Some get by but some get old
Just to show life’s not made of gold
When the night is cold

When the bird has flown
Got no-one to call your own
Got no place to call your home
When the bird has flown

When the game’s been fought
Newspaper blown accross the court
Lost much sooner than you would have thought
Now the game’s been fought

When the party’s through
Seems so very sad for you
Didn’t do the things you meant to do
Now there’s no time to start anew
Now the party’s through

When the day is done
Down to earth then sinks the sun
Along with everything that was lost and won
When the day is done

A blessed Ash Wednesday to you. Though among the most somber of days, there is music to express our deepest feelings and darkest fears. Nick Drake, may God give rest to his troubled soul, will be my muse this year as I learn to number my days.

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Further Reading

Comments

  1. at this point I know
    I will not have learned to live
    by the time I die

  2. My goodness; I had never heard of Nick Drake, it is a sad tale indeed. I’ve always had a heart for guys who have found life seriously troubling.

  3. With a fragile soul like Nick Drake you can use the term “sensitive singer/songwriter” without a hint of irony or condescension. I’m not always in that mood but when I am there’s nothing like it.

  4. Beautiful! Thank you.