I would like to acquaint you with the beautiful music and sad story of Nick Drake, if you’ve never heard either. Let me say that Nick Drake was a talented singer and guitarist and nothing short of a brilliant songwriter. I think it is fair to say he was ahead of his time, though his music was definitely a product of its time. You have probably heard his music somewhere, since it crops up in odd soundtracks and other places, but his name may have escaped your notice.
Drake released his debut album, “Five Leaves Left” in 1969, when he was 20 years old. It wasn’t well received critically and didn’t sell many copies. He was confident his second album, “Bryter Layter,” would be a commercial success. It sold less than 3000 copies. 3000. Oof. Drake, who was throughout his life prone to depression and insomnia, didn’t take it well.
He began work on his final album, “Pink Moon,” in 1971. He was by then smoking what a college friend called “unbelievable amounts” of marijuana. Yeah, in 1971. I can’t imagine what quantities would be required to cross the “unbelievable” threshold in 1971. In any event, he strove for an even more stripped down sound on “Pink Moon.” He recorded it over just two nights in the studio with most songs featuring just Drake and his guitar. It received some good reviews, but sold even fewer copies than his first two releases.
Drake became more depressed and withdrawn. He lived frugally and simply, often with his parents. He had a nervous breakdown and was hospitalized for 5 weeks in 1972. In autumn of 1974 Drake succumbed to an overdose of antidepressants at age 26. Colleagues told him he was a genius, but ultimately he had a rather sad and unsuccessful life.
Nobody really talked about Drake throughout the rest of the 1970s, but in the ‘80s, he got a shout out from members of The Cure, R.E.M., and Dream Academy. People started identifying Drake as a romantic tragic figure. He got a little more attention in the ’90s, including a biography on BBC2 in 1999. In 2004, nearly 30 years after his death, two of his songs actually reached the charts in the U.K. His songs have started appearing in movie soundtracks and TV commercials. In fact, after one of his songs appeared in a Volkswagen commercial, he sold more records in a month than he had the previous 30 years (or so Wikipedia would have us believe).
Now Drake is recognized as an influential artist and has a pretty large cult following. You should pick all three of his releases because they are delightful. Some of the songs are somber and frankly depressing, but many of them are serious in tone but uplifting and gorgeous.
Here are 4 brilliant tracks from his debut.
- Time Has Told Me – An acoustic intro with a typical pensive Drake melody is joined by piano and picked electric guitar and becomes kind of uplifting, like many Drake songs. It actually sounds a bit like early Bowie – maybe something off of “Hunky Dory.”
- Three Hours – Acoustic bass and bongos back Drake skillfully playing some ornate acoustic guitar as he sings an ethereal melody. It’s a really beautiful piece and there some interesting facts about Drake to read on this YouTube video during the song.
- Cello Song – Guess what instrument accompanies Drake and his acoustic guitar. The name isn’t clever, but the song is beautiful.
- Man in a Shed – It’s a clever song with a beautiful melody. Drake’s instrument was the guitar, but the piano is particularly busy and joyful.
By all means, dig deeper. Interestingly, there are many still photos, but there is no film footage of Drake as an adult. His live shows were reportedly awkward and brief, but the sadly small catalog of music he left behind reaches out to touch us even now.