Gonna See The River Man…
With the amount of folk and acoustic based artists that came out of the 1970’s (Jim Croce, Jon Denver, Gordon Lightfoot, James Taylor, etc…), it’s mind boggling that there’s a prolific artist that seems to go undiscovered by the main stream. Surrounded by equally the same muddled mythos that haunts Robert Johnson, English singer-songwriter Nick Drake lived through a very short career with an everlasting legacy. During his lifetime, Drake was never able to feel or see the impact that he left on listeners for years to come. With only 3 studio albums to his name, it’s a surprising and startling discovery that his songs truly represent the rise and downfall of his personal life and career. Here’s a brief history on the music and the myth…Nick Drake.
Born June 19, 1948 to an artistically and musically involved family, it was only a matter of time before Drake joined in on the family fun. One of his early inspirations came from his mother Molly Drake. Turning her poetry into almost lullaby like melodies, Molly Drake recorded some of her own compositions in the family room.
As stated in interviews from close friends and others who have worked with him, Nick was constantly playing and writing as well. He would experiment with different guitar tunings and finger picking combinations to achieve his one of a kind sound. Here’s YouTuber Josh Turner to give a better and more in-depth explanation:
Five Leaves Left (1969):
Fast forward to his first record, Five Leaves Left sets the “standard” for the next two studio albums. With Drake and his guitar at the forefront, there’s minimal accompaniment to back him on the record. The albums producer Joe Boyd described the recording session for the song ‘River Man‘ as “Drake playing on a stool in the center of the studio while surrounded by a semi-circle of instruments“.
With somewhat rushed and unorganized recording sessions, Five Leaves Left was released on July 3rd, 1969 to lukewarm reviews. Critics were quick to point out the beautiful melancholic atmosphere, but dismissed the album and his songwriting as, in simple terms, basic.
Following the release of his first album, Drake moved to London in the autumn of 1969 and began performing shows in local folk clubs and a few songs for the John Peel Show. Disappointingly, the folk scene at the time didn’t accept him into their world. Fellow folk singer Michael Chapman said of his show at the Royal Festival Hall:
“The folkies did not take to him. They wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point. He didn’t say a word the entire evening. It was actually quite painful to watch. I don’t know what the audience expected, I mean, they must have known they weren’t going to get sea-shanties and sing-alongs at a Nick Drake gig!“
The uncomfortable breaks in the sets were also stretched for him to tune his guitar since his songs required many different tunings. He soon retreated from touring all together which in turn did not help promote Five Leaves.
Bryter Layter (1971):
For his second release, producer Joe Boyd looked to add a more jazz and commercial sound to Drakes music. With the okay from Nick, Bryter Layter contained more backing musicians than on his previous release. What came out was a more (at least for that time) contemporary album that was ready for mainstream radio containing songs and a production that were more polished yet equally mysterious and melancholic. With songs like “Chime Of The City Clock“, “Poor Boy“, and “Hazey Jane II“, it is apparent that many wanted (and possibly Drake himself) to see him evolve into the star he could be.
Again, sadly, the record did not sell well for him to break into the mainstream. Also around this time, Drake was becoming extremely depressed with many other events in his life only hindering his mental health. He shunned any help from family and doctors due to embarrassment and started to shut himself off from the world around him. Missing many interviews and performance opportunities (again) to promote his sophomore release only hindered his plans for stardom and by this time his record label Island gave up on any future collaborations or albums from him.
Pink Moon (1972):
As stated before, the possiblilty of a third album was completely abandoned by Island so when presented with what would be his final album, Pink Moon, they were a bit surprised. Regardless, recording sessions took place over 2 days with just Nick and engineer John Wood in the studio. Drake‘s disappointment in the over embellished production of Bryter Layter led to Pink Moon to have an extremely stripped down sound with the only extra accompaniment being a piano on the title track.
Pink Moon showed a major change in Drake‘s songwriting with the songs being shorter, darker, and a very dry production quality. The artwork for the album cover also showed a shift in his career. Deciding not to use any of the photographs taken of Drake due to his depressed stature and blank expression, he expressed the interest of a pink moon to be the artwork for the cover. The result was a surrealist piece by artist Michael Trevithick.
No tour was put in place to support the album and even though it was his only North American release with a strange boost in promotion, reviews still were middle of the road. Drake became disinterested and retired from music soon after. His final years sadly reflected his deteriorating mental health and untimely death in 1974.
Retreating to his parents home, he secluded himself even further. Resenting the fact that he was called a genius by many and gained virtually no commercial success, he spiraled further into depression. On the morning of November 25, 1974, Drake was found unresponsive in his bed due to an overdose of amitriptyline (an antidepressant).
With no live video appearances and very few short interviews, many would have witnessed the final death of both the artist and his artwork. Thankfully, in the mid 1980’s, musicians like R.E.M. and The Cure (their name comes from the Drake song “Time Has Told Me“) started to cite him as an influence on their music. Thankfully, the musician and his music started to gain popularity. As of the past decade, many fans of folk music and music critics have started to praise Nick Drake as the genius he was and still is. His music is timeless and his musicianship is still impeccable. As stated before, like with Robert Johnson, the myth pulls in many to discover the man behind it. A brief history on the music and the myth…Nick Drake.