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Nick Drake: The Life

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The assumption has been that smoking dope defined his days, and probably didn’t help when it came to his descent into mental illness. Nick was sitting at the piano or with a guitar, making suggestions, and Robert was sitting over there, writing, and Robert would say: ‘Well, how about this instead of that?

There’s an entry from July 1974 that says something like, ‘Nick went to a rock concert in London this evening but left early and came home’. Here, in the late 1970s you could set your alarm clock radio to WHFS at night, in the Maryland suburbs or anywhere in the DMV, and wake around 6 am to gentle sounds of Bryter Layter (instrumental), or expect to hear it within the hour, getting ready for high school. Drake’s third and final album Pink Moon is a bleak, minimal affair, seemingly wrenched from the depths of mental illness. So he was paying Nick a publishing advance every week because he was convinced that this was going to be where Nick was going to have his best shot at earning a decent amount of money. Born in Rangoon, he lived a life of genteel privilege in Warwickshire from the age of two where his parents, “old Burma hands” in the colonial parlance, doted on him and his sister.It wasn’t as bad for him, because he got so much recognition with Fairport Convention, the Incredible String Band, later REM, there are many examples. The reception was extraordinarily good and we all got stood rounds of drinks, which was rather pleasant. People who have studied this illness all their lives have no better understanding of patients than you had of Nick,” he wrote. He didn’t do much to publicise himself, although he did play more concerts than is usually reported, about forty. They were so dark and sad, and telling about the state of his mind: doom, gloom and despair, with apocalyptic elements.

But speaking about Nick, I think it’s interesting to speculate, as a fantasy: had he been willing to play a concert in September, October 1974 and a promoter had said, ‘Yeah, sure’, what would the take-up have been? Another example: contrary to what you might see online, there were many reviews of Nick Drake’s records when he was around, and Richard found one of Pink Moon in Penthouse magazine.I’m not comparing their lives, but I don’t think anyone reading a biography of Darwin would be tolerant of half-baked mistruths, blatantly wrong dates and so on. Drake handed over a recording of Pink Moon to Island Records’ bewildered boss Chris Blackwell, who had not been expecting it, before going dark again. A Cat Stevens or a King Crimson album would have come out straight away, but I think Nick slowly began to realise that he simply wasn’t a priority for Island. I like the instrumental pieces on his second album, Bryter Layter, very much, but not everybody does, and Boyd wanted more songs with vocals instead. And I think classical music informed his sensibility easily as much as pop or rock or folk and so on.

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