With the recent tragic death of Heath Ledger, the actor’s self-described obsession with singer/songwriter Nick Drake has come to light. “I was obsessed with an artist by the name of Nick Drake,” Ledger explained in a September 2007 interview. Indeed, Ledger has been compared to Drake in both melancholy temperament and manner of death; both died from an overdose of antidepressant medicine, though Drake’s death is considered a suicide.
I hope a few more people can discover Nick Drake, an artist I have long liked, through this post. In his lifetime, Nicholas Rodney Drake was reclusive, depressed, and rather unsuccessful. He shunned live performance and as a result failed to find much following during his recording years, 1969 – 72.
Yet during those years Drake produced three sullen records marked by his “breathy vocals, strong melodies, and the acoustic-based orchestral sweep of his arrangements” (AMG). His songs have an overwhelming melancholy air about them as Drake fingerpicks his way through each album.
He became disillusioned to the point of unhealthy introversion as a result of his music’s mediocre success. By 1974 he was living with his parents and having little contact with the outside world. With producer Joe Boyd, Drake tried to record a fourth record. “It was chilling. It was really scary. He was so… he was in such bad shape he couldn’t sing and play the guitar at the same time” Boyd recounts from these sessions (Wikipedia).
On November 25, 1974, Nick Drake died from an overdose of medicine used to treat his depression. His mother found him in his bed with no note left to explain. The lack of a suicide note has led to some controversy over the nature of his death. Nick’s sister Grabrielle has stated, “I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide, in the sense that I’d rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible: for it to be a plea for help that nobody hears” (nickdrake.com).
As the 70’s passed, Nick Drake’s musical legacy remained low, but by the 80’s his name was being thrown about by other musicians as an influence while his cult status grew.
Fame’s fleeting flame finally burst into the general public’s conscience in 2000 when Volkswagen licensed the title track of Pink Moon for a car commercial. Suddenly, Drake’s music found the audience he longed for in life. Sales leaped, movies soundtracks came calling, and other artists called out in admiration of the tragic singer. In 2004, Drake achieved his first music chart success with two singles to coincide with a radio broadcast, narrated by Brad Pitt, about Drake.
Interestingly, Heath Ledger also directed and starred in a black and white video treatment of Drake’s song “Black Eyed Dog,” featuring the actor drowning at the end. The song’s title refers to Winston Churchill’s description of depression. The video has yet to appear on the internet and was screened only twice.
Five Leaves Left (1969) takes its name from a Swan cigarettes rolling paper warning the consumer when only five “leaves” remained in the pack. Drake was a noted marijuana smoker, though the common practice in Europe then, as today, is to roll one’s own tobacco.
Thoughts of Mary Jane evokes a pastoral setting in the England of old, perhaps sitting riverside in spring meadows, with elegant flute and string arrangements. My favorite of the album.
Time Has Told Me is a gently rolling ballad with gentle piano chords, subtle picking, and amazing electric guitar accents.
“Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find.
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.”
Day is Done: beautifully haunting.
Also don’t miss: Way to Blue, Man in a Shed
Bryter Layter (1970) is a continuation of Drake’s folksy sound and is more polished with its sweeping instrumentals. The album is also a bit more upbeat with a more prominent percussion. The title is a pun on a common BBC weather forecast that it would become “brighter later.”
Hazy Jane II, the second track on the record and first with vocals, is immediately noticeable as a departure from the tone of Five Leaves Left. Rolling drums and upbeat brass are about as happy as Nick Drake gets.
One of These Things First is a great tune with rambling piano and timeless lyrics.
Fly is a song for reminiscing about leaving with some great harpsichord work.
Also don’t miss: At the Chime of the City Clock, Northern Sky
Pink Moon is the song that brought Drake into the limelight with its inclusion in the aforementioned Volkswagen commercial. This is one of those songs I have listened to so much I rarely return to it, but when I do it always delights. His best song in my opinion.
Road features some great finger picking and reminds of a road trip on a lonely, deserted highway at dusk.
Also don’t miss: Which Will, Know
For more information, check out the documentary Nick Drake: A Skin Too Few. You can find it over at YouTube.