Following closely on the heels of our recent U2 and Belle & Sebastian books in the series, Amanda Petrusich’s book on Nick Drake is now available.
The book gives a little backstory into Drake’s life, charts the circumstances of the album’s creation, and takes a long look at the ad campaign that brought the album to the attention of mainstream America a few years ago. Here’s an extract from right at the start of the book:
Thirty-three years have passed since Nick Drake’s death, but it is still shamefully easy to romanticize his demise—to sniff and glaze, translating a pedestrian drug overdose into epic, ridiculous verse, twisting his story into one long, tortured poem about art and depression and youth and emptiness. Unfortunately, part of what makes Nick Drake so potent a figure is also what makes his legacy feel so contrived: Drake’s (presumed) suicide validated his music much as Kurt Cobain’s would two decades later, lending his songs credence and weight. Now, when we hear Drake sing about feeling anxious and alone and invisible, we trust his despair. When we listen to Pink Moon, it is impossible not to feel death, huge and looming, inevitable and infinite, close and closer.
Flipping off all the lights, propping open a creaky old window, and listening to Pink Moon is just about as close as anyone can get to Nick Drake now. Only the fortunate few who knew Drake personally can effectively evoke his body and voice. There is no confirmed footage of Drake performing, smoking cigarettes, smiling, reading, eating, sleeping, sighing, walking, or breathing, although if you paw through the amateur videos posted on YouTube for long enough, you’ll eventually uncover a mute, eleven-second, slow-motion video clip of a tall, lanky figure with long hair loping through a folk festival, wearing a maroon blazer and beige pants. The clip’s silence is chilling; below, in the website’s comments section, agitated fans debate whether or not the figure—it could be anyone—is actually Nick Drake. Likewise, there is only one confirmed document of Drake’s speaking voice, aside from a few inconsequential bits of speech caught during recording sessions: Several years ago, a short, garbled audiotape of a nineteen-year-old Drake, rambling into a recorder after returning home to Far Leys from a party, emerged. “Good evening, or should I say good morning? It’s twenty-five to five, I’ve been sitting here for some time, actually, in this room,” Drake warbles. His voice is deep and soft and thick with alcohol. The tape’s contents swing from unintentionally hilarious (“I think I must have drunk rather a lot. . . . I think I drove the whole way home on the right side of the road. . . . It is extremely pleasant sitting here now, because I think there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the doorknob before one goes to bed, there’s something uncanny about it”) to dismal (“In moments of stress, such as was this journey home, one forgets, so easily, the lies, the truth, and the pain”).
Because there are so few artifacts of Nick Drake’s life (as Molly Drake later explained, “There is so little that Nick left behind, apart from the legacy of his music. . . . He never wrote anything down, never kept a diary, hardly even wrote his name in his own books . . . it was as if he didn’t want anything of himself to remain except his songs”) we are now required to piece together a figure from other people’s memories, parsing hindsight from truth, re-examining lyrics, chords, tunings, and syntax, scouring all available options for clues to Drake’s truth. As Patrick Humphries notes, the dearth of nonmusical insights into Drake’s persona also leads to a certain amount of projection, with Drake’s massive mythology trumping, in many cases, his work. “Nick Drake becomes a blank canvas on which admirers can paint their own pictures, project their own lives and troubles; a mirror in which people see their own pain and lost promise,” Humphries writes. And because Drake’s music is so intensely personal—as producer Joe Boyd told the NME, “He’s someone whose story really is in the songs . . . the songs in a way became less about other people and more about himself as time went on”—it is especially difficult to divorce Drake’s music from the dire circumstances of his waking life, to listen honestly and without bias. Instead, we build tiny bridges, linking sighs and pauses and dark bits of lyrics with our notions of Drake—his hair matted and thick with grease, clothes rumpled and stained, fingernails gnarled and curling, his body slumped at a desk, speechless, lifeless, hopeless.
Within Drake’s limited discography—within Pink Moon, especially—it’s possible (easy, even) to establish a timeline of depressive illness. Still, it feels dangerous and disingenuous, conflating art with life, making presumptions, reading anguish into each dismal couplet, imposing external narratives on an internal art. The single-named Cally—a former creative director at Island Records’ London office who, along with Drake’s sister, Gabrielle, now manages Drake’s posthumous estate— adamantly maintains that Drake recorded Pink Moon while in temporary remission from his depression and that, accordingly, the record should not be understood as an artifact of his disease. “Nick was incapable of writing and recording whilst he was suffering from periods of depression. He was not depressed during the writing or recording of Pink Moon and was immensely proud of the album, as letters to his father testify,” Cally insists. “Some journalists and book writers have found this fact disappointing, as it doesn’t reflect their own impression of the album. Nick confounded these impressions often. I think all of Nick’s albums are understood and misunderstood to the same degree. In that lies their great beauty and welcomed mystery. When it came to the album’s creator, well, no one understood him as such.” I recognize the hazards and falsehoods inherent to crossing these particular wires. That doesn’t always mean I can stop myself.