I discovered Nick Drake quite by accident. I’m a huge fan of The Smiths, and I when I watched Ferris Bueller’s Day Off I recognized one of my favorite of their songs, “Please, Please, Please, Let Me Get What I Want,” being covered in spectacular fashion during the scene in the Art Institute Museum. I found out the band covering the song was The Dream Academy. (Incidentally, the discovery of that band launched me on into a big dream pop phase, during which time I immersed myself in the music of bands such as Cocteau Twins, The Chameleons, This Mortal Coil, Slowdive, Bel Canto, and so forth, but that’s a story for a different blog.) The Dream Academy had recorded a hit single, “Life in a Northern Town,” which I quickly grew to adore. At some point, I noticed the song was dedicated to someone named Nick Drake, and set about finding some of his music.
It wasn’t easy to find his albums. He only recorded three, and none sold very well. They were out of print for a while, then reissued, but not in vast quantities. Eventually, I tracked down a copy of Pink Moon and fell in love with it upon my first listen.
Nick Drake’s story is a tragic one, and I won’t delve too deeply into it. He was a near recluse who seldom performed, was interviewed in print but once, and was never captured on film other than in childhood home movies. Pink Moon, his final, and in my opinion best, album clocks in at less than 30 minutes long. When asked why it was so short, he is said to have replied, “that’s all I had to say.” Sadly, his words were too true– he never recorded another album, and within less than three years, Drake was dead from an overdose of antidepressants. His death was ruled a suicide, though his family disputes that finding.
I saw it written and I saw it say
Pink moon is on its way
And none of you stand so tall
Pink moon gonna’ get you all
So simple, and yet if you hear it sung, and the accompanying music, you can’t help but feel your soul overwhelmed by anguish mixed with beauty. More so than any other singer I know, Drake’s music encompasses heartache and sorrow in a way vague enough to allow you to apply it to your own life, and yet in a manner that appears deeply personal at the same time. Many bands accomplish the first half of that equation; Radiohead comes to mind. Myriad others capture the latter half; Morrissey anyone? Who but Nick Drake successfully juggled both elements at once?
In the opening paragraph I traced my meandering journey to discovering Drake’s music, because in many ways it mirrors the equally rambling path his music took from unknown to popular. For nearly 30 years after his death, Drake and his music languished in obscurity, only surfacing occasionally, as in the dedication that helped me discover him. In another blip on the radar, Robert Smith once stated that The Cure was named after a Nick Drake lyric, taken from “Time Has Told Me,” one of my favorite Drake songs,
Time has told me
You’re a rare rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind.
Then, nearly overnight, Nick Drake became a posthumous celebrity. “Pink Moon” was used as the backing track for a car commercial, and within a few days, the improbable had happened– Nick Drake knocked N*Sync out of the Top 5. When I read the headline I was dumbfounded. I hadn’t seen the commercial, and my mind could not comprehend what I was reading. “Obscure English Folk Singer Nick Drake Nudges Pop Superstars N*Sync from Chart” made as much sense to me as would have “Jimmy Hoffa Found Living on Venus.” Once I read the article and learned about the commercial, of course it all became clear, but that may have been the only moment in my life where I was awake and honestly wondered if I were dreaming.
I’ll close with an excerpt from “Life in a Northern Town,” the tribute to Nick Drake that led me to discover his beautiful, pained songs.
The evening had turned to rain
Watch the water roll down the drain,
As we followed him down
To the station
And though he never would wave goodbye,
You could see it written in his eyes
As the train rolled out of sight