WORDS: CHRIS WONG
It happened almost exactly 30 years ago. In May 1987, right when I turned 24, I got a one-month rail pass that entitled me to unlimited train travel in England, Wales and Scotland. I used it to explore Great Britain in a random way, I started in London and then spontaneously went off in multiple, unplanned directions. Over the course of the month I made it to Brighton, Bath, Oxford, York, Liverpool, Keswick in the Lake District and many other places.
One place I did not go to was the village of Tanworth-In-Arden in the West Midlands. It is where Nick Drake - the singer-songwriter and guitarist - grew up and it is also where he died in 1974 at the age of 26. Almost 13 years after his death - when I was wandering around the English countryside - I still had no idea who he was. It would take another 11 years for Drake to enter my consciousness in an indirect way hearing jazz pianist Brad Mehldau’s interpretation of “River Man” on his Songs: The Art of the Trio, Volume Three album - a watershed moment. As I listened to the glorious rendition of the affecting song in 5/4 time, I asked myself: where did this transcendent tune come from?
What followed were years of research, discovery and personal analysis of Drake’s small but astonishing body of work and his life story. He only recorded three short albums: his stunningly impactful debut Five Leaves Left, which had “River Man” as its emotive centrepiece; the jazzier, more upbeat and deeply compelling Bryter Layter; and the captivatingly fragile and despairing Pink Moon. Then there were the posthumous compilations, such as Made to Love Magic, Family Tree and The John Peel Session that consisted of previously unreleased outtakes, remasters, lo-fi home recordings and a radio session. As a Nick Drake completist, I’ve enjoyed his entire oeuvre, but I always return to the three recordings that were released in his lifetime. The 31 songs on those albums - all written by Drake - would have made the perfect soundtrack to my haphazard British train hopping. The songs are full of pastoral and urban imagery, not unlike what I saw rolling past my train carriages.
Those three albums are widely celebrated now, in contrast to being criminally under appreciated when Drake was alive. Listening to them as much as I have has enabled me to draw some conclusions about the music:
It’s true that Drake’s words and music are primarily melancholic and introspective. He also gave very few live performances and was painfully shy and awkward during those gigs. Drake suffered from depression and died from an overdose of anti-depressants, which may or may not have intentional. Because of the facts about his life, there’s a tendency to lump him into a category of depressive singer-songwriters. But it is wrong to conflate melancholy and introspection with depressing music. In fact, I find Drake’s songs and his recorded performances of them incredibly uplifting. Ultimately, I prefer to view his music as being emotionally authentic and resonant. As such, he is part of a rare musical lineage that includes Townes Van Zandt, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith and Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse. While they all died too young in tragic circumstances, what connects them is they composed extraordinary music that exuded life and they performed it with entirely authentic expression.
The AllMusic website lists Drake’s genres as “Pop/Rock” and “Folk” and his styles as “British Folk”, “British Folk-Rock” and “Baroque Pop”. While there is truth in most of those labels, there’s a key genre missing: Jazz. He was far from a schooled jazz musician, but Drake showed a jazz sensibility in his guitar playing and composition. As an acoustic guitarist he used alternate tunings that I can’t pretend to understand, but guitar nerds celebrate them for a reason. All I know is that his playing, on tracks like “Three Hours” from Five Leaves Left and “Things Behind the Sun” from Pink Moon, was harmonically absorbing. As for composing, it is no wonder that Brad Mehldau has covered four of Drake’s songs. The melodies are beautiful and the sophisticated song structures lend themselves to improvisation. There have in fact been many covers of his songs and some tribute albums - most of which fall short. Only Poor Boy: Songs of Nick Drake on the Songlines label, featuring various jazz musicians and other artists, works well because it captures and creatively interprets Drake’s brilliance.
To appreciate Nick Drake is to savour the small details. Consider this fragment of lyrics from “At The Chime of a City Clock”, a song on Bryter Layter: “Stay indoors beneath the floors / Talk with neighbours only / The games you play make people say / You’re either weird or lonely / A city star won’t shine too far / On account of the way you are / And the beads around your face / Make you sure to fit back in place”. The song may be about the alienation Drake felt as someone from rural England making a go of it in London. Or maybe it is about an imaginary character - either way, the literary style and writerly detail draws in the listener.
That strange phenomenon, of British singers somehow losing their accent in their music, didn’t apply to Drake. He had an upper middle class background that led him to study at Cambridge before he dropped out to focus on music. Drake didn’t hide any of the refined Englishness in his exquisite vocal delivery. He also came across as a man out of time, who had more of an affinity with the English romantic poets like William Wordsworth who he studied at Cambridge than the pop and folk artists of the late sixties and early seventies.
This brings me back to my improvised British rail ramble from long ago. If I had known about the sublime quality of Drake’s music and how fleeting his presence was, I would have definitely made my way to Tanworth-In-Arden like many have to pay my respects. I would have gone to the graveyard next to St. Mary Magdalene Church where Drake’s ashes are interred under an Oak tree - not to romanticize him, but to quietly celebrate the profound art he created. I hope to make that journey someday.