When Nick Drake died in 1974. from an overdose of antidepressants, it was, to all who knew him, a terrible shock – but not, perhaps, a complete surprise. Drake was just 26. He had made three exquisite albums – among the most beautiful ever to emerge from British pop music – all of which, by any strictly commercial criterion, had been failures. In the last years of his life the elegiac and melancholic air that had threaded through his music had come to manifest itself firstly as depression and then in the debilitating symptoms of what a psychiatrist, in a time when such things were less understood, diagnosed as possible schizophrenia.
Drake’s death passed largely unnoticed in the music world. As is so often the case, it took a few years for his genius to be recognised, for his name to be cited by young musicians as a hero and an influence, his slim body work lovingly repackaged, his reputation secured.
In the years since there have been countless magazine articles, retrospectives, and concerts by other artists performing his songs. Drake’s life has been chronicled at length before in a highly commendable 1997 biography by Patrick Humphries. But the exhaustive and reverential Nick Drake: The Life by Richard Morton Jack, a regular contributor to Mojo and other music magazines, will stand as the definitive account.
Drake was an unusual candidate for a pop music icon. At a time when middle-class boys felt obliged to adopt faux-cockney accents and manufacture street-credible roots, Drake came from a well-off ex-colonial family. He was born in Burma, where his father, an engineer, worked for the Burma-India Trading Company, but moved to leafy Tanworth-in-Arden when he was four. His upbringing was idyllic: a house, as Morton Jack puts it, that “reeked of happiness”; an affluent family and doting parents. Rodney ran an engineering company, while Nick’s mother Molly was a talented musician who played the piano and wrote songs – lullabies for the children and love songs to amuse friends at tea parties. (Drake’s producer, Joe Boyd, would subsequently transform the scratchy home recordings into a charming album.)
At his prep school Drake was an outstanding athlete and won a cup for “General Efficiency”. And then, following the family tradition, to Marlborough, where he excelled at athletics and played rugby in the first XV. Seemingly golden, liked and admired by all, he studied cello, piano and clarinet, and fell in love with the blues and Bob Dylan and began to write his own songs. Contemporaries from that time describe him as a “rather dreamy, artistic type of boy”, who “never started a conversation”, but would happily join in when others did; “an amused observer of life rather than a participant”, “a classic introvert”, “withdrawn”, “detached”. The descriptions resonate like echoes, ominously, through the book. He was a part of the crowd, yet apart from it at the same time. “Everyone has liked him, though few have really known him,” his housemaster at Marlborough wrote to Drake’s parents when he left to go on to Cambridge. They were words that just a few years later could have served as his epitaph.
It’s a common misconception that Drake’s chronic fear of the stage meant he never performed live. In fact, he performed occasionally at college events at Cambridge, including the Caius ball, and it was playing as the support act for the American band Country Joe and the Fish, at London’s Roundhouse, that led to Drake being introduced to the man who would become his mentor and champion, the record producer Joe Boyd – a meeting as momentous, in its low-key, folky sort of way, as Lennon meeting McCartney.
Boyd signed Drake to his production company, Witchseason, and produced his album, Five Leaves Left, recorded when he was still an undergraduate, fitfully studying English literature – he showed scant interest in his studies, one tutor remarked. The title was a whimsical reference to the slip found near the bottom of a packet of Rizla cigarette papers – instant code for dope smokers. Drake was an enthusiast, which only amplified his introversion. One can almost see him, sitting in the corner at gatherings, stoned, listening intently to the words and songs circulating in his own head, disengaged from everything going on around him, then standing up and leaving without a word – as he was increasingly wont to do.
Girls adored him. He was tall, good-looking, diffident, quietly well spoken, with none of the faux-Americanisms or affected glottal-stops of most musicians of the day. His shyness and gentleness – “it was impossible to imagine him being angry or unpleasant”, says one friend – were captivating. Yet despite his achingly romantic songs, it seems Drake never had an intimate relationship with anyone. “I would almost describe him as asexual,” one friend remembers. “I think he had a romanticised, even poetic view of women rather than a carnal one.” His greatest infatuation was with Francoise Hardy; there was a suggestion she might record one of his songs. They met in Paris, and it came to nothing but later, but as his mental condition worsened, he travelled to France trying, and failing to, see her.
His second album Bryter Layter, again produced by Boyd, was Drake’s masterpiece – fragile, wistful, touched with a melancholia that suggests an infinity of autumns. Everybody told Drake it would surely be a success. The few reviews were universally complimentary – one American reviewer likened its “consistent beauty” to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks. Morrison’s record went on to sell more than a million copies. Bryter Layter sold barely 3,000.
Drake was not lacking in self-belief and eager to succeed, but he was unwilling, and seemingly incapable, of playing the music business game of self-promotion, refusing to tour and giving only two interviews in his life, one – improbably – to the teenage magazine Jackie, another to the music paper Sounds, where he spent the entire interview staring at the floor. Bruised, he turned on Joe Boyd, blaming the producer for the slow progress of his career.
With the failure of Bryter Later he turned ever more inward. The cover of Bryter Later is one of the coolest of the era. It shows Drake as a Byronic figure, his long, angular body folded in a chair, his expression pensive, hair falling to his shoulders, an acoustic guitar cradled in his lap, shoeless, a pair of bumpers (as they were called then) from the Kings Road’s most fashionable cobbler, and borrowed from the photographer, on the floor in front of him.
But living alone in a barely furnished Hampstead bedsit – “like a cell, overlooking a neglected garden,” according to one visitor – he started slowly going to pieces, looking progressively more shabby, neglecting to wash his hair or clean his fingernails, passing his days playing the guitar, smoking joints, occasionally forraying out in search of a curry when he became hungry.
Boyd had left Britain to take a job in America. Bereft of his guidance, Drake arranged with the engineer John Wood to record what would be his third and final album, the starkly beautiful Pink Moon, over just two sessions between 11pm and 2am. They were the only slots Wood could find, but Wood thought he would anyway get the best out of Drake when nobody else was there. “He wasn’t in good shape. He didn’t look healthy.” Like its predecessors, the album vanished leaving barely a trace.
By now Drake, unable to cope with living alone, had returned to the family home. Increasingly worried about his deteriorating mental state his parents sought out a psychiatrist – the first of a succession whom Drake would see in the two, declining years until his death. The last three chapters of this book are grindingly saddening, watching Drake, confused, angry and deeply disturbed, taking, then avoiding, medication, subjected to ECT, turning up unannounced at friends’ houses, then just sitting in baffling silence. “Everyone liked Nick,” says one, “and everyone wanted to help him. Everyone he visited felt helpless.” It is like watching a photo negative in a developing tray, slowly fading and vanishing before it has ever fully come into focus.
On the morning of the 25th November, he was found, lifeless, on his bed. At the coroner’s inquest, a pathologist stated that he had found evidence in Drake’s body of “a serious overdose” – a minimum of 35 Tryptizol pills worth from stomach samples, and up to a further 50 from blood samples. The verdict was suicide.
This book is faultless in its detail, drawing on previously unseen family correspondence and the co-operation of Drake’s sister, the actress, Gabrielle, as well as the recollections of a compendious list of friends, musicians and fans, carefully taking the reader through the gestation and completion of virtually every song Drake recorded, and a few he didn’t. The Drake completist could ask for nothing more. And surely, nothing more of his brilliant and ultimately tragic life now needs to be said. Luxuriate in the body of his timeless work, and let him rest in peace.