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What a surprise it was in the spring of 2000 when the music of Nick Drake, which for years had existed outside of the mainstream, was suddenly omnipresent courtesy of a commercial for the new Volkswagen Beetle. The audience hearing the softly strummed “Pink Moon” for the first time heard this gentle and winsome tune and figured that they had discovered the new Cat Stevens. At least that's the impression I received, working in a little CD shop in Philly, when the song, with further help from the local NPR station, starting selling like beer at a ballpark. We also started buying them back for the “used” section from many of the same customers, surprised that the Pink Moon CD wasn't the perfect soundtrack for a giddy moonlight drive with a carload of friends.

Selling product with the music of Nick Drake is a slightly ridiculous conceit because the emotion that he mainly traffics in, a luminous brand of deep melancholy, is not the emotion that sends the consumers reaching for their wallets. No, for years Drake's music has been passed hand-to-hand, something you shared when you divined a new friend might have a taste for his British brand of quiet fatalism.

Because Drake's basically the Elvis of sadness. Not that he wiggled his hips to screaming thongs while singing about it on stage (he barely performed at all, actually), but just as Elvis came to represent sexuality and recklessness in his younger inception, Drake's recorded performances perfectly embody a psychic pain so profound he can't bear to project his voice above a loud whisper. The lack of blockbuster sales hasn't prevented him from becoming a nearly overriding influence on a cottage industry of sensitive singer/ songwriters who are today's critical darlings: the late Elliot Smith, Chan Marshall of Cat Power, Michigan songster Sufjan Stevens and Scotland's Stuart Murdoch of Belle and Sebastian are just the tip of a quiet and blue iceberg.

Drake's personal history includes all the details you would need to construct an icon of romantic failure, and match that with his music's baroque timelessness and its no surprise that Drake's original three album discography has continued to beguile and remain in print almost continuously since his death at the age of twenty-seven in 1974. Although the story of his life lends itself to such melodrama it shouldn't overshadow Drake's vivid gifts as a vocalist, songwriter and instrumentalist.

It's Drake's unassuming voice that strikes you first. He was said to be a fan of Astrid Gilberto, the Brazilian vocalist made famous from her light crooning on Stan Getz's recording of “The Girl From Ipanema”. The hushed atmosphere of his recordings show the influence, and his vocals share a similar air of naïve directness. The way he makes the resignation in his voice ring like a cello colors all his music starting with debut from 1969, Five Leaves Left.

Already, the romantic saga of Nick's depression is told by the photos on the album's cover. On the front Nick is staring out a cottage window, away from the viewer. On the back he's leaning against a wall while a blurry figure trots past him. It's as if Nick's vibrating at a wavelength that places him in a separate, untouchable dimension. Even the title hints at time running out, “Five Leaves Left” being the message printed on British cigarette papers just before you reach the end of the pack.  But entwined with the discussion of death that haunts songs like “Fruit Tree” and “Day Is Done” are themes of nature and mysticism. The metaphors of death's finality are illustrated by birds flying or the sun's setting and Drake's calm in facing his end seems to stem from his mystical connection in nature. Yes, he is dying, but everything in nature is in the process of dying as well. Perhaps it was natural for songwriters to seek comfort in nature during that tumultuous era: both Van Morrison's Astral Weeks ('68) and Happy Sad from Tim Buckley ('69) share Five Leave Left's pastoral and spiritual vision of the life cycle. Raised in the countryside of Tanworth-in- Arden, this somber twenty year old with his stunning finger-picked guitar seemingly had tapped into the natural knowledge of the earth itself.

Five Leaves Left, with its impossibly warm production, courtesy of Fairport Convention's produced Joe Boyd, made a stir amongst musicians but it did not make Nick a star, a surprising desire the intensely shy Drake made clear to his friends. The next album, 1970's Bryter Layter, seemed to be an attempt to bring a little light to Drake's sound. Robert Kirby, responsible for the strings on Drake's debut, adds horns to the arrangements and Dave Mattacks from Fairport gooses Nick ever-so-slightly with his insistent drums.

Generally coming in third when fans discuss Drake's records, Bryter Layter is by no means a disappointment. It contains “Northern Sky” a tune Britain's trend-setting newspaper The New Musical Express once called “The greatest English love song of modern times” but the LP's added camaraderie left Nick somewhat uncomfortable in its settings.

Bryter Layter was no hit either, selling less than Five Leaves Left. Nick's retreat, into depression and into himself, is elegantly chronicled on the final album released in his lifetime, Pink Moon. Here Nick's oddly-tuned guitar takes front and center; aside from a few notes on the piano, it's Nick and his acoustic guitar alone on this last disc. Gone are the images of the introverted Nick, Pink Moon's cover is a surreal Dali-esque painting with a central orb circled by a teacup and oblong clown's face. “None of you stand so tall” he sings absent bitterness, “pink moon's gonna get you all”. The pink moon captures Drake's tongue during the albums spacious, near-ambient instrumentals, especially “Horn,” where Nick plucks the guitar's strings and just lets the notes echo out like a folk-dub track. He disturbingly describes himself as a parasite in one track but as the album ends with “From the Morning” Drake seems to turn himself over to optimism, or at least he hopes for the listener's optimism:

“So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning.”

Nick was so certain his label Island Records would reject the spare third record that he reportedly left the tapes on a secretary's desk in an unmarked package where they sat unrecognized for days. Island had the integrity to release the album in its unadorned state but in 1972 when Pink Moon was released, it sold even less than Bryter Layter.

In rest of Drake's life was pretty much a postscript. He recorded a few more songs, including the unbearably bleak “Black-Eyed Dog” and died of an overdose of anti- depression medicine in his parent's home in 1974.

Suicide or accident? Nobody really knows. There have been some leftover odds and ends of Drake's music that have been released, most recently on a compilation titled Made To Love Magic (Island). It includes alternate versions, remixed tracks and a newly discovered tune, “Tow The Line,” but it is the three albums released during his life that map out the classically tragic trajectory of promise, achievement and defeat.

This is the legend of Nick Drake that was first carved out in the liner notes of Fruit Tree, a box-set of his official releases first compiled in 1979. Despite the persistence of his beautiful loser image, this monochromatic picture seems somewhat unfair to his memory. There are periods of his adult life where Drake was remembered to be in good spirits and there exists a wonderfully cheerful photo of Drake wrapped in an afghan with a Cheshire grin stretched across his face. But he's been gone so long now and so few people ever witnessed him perform it seems natural that the morose legend should dominate our perceptions of his reclusive and introverted life.

Yet even among music legends Drake is a rarity, his history and his recorded legacy seemingly orchestrated for maximum poignancy. His subdued gloom is now and forever trapped in amber, always ready to provide comfort with the idea that somewhere out in the night sky is someone even lonelier than you.

--by Dan Buskirk



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