Part One of Two
One of the most insightful comments in the documentary Nick Drake: Under Review came from Ralph McTell near the end of the film when the various participants weighed in on Nick Drake’s startling rise to fame a quarter-century after his death at the age of twenty-six.
“Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for you, Nick, at that time. It seems to be now and I hope it’s not just the glamour—the morbid glamour of an early death and an ending of such promise.”
Nick Drake released three albums that sold a grand total of about four thousand copies during his lifetime. After languishing in obscurity for a decade, 80s artists like Kate Bush, Paul Weller and Robert Smith identified Nick as a significant influence; a couple of BBC documentaries in the 90s solidified his reputation with the British public. Americans didn’t catch on until 1999 when they heard part of Nick’s song “Pink Moon” on a Volkswagen commercial that boosted U.S. sales of the Pink Moon album from a grand total of six thousand to 74,000 in one year. Eventually all three of those long-forgotten albums earned spots on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
McTell’s suspicion regarding “morbid glamour” was spot-on: death is a highly reliable marketing tactic for increasing album sales:
A 2014 study, “Death-Related Publicity as Informational Advertising: Evidence from the Music Industry,” concluded that an artist’s album sales increase by an average of 54.1 percent following his or her death. The research bore out that what makes the passing of an artist a grim, but profitable, retail business model is, by and large, two subsets of consumers: those motivated by nostalgia and those made curious by the publicity that commonly surrounds the loss of a famous person.
Stated Leif Brandes, one of the three authors of the study: “Our research indicates death-related publicity serves primarily as informational advertising that informs new customers. However, complementary survey evidence reveals that death-related publicity also triggers considerable nostalgic reactions and personal mortality salience — a feeling of their own mortality — from existing record-owners.”
Though the study is limited to the years 1992-2010, the phenomenon existed long before the Information Age. Closer to Nick’s era, both Otis Redding and Jim Croce became far more popular after their early deaths. The delay in the rediscovery of Nick Drake’s catalog is simple to explain: unlike Redding and Croce, who both had respectable followings while they were alive, appreciation of Nick’s unique talent was pretty much limited to music insiders like McTell, Joe Boyd, Ashley Hutchings and Richard Thompson.
Post-mortem studies of Nick Drake provide several possible explanations as to why Nick didn’t catch on from the start. Problem 1: The market was already saturated with singer-songwriters. Problem 2: Nick’s lyrics were more poetic than pop, often lacking the catchy hooks that provide the typical music fan with instant gratification. Problem 3: Island Records did little to market his wares, in part due to an uncooperative client, which leads us to Problem 4—Nick was one of those naïve innocents who assumed that the quality of his music would be enough to carry the day, and resisted Island’s urgings to promote his albums through live performances and interviews with music journalists. Problem 5: When he reluctantly took to the stage, he made little effort to connect with the audience—he rarely spoke or made eye contact, wasted a lot of stage time retuning his guitar between songs and in at least one case, walked off the stage in the middle of a set.
One might argue that a marketing strategy focused on “product differentiation” might have worked by peddling Nick’s idiosyncrasies to create a public image of a “man of mystery.” Unfortunately, even the most inventive and disciplined marketing strategy wouldn’t have saved Nick Drake from himself. He simply wasn’t wired to play the game. Nick was devoted to his art first and foremost; it’s impossible to even imagine a Nick Drake who would have been comfortable with the notion that his persona and his music were simply “products” designed for mass consumption.
I’ve studied and played music since I was six and have written about music for almost ten years now, but I still find it appalling that there is very little correlation between quality and success in the music business. Nick Drake was a brilliant musician, a stunningly original guitarist, a superb and insightful songwriter blessed with a unique, breathy baritone that imbued his music with warmth and humanity. I feel genuine outrage when I think of how someone with his talent was ignored for so long and absolute astonishment that his resurrection was aided and abetted by a fucking Volkswagen commercial.
Whatever the cause, be it “morbid glamour” or advertising addiction, I’m thankful that Nick Drake is finally getting the attention he deserves as an artist of the highest order.
Compared to The Grateful Dead, whose every song, studio session, concert and individual effort by its members are thoroughly documented and cross-checked by a legion of highly knowledgable Dead fans, we know comparatively little about Nick Drake. There are no videos of his few live performances; the audio from his appearance on John Peel’s radio program in 1969 only surfaced a few years ago. There are biographies of varying quality, documentaries featuring people who knew him and a whole lot of speculation about Nick’s motives and mental state—but very little in the way of direct communication from Nick himself, either orally or in writing. Jerry Gilbert’s interview with Nick is fascinating largely for the gyrations Gilbert had to go through to patch together something resembling music journalism when faced with a subject who gave him very little to work with.
What we do have are the songs he left behind, and I think that’s probably what Nick would have wanted.
Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake is a 1994 compilation featuring songs from the three albums released in Nick’s lifetime (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon) and two songs that first saw the light of day in 1987 in the grab bag of outtakes and alternative versions called Time of No Reply. As with nearly all compilation albums, we can argue about various inclusions and exclusions, but this is a solid collection that reveals Nick’s genius with guitar and poetry as well as some of the challenges involved in attempting to commercialize Nick’s art.
One note of critical caution is necessary before we get to the songs. Most interpretations of Nick Blake’s music and poetry tend to view Nick’s artistic output through the lens of mental illness, specifically depression and marijuana-induced psychosis. Studies have shown that introverts are more prone to depression than extroverts (and less likely to seek help), so Nick probably experienced bouts of depression before receiving the official diagnosis in 1971, shortly after it became apparent that Bryter Layter was not catching on with the public. The key thing to remember in interpreting Nick’s work is that depressives have good days and bad days, so without the knowledge of Nick’s mood at the time he wrote a particular song, it’s unwise to automatically assume the influence of mental illness in any of his work—even on Pink Moon, the album most often described as his darkest. Any artist with Nick’s level of sensitivity is going to experience profound dissatisfaction with the “real world” (hello, Phil Ochs), and expressing such dissatisfaction does not always indicate that the artist is in the throes of depression. It’s just as likely that the artist has the courage to tell us something about our fucked-up world that we really don’t want to hear.
Without further ado, we’ll now explore the music of the uniquely compelling Mr. Drake.
“Cello Song” (Five Leaves Left): The compilers couldn’t have selected a better song to open the album because it highlights three important aspects of Nick’s music.
The acoustic guitar passage that introduces the song immediately grabs the listener’s attention by displaying Nick’s remarkable dexterity as well as the distinctive guitar tone he was able to coax out of the instrument. A few years ago, a perceptive young guitarist by the name of Josh Turner encountered Nick’s music and was immediately drawn to its tonal quality: “The first time I ever heard Nick Drake’s guitar playing I just kind of stared at my stereo and thought ‘What in the hell is that?’ Nobody, as far as I’m aware, had ever sounded like Nick Drake, before or since.” Josh shared his insights on how Nick created that tone in an amazing video on YouTube that I highly recommend (short summary: small-body guitar with no low end, incredibly dead nickel strings to create warmth and limit overtones, long thumbnail, right hand in classical position over the middle of the soundhole). Beware that even if you manage to get the tone right, learning how to play Nick’s music presents many challenges due to his frequent use of capos, non-standard chords and open tunings. While you can reproduce open-tuned chords through standard tuning (a chord is still a chord), the voicings will be off and the song just won’t sound like a Nick Drake song. If you want to increase your chances of coming up with an acceptable facsimile, you can find a list of Nick’s open tunings on the Alternative Guitar Tuning Database.
The second aspect has to do with Nick’s deep understanding of music theory that results in his high-level ability to integrate major and minor keys within the song structure. In “Cello Song,” Nick avoids contact with the major third note on his guitar, giving arranger and lifelong friend Robert Kirby the opportunity to use Clare Lowther’s cello to express the natural minor key with its flatted seventh; meanwhile, the song’s vocal melody generally follows the notes in the major scale. This is all done quite seamlessly, and the song flows beautifully, with the mournful, sinuous cello providing a striking contrast to Nick’s warmer tones.
The third distinctive mark of a Nick Drake performance draws attention to his advanced skills in vocal phrasing that eschews the follow-the-notes-on-the-staff approach in favor of phrasing that employs the pauses and extended enunciation of words common in poetry readings. Melodic lines extend beyond the bar lines; notes are often held through compatible or incompatible chord changes. For example, in the captivating opening couplet, “Strange face, with your eyes/So pale and sincere,” when the chord changes from Bb major to F major, Nick hesitates a split-second before the “So” and completes the melodic line well after the chord has shifted back to Bb major. The off-beat phrasing shifts the listener’s focus from the music to the lyrics, and with Nick Drake songs, the lyrics are always worth the attention:
Strange face, with your eyes
So pale and sincere
Underneath you know well
You have nothing to fear
For the dreams that came to you when so young
Told of a life
Where spring is sprung
You would seem so frail
In the cold of the night
When the armies of emotion
Go out to fight
But while the earth sinks to its grave
You sail to the sky
On the crest of a wave
So forget this cruel world
Where I belong
I’ll just sit and wait
And sing my song
And if one day you should see me in the crowd
Lend a hand and lift me
To your place in the cloud
My take is that “Cello Song” is an internal dialogue with what Jung referred to as the anima, the unconscious feminine aspect of a man that is often personified as the muse, the source of inspiration for many a poet. The lines centered around the phrase “armies of emotion” brought to my mind Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach,” where Arnold also spoke of alienation in an unimaginably cruel world (“And we are here as on a darkling plain/Swept with confused alarms of struggle and fight/Where ignorant armies clash by night”). Nick’s “armies” are internal forces in battle with the true self; the final verse represents a plea to his muse to help him avoid becoming another mundane member of the crowd and inspire him to attain and retain a purer, more authentic existence. “Cello Song” essentially encapsulates Nick’s struggle between his ingrained idealism and a stubbornly cynical world, a struggle that would define both his life and death.
“Hazey Jane I” (Bryter Layter): In an attempt to broaden Nick’s commercial appeal, producer Joe Boyd took a different approach on Nick’s second album, Bryter Later, moving away from the pastoral simplicity of Five Leaves Left to more layered, pop-friendly arrangements. Boyd also brought in a slew of musicians—John Cale, Dave Mattacks, Dave Pegg, Richard Thompson, various session musicians and a couple of guys who played with The Beach Boys—to give the record a more professional feel. The extent to which Nick bought into Boyd’s ideas is questionable at best; some have opined that the commercial failure of Five Leaves Left led Nick to defer to Boyd and the more seasoned professionals against his better judgment. Some of the enhanced arrangments work; some are only slightly annoying; some don’t work at all. I tend to agree with Ralph McTell’s belief that Nick Drake was one of those rare musicians whose music is diminished when you add too many parts to the mix. It should be noted that the critics of the time loved the gloss; it should also be noted that Bryter Layter did nothing to improve Nick’s standing with record buyers. Nick’s delayed reaction to Bryter Later came in the form of the stripped-down arrangements heard on Pink Moon.
The first of two Hazey Jane songs in the collection features a comparatively straightforward production with Nick’s open-tuned guitar (CGCFCE) mingling beautifully with Kirby’s string arrangement and the unintrusive rhythm section of Mattacks and Pegg. Recalling his performance in the documentary Under Review, Mattacks offered that Nick’s sense of rhythm was so strong that a traditional drum part was completely unnecessary and that his job was to use cymbals and timpani to provide color. Pegg takes a similar approach on the bass, providing light rhythmic punctuation that suits the song perfectly. In this case, the introduction of professional musicians who understand that it’s their duty to put their egos and stylistic preferences aside turned out to be a plus—the arrangement works beautifully with Nick’s warm and fragile voice.
What blows me away about “Hazey Jane I” is Nick’s keen insight into an essential aspect of modern existence: the simple truth that we spend most of our lives making choices that have little connection to what we really want but seem to be the only options on the table. Nick makes it difficult for the listener to escape that uncomfortable reality by structuring the verses around a series of questions posed to Hazey Jane:
. . . Do you like what you’re doing? Would you do it some more?
Or will you stop once and wonder what you’re doing it for?
. . . Do you feel like a remnant of something that’s past?
Do you find things are moving just a little too fast?
Do you hope to find new ways of quenching your thirst?
Do you hope to find new ways of doing better than your worst?
I hear those questions and say, “Hey! He’s talking about me! I’m a Hazey Jane!” I sort of stumbled into a career in B2B marketing because I needed a job to eat, drink and support my kinky lifestyle. Fifteen years later I have a reasonably successful consulting practice in a field where I use about one-tenth of my brain capacity coming up with marketing strategies that wow my clients and leave me feeling empty . . . phony . . . hoping to “find new ways of doing better than your worst.”
I don’t think I’m the only soul in the world who feels that way.
I found no evidence that Nick Drake ever worked in a real job, so I’m not sure how he was able to grasp the essence of modern ennui, but I do know (because I live with one) that introverted intuitives are blessed with acute perceptual ability that even they can’t explain. They just “know.”
“Way to Blue” (Five Leaves Left): Nick leaves the guitar in the case and sings over another marvelous string arrangement by Robert Kirby. Having attempted to play the song on guitar using standard chords in standard tuning, I can understand why Nick felt the need to dispense with the six-string—the chord structure and timing demand a smooth legato best produced by a string quartet.
The chord structure confirms Nick’s mastery of major-minor key juxtapositions and integrations, with the first two lines of each verse in E minor, the next two in E major and a final couplet that begins in E minor but resolves on an E major chord. The tiny uplift provided by that E major chord reinforces the question mark at the end of the verses while coloring Nick’s vocal with a touch of empathy as he attempts to reassure his companion that there’s no need for pretense—it’s okay to share the deeper, darker thoughts that might be troubling them:
Can you now recall all that you have known?
Will you never fall when the light has flown?
Tell me all that you may know
Show me what you have to show
Won’t you come and say
If you know the way to blue?
At this point in his life, depression had not taken hold, so I think the sadness in the song came from Nick’s belief that a world where people believe they have to hide their deepest feelings from one another is a pretty sad place. The closing couplet offers a way out of the dilemma—let’s talk about it and banish the shame.
“Things Behind the Sun” (Pink Moon):
In stark contrast to Bryter Layter, the arrangements on Pink Moon are as spare as spare can get—Nick Drake and his guitar on all tracks and a piano overdub (also performed by Nick) on the title track. The only other participant in the proceedings was engineer John Wood, who had worked with Nick on his first two albums and was one of the few people Nick still trusted.
If you’re just not into fiddling with the tuning pegs, you’ll be happy to learn that “Things Behind the Sun” is one of his compositions in standard tuning, though you will need a capo on the fourth fret to make the chord fingering manageable. The chord pattern is complex, both in its Drakean mix of major and minor chords and one particular pattern featuring the unusual sequence of A6sus2-Absus4-Ab7 that employs subtle half-step note changes to create an almost unbearable tension when he repeats the pattern at the end of each verse.
The tension reflects the disgust expressed in the lyrics—disgust with a world dominated by manipulative people locked into meaningless competition for power and status—and the simple truth that we continue to accept such a destructive model as “that’s just the way it is”:
Please beware of them that stare
They’ll only smile to see you while
Your time away
And once you’ve seen what they have been
To win the earth just won’t seem worth
Your night or your day
Who’ll hear what I say?
The last verse departs from the poetic and musical patterns in dramatic fashion. Nick begins the verse by offering a solution to the madness, an affirmation of “to thine own self be true” . . .
Open up the broken cup
Let goodly sin and sunshine in
Yes, that’s today.
And open wide the hymns you hide
You find renown while people frown
At things that you say
But say what you’ll say
. . . then shifts to what becomes a bitter recitation of his own experience of rejection and dismissal as he lingers on the ominous tension of the A6sus2-Absus4-Ab7 chord combination:
About the farmers and the fun
And the things behind the sun
And the people around your head
Who say everything’s been said
And the movement in your brain
Sends you out into the rain.
The anger in his voice is palpable, understandable and, as things turned out, inherently self-destructive. A couple of years later, while attempting to record material for a fourth album, Nick confronted mentor Joe Boyd with the same seething anger:
In his 2006 autobiography, (Joe) Boyd recalled being taken aback at Drake’s anger and bitterness: “[He said that] I had told him he was a genius, and others had concurred. Why wasn’t he famous and rich? This rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years.” —Wikipedia
“River Man” (Five Leaves Left): There always seems to be a “yes, but” attached to Nick Drake’s music. “YES, the chords are simple BUT you have to retune your guitar.” “Yes, the song is in standard tuning BUT you have to use a capo.” With River Man, the “BUT” is a bit more problematic. “YES, the song is in standard tuning BUT it’s in 5/4 time.” Quintuple meter is a pain in the ass for the most part unless you’re Dave Brubeck or Frank Zappa. Robert Kirby was spared the agony of coming up with the string arrangement and grateful for it: “I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg.”
Er, no, that would be 7/8 time. The spider would have to be missing three legs and moving at half speed to achieve 5/4 time.
The more experienced Harry Robertson (or Robinson) filled in for Kirby and essentially ignored the time signatures (there are a couple of shifts to 4/4), allowing the strings to flow like a river. That approach worked perfectly with a singer who loved to extend or shorten melodic phrases in defiance of the bar lines. Combined with the non-standard but simple “jazz chords” (Aadd9, C7sus2, Amadd9, Aadd13, Amadd13), the arrangement creates a lazy-day, dreamy atmosphere with a touch of grandeur that is unusually pleasing to ear and soul.
The general speculative consensus centers around biographer Trevor Dunn’s assertion that the inspiration for the song came from Wordsworth’s poem, “The Idiot Boy,” a reasonable assumption given that Nick Drake was well-versed in the English Romantics and several of his songs have a bucolic, Wordsworthian feel. Both poems introduce characters named Betty, both of whom are in a state of agitation. The similarities end there, as “The Idiot Boy” is a very long narrative poem and Nick’s contribution consists of four verses that alternate between Betty’s perspective and Nick’s. Another difference is that the Wordsworth poem deals with the maternal instinct while Nick’s poem covers the classic struggle between nature and civilization (also a favorite theme of Wordsworth).
Our Betty “came by on her way,” indicating an unconscious impulse that drew her to what we can safely assume is the English countryside. The source of her agitation (as well as the impulse to make the detour) seems to come from one of those no-win situations that modern civilization insists on tossing our way:
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves.
Said she hadn’t heard the news
Hadn’t had the time to choose
A way to lose
But she believes.
Meanwhile, Nick pays a visit to the River Man “. . . to tell him all I can/About the plan/For lilac time.” I’ve read some opinions that the River Man is Charon, the ferryman who gives recently departed souls a lift to the world of the dead, but there is zero evidence of that connection. The more likely influence comes from Hesse’s Siddhartha, where the ferryman teaches Siddhartha to listen to the wisdom of the river.
When we return to Betty’s tale, at first we find her still struggling with her internal conflict, but in the meantime, she has rediscovered the healing power of nature:
For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.
Nick then pays a second visit to the River Man, but this time he wants to share his own sense of disillusionment with modern civilization:
Going to see the river man
Going to tell him all I can
About the ban
On feeling free.
The poem ends with some ambiguity as if Nick is uncertain whether or not the healing power of nature will work its wonders on him:
If he tells me all he knows
About the way his river flows
I don’t suppose
It’s meant for me.
Oh, how they come and go
Oh, how they come and go
I interpret those last lines as a commentary on the indecisiveness that inflicts us all—how our search for the meaning of life forever oscillates between certainty and uncertainty. There is no “yes, but” in my mind when I describe “River Man” as a work of breathtaking musical and poetic genius.
“Poor Boy” (Bryter Layter): NO, NO AND NO! Joe Boyd diminished the hell out Nick with his ludicrous overproduction that transforms Nick into a cheesy lounge singer struggling for attention amidst the cacophony of faux-jazz sax, too-energetic piano and the unwelcome intrusion of Doris Troy and Pat Arnold as the irritatingly incompatible chorus. The upbeat music stands in jarring contrast to the downbeat lyrics that tell a tale of a homeless young man struggling against cold temperatures and cold people. I searched in vain for a stripped-down version with just Nick and acoustic guitar, so if any of you know of one, please send the link my way. Boyd’s arrangement earns not one, not two but a triple “Oh, for fuck’s sake” from yours truly.
“Time of No Reply” (Time of No Reply): I don’t know why this song was omitted from Five Leaves Left, but if the statute of limitations hasn’t run out, criminal charges should be filed immediately.
Of all the songs in Nick’s catalog, “Time of No Reply” is the one most misinterpreted through the lens of mental health issues. As the song was written at the outset of Nick’s career—before he had experienced commercial failure or was diagnosed with depression—such interpretations do Nick a grave disservice. The song isn’t about Nick’s personal struggles with loneliness and the phrase “the time of no reply” does not reflect a death wish. “Time of No Reply” is a melancholic yet beautiful poem that captures what we all feel when the first signs of autumn appear—a touch of sadness as we enter the phase of decline in the circle of life. The experience of autumn tends to inspire human beings to turn inward and reflect on the apparently temporary nature of existence, and by extension, one’s own mortality. It’s “the time of no reply” because we withdraw into ourselves:
Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply
The sun went down and the crowd went home
I was left by the roadside all alone
I turned to speak as they went by
But this was the time of no reply
It should be noted that human beings seem to be the only species in the animal kingdom who tend to indulge in self-pity regarding mortality with the coming of autumn. All the other animals accept reality and get to work: birds fly south, squirrels squirrel, bears fatten up. In the next verse, Nick engages in a bit of anthropomorphism by imbuing the trees with the capacity for self-reflection, but even the trees realize that losing their leaves is but a temporary phase in the lifecycle:
The trees on the hill had nothing to say
They would keep their dreams till another day
So they stood and thought and wondered why
For this was the time of no reply
Nick seems to accept the cycle better than most, finding his own answer to the conundrum of mortality by looking to the ever-changing sky:
Time goes by from year to year
And no one asks why I am standing here
But I have my answer as I look to the sky
This is the time of no reply
The time of no reply is calling me to stay
There’s no hello and no goodbye
To leave there is no way
“The time of no reply is calling me to stay” certainly sounds like he welcomes the change in the lifecycle, while “To leave there is no way” certainly doesn’t sound like suicidal ideation. The bright arpeggiated guitar never shifts to the minor key and Nick’s vocal tone sounds closer to hope than despair. “The Time of No Reply” is a sublime reflection on the circle of life and a ringing affirmation of Nick’s ability to mesmerize the listener through a simple arrangement of voice and guitar.
NOTE TO GUITARISTS: Nick uses BEBEBE tuning on this one, but if you want to play along with the record you’ll have to take an extra step because the strings are a half-step flat. The mistuning likely stems from a tape problem rather than negligence on Nick’s part, as “Pink Moon” is also a bit off but the presence of the piano eliminates the possibility of a guitar tuning problem.
“From the Morning” (Pink Moon): In her contribution to the 33 1/3 series covering Pink Moon, Amanda Petrusich cites a contrarian perspective offered by Bryter Music’s Cally Calloman on Nick’s state of mind during the creation and recording of the album. “Nick was incapable of writing and recording while 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.” The best evidence to support that assertion can be found in the last track, “From the Morning.”
The beautiful simplicity of the song is reflected in both the I-IV-V-Vsus4 chord pattern and in lyrics reminiscent of Blake’s Songs of Innocence. The righteous anger that marked “Things Behind the Sun” has completely vanished as if Nick has returned to a state of child-like innocence where the elaborate tensions of adulthood have no place. His gentle voice glides over the cascade of notes from his guitar as he sings of the “contraries” Blake identified as the essence of human existence:
A day once dawned, and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
Night she fell all around
Quite a series of contraries here: rise-fall, day-night, ground-sky and the implied contrary of yin-yang through his identification of the night as feminine. In the last verse, Nick applies the contraries to human activity, equating the day with innocence and the night with imagination/inspiration:
And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see she flies
She is everywhere
See she flies all around
So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning
The “game” he mentions is “learnt from the morning,” the time of freshness and innocence—as opposed to “the game” triggered by the annoying sound of the alarm clock. As we have seen, Nick frequently equates the natural world with healing and rejuvenation; here he reminds the adults in the audience that they still have access to that world of innocence and wonder.
I realize I’ve used up a whole lot of blog space for one-half of an album, so I’ve decided to split my essay on Way to Blue into two parts. I make no apologies for giving Nick Drake all the time and energy he deserves.
See you next week!
Love me or hate me, but the one thing that is beyond dispute is that my perspectives on music have never been influenced by commercial considerations, a desire for fame or the opinions of Establishment critics.
From a financial perspective, altrockchick.com is one of the worst-performing enterprises in history: after six years, 400 reviews and 1.5 million words, I have earned zero revenue while piling up thousands of dollars/euros in expenses. I write anonymously because the last thing in the world I want to experience is the personality distortion and general weirdness that usually comes with fame. I do read the opinions of Establishment critics, but most of the time I find myself offended by their sheer laziness, astonishing pomposity and the façade of objectivity they attempt to project. I’m sorry, but if you’re getting paid to write reviews for a magazine, newspaper or website, your objectivity is automatically compromised by the need to earn a paycheck, and the fact that the enterprise that employs you also sells advertising to the music industry compromises you even further. Commercialization of criticism demands short, punchy reviews that attempt to distill the essence of an artist’s work in as few words as possible so consumers can make buying decisions. It does not encourage understanding.
What’s sad is that many music listeners parrot the words and thoughts of Establishment critics instead of thinking for themselves. This dynamic helps create a common consensus around a particular work, and as I’ve learned in my reviews of Abbey Road, Arthur, Dark Side of the Moon and others, people who have accepted the common consensus—in large part because it validates the feeling of being “right” and lets them feel like they “belong” to a cohesive thought community—react to “No, I think that album really sucks” by aggressively attacking the heretic who dares to think differently. This is not healthy. The only valid purpose of criticism is to share one’s interpretations to help readers or listeners clarify what they feel and think about a given piece of work. In our fucked-up world, common consensus criticism has become the “official party line,” and woe unto those who deviate from the dogma.
I bring this up because the Establishment interpretation of Shoot Out the Lights has forged a common consensus that is total, unmitigated bullshit. Since they all come to the same conclusion, I’ll just cite two examples I found particularly offensive, and respond to each in turn.
Mark Deming, AllMusic: Shoot Out the Lights has “often been cited as Richard Thompson’s greatest work, and it’s difficult for anyone who has heard his body of work to argue the point.”
Altrockchick: According to Mr. Deming, Richard Thompson should have walked out of the studio after the final mixing session of Shoot Out the Lights and blown his brains out instead of hanging around for twenty-six years producing substandard work. Note that Mr. Deming dares you to disagree with the common consensus, which is pretty much all he has to support his ridiculous conclusion. I have listened to Richard Thompson’s entire body of work and I guarantee you he would not have earned status as my favorite songwriter had he abandoned his career after Shoot Out the Lights—shit, he wouldn’t have made the Top 20. His solo career features dozens of songs and several albums that are far superior to his work here. What is true is that Shoot Out the Lights was his breakout album—the moment in time when he developed a clear sense of artistic direction and emerging confidence.
Robert Christgau, Village Voice: “News of the wife’s solitary return to England brings this relationship-in-crisis album home–including the husband’s ‘bearded lady’ warning in ‘The Wall of Death,’ ostensibly a synthesis of his thanatotic urge and lowlife tic. If poor Richard’s merely ‘A Man in Need,’ I’m an ayatollah, but I have to give him credit–these are powerfully double-edged metaphors for the marriage struggle, and ‘Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?’ is as damning an answer song as Linda could wish.”
Altrockchick: Christgau has always been an arrogant prick, a man far more interested in self-promotion and the delivery of highfalutin’ wit than helping his readers better appreciate the music. His read here is superficial at best, focused more on the juicy titillation factor in the Thompson breakup than the content of the music itself, interpreting every song through the lens of a collapsing relationship. The truth is that even an extremely loose interpretation of the lyrics on the album will tell you that a grand total of two of eight songs deal with relationship problems, and that neither “Wall of Death,” nor “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” have anything to do with the Thompson situation. His “thoughts” on this album (minus the usual pompous references) barely rise to the standards of a gossip columnist.
There is also another problem in labeling Shoot Out the Lights Richard Thompson’s greatest work, namely the mediocre vocals of one Linda Thompson. Struggling with her diaphragmatic breathing due to pregnancy, she manages to hit the notes most of the time, but her phrasing is inconsistent, sometimes disconnected from the lyrics she’s singing. Her primary means of expressing emotion is to raise her volume, but since she also gets louder when straining to reach notes at the upper end of her range, it’s hard to tell when she’s going for feeling or struggling with the scale. Truth is, she wasn’t much of a singer to begin with, especially when compared to her contemporaries. With Linda Thompson, you don’t get the stunning clarity of Anne Briggs, the remarkable presence of Sandy Denny, the breathtaking range and dynamic command of Maddy Prior, or the brilliant interpretive skills of June Tabor. Replace Linda with any of those singers and you’d certainly have a better album, though to label it Richard Thompson’s greatest work would still be a rather significant stretch. Shoot Out the Lights is like the key that unlocked the door, a celebration of self-discovery where Richard Thompson resolved the internal struggle between the spiritual and secular, reconnected with his guitar and began to live up to his immense potential as a songwriter.
The first thing you notice on “Don’t Renege on Our Love” is Richard Thompson’s new-found confidence in his vocals. If you listen to the Richard & Linda albums preceding Shoot Out the Lights, Richard sings almost apologetically, like he’s concerned that taking command will expose a fatal flaw. Here he sticks self-deprecation where the sun don’t shine and delivers a forceful but attenuated vocal that captures a range of psychic states, from frustrated lover to broken-hearted beggar to outraged victim of betrayal. The notion of betrayal will become a major theme in his work to come; at this point, his sense of right-and-wrong is as rigid as rigid gets (“Do I take you for a lover or just a deceiver?”), failing to recognize that the whole thing could be a simple misunderstanding. The theme of betrayal also carries with it a deeply held belief that for love to be real it must be pure in word and deed, including love in its carnal form. It’s a belief I hold myself, but when distrust begins to creep into a relationship, it’s easy for the still-active libido to rise up and offer itself as the solution to the relationship problem—if we can just fuck, everything will be all right. The problem is that when the poison starts to spread in concert with the sexual urge, it amplifies the original suspicion, negating the healing power of physical love:
There’s a rope that binds us and I don’t want to break it
If love is a healing why should we forsake it
Well hunger is hunger and need is need
Am I just another mouth to feed
That creeping, dark feeling is perfectly captured in the progressively dissonant chord changes that accompany the fade—a punctuation mark that clearly communicates both the underlying fear and the unlikelihood that the relationship can be salvaged. I love the sprightly, sharp guitar fills throughout the song—just enough and not too much from a man who has the guitar chops to dominate any song he chooses to dominate. I’d also love to pin some kind of medal on Dave Mattacks for sustaining the skip-and-roll pattern throughout the song without having his arms lock up in protest.
“Walking on a Wire” may present us with the woman’s side of the same story; then again, maybe not. It’s easy to make that assumption because of the juxtaposition, but to take that a step further and connect the two songs to the Thompson breakup would be an overreach. Richard wrote both songs, and there’s nothing about “Walking on a Wire” that makes it gender-specific. The one thing we can say with certainty is that “Walking on a Wire” is an emotional powerhouse sung from the perspective of a human being experiencing the slow death of a relationship and unable to do anything to stop it. Here Linda overcomes the challenges of a compromised voice, oscillating between the release of repressed frustration and the utter exhaustion that comes with an attempt to a rescue a relationship that is probably long gone.
Too many steps to take
Too many spells to break
Too many nights awake
And no one else
This grindstone’s wearing me
Your claws are tearing me
Don’t use me endlessly
It’s too long, too long to myself
Richard’s low-end harmony on the chorus helps strengthen the sense of despair that permeates the piece, and he delivers another superb guitar solo that reinforces the tender melody.
After two relatively heavy pieces, the bouncy “Man in Need” comes as something of a relief, and no, Mr. Christgau, this is not Richard Thompson singing about Richard Thompson but Richard Thompson playing the part of a peripatetic man of the sea whose urge to wander and fear of commitment leaves him in quite a pickle when it comes to securing the basics of food, shelter and clothing. His conundrum is “Hey, I’m only doing what comes natural to me” and is completely oblivious to the fact that most people would consider a man who abandoned his dependents and has proven himself little more than a sponge to be an undesirable companion. Richard Thompson delivers the vocal with carefree abandon, tongue firmly planted in cheek, supported by a cascading set of call-and-response vocals from Linda on the chorus. The guitar solo is an absolute delight, a set of nimble thrusts centered around the melody, a solo that makes you wonder about the sanity of the Mullah who had encouraged Richard Thompson to give up playing electric guitar to facilitate his quest for higher spiritual consciousness. That idiotic advice led to a three-year hiatus after Pour Down Like Silver, but he really wouldn’t regain the sparkle in his chops until Shoot Out the Lights—and thank fucking god he did.
Linda returns to the mike for “Just the Motion,” a gentle, reflective piece that reminds us that any change to the routine is more difficult than we’d like to believe. For the most part, she does a decent job, particularly in the quieter opening verse. Unfortunately, when she arrives at the ending, she goes classic crescendo when the song demands the opposite. This is most noticeable on the second repetition of the line, “You can’t hear the storm, it’s as peaceful as can be.” The text after the comma should be delivered like this:
as can be
Instead, we get:
as can be
Every time I hear her ramp up the volume on PEACEFUL–a word that by definition should alert the singer to back the fuck off—I clench my teeth so hard I feel an overwhelming urge to run to the dentist to make sure I didn’t break a molar. It comes across as “Goddamn it, can’t I get any PEACE AND QUIET around here?” Since the only other cover of the song is David Byrne’s typically beat-happy approach, I’ll just have to sit back and hope that June Tabor decides to finally put together a Richard Thompson tribute album and give us the definitive version. What saves this track is the sheer excellence of the song and the perfectly lovely combination of electric guitar and dulcimer. “Just the Motion” is a gem that deserves better treatment.
Side Two opens with the rough power chords that form the intro to the title song, a clear signal that Richard Thompson has thrown all caution to the wind when it comes to electric guitar. He approaches the vocal with an equal sense of command, relating the tale of a paranoid, gun-toting, anti-social shut-in with stark brevity. The slow, relentless beat accentuated by those power chords seem to reflect a sense of cold determination on the part of our shut-in, making his chosen isolation seem all the more dangerous:
Keep the blind down on the window
Ah, keep the pain on the inside
Just watching the dark. Just watching the dark.
Ah he might laugh but you won’t see him
As he thunders through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
After an extended electric guitar solo with loads of dissonance and unexpected shifts over the fretboard, the closing verse expands the sense of danger. Up to this point, the guy seemed to be a crackpot more likely to do harm to himself or inflict mayhem on a few stray neons in the vicinity; now the man is on the move and we start to wonder if the lights in question are the lights of human life:
In the darkness the shadows move
In the darkness the game is real
Real as a gun. Real as a gun.
As he watches the lights of the city
And he moves through the night
Shoot out the lights. Shoot out the lights.
A second ripping solo accentuates the high end of the fretboard in an extended scream, followed by attacks both high and low. The experience of “Shoot Out the Lights” is remarkably compelling, a disturbing but credible depiction of the anger that courses through those who feel they have been left behind—by choice or by social selection.
“Back Street Slide” is a character sketch portraying women who have little else to do but spread slanderous gossip about anyone who flies through their finely-attuned radar screens. “Gatemouth woman leaning on the fence/She’s got no teeth, she’s got no sense/You don’t need much intelligence” is a pithy description, but in the end the lyrical narrative doesn’t go much further. The strength of the song can be found in the bouncy beat and party-like feel of the arrangement, melding the joyous rhythm with loosely-fitting background vocals from Linda. I like the listening experience, but the song shows that Richard Thompson still had room to grow as a lyricist—and grow he would, Mark Deming be damned.
The only co-written song on “Shoot Out the Lights” is “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” where Linda Thompson shares the honors. Christgau’s assertion that this is some kind of answer song in the context of the breakup is certainly a creative interpretation, but there’s no evidence to support that flight of fancy. Any rational person who ACTUALLY READS THE LYRICS would conclude that the song deals with the status of women in society. And though Linda Thompson’s receives co-writing credit, Richard Thompson wrote the lyrics, and in a 2008 interview with the blogger behind I Shot a Man in Reno, Richard shared his approach to the song:
How do you approach the subject of death in your writing? Do you consciously come at it from a specific angle?
You don’t sit down to moralise or write about your philosophy every time you write a song. You just write a story. It’s fiction and it’s fun to make something up, it’s an enjoyable process. Then you look at it afterwards and you think, ‘Oh that’s obviously about me or about someone I know, and that reflects what I believe.’ With a song like “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” I sat down to write a story. It could be about Sandy [Denny] or a couple of other people that I know…. I don’t think it is about any person in particular. It’s a bit like detective fiction, it has some of the same goriness and detail. In good detective fiction there’s always a corpse, otherwise you feel unsatisifed. The song doesn’t really give any answers, it just asks the moral questions.
The “moral question” has to do with society’s tendency to doubt a woman’s credibility. Since it’s pretty obvious that the woman in the song did not off herself (given the fingerprints on her throat) some may wonder why the premise of the song is posed as a mystery, but every woman alive knows the answer to that question: the broad is always to blame, never to be believed, and if she was raped and strangled, she must have been asking for it. The fact that we need to ask the question is the moral of the story.
In this case, the woman was definitely trying to become a player, inviting only “the chosen” to her parties, double-crossing old friends without a second thought. In addition to committing the cardinal sin of encroaching on traditional male territory, she makes the same mistake many women have made in attempting to achieve equality: believing that if you want to play with the guys, you have to act like a guy. We do not know what specifically led to her death, but she did fail to take into account the warning signs that she was pushing too hard: “The truth came ’round and she refused it.” Her “fatal flaw” was her ambition—or more accurately, that she dared to even have ambitions. Wherever you land in the interpretation, “Did She Jump or Was She Pushed?” is a superbly-written work, a song that leaves plenty of room for the listener to engage in both debate and self-reflection on the status of women in our societies.
Some of Richard Thompson’s stories are dramatic narratives sung from the perspective of the adolescent male, with “Read About Love” earning status as my personal favorite. “Wall of Death” is one such song, and any interpretation that says otherwise is absolute nonsense (Hello, Robert Christgau). This is a light-hearted song about how the natural desire of a young person to experience the essence of life tends to lead the youth to court risk and tempt fate—in this case, to experience the most dangerous carnival ride available, The Wall of Death.
This seemed to be a guy thing, a necessary rite of passage into culturally-induced manhood, so I asked my Dad about it. He told me that in high school, he and his friends liked to drive down Highway 1 around Devil’s Slide, a twisty, curvy dangerous coastal road that sometimes falls into the ocean in torrential rains. They’d take the curves at double the speed limit, then rate the risk factor on a 1-10 scale. “A ’10’ was death. We had a ‘9’ once, with two wheels over the edge of the cliff. I’ll never forget that one.” “Why the fuck did you do such a fucking stupid thing?” I asked politely and respectfully. “I can’t explain it—it was dumb but we just had to do it. It’s a version of the Rebel Without a Cause thing—floor it, head for the cliff and jump out just in time.” “Uh, Dad, Buzz didn’t make it.” “Yeah, but Jim did,” he replied with a tenuous sense of triumph.
Our teenage hero embraces that urge, dismissing the more conventional outlets of excitement as poor substitutes for the ultimate thrill:
On the Wall Of Death all the world is far from me
On the Wall Of Death it’s the nearest to being free
Well you’re going nowhere
When you ride on the carousel
And maybe you’re strong
But what’s the good of ringing a bell
The switchback will make you crazy.
Beware of the bearded lady
Oh let me take my chances on the Wall Of Death
When he later describes the experience as “the nearest thing to being alive,” he reinforces the belief that the daily routine is a form of existential death while capturing the feature of the human personality that leads us to feel more alive and alert when faced with danger, especially when one’s life is on the line. It’s the same tendency we see in the stories of people who lived through WWII (on the Allied side, of course), who describe those years as the most exciting of their lives. It seems crazy, but when you look at it from the opposite perspective, it’s a damning commentary about how our well-organized societies fail to provide much in the way of meaningful challenges.
The music is hardly funereal, featuring stereo arpeggiated guitar patterns and Linda’s best high harmonies on the album. Richard Thompson really identifies with the character, imbuing his vocal with the tone of a guy who has found his niche in life and is intensely proud of it. And goddamn, I love that guitar solo—especially that delightful high-speed arpeggiated transition back to the vocals. It sounds magical, reflecting the magical experience of an adolescent boy experiencing the thrill of his life.
“Wall of Death” is a strong finish to an album that is hardly the one-dimensional exploration of a breakup that Establishment critics would have you believe. Shoot Out the Lights explores a wide range of the human experience, as do most of Richard Thompson’s subsequent works. Like the boy in “Wall of Death,” Richard Thompson has found his niche; unlike that young lad obsessed with a single experience, Richard Thompson would find himself at home anywhere his creative mind would take him—an aesthetically-oriented wanderer, a “Man in Need” with clear intent to apply his ample musical talent to the challenge of understanding the many facets of human experience.
Shoot Out the Lights is simply the true beginning of one of the most productive and enjoyable journeys ever recorded.