Another possible factor behind Nick Drake’s stunning journey from obscurity to fame has to do with differences in generational attitudes concerning mental health.
I found it curious that Nick had been completely ignored by his fellow Baby Boomers and enthusiastically resurrected by Gen Xers and Millenials. A passage I found on Nick’s Wikipedia page summarizing the critical opinion of one of the Boomers’ favorite music journalists told me I was onto something:
Robert Christgau wrote in Christgau’s Record Guide: Rock Albums of the Seventies (1981): “I’m not inclined to revere suicides. But Drake’s jazzy folk-pop is admired by a lot of people who have no use for Kenny Rankin, and I prefer to leave open the possibility that he’s yet another English mystic (romantic?) I’m too set in my ways to hear.” In 2019, Christgau conceded this was a “fairly audacious” appraisal and wrote: “Drake is admired and beloved by many, so many that I’m sure he was an artist of real originality and, for many, appeal . . . Although there’ve been a few exceptions, I’ve never been attracted to hypersensitives or depressives, and Drake is both.”
What a fucking asshole. Due to his insufferable arrogance, Christgau has probably pissed me off more than any other music critic, but this was over-the-top even for him. However, it does reflect the attitudes of the Silent Generation (Christgau’s) that in turn influenced the attitudes of Baby Boomers on the subject of mental health: “Boomers grew up in an era when mental health issues were not discussed, much less acknowledged. Conditions such as anorexia, bulimia, ADHD, PTSD, autism, and learning disabilities were unheard of and depression and anxiety were viewed as signs of weakness. Boomers were, and are, accustomed to toughing things out and not asking for help when things get difficult.”
Health Management Consultant Camilla Lewis succinctly summarized the contrasting perspectives of Gen X and the Millenials in the article, “Mental Health in the Workplace Across the Generations” (italics mine):
- “Generation X are traditionally thought of as the forgotten generation, as most of the focus has been on the retiring baby boomers and the media focuses heavily on millennials. Generation X are typically expected to take on a heavier workload and are more likely to be overlooked for a promotion. They are also sandwiched between two generations and often must take on a caregiving role for both aging parents and their own children. This understandably has a negative effect on mental health, and therefore this generation are at high risk of anxiety-related disorders, depression and even substance misuse.”
“A study conducted in 2015 by American University found that Millennials are more accepting of others with mental illness, as they grew up hearing about depression, anxiety, suicide and eating disorders. So, whilst mental health issues amongst Millennials are increasing, they are also more willing to speak about their struggles than previous generations.”
I’ll repeat my earlier warning that it’s a mistake to view everything Nick did through the lens of mental illness, but the perception of Nick as “the troubled troubadour” is too prevalent to ignore. This is unfortunate not only because the label fails to capture the rich diversity of his music but because he had the courage to write about aspects of the human condition that people ignore at their own peril. It’s clear that Nick attached no stigma to the darker emotions and wrote empathetically about people struggling with anxiety, sadness and alienation in songs like “Cello Song,” “Hazey Jane 1,” “Way to Blue” and others. When he sings of his own experience with the dark side, whether in passing or in songs that capture the experience of depression (see below), he does so with an authenticity that evokes empathy in those who reject the notion that psychological vulnerabilities are a sign of weakness. Given the generational differences cited above, post-Boomer generations are more likely to appreciate emotional honesty regarding what they perceive to be a fact of life while Boomers are more likely to experience discomfort with what they perceive as “hypersensitivity.”
And now . . . on with the review.
“One of These Things First” (Bryter Layter): This apparently whimsical and charming song is actually a serious meditation on the facet of the human personality most likely to interfere with both individual growth and relationships with others: expectations. The methodology Nick uses to present the dilemma of expectations involves a series of either/or choices that reflect his fondness for Blake’s contraries and his own challenges in figuring out where he fits in this world and how he can successfully relate to the people around him.
I don’t think I need to point out that those are the challenges we all deal with every day of our lives but I think I just did.
The first segment finds Nick dealing with the problem of self-identity in an other-directed world, struggling between the competing needs for freedom and belonging described in Erich Fromm’s theory of the human personality. He opens the analysis by referring to specific occupations (sailor, cook) but quickly abandons that all-too-standard approach in favor of metaphors:
I could have been a sailor, could have been a cook
A real live lover, could have been a book.
I could have been a signpost, could have been a clock
As simple as a kettle, steady as a rock.
Actually, all of the choices are metaphoric. He could have traveled the world or stayed home; he could have become a gigolo or a scholar; he could have been the go-to guy when people needed some help finding a direction or he could have simply passed the time; he could have become Mr. Reliable or the cool customer in a crisis. As it turns out, Nick is like the guy who never appeared on Let’s Make a Deal and told Monty Hall, “Monty, I really don’t give a shit what’s behind door number one, two or three—do you have a door number four . . . or eighteen, perhaps?” He could have been all of those things, but none seem to scratch the inner itch. So what about not being anything and just living in the moment?
I could be
Here and now
I would be, I should be
Gestalt therapy, with its emphasis on living in the “here and now,” was quite the rage at the time Nick wrote this song, but rather than viewing its message as the gateway to living a freer life, Nick sees it as just another weighty expectation. “You should live in the moment!” “How do I do that?” “Uh, well, you just do it.” When he ends his internal conversation on the repeated line in the chorus, “I could have been one of these things first,” I don’t get the sense that he has any regrets for failing to choose a single path—on the contrary, I think he finds the “need to be something first” rather limiting.
The second verse applies the quest for identity and belonging to a specific relationship and the difficulty in linking “who I am” with “what you want and expect.”
I could have been your pillar, could have been your door
I could have stayed beside you, could have stayed for more.
Could have been your statue, could have been your friend,
A whole long lifetime could have been the end.
I could be yours so true
I would be, should be through and through
Again, Nick “could have been one of these things first” but the consistent use of the conditional tense (could, would, should) tells us that he was unable to figure out who he was in relation to the other person and could not (or would not) fulfill her expectations. The line I find most fascinating is “A whole long lifetime could have been the end,” as Nick gives us no indication that the “end” would have been “a happy ending,” but just as likely an unsatisfying compromise involving suppression of the true self.
The final verse begins with two new sets of contraries dealing with the relationship and a repetition of the final couplet from the self-exploration verse:
I could have been a whistle, could have been a flute
A real live giver, could have been a boot.
I could have been a signpost, could have been a clock
As simple as a kettle, steady as a rock.
My take on the first set of contraries may be biased by the fact that I’ve played the flute for thirty-odd years, but I think the contrary is “less-than-I-can-be/more than I can be,” meaning that Nick was concerned that staying in this relationship would have meant sacrificing his passion for music. “A real live giver, could have been a boot” won’t seem like a pair of contraries to Americans (giving + shoe = what?), but in the Mother Country “boot” means “car trunk”, making the contrary giving-receiving. Adding the repeated contraries in this context seems to confirm his fear of losing his true self and becoming “inanimate” by attempting to live up to the expectations attached to a long-term relationship.
From a musical perspective, this is one of Boyd’s better productions on Bryter Layter, mainly because he exercises due restraint and limits the background music to bass, drums and a delightful cascade of rising and falling notes from Paul Harris on piano. Nick’s guitar is tuned to DADFAD, but his primary focus is on the three lower strings to provide octaval contrast to the keyboard. Nick’s vocal is one of my favorites, a mix of marvelous phrasing, melodic precision and two noticeable idiosyncrasies. The first appears on the third line of each verse, right after the chord pattern shifts to A major from the baseline E-F#m-G#m pattern—Nick holds the A-major-compatible C# note in the words “signpost” and “statue” after the chord pattern shifts to the incompatible G major, creating a sourness that tells me he’s not to keen on the idea of becoming an immobile object. The second involves his approach to the held note on the “been” at the end of “I could have been”—most singers would have opted for the easier approach and held the vowel, but Nick chose to hold the nasal “n” as in “n-n-n-n.” The difficulty of that move became apparent when I tried to sing along (the melody is irresistible) and it took me several tries before I could force my tongue to stick to the roof of my mouth long enough in order to pull it off.
“Northern Sky” (Bryter Layter): The best productions on Bryter Layter came not from Joe Boyd but from John Cale. Boyd was working with Cale on another project at the time and sent the ex-Velvet Underground member a few demo tracks from Nick’s new album. Cale’s response was immediate and emphatic: “Who the fuck is this guy? I have to meet him, where is he right now?”
Boyd wisely ceded production duties to Cale on two Bryter Layter tracks: “Fly” (not in this collection) and “Northern Sky.” Though it took some time for Cale to make a connection with his introverted partner, eventually Nick sensed that Cale understood and appreciated the essence of his music and that Nick had a lot more to offer than the average singer-songwriter: “He made music with a real sensuality – very different from English folk music.”
Though I still see references to Nick describing him as an English folk singer, I think most people who have listened to Nick reject that label for the nonsense that it is. And while I disagree with Cale’s implication that English folk music lacks sensuality (there are so many English folk songs about fucking that I’ve lost count), Nick’s music is indeed intensely sensual, both lyrically and musically. His sensuality does not fit the primary definition of the word (“the enjoyment, expression, or pursuit of physical, especially sexual, pleasure”) but certainly reflects the secondary, classic usage—“the condition of being pleasing or fulfilling to the senses.”
“Northern Sky” was tagged by the NME as the “greatest English love song of modern times.” I’m not into absolute superlatives, but I would describe “Northern Sky” as one of the most tender and touching love songs I’ve ever heard. Cale displays a deep respect for the song’s essential tenderness through an arrangement that responds to the emotional modulations in Nick’s vocal—quiet and reflective in the opening and closing verses when Nick sings in his normal range, rising in the middle verses to match the passion in Nick’s voice as he moves an octave higher. The steady rhythm provided by Nick, Dave Pegg and Mike Kowalksi frees Cale to add additional color to the mix via piano, organ and celeste. The song begins and ends with the same verse, and when the celeste appears at the start of the second go-round, I feel myself tearing up in response to the sheer beauty of the moment. Though repeated verses often reflect songwriter laziness, the repetition of the verse that opens and closes “Northern Sky” caps an intensely moving experience:
I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here
Brighten my northern sky.
That, my friends, is beautiful poetry, pure and simple. I love the linking of the moons and the sea with its implication of gravitational attraction, an invisible but undeniable force in both nature and relationships . . . I love how he transforms emotion from an abstract concept to concrete experience communicated through touch . . . and I love the implied metaphor likening the experience of love to “sweet breezes at the top of the tree.” As is often the case when we experience unexpected happiness, Nick attempts to understand his good fortune by comparing it to past disappointments, hoping that his new partner will continue to affirm this new and strange reality:
I’ve been a long time that I’ve wandered
Through the people I have known
Oh, if you would and you could
Straighten my new mind’s eye.
A pair of instrumental interludes follow this verse, the first continuing the song’s rhythm pattern while adhering to the song’s dominant chord combination of Eb/Fm7. The music stops on the Eb chord, after which we hear the four light beats on the bass drum that clear the way for a second interlude composed by John Cale. This quieter passage opens on the compatible fourth chord (Ab), a bright spot of color that easily resolves to the Eb root. Cale then completes the passage by borrowing the C#-Ab shift from the song’s chorus before resolving to the fifth (Bb), cueing the rhythm section to execute the build leading to verse three, capped off by the dramatic reappearance of the organ. As is so often the case in music, the simplest moves tend to have the greatest power, and Cale’s middle eight is simple, powerful and as perfect as perfect gets.
The third verse finds Nick in a Tim Hardin mood, asking the “Will you love me even if . . . ” questions of the type Hardin posed in “If I Were a Carpenter.” The difference is that Nick expresses more universally experienced anxieties and insecurities that arise when people fall in love as opposed to limiting the discussion to the more mundane factors of occupation and class. Nick’s high-range vocal in this verse is one of his most heartfelt performances as he straddles the line between anxiety and hope:
Would you love me for my money
Would you love me for my head
Would you love me through the winter
Would you love me ’til I’m dead
Oh, if you would and you could
Come blow your horn on high.
The repetition of the opening verse at the end of the song now seems to express a more solid but still fragile hope that the experience of true love is real and there for the taking.
Stunningly, Island refused to release “Northern Sky” as a single. Island never released any Nick Drake singles during his lifetime.
“Which Will” (Pink Moon): In stark contrast to the sweet beauty of “Northern Sky,” we find Nick’s romance hanging by a thread in intensely melancholy “Which Will.” The contrast with “Northern Sky” is magnified to the nth degree by the sparse voice-and-guitar arrangement, Nick’s subdued vocal and the deeply forlorn lyrics:
Which do you dance for
Which makes you shine
Which will you choose now
If you won’t choose mine
Which will you hope for
Which can it be
Which will you take now
If you won’t take me
Note that he uses the impersonal relative pronoun “which” instead of “who,” as if attempting to distance himself from the agony of experiencing what he expects to be an unwelcome choice. The pain of the lyrics is eased somewhat by the pleasure evoked by Nick’s guitar as he presents the simple chord pattern of F-C-Dm-G7 in CGCFCE, mingling thumb picking with frequent use of hammer-ons in his one-of-a-kind tone.
“Hazey Jane II” (Bryter Layter): Hazey Jane’s second appearance in this collection proves that a good song can shine through a horrid arrangement, unnecessarily layered production and a really bad mix.
Speaking of proofs, Robert Kirby proved two things with his brass arrangement on “Hazey Jane II.” One: Kirby should have stuck to string arrangements. Two: the combination of brass and Nick Drake is like oil and water, chardonnay and steak, peanut butter and tuna. Nick’s voice pairs well with guitar, strings, piano, flute, oboe, English horn, bassoon and probably the clarinet, but trumpets and trombones—never. It doesn’t help that Kirby’s brass arrangement is really boring or that it’s so loud that it drowns out both of Richard Thompson’s shots at a guitar solo.
Fortunately for posterity, the rhythm section holds up their end of the bargain with a nice, sprightly beat and Nick’s vocal breaks through the cacophony to deliver a marvelous set of lyrics on the perpetually-unprepared-for-the-real-world character of Hazey Jane. The unusually long opening line is one of my favorite opening lines of all time and one that bears repeating (as Nick does at the end of the verse):
And what will happen in the morning when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out the window in the
I doubt very much that the imagery is related to the original Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon,” where Captain Kirk looks through a viewscreen and sees people packed together like sardines on a severely overpopulated planet. I agree with the assessment of Tim Jonze of The Guardian that the line and the song are about the introvert’s challenge of trying to fit into a world that seems to be crawling with people who won’t leave you the hell alone. Unfortunately, Hazey Jane’s challenges do not end there:
And what will happen in the evening in the forest with the weasel with the teeth that bite so sharp when you’re not looking in the evening?
And all the friends that you once knew are left behind they kept you safe and so secure amongst the books and all the records of your lifetime?
Nick then suggests that a return to the family might provide some grounding and a chance to “start over again.” He follows that piece of advice with words of encouragement:
Now take a little while to find your way in here
Now take a little while to make your story clear.
Now that you’re lifting
Your feet from the ground
Weigh up your anchor
And never look round.
All very well and good, but the closing lines of the song seem to suggest that his conversation with Hazey Jane never took place in the real world, but only in this song:
If songs were lines
In a conversation
The situation would be fine
Oddly enough, this makes sense to me. Introverts tense up when someone invades their space without warning, so the introverted Mr. Drake thoughtfully chose not to share his perceptions with his fellow introvert . . . or chose to avoid his own discomfort despite his conviction that a conversation would improve the situation.
As the introverted Mr. Spock would say, “Fascinating.”
I’m delighted that the Way to Blue collection places the Hazey Jane songs in their proper order. On Bryter Later, “Hazey Jane II” is the second track, while “Hazey Jane I” appears later, at the end of side one. I understand why Boyd chose to do that—“Hazey Jane II” is more upbeat and pop-friendly and its early placement was probably part of his plan to increase Nick’s commercial appeal. Unfortunately, this placement leaves the listener wondering why Nick sings the line “She’s back again in my mind” when the listener has never heard of the broad.
“Time Has Told Me” (Five Leaves Left):
The first song on Nick Drake’s first album should have told the world that Nick was something special, but as is often the case, the world had its head up its ass and missed out.
If there’s any song in Nick’s catalog that qualifies as a personal manifesto, it’s “Time Has Told Me.” If you knew absolutely nothing about Nick Drake and happened upon a copy of the song’s lyrics, you would assume that it was written by someone approaching late-stage maturity, given the song’s structure as a presentation of life lessons and the quality of the wisdom imparted by the writer. The truth is Nick wrote the song before he turned twenty-one, probably sometime during his days as a student of English Literature at Cambridge, where he spent less time in the lecture halls and more time in his room with a few friends, smoking grass and playing guitar.
At this very young age—an age I recall as a time when I was light years away from having my shit together—Nick had already figured out and accepted the fact that he neither wanted nor was capable of achieving “normal” and preferred companions who were similarly out of sync with social norms and related expectations:
Time has told me
You’re a rare, rare find
A troubled cure
For a troubled mind
“A troubled cure for a troubled mind” seems to have two meanings. The first is a defiant acceptance of society’s application of the label “troubled” to those who are “different,” while the second acknowledges that Nick and his companion are indeed troubled by their experience in a society geared towards imposing conformity. I qualified this interpretation with the word “seems” because I might be reading those lines through my personal experience of being different and spending years looking for that “rare, rare find” in the form of a life partner who (like me) would be considered a little bit weird by more conventional types.
Unlike me, Nick had no interest in a long-term commitment—such an arrangement would be way too bourgeois and confining for him. He prefers to let time and circumstance play themselves out:
And time has told me
Not to ask for more
Someday our ocean
Will find its shore
And in an exceptionally clear statement of personal values, he tells us exactly how he wants to live his life, a life free from the bondage of societal expectations and twisted beliefs:
So I’ll leave the ways that are making me be
What I really don’t want to be
Leave the ways that are making me love
What I really don’t want to love
I read a comment on songmeanings.com that the last two lines “prove” that Nick Drake was gay. People! Know your relative pronouns! Nick doesn’t use the personal “who” but the impersonal “what.” He’s talking about things, not persons! He doesn’t specify the “what,” but he’s probably talking about classic norms like “love your country,” or “get a good education” or “go to church on Sunday.” There is an unsurprisingly large amount of speculation concerning Nick Drake’s sexuality, fueled by the knowledge that he did not consummate relationships with three women he was known to have dated during his brief appearance in the public eye. For all we know, he could have had sexual experiences early on and didn’t find them particularly satisfying. Since he never came close to writing a song about sex, my take is that sex just wasn’t that important to him and he preferred platonic connections over physical bonding. Nothing wrong with that.
Nick then turns to his soulmate, imagining her origins in achingly beautiful poetic language that reminds us that we all begin in life in a state of pure innocence . . .
Time has told me
You came with the dawn
A soul with no footprint
A rose with no thorn
. . . until social and educational systems attempt to shape us to specification, wreaking havoc on soul and spirit:
Your tears they tell me
There’s really no way
Of ending your troubles
With things you can say
There are no words to describe the existential angst triggered by society’s denial of our unique individuality. We come into the world naïve and trusting, believing that parents and educators will care for us and help us reach our full potential. When it dawns on us that those assumptions are often invalid, we soon learn that protesting against the inhumanity of social molding will result in being labeled a “troublemaker.” Nick encourages his soulmate to stay the course of self-discovery, to reject feelings of shame, let it all come out, and above all, “to thine own self be true.”
And time will tell you
To stay by my side
To keep on trying
‘Til there’s no more to hide
So leave the ways that are making you be
What you really don’t want to be
Leave the ways that are making you love
What you really don’t want to love
Even at this nascent moment in his career, Nick reveals his innate talent for sophisticated phrasing, delaying and extending notes based on his fine musical instinct and superb sense of rhythm. The song is set to a stately waltz held in place by Nick’s guitar and Danny Thompson’s bass, completely free of drums; melodic counterpoint is provided by Paul Harris’ piano on one side and Richard Thompson’s country-style guitar on the other. The verses follow a straightforward chord pattern in the key of C major (F-C-F-C-C7-F-Dm-G), but in the all-important bridges (“So leave the ways that are making me/you be”) Nick executes a brilliant key change kicked off by a transitional E7 chord to Eb major (Eb-Ab6-Ab), then avoids resolution by landing on a D major chord. While it sounds odd on paper, the changes draw special attention to the rejection of conformity and celebration of individuality that mark the bridges while preserving the song’s easy flow.
“Pink Moon” (Pink Moon): I’ve read a lot of loony song interpretations during my stint as an amateur music critic, but the various takes I’ve read on “Pink Moon” top them all:
- ” . . . just Drake and his acoustic guitar and one piano solo on the title track, with its ill-omened pink moon a portent of disaster.” (UDiscover Music)
- “‘Pink Moon’ references the apocalypse or end times, as predicted in the book of Joel. ‘I saw it written and I saw it say, Pink moon is on its way’. The moon itself has often represented both birth and death, and here Drake exchanges the term Blood Moon for something more seductive and feminine—possibly as seen through the eyes of Amitriptyline, an antidepressant that can cause sleeplessness and hallucinations, and the drug with which Drake would take his life only two years after this epic disc was recorded. On this, his third album, the melancholic songwriter was struggling with depression, had withdrawn from public performance and whittled down his music into something spare and bleak. It’s likely that the end times he was speaking of were his own.” (from Quora discussion on “Pink Moon.”)
- “‘Pink Moon’ is a song with a straightforward message, but an uncertain meaning. Sung in Drake’s distinct smooth soulful voice, he tells us that our fate is coming soon: ‘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.’ Like most of his songs off this album, they come off as poetic and bleak, like a dark sorrowed soul that lived within him. This song might be about a malicious feeling infecting the people who surround him, or it could simply be a metaphor for death coming for them no matter how tall they stand. As terrible as that sounds, he doesn’t sing it in just a sad way, but more haunting with a heavy heart, like he’s given up on saving himself and others, which reflected well on his own life at the time. Similarly, his guitar gives a chord-filled, harmonic melody while the piano break in the middle of the song offers a nice break and sets the mood for this depressing outlook into the near future. (Beats per Minute)
- “The cryptic 2-minute title track of Nick Drake’s third album, he got the name of this song from the Dictionary Of Folklore. It represents the blood-red color of the moon during eclipses.” (Songfacts)
I won’t even bother to quote the people who assert that “Pink Moon” is somehow tied to Leonardo Da Vinci’s pink tunics or that “pink” actually means “punk” because Nick’s music was “punkish.” I will quote the only guy who got it right on the Quora thread, one Cernowain Greenman, whose tagline is “I’ve been playing folk music for 40 years”:
The song is written with tongue in cheek, that is, it is a humorous poke at apocalyptic warnings.
Instead of a “blood moon” or “bad moon” or “dark moon”, Nick Drake gives us a “pink moon”. The color “pink” isn’t scary at all. So when Nick says, “Pink moon gonna get you all” it is said with humor and a bit of sarcasm.
Others may attribute deeper meanings to this song and I’m not one to judge them and say they are wrong.
But I think on the face of it, this is a rather silly and fun song.
Well, I am one to judge and I say those “others” made the fundamental mistake of interpreting a song through one of two lenses: their own personal belief systems or the “common knowledge” that Nick Drake was in mental decline during the recording of Pink Moon. I’ve already identified the latter as horseshit in my analysis of “From the Morning.” “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.”
Gabrielle Drake almost got it right when offered the chance to speculate on how things might have been different if her brother had experienced success: “And I don’t believe that he could have coped with the adulation of fans for very long.” Had she replaced the word “adulation” with “idiocy” she would have nailed it.
Let’s start the demystification and deidiotization (yay! I made up another word!) with the Old Farmer’s Almanac:
Although we wish this name had to do with the color of the Moon, the reality is not quite as mystical or awe-inspiring. In truth, April’s full Moon often corresponded with the early springtime blooms of a certain wildflower native to eastern North America: Phlox subulata—commonly called creeping phlox or moss phlox—which also went by the name “moss pink.”
Thanks to this seasonal association, this full Moon came to be called the “Pink” Moon!
So much for Songfacts. If there’s any meaning beyond what appears to be a rather mundane and predictable cosmic occurrence, it has to do with a theme that is present in several Nick Drake songs. From Elite Daily:
Spiritually, the Pink Moon always signifies rebirth and renewal. After a long, cold, gray, and miserable winter, the resurgence of the color pink is a revitalizing dose of beauty and joy. It serves as a reminder that life is a set of ups and downs, a cycle of hibernation and reawakening. The flowers may go away for a while but they always return, more beautiful than they’ve ever been before. Their color is appreciated in a new light, since we’ve all gone so long without embracing their poetic impact on our world.
The music is upbeat and playful, with Nick providing a pleasant, toe-tapping rhythm on guitar and bright, dare-I-say-happy notes on the piano. I don’t know how anyone can interpret Nick singing, “Pink, pink, pink, pink, pink moon” at the very bottom of his register and not think he was engaged in some lighthearted fun.
“Black Eyed Dog” (Time of No Reply): Oh, man, this is painful to listen to.
Nick had been tinkering with a fourth album at the time of his death, having recorded a total of five songs. Four were released to the public posthumously in 1979 via the original Fruit Tree box set; the fifth (“Tow the Line”) wasn’t released until 2004 on the album Made to Love Magic. Sometime after Nick’s passing, Nick’s father brought the family together to listen to Nick’s final recordings:
After Nick’s death, Gabrielle recalls, she and her husband, Louis de Wet, sat with Molly and Rodney at Far Leys listening to the last songs he recorded, among them the shattering “Black Eyed Dog” (included on the 1986 posthumous collection Time of No Reply), its imagery recalling Winston Churchill’s description of his own depression as a black dog. “Dad played these last four songs and it was devastating for everybody. My husband was so moved he had to leave the room.” (The Guardian)
The songs convey the unimaginable despair of a young man deep in the black hole of depression and the listening experience is indeed shattering. I can’t listen to any of them without crying, without feeling the agony of helplessness as I hear the sound of Nick Drake at rock bottom.
If you’ve never experienced depression or been with someone suffering from depression, “Black Eyed Dog” is what depression sounds like and feels like. The diagnosticians will tell you that the symptoms include hopelessness, inability to access joy, sleeplessness or excessive sleep, the inability to concentrate and a variety of physical manifestations—but that’s not what it feels like. You may manifest all those symptoms but you also feel like you’re in another dimension and that the people and the things around you are distorted and thousands of miles in the distance. When you try to interact with someone in a depressive state, it feels like your words bounce off a wall of plexiglass and there’s no way to get through. The good days and bad days alternate unexpectedly, so you never really know who you’re dealing with or whether or not you’re getting through to them.
Depression is a terribly lonely place to be. It cuts us off from self and others, leaving confusion, doubt and distrust in its wake. Listening to “Black Eyed Dog” brings back all the ugly feelings I felt when I experienced depression in my twenties—the despair of wanting it all to go away and lacking the means to do so, the undefined fears that frequently broke my sleep, the strange feeling that I’d been left without a home.
But once I get past my memories, I ache for Nick. His guitar part is a strange combination of the spare style you hear in the song “Horn” on Pink Moon that combines single notes with two-note combinations and a muffled, insistent rhythm that mirrors the relentless, subconscious nature of depression. His vocal is nearly all falsetto and sounds like a cry for help from very far away. He only breaks the falsetto once in the song, at the end of the couplet, “I’m growing old and I wanna go home, I’m growing old and I don’t want to know,” where he lowers his pitch to hit a note outside of the scale, a sudden, unnerving change that sounds like he’s giving up. The lyrics are worth sharing in full because they describe the dogged persistence of the condition and the tendency of depressives to communicate in symbols, riddles and out-of-the-blue urges that often mystify those trying to understand them.
Black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
A black eyed dog he knew my name
A black eyed dog he knew my name
A black eyed dog
A black eyed dog
I’m growing old and I wanna go home, I’m growing old and I don’t wanna know
I’m growing old and I wanna go home
Black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
“Black Eyed Dog” is a rough experience, but if it helps those experiencing depression to know that they’re neither alone nor “weird,” or helps those who have never experienced depression to be more understanding and less judgmental, Nick deserves our deepest gratitude.
“Fruit Tree” (Five Leaves Left): Nick Drake possessed a poetic sensibility, and like most poets, he was very persnickety when choosing the words that make up a poem. In addition to the usual poetic concerns of euphony and meter, he faced the additional challenge of having to choose words that worked within the norms and structures of popular music. And like all the best poets and writers, Nick exerted great care in choosing le mot juste, the word that conveys the intended meaning with exceptional impact.
I wish Nick Drake fans and music critics were just as careful when choosing their words.
Most of the commentary on “Fruit Tree” centers around the word “prescient” or the concept of prescience. Since Nick went to Cambridge, we’ll use the definition of “prescient” in the Cambridge Dictionary: “knowing or suggesting correctly what will happen in the future.” The public commentary on “Fruit Tree” displays an appalling ignorance of the meaning of the concept of “prescience”:
- ” . . . it’s hard not to wonder if he knew all along how his life would end.” (Pop Matters)
- “Fruit Tree proved to be eerily prescient. And anyone notice that he died almost exactly five years after Five Leaves Left? (comment from songmeanings.com thread).
- ” . . . it’s completely amazing. kind of spooky too . . . he sort of predicted his own death . . . weird huh . . .? (comment from songmeanings.com thread).
- “Of all Drake’s songs, ‘Fruit Tree’ continues to dictate how the world has come to understand his story. The song once even prompted Joe Boyd to surmise: ‘He seemed to know everything that was in store for him. I mean, he says it all in that song.'” (The Guardian)
Having already used a triple “oh, for fuck’s sake” in this essay on Nick Drake, I’ll switch to mid-20th-Century American slang to describe these perceptions: “What a bunch of baloney.”
Nick Drake wasn’t a fortune-teller, soothsayer, Cassandra or even a meteorologist. He was actually very bad at predicting the future, having fully bought into Joe Boyd’s predictions of imminent stardom. “Fruit Tree” appears on his first album, before his rejection by the listening public, when he was hopeful and confident that success lurked just around the corner.
A more accurate interpretation of the song would recognize first and foremost that Nick was a student of English poetry and that his effort in “Fruit Tree” is another in a long tradition of poetic meditations penned by English poets on the subject of fame. Chaucer’s The House of Fame. Shakespeare in Love Labour’s Lost, King Henry IV Part One, King Henry V, Henry VI Part One, Othello and several others. Pope’s “The Temple of Fame.” John Clare’s “Idle Fame.” Keats, “On Fame.” Yes, I know that Nick had read Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal and the works of other French symbolists, but I don’t see much of that influence in his work. I see more Wordsworth and Blake in Nick’s poetry than Mallarmé.
While at this time in his life he probably had more confidence in his future than at any other period, doubt and pessimism were also essential components of his complex personality. I think “Fruit Tree” is a cautionary “note to self” not to get his hopes up concerning fame in his lifetime. Nick was well aware of William Blake’s life trajectory and the fact that Blake only achieved fame decades after his death. Nick might very well have been thinking of Blake when he wrote this verse:
Forgotten while you’re here
Remembered for a while
A much updated ruin
From a much outdated style.
Though Blake is grouped with the other English romantics, his poetry was often marked by the “much-outdated style” of biblical writings and mythology, quite unlike the more popular (at the time) poetry of Wordsworth. While Keats’ life story has definite parallels with Nick’s (Keats died at the age of twenty-five and his three volumes of poetry only sold a total of 200 copies during his lifetime), Keats wrote in the more modern style of the second generation of English romantics. Nick’s succinct summarization of the link between fame and death applies to both poets: “Safe in your place deep in the earth/That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.”
That the couplet also applies to Nick isn’t the result of an “eerie prescience,” but his awareness of the fickle nature of popular tastes. It’s obvious that Nick genuinely feels the injustice of post-death fame and is very clear that the source of this injustice lies in the stubborn unconsciousness and blind indifference of the human race:
Life is but a memory
Happened long ago.
Theatre full of sadness
For a long-forgotten show.
Seems so easy
Just to let it go on by
‘Till you stop and wonder
Why you never wondered why.
The music that supports the lyrics features an interesting contrast between the slightly higher-than-standard bpm (125 bpm) from Nick’s guitar and the generally beat-liberated legatos of the strings and double reeds (oboe, bass oboe, English horn). Nick’s tuning is set to BBDGBE, which on first glance should substitute for the absence of the bass, but Nick doesn’t use the severely lowered bottom string all that much, and when he does, his notes are usually fretted, making this a “soft-bottom” song. Unusual tuning aside, the chording is pretty straightforward. The basic verse pattern of Am/Ammaj7/C6/Am6 looks more complicated than it is, as all it involves is are four descending note changes: A, Ab, G, Gb. Nick uses a pattern of F-E major for the bridge, a subtle change that creates a few moments of tension before ending on the resolution chord (E major) of the verse pattern. The only problem I have with the mix is that the string section sometimes drowns out Nick’s guitar and we experience a temporary disconnection from the rhythm.
Gabrielle Drake shared an interesting piece of information in The Guardian article quoted above: “My brother once said to my mother, ‘If only I could feel that my music had helped anyone at all . . . ‘” There is no doubt that Nick has helped thousands of people around the world through his empathy with troubled souls, but I reject the perception of Nick as “the patron saint of the miserable,” to borrow a phrase from the title of a BBC Magazine Monitor article that exposed the misapplication of that label:
When he began recording solo as a Cambridge undergraduate, his aim was certainly not to be an unrecognised downbeat outsider. “He had this feeling that he’d got something to say to the people of his own generation,” his mother remembered. “He felt he could make them happier.”
His first album, the pastoral Five Leaves Left, correspondingly begins with the lines: “Time has told me you’re a rare, rare find / A troubled cure for a troubled mind”.
The second, Bryter Layter, is purposefully upbeat and the last, Pink Moon, ends: “So look, see the sights, the endless summer nights / And go play the game that you learned from the morning”. This is music of comfort, not of despair – rebirth, not death.
Neither are Drake’s most popular songs ones of anguish. Those most frequently played in bars, cafes and restaurants are “Northern Sky,” “One of these Things First,” and “Pink Moon” – the one used in a 1999 ad for the Volkswagen Cabriolet.
For the anniversary of Drake’s death, his sister Gabrielle has compiled a book which she hopes will “get the story straight”. She feels that the received wisdom about his life is full of “trite answers – that he came from a stuffy, upper-middle-class background, nobody understood him”.
She is not alone in wanting to remember a Nick Drake whose life and music are not defined by misery. Robert Kirby met Drake when they both auditioned for the Cambridge Footlights and went on to write the arrangements for many of his songs. “Nick seems to have become the patron saint of the depressed,” he told a fan site.
“The danger is that when fans take on this intensely personal relationship, they can want to be the only ones to own the experience . . . Apart from his last year I can assure you that he did have many crazy, happy spells.”
Nick Drake was simply an exceptionally gifted musician and poet who left us far too soon but eventually fulfilled his dream of helping to make the world a happier place for many of its inhabitants.
This encounter with Nick Drake couldn’t have come at a better time for me, as the tenth anniversary of altrockchick.com is right around the corner. Immersing myself in Nick’s music reminded me of the blog’s original mission: to draw attention to the music of talented independent artists and help expand their audience. I was living in Seattle at the time and the city was filled with some incredibly talented musicians struggling for attention; I thought it was criminal that these gifted people were toiling in obscurity and decided to do something about it. Unfortunately, it takes a long time for a blog to catch on, and I had to abandon my quest when I realized that I didn’t have the necessary level of influence to make a difference and was unlikely to attain that kind of juice as an independent blogger. I am still convinced that there are many Nick Drakes in the world today, all of whom deserve the attention that was denied Nick during his lifetime.
So, please—cherish our artists, especially those who are just starting out and need validation and encouragement. You can find them vying for your attention on SoundCloud, Bandcamp, YouTube and a host of other independent sites. Listen to their music with the same level of effort and attention that they put into making that music and support them by giving them your honest feedback and buying their music if you feel they have promise. We all know that most of the new music produced by the Big Four record companies who control 85% of the market is absolute crap, so do yourself a favor by seeking out those who are more likely to value music as an art form and break new ground in the process.
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!