Open Wide The Hymns You Hide: Pink Moon Turns 50

A half-century later, Nick Drake’s third LP continues to reveal new layers of a British folk icon gone too soon

Nick Drake 1971 (Image: Keith Morris)

In this digital age where so much old footage of so many classic artists can be found online, Nick Drake is a virtual ghost.

He granted only one interview in his short lifetime and never toured to any real degree. There’s no live footage of him at all, in contrast to, say Fairport Convention, where a simple YouTube search turns up multiple appearances from that time frame.

Drake’s ephemeral presence was reflected in his record sales. His 1969 debut, Five Leaves Left, its 1970 follow-up Bryter Layter and his third and final release, Pink Moon (which turns 50 today) all reportedly sold 5,000 copies or less in his lifetime.

And this wasn’t a case of an under-appreciated artist toiling away on some obscure regional label. Drake was on Island, which had bands like Traffic, Jethro Tull, Free, King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer during the same period.

Drake would be stuck between two impulses. He absolutely wanted his work to be heard and appreciated, but he just as strongly couldn’t do some of the crucial things needed to give that work its best chance to find an audience. He didn’t promote his records through the press. He walked away from performing live for good in 1970.


AUDIO: Molly Drake “I Remember”

For all his confidence, built from his upper-middle class youth living with supportive and musical parents (particularly his talented mother Molly), Drake was a shy performer. He also was sent out on the road without any help with his guitar setup, an issue because his use of varied tunings meant that he had to spend time changing those tunings between each song, time he was unable to fill with any sort of banter.

At that point, Drake didn’t get any boost from the label beyond its continued patronage, itself no small gift given the dearth of sales. There were no singles released (in contrast to, say, Cat Stevens who seemingly couldn’t stop writing hits). Sadly, given the number of artists who’d cover lesser known songwriters to comercial success at the time, he never even got a boost from someone else covering his material.

The lack of any success, particularly after Bryter Layter didn’t sell, took its toll on Drake emotionally. He became more isolated and withdrawn, both from friends and family.

Feeling there were few people he could trust, Drake eventually approached engineer John Wood, who’d worked on his first two albums.

In contrast to any number of other classic albums, Pink Moon’s creation was as minimalist as it got. Instead of several months, multiple studios and a cadre of outside musicians and collaborators, there was Drake and Wood.

Given the short notice Wood had, there was no studio time to book for the immediate future. And so Drake came in with Wood to record overnight at Sound Technique Studios in London. The album was recorded over two nights — just Drake and his guitar, save for his piano overdub on the title track. Drake said little between songs and his face betrayed little emotion as to how the sessions were going.

The result is Drake’s shortest and most intimate album, one that between his performance and Wood’s production, leaves you feeling that you’re sitting right there next to the artist in a way few albums before or since have.

One of the marvels of Pink Moon is how inviting it is, given how Drake’s mental illness affected him in his latter years. To anyone who’s dealt with their own issues (this writer and members of her family included), it feels less like rubbernecking and more like you’ve been asked in for a warming spot of tea and to listen to these songs by someone who, if not capable of a happy ending, seems to say, “I’m here. You’re here. You get it.”

Nick Drake Pink Moon, Island Records 1972

Drake sings in the opening title song, “I 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 ye all.” It’s foreboding and inviting in equal measure, yet not threatening because of the beauty of the music itself, carried by Drake’s guitar playing.

Back in the day with all the British guitar heroes, Drake’s name was never included. He was not given to soloing. But his playing, known for its fingerpicking and wide use of tunings, was always authoritative and crisp, technically quite proficient but never cold. It was the anchor for the romantic poetry and, even on earlier albums, the base around which the rest of the instrumentation was built.

Take “Parasite”, with its descending chords echoing the slightest hint of “Dear Prudence,” but in service of a song in which self-loathing and empathy mix. Drake, by this point, was capable of disappearing for days at a time. With only a retainer from Island for income, he looked down on himself as much as others look down at those in his spot, as he felt looked down upon. It shows in the bitter resignation of the lyrics.

One doesn’t need a degree in armchair psychology to feel the palpable pain of Drake’s depression and lost hope in a “A Place to Be,” especially knowing how the story ends.

The same goes for “Which Will,” even more delicate in which Drake breathily sings “Which do you dance for?/Which makes you shine?/Which will you choose, now/If you won’t choose mine?” The unresolved tension between wanting to be heard and seen and wanting to be invisible is as unresolved as it would be with his passing three years after he recorded it.

“Things Behind the Sun” is the album’s relative “epic,” clocking it at almost four minutes, a portrait of isolation, frustration and distrust. And yet, even there, it feels like Drake knows his audience is somehow nearby. Even if he can’t reach them, he knows that keeping it inside won’t do them any more good than it would him. He sings, “And open wide the hymns you hide. You find renown while people frown. At things that you say. But say what you’ll say.”

It’s another one of the contradictions in Drake’s life, that he was able to express the openness through his art that he so often struggled to do in life.

“Road,” a short standout, reflects a flicker of grim recognition that he was not destined for the success he was both frightened of and desired.

While Pink Moon is full of distinctive songs and some real highlights, its short length and recording time leave it playing as one whole piece — a snapshot in time of the mindset of a man as desperate for connection as he was incapable of achieving it.

It could have come across as so much bleak navel-gazing if not for Drake’s gifts as a writer, songwriter and singer. Even in his less literal moments, he kept the emotions real and relatable. He crafted timeless touchstones for the wounded and isolated that can still reach people almost five decades after his death.

Drake could even offer uplift, even though it soon grew more bittersweet. “From the Morning”, the last song on the album, is about finding joy and beauty in the world around you. If things had turned out differently in his favor, it could have been seen as the light breaking through the darkness. Instead, part of its lyrics would be used on his tombstone — “And now we rise/And we are everywhere.”

Nick Drake Pink Moon magazine ad (Image: Pinterest)

The creative burst of Pink Moon’s creation didn’t last. By the time it came to shoot the album cover, his detachment couldn’t be masked (photographer Keith Morris said, “It was like shooting still life”). With nothing workable from the shoot, Island was left to commission the artwork that was used.
The album, like the two before it, tanked.

That exacerbated Drake’s issues, both mentally and financially. With further low periods in his depression, Drake found it more difficult to create. Joe Boyd, who produced the first two albums, said Drake was at a point where his skills had fallen out of practice. He struggled through sessions, no longer able to sing and play guitar at the same time.

A few songs were recorded in 1973 and 1974, but no new album came.

In the morning hours of November 25, 1974, Drake took too much of an anti-depressant he’d been prescribed, because he wanted to die, because he didn’t care if he did or because he had no idea of the dangers of what he was taking. Hours later, his loving mother, his first musical influence, came in to wake him and found him gone.

That death wasn’t the end of the story, even if it was a slow burn. To a small, but slowly growing group of fans, Drake’s music became this magical secret to be passed forward.

Some of those fans would make pilgrimages to his grave in Tanworth-In-Arden and stop by his family home. His parents, out of their own kindness and perhaps some desire to keep the connection with their son and the connection their son’s music had with these people, would open their doors. They’d offer the visitors tea and even dubbed-off copies of home recordings Drake had made in the family’s music room, years before his music career. These rarities were no doubt treasured by these visitors who’d found that Drake’s music spoke to them in a way nobody else’s had. Inevitably, copies of these, even second- or third-hand, would be treasured by bootleggers with less pure intent.

Meanwhile, for all his frustration with Island, Drake would have champions there even in death. His three albums, along with four songs from his last sessions, would be released as the Fruit Tree box set. Even when that set didn’t sell, Island kept the original albums in print.


VIDEO: 1999 Volkswagen “Pink Moon” ad

Some of those albums made their way into the hands of people whose record sales would far outstrip Drake — Beck, members of R.E.M. and Radiohead, Norah Jones and others. Despite those champions of his work, it was the use of Pink Moon’s title track in a Volkswagen commercial in 1999 that boosted his profile more than anything.

Given the greatness present in so much of what little Drake recorded in his lifetime, not to mention his influence, it’s not to think “What if?”

On the one hand understanding of various forms of mental illness is greater than it was 50 years ago, that some understanding could have led to way to help Drake. But sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to why someone makes it and someone else going through similar struggles doesn’t. As folks who miss loved ones who are no longer here can attest, some people with mental illnesses that lead to self-harm can’t be saved, any more than chemotherapy can save every cancer patient.

There’s just “What is.” Drake lived his life in the time period he did. Even though he never got the acclaim he desired in lifetime, he’s proven to be far more visible, timeless troubador than spectral and beyond reach. His songs proved to be sturdier than he imagined, Pink Moon’s among them.

The dispatches from a pained heart still offer a comfort, a beauty that can still reach people feeling similar pain, enough beauty that they can fight that day to a draw and be back tomorrow.



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Kara Tucker

Kara Tucker, after years of sportswriting, has turned to her first-love -- music . She lives in New York City with her partner and their competing record collections.

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