Reflections on an English icon taken away too soon
I was talking to Mazzy Star co-leader David Roback in 1990.
The late guitarist, formerly of Rain Parade and Opal, was a man who knew his way around melancholia.
“I think we have some sad songs,” he said, about what he and his bands, but particularly Mazzy Star, had created. “They affect me tremendously. I’ve been touched by a lot of things, non-musical things – there have been a lot of sad poems written over the centuries.”
How about Nick Drake?
“I’ve listened to Nick Drake – there is a certain feeling in his music that I find very tangible and sad. But it’s that thing where if you’re sad and you listen to a sad song, well, . . . it leads you to feel better.”
In a nutshell, yes, that is the effect Drake’s music has. I mean, not always. Sometimes, you just share that sadness, maybe you sink down a little lower thus, but you feel less alone in the world. What Drake is saying through words and music is what you feel, but somehow can’t quite express. Not with that kind of grace, elegance and nuance.
I posthumously discovered Drake, who would have turned 75 on June 19th, in college. I’m thinking a lot of us did that, no matter what your college was or what years you were there. His music, while timeless, speaks to you most deeply at that oft-turbulent, open-ended part of life.
For me, it was 1975, a year after his death and I fell in love with his music. And I was a hard rock kid, no fan of sensitive, soft-rocking James Taylor, Dan Fogelberg or Jackson Browne. This was, well, different.
There were three albums, all of which our radio station got from Marty Scott’s Jem Records: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. Joe Boyd produced the first two. They were later repacked several times as Fruit Tree, first in 1979: initially, the three albums and then later editions were fleshed out with bonus tracks, demos and the like.
It was the melancholy that grabbed you, but also, on occasion, the buoyancy and gentle uplift. The confessional folkie starkness and the sweeping sound. The mix of self-denigration and self-deprecation. The internal struggle made external. Working with tranquil but challenging chamber folk and jazz, Drake cut, on the surface, an unimposing path. You could listen to it – or dismiss it – as background music if you chose.
But anyone paying attention would have found its strengths in the contemplative subtlety, its unexpected twists amidst the understated fluidity. Sad and wistful tales of quiet desperation like “Time Has Told Me” And “One of These Things First.” Those first two had sublime string embellishments, not forcing emotions – as string sections sometimes will – but enhancing them.
Pink Moon, the “surprise” third album was raw, unadorned – unfinished, really – and dark. There was no playfulness, really, no hope. (Stay tuned for a curious coda about “Pink Moon” and its usage in a prominent TV ad for VW’s Cabrio convertible in 2000.)
There’s no denying that part of the music’s appeal aligned with Drake’s fate: He suffered from extreme shyness and depression and he died from an overdose of antidepressants at 26.
Pink Moon, released after his death, took everyone, including Boyd, by surprise. He told Drake biographer Richard Morton Jack – whose Nick Drake – The Life was published June 8, 2023 – that the first he knew of it was when Island Records sent him a copy.
“When I saw the cover I was horrified, and when I played it I was even more horrified,” he proclaimed. “I interpreted its starkness as a rebuke to me. I thought it was self-destructive, a capitulation, as if he were saying: ‘Fuck it, I don’t care whether people listen to it or not.’ I listened to it once.”
About six years ago, after his concert in Cambridge, Mass., I was backstage talking to Richard Thompson. I brought up Drake. They were, to an extent, part of the same English folk-rock scene of the early ‘70s and had played together.
“I always thought he was special,” said Thompson, who played electric guitar on “Time Has Told Me” and “Hazey Jane II.” “Everyone else has now arrived at the point where they agree. It took 45 years or something for them to catch up, but eventually, slowly, cream rises to the surface. It’s sad that Nick in spite of all this, despite all his problems, he really would have liked to be successful and had his music appreciated as it really was not. He really sold in his lifetime, probably 5000 records total.”
“I thought he was extraordinary,” Thompson continued. “And I think as time goes on I think he’s even more extraordinary – a great singer and guitar player and a really great songwriter. It was a real joy to work with him. In 1968, or whenever it was, he and I were both extremely shy and monosyllabic so our conversation between Nick Drake and myself would have been not a particularly interesting phenomenon. We would nod to each other when we saw each other around town, give each other a knowing nod. There’s a lot that’s been written about Nick, about how tortured he was in many ways. He really was unique. He didn’t sound like anybody else except possibly his mother. His mother in turns out was a closet singer who wrote these songs on her home tape recorder, but she had no ambition to be a performer, but that probably was Nick’s biggest influence.
Since there remained that mystery about his death, I asked: “I don’t know if you’d know any more than anyone else about his death but do you think it was suicide or accidental?”
“I’d say accidental, an accidental overdose or something or an accidental mixture of whatever he’s taking,” he said. “I think his third album, to me, is very, very painful; there’s a lot of pain in that record. Yet, I think mentally he had kind of turned the corner. I think he maybe did some harm to himself at some other time, I really don’t know.”
Drake would have been tied for last on my list if asked, which artist’s song from his most despairing album will be made into a major TV commercial around the turn of the century? (My other call, Neil Young’s “Tonight’s the Night.”)
I would have been very wrong. The first time I saw the ad, I was shocked. Isn’t that … isn’t that … “Pink Moon”? Yes, it was. What the hell could this be selling? And why?
The ad was created by Ron Lawner of Boston’s Arnold Communications. The dialogue-free 60-second spot was shot north of San Francisco and shows four young people cruising to a party on a moonlit night.
“We’re trying to capture the best night you can imagine,” he told me. “The air is delicious, there are billions of stars, you’re with people you like. It’s not necessary to talk; it’s the rush of driving with the top down. The music is thoughtful and acoustic, pretty simple in a lot of ways, very much not a chaotic driving song. It represented the more peaceful and organic, more real. There’s a feeling for this commercial that makes other commercials, well, very commercial and makes them sound hard.”
VIDEO: Volkswagen Pink Moon ad
As it happens, when the mellow twenty-something driver and his passengers reach the party destination it seems boisterous and silly. They exchange knowing looks and decide to pass the party by, drive into the night.
“Their choice was made to celebrate individuality,” Lawner said Shane Hutton wrote it, Tim Vaccarino was the art director and Lance Jensen and Alan Pafenbach directed it.
The site Liveforlivemusic.com reports, in a January 2021 story about a sale of Drake’s catalog to Blue Raincoat Music (which also bought Neil Young’s back catalog), that the Volkswagen commercial “renewed public interest in his music—which was largely ignored during his brief lifetime—and delivered a large boost in sales of his music.”
The story goes on: A statement from Drake’s sister, actor Gabrielle Drake, stated that though she has done her “best to protect [Drake’s] legacy” for nearly 50 years, she thought this deal was the right thing to do.
“My reward has been witnessing the burgeoning recognition of his talent but above all the ability his songs have had to help so many,” she said. “The downside has been trying to anticipate his wishes. He was a perfectionist. He always knew exactly what he wanted for his music.
“In his utter absence I have so often agonised about what to do but every now and then it is as though he nudged my elbow and said ‘this is right’. Such has been the case with Blue Raincoat. I knew, from the beginning, that they would be right for Nick – from the moment I first heard of their interest from Cally [Callomon], Nick’s manager – whose appointment was another elbow nudge from my brother.”
Blue Raincoat Music CEO Jeremy Lascelles promised to treat it with dignity.
“There are very, very few song collections that have meant more to me over the years, and my sentiments are clearly widely shared both within and without the artistic community,” Lascelles said in a statement. “It is no mean feat to have written songs that are era defining but remain utterly timeless, but that is what Nick has left behind for us all.”