I did my first (and, for about twelve years, only) radio interview with Trevor Dann on Radio Nottingham back when I was the nineteen year old editor of the Nottingham University students’ union newspaper. Next month, at Lowdham Book Festival, I’ll be belatedly returning the favour, when I introduce his talk on Nick Drake (see below). In the meantime, here’s the promised review of his fine book about Nick Drake. This appears in the first issue of Nottinghamshire Books Quarterly, out today, and appears here by permission, for those outside its circulation area.
DARKER THAN THE DEEPEST SEA
The Search For Nick Drake by Trevor Dann Portrait 17.99
Nick Drake means a lot to me. In 1974 I risked 50p on an anonymous white label eight song sampler that came in a brown paper bag. One side had two haunting, acoustic songs that knocked me out. I tracked down Pink Moon, the stark, beautiful record from which they came. As a lonely teen with an artistic bent, I related to it intensely. After Drake’s death later that year, I wrote an article about Pink Moon for a Nottingham based music magazine called Liquorice. The connection led to my moving to the city where I still live.
Over the next ten years, I came across few people who’d heard of Nick Drake. Then there was a compilation. In 1985 came the box set, which contained the last four songs Drake recorded (a fifth emerged recently) including the bleak masterpiece Black Eyed Dog. In the last twenty years, Drake’s reputation has kept growing. His songs appeared in TV ads and movie soundtracks. They have been endlessly covered and pastiched. There was a biography by a reliable music journalist, although it didn’t reveal much that hadn’t already been in magazine articles. Nick Drake, starved of acclaim during his lifetime, has become an icon.
Trevor Dann, a Nottingham High School boy, was head of BBC Music and produced Live Aid. You might think he’d be better off writing his autobiography than recycling the Nick Drake story. Surely Ian Macdonald had the final word in the superb essay, ‘Exiled From Heaven’, that concludes his final book, The People’s Music. But Dann and Drake go back a long way. Dann went to the same Cambridge College, four years later, and was responsible for the first Drake compilation. Even so, I half expected this to be a duty read, with little new.
Wrong. Dann has done his legwork. He persuaded lots of people to talk, often for the first time (being a big name in the music business rather than a journo may have helped here). His assiduous research has come up with a wealth of new information. The resulting book is a revealing, riveting read for anyone with an interest in Nick Drake’s life and music.
Dann doesn’t glamorise his subject. The Drake who emerges from this study is very much a man of his time. Drake was a heavy doper who sank into depression at a time when it wasn’t cool to discuss one’s feelings (or indeed, anything) too explicitly. Dann talked to the women with whom he was besotted while remaining a virgin. These include Beverley Martyn (wife and sometime musical partner of folk/rock legend John), Linda Peters (later half of classic folk/rock act Richard and Linda Thompson) and, most notably, artist, Sophia Ryde. The night he died, Drake left a letter to Sophia by his bed. Next to it was a copy of Camus’s essays The Myth Of Sisyphus (‘There is but one serious philosophical problem and that is suicide’) and a notebook containing all of his song lyrics. Dann leaves the reader in little doubt that Drake meant to kill himself, a question that has been much chewed over. He even uncovers a suggestion that Drake tried to hang himself earlier in the same year.
How did such a brilliant singer-songwriter fall so low? The Indian born public school boy quickly found success. He dropped out of Cambridge after releasing his first album (Dann has found out how little work he did there, and how bad most of it was). He deserved to be huge. His lyrics alone should have been enough to lift him above the glut of singer/songwriters who appeared at the same time. If his wispy voice didn’t catch you at once, there was the his brilliant guitar playing and the superb orchestrations on his first album. But Nick didn’t like playing live, and soon stopped doing gigs. The second album had a poor cover and some ill-considered arrangements. Drake meant less than many now forgotten contemporaries. An apt comparison from the same era is Judee Sill, who had a similarly short, blighted but brilliant career that ended with an overdose in 1979.
Dann blames Drake’s decline, like Sill’s, on drugs. A psychosis, probably mild schizophrenia, was exacerbated by extremely heavy use of cannabis. Heroin and prescription drugs also played their part, as did commercial failure. For Drake knew how good he was, even when no-one else did. The evidence is on all three of his albums, but Pink Moon, recorded when he was incapable of normal conversation, is its purest distillation. Two of his last five songs Hanging On A Star (‘why do you keep me hanging on a star when you deem me so high’) and Tow The Line seem to be complaints addressed to his producer Joe Boyd, who had returned to America. Friends like Robert Kirby and John Martyn heard him rant about his lack of success.
‘Listen, what the hell’s gone wrong with you?’ Martyn asked Drake in the garden of Far Leys, his parents’ Tamworth-in-Arden house where Nick had returned (as it turned out, to die). ‘Did you think you were going to be a star overnight?’ Drake replied, ‘Yes, I fucking did.’
By 1974, Drake looked ghostly. He was no longer on a weekly retainer from his record company. He had (literally) thin skin, dirty hair and clothes. When not catatonic, he was often incoherent. His friends weren’t surprised when they heard he’d killed himself. Dann shows how Drake was affected by the deaths of two friends who had taken their own lives earlier the same year. He doesn’t romanticise the cult of early suicide, but he doesn’t cast blame either. Today, Nick would have received better treatment. But Drake was of his time. His songs turned out, as he hoped, to be for all time. This fine book concludes with a thorough examination of Drake’s entire recorded output.