Today, the world celebrates Nick Drake as some kind of artistic deity who descended from Olympus to bless humanity with his hard-to-understand art. For decades, countless musicians from around the world have celebrated his greatness, declaring their spiritual debt to him.
However, for several years of his song activity, or rather from 1968 to 1972, almost no one noticed his talent. No one except American-turned-London Joe Boyd, pioneer of the very first Pink Floyd and then Fairport Convention, John Martyn and the Incredible String Band, among others, and producer of just three of Drake’s albums: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. Boyd himself told me several years ago: “Nick was an incredible, crystal-clear talent. The recording studio was absolute perfection. His skill on acoustic guitar was amazing. He sat in front of the microphone and charmed everyone. But his insecurities clipped his wings. I tried to promote his image by getting him to perform in some clubs, but the results were disastrous. In front of people, he completely froze. By the end, even in the studio, he struggled to express himself on his own level. The last time I saw him, he was a sad double of himself.”
Looks like it’s the summer of Nick Drake. The tribute album The Endless Colored Ways: The Songs of Nick Drake was released on July 7. This isn’t the first time someone has dedicated one to the tormented English singer-songwriter, but in this case it’s a project with significant media significance, coming just a year after the fiftieth anniversary of his premature death. Leading up to several limited-edition singles including Drake’s unreleased version of Dylan’s Tomorrow is a long time, the project features big names including David Gray, Ben Harper, Craig Armstrong and Liz Phair. In the past, British pop giants such as Kate Bush, Paul Weller and Dream Academy have claimed to be inspired by Nick, and even The Cure seem to have taken their name from the first verse of Time, as I was told by one of the gems of his first album Five Leaves Left: “Time has told me that you are a rare discovery, a restless cure for a restless mind.” Drake’s whole life is in these few words.
And, as evidence of the never-dormant, albeit growing, interest in Drake among new generations, Richard Morton’s book Nick Drake: A Life, a kind of definitive biography, was released in June. This is not the first time. There were several, even those written by Italian authors, who were fascinated by the work and figure of Nick Drake no less, and perhaps more, than his compatriots. For example, “The Origin of Love” (published first by Fasi and then by Elliot) by Stefano Pistolini.
The sparkling lights of swing London had not yet gone out, but it was difficult to imagine how a pathologically shy, lanky boy of almost feminine beauty could find a suitable place in an environment in which hundreds of bands and singers performed. elbows seeking a place in the sun. However, Drake was different. He was even different from one of the few colleagues who could call themselves his friends: John Martin. Also under the wing of Joe Boyd, Martin tried several times to attract Drake with his enthusiasm, but in the end he had to declare his failure. Of course, Martin himself had problems with depression and addiction over the years, but at that time he was in better shape.
It doesn’t really matter whether Nick took a voluntary dose of antidepressants on a November night in 1974 that led to his death at just 26 years old. The copy on his bedside table of The Myth of Sisyphus, Albert Camus’s essay on suicide, cannot be conclusive proof of this.
Ultimately, many aspects of his personality broke away from the figure of a typical English musician and Nick was always compared to certain French chansonniers. Some tabloid newspapers of the period spread a rumor that he and Françoise Hardy, a superb French singer-songwriter not much older than him, were having an affair. Respect was mutual, but a relationship seems unlikely.
Drake had always been a private person, and his emotional state sank into outright depression after the commercial failure of his third and final album, Pink Moon, which many considered his crown jewel. This record was definitely not a potential top 10 record even at the time. Minimalist if that dreaded adjective ever found its place, Pink Moon features Nick naked, accompanied only by his acoustic guitar. “Sola” is naturally simplified: for some, it was the best way to hear the magical, sweet but never cloying, melancholy but sometimes smiling interweaving of his voice and guitar.