It’s hard to say whether or not this biography would have been so enjoyable had I not been such a complete and total Nick Drake disciple. Less of a tabloid recounting than most rock bios, this is the story of an artist whose happy life suddenly turned very dark at the moment when his prospects, as a musician, became the brightest. Preoccupied at first with describing the physical places and social environments where Nick had lived, Patrick Humphries has written a story that seems to intentionally mirror the darkness and fragility of the music.
As a child we learn that Nick Drake was happy and popular, having attended one of the more prestigious prep schools in Britain and excelling at almost everything that he attempted. He was a star athlete, a good student, and a regular cigarette-sneaking teenager. He led a band in high school, had a good relationship with his parents and generally appeared to be upbeat and excited about every new day.
In between high school and university Nick traveled throughout Europe (France, Morocco, and Spain) and began to fancy the romance of the nomadic lifestyle he was living. He began to experiment more and more with drugs, mostly weed, and by the time he returned to England to start up at Cambridge he had begun to shows signs of becoming the “artistic” personality he would eventually leave school to become.
At Cambridge he read the French writers (Rimbaud, Sartre, and Camus) and began to dress in black and became ever more reclusive. Music became his primary focus, and old friends noticed that he was becoming distant and more internal.
After three years of living on the fringe of the Cambridge social scene, he left school and moved to London to more seriously pursue a musical career. He was quickly signed to the hip Folk management group called Witchseason, run by producer Joe Boyd, whose records were released on Chris Blackwell’s Island Records. Drake had been discovered by members of the Fairport Convention playing in a small club and through them were brought into the Witchseason clan. In 1969 Drake released “Five Leaves Left,” a starkly beautiful collection songs recorded with perfectly matched orchestral arrangements by a friend of his from Cambridge. With somber classics like “River Man” and “Way To Blue” Drake established himself as one of the most consistent musicians there might ever be. Although the record received generally positive reviews, it was drowned out by new releases from other Witchseason artists like The Fairport Convention and Sandy Denny, but also by new albums from Donovan, Bob Dylan and Neil Young.
Becoming more reclusive every day, Drake began work on “Bryter Layter”, a work that many would argue contained his finest work. Songs like “Northern Sky” and “One of These Things First” capture all the bleak optimism and fragility that would characterize the sad beauty of his small but accomplished body of work. Once again the reviews were strong but the record sales weak. By this time he had all but abandoned the idea of performing live, having battled intensely with a stage fright and near catatonia on many occasions. Without radio or tour support, only the faithful or curious would ever even know that he existed.
By the time he delivered his final masterpiece “Pink Moon” to Island records, in an unmarked manila envelope that wouldn’t be discovered for a few days, he had pretty much dropped out of any sort of scene of group of friends he had ever been associated with. Taking anti-depressants and living at home with his parents in the country, there seemed to be nothing anyone could do to retrieve him from the sad world he seemed to be living in.
At the age of 26 Nick Drake died in his sleep after an ambiguous overdose of anti-depressants. In piecing together the short but sadly productive life of one of the last great romantics, Patrick Humphries has chased a veritable needle through an elusive haystack. Drake played only about twenty or so shows in his life, gave only one interview, and was so shy and reclusive that no one really ever got to know what had gone wrong to force him into such a corner. By tracking down friends, acquaintances and people that might have only spoken with him a few times, we can see, in as much as it is possible, how and where Drake spent much of his life.
An artist like Drake comes only once in the pinkest moon, and fortunately for those who have happened into his music, he was discovered and recorded for however short a period. His three albums and one collection of demos, outtakes and unfinished songs will remain a classic as long as we are listening to music. “Nick Drake: A Biography” is a careful, unbiased account of a life without many clues, and the last word a Drake fan needs to fill in all those gaps left open in his very private life.