Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Nick Drake - footnotes


Jason Creed
ISBN 978-1-84938-658-6
Softcover. 230 pages

When Nick Drake died in 1974 at the age of 26, he left three exquisitely crafted albums and a host of questions. So many questions. How to interpret that death: suicide or an accidental overdose? Just what sort of live performer was he: charismatic or shambolic? What of his love life?

In the late 1990s, Drake-enthusiast Jason Creed published an important fanzine, Pink Moon, which explored these and other questions. Now, gathered between covers here are reprinted contributions, together with new material. In transcribed interviews or personal memoirs we hear from producer Joe Boyd, arranger Robert Kirby, friends Iain Cameron and Robin Frederick, Island press officer David Sandison, not to mention his sister and parents. An excellent piece by the late Scott Appel unpacks his guitar tunings for the specialist reader. There are chapters on live performances, rare recordings, TV documentaries, and reprints of original album reviews. (Pity the NME reviewer in 1969 who compared Drake unfavourably to Peter Sarstedt!) Also included is Jerry Gilbert’s heroic write-up of the only interview the monosyllabic Drake ever gave.

It’s good stuff, handsomely bound and presented. If I have a reservation, it is that there’s potential for an even better book inside here: a comprehensive source-book, a book that would be fully annotated, preferably with an index. As an editor, Creed is rather too hands-off, with the result that errors and conflicts of evidence are allowed to stand. Using the original Pink Moon as a primary source may be a constraint. Speculations dating back to 1997 by a third-year undergraduate about the clinical nature of Drake’s depression might be fine in a fanzine or discussion forum but sit ill alongside the memories of those who actually knew the man.

Reservations aside, this is an indispensable resource for every Drake fan.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel) May/June 2011


Grantchester Meadows

Last year (2014) marked the fortieth anniversary of Nick Drake’s death. It didn’t go unrecognised, of course. Uncut magazine carried a piece by John Robinson and interviews with the ‘usual suspects’. For a while I was in discussion with an editor about writing something myself. Searching for a ‘new angle’, I even did some field work by visiting Carlyle Road in Cambridge. This is a row of Victorian terraces where the undergraduate Drake found lodgings after moving out of college for his second, and as it turned out, final year at the university. According to biographer Trevor Dann, he soon fell out with his stiff-necked landlady and relocated round the corner to 65 Chesterton Road. It’s just a short hop, I realised, from there to The Boathouse pub where modern-day troubadours are to be heard plying their trade every Wednesday evening. People say ‘River Man’ was conceived around here. I searched in vain for the genius loci. Betty, I decided, was more likely to encounter the River Man in Grantchester Meadows, later commemorated in song by Pink Floyd, amid the white cow parsley and the plash of oars wafting up from the Cam. But I hadn’t the faintest idea whether Drake ever strayed this far out of town.

In fact, after thrashing around for a while, I had to admit I had nothing new to say. “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”: Wittgenstein was right about that. Actually – if we’re being philosophically precise in use of language – it’s not true to say I had nothing. I had some small footnotes to offer to the Drake industry. And even footnotes to the footnotes. Since they can’t be inflated to bulk out another unnecessary article, I offer them here instead.

That breakthrough gig
In December 1967 our man was on the bill at the Roundhouse in London. The event was ‘Circus Alpha Centauri’, one of a series of benefits in aid of underprivileged children, compered on the night of Saturday 23rd by Jimi Hendrix (dressed as Father Christmas, according to legend).* No one seems quite sure how Drake landed the gig, which proved so decisive for his career, but I have a theory. At the bottom of the original flyer I notice the production assistants listed as “Victoria and Louisa Ormsby-Gore”. Drake, we know, hung out with the Ormsby-Gores, a Chelsea set of socialites and debutantes he had met in his gap year.** Fairport Convention were also on the bill and, at some point in the evening, Fairport’s Ashley Hutchings spotted Drake. “I thought he was terrific”, the bassist told Uncut, “the guitar-playing, the songs. People would later say he had no stage presence but what partly drew me was that aura.” Hutchings engineered an introduction to producer Joe Boyd. Well, you know the rest.

But does anyone really remember his live performances?
As a teenager, Ian Anderson, now editor of fRoots magazine, came across him at Les Cousins, the Soho folk venue: “It would be very easy to not remember seeing Nick Drake,” he told me. “I saw him do floor spots on Cousins all-nighters and most people fell asleep. Whatever you think of his records, he really was a dreadfully dull live performer with absolutely nothing memorable about him at all, other than not being very good. I'm sure I was only awake because I was either MC-ing or waiting to play!”

He was so deep!
Drake-heads get very excited by the so-called ‘Far Leys monologue’. It’s certainly a document of interest as being the only extended record of his speaking voice, a sort of audio letter to we-know-not-whom taped in the summer of 1967 after his sojourn in Aix-en-Provence. Returning drunk from a party in the small hours, he switched on the family tape recorder and rambled. Forty years later, the languid public-school accent defeats some of his unintended listeners.*** For example, in her book about Pink Moon, Drake's final album, US critic Amanda Petrusisch turns a platitude into a Zen insight. She has him say: “I think there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the doorknob before one goes to bed…” What he actually says is: “I think there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the dawn up before one goes to bed…” Indeed, anyone unaccustomed to self-deprecating irony and the studied evasiveness of the buttoned-up Englishman is liable to hear profundity where there is none; or none on the surface, anyway, where self-revelation is nowadays expected to lie.

There’s a line in the ‘monologue’ that always stuck in my mind because it invites earnest over-interpretation of this sort. It’s where he says, in mock-serious tones: “One forgets so easily the lies, the truth and the pain”. It felt like a quotation, but I couldn't place it. Then I happened to reread ‘The Old Vicarage, Grantchester’:

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? . . . oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

Rupert Brooke’s evocation of Cambridgeshire village life was a staple of school poetry anthologies and would have had particular resonance for someone about to read English Literature at Cambridge. Big abstractions are acceptable to the pragmatic Anglo-Saxon mind if they’re safely enclosed between quotation marks. As Patrick Humphries observes in his biography of Drake, there are similarities between Drake and Brooke, two golden boys born generations apart who died young. Both were looking for a place of refuge from the risks of saying too much: Drake found it in songwriting. In May 1904 the schoolboy Brooke wrote to his cousin:

When I say what I mean, people tell me ‘O Rupert, what delightful nonsense you talk!’ and when I venture on the humorous, I am taken seriously and very promptly and thoroughly squashed for ‘saying such strange things’.

Drake, according to his friend Beverley Martyn, “would occasionally say something witty, but very rarely”. I suspect there is a serio-comic timbre in Drake if we’re attuned to hear it.

*This is the advertised date for Fairport’s appearance at the Roundhouse in Chalk Farm. However, other sources list the band as playing at Middle Earth (in Covent Garden) on that night. Conversely, Drake’s biographers agree that headlining on the night Drake appeared were Country Joe & The Fish. The ‘stop press’ on the flyer announces them for Thursday 21st.

**Strictly speaking, not a ‘gap year’ as is conventional nowadays, but a gap nine months. In those days, Oxbridge candidates generally stayed on for an extra term in the Sixth Form to take the entrance exams for Oxford or Cambridge. If successful, they would “go up” the following October. (Drake, having left school in summer 1966, took the Cambridge exam at a crammer in Birmingham.) For the overlap between ‘Alpha Centauri’ and the ‘Chelsea set’, see this interview with Abdalhaqq Bewley.

 ***It’s striking how his English accent rings through, even when covering American material. On ‘Cocaine Blues’, one of the early home demos, he gives the title word a curious pronunciation. It sounds more like ‘cockaigne’, the land of plenty in medieval myth.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Naomi Bedford

“Because I’m quite eclectic musically, I needed some kind of theme to keep me in check.” Naomi Bedford is talking about her new album A History Of Insolence and its subtitle ‘Songs Of Freedom, Dissent And Strife’. It’s the second in a projected trilogy which began in 2011 with Tales From The Weeping Willow: Songs Of Murder, Death And Sorrow. “I’m hoping this one is a bit more uplifting than the last – it does start with ‘freedom’!” As before, she mixes traditional songs with new compositions, English material with Americana. Certainly, the eclecticism shines through in a novel mash-up of ‘Gypsy Davy’, in which Naomi ensures a happy ending for the high-born lady who beds a commoner. “In every version I’ve ever heard, the woman always seems to get her come-uppance. But in the Woody Guthrie version she keeps her baby, she stays with the gypsy. Not only that – the gypsy ends up being a musician, which I thought was kind of cool!”

The Brighton-based singer had a hit a few years back with the band Orbital, which led in turn to a couple more ‘techno’ experiments. But this wasn’t the real Naomi. Her earliest musical loves were the ballads she learned from her mother. “I always loved the drama of those big, long storytelling songs. And I was particularly drawn to the more macabre ones, the juicy murder ones.” Afraid of being pigeon-holed as a ‘dance’ singer, she embarked on a series of albums which clearly mark her path back to the roots music she grew up with. Financing them was tough, though. “I’m just a single mum working as an administrator on really low pay. I’m not a full-time musician,” she explains. On the last one, friends helped out for free. This time, there was a grant from Arts Council England. “It costs so much to do it, and yet making money from music just seems like an absolute impossibility. It’s so difficult to get your foot in the gigging scene. But if you can’t help yourself, if you have to create and write and sing, then you’re going to do it anyway.”

She’s found sympathetic collaborators in Paul Simmonds and Justin Currie, members of two of her favourite bands. “When I was a teenager, I was a major Men They Couldn’t Hang fan. I had posters of Paul on my wall. And posters of Del Amitri – Justin Currie. And now I’ve been working with them on the last two albums. It’s like my dream come true!”

Simmonds’s contribution as songwriter is prominent on the new album. The standout track is ‘Junktown’, a scabrous political commentary. Simmonds hesitantly auditioned this “funny little talking blues song” for Naomi in her kitchen, convinced that no one else would ever want to hear it. Her reaction was emphatic: “No way! That’s going on the album! I absolutely fell in love with it, especially the line ‘Dads go dogging in the pale full moon’. As much as it’s a hard-hitting anger song, it’s also quite funny.”

Valuable celebrity endorsement has come from Shirley Collins: “She’s been really supportive.” Whenever Naomi plays on Shirley’s home turf in Lewes, Shirley is sure to come along, and Naomi had the distinction of being one of five artists personally invited to sing at Shirley’s birthday party last year. 

The final album of the trilogy will be about ‘Love, Passion and Devotion’. Naomi was planning to make that one first, but then “we just thought with the state of the nation at the moment – so much going on in the world – it didn’t seem quite right to be doing the Love album now.” Here’s hoping the right time isn’t far off.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)

Jackson C Frank

Jim Abbott
(BA DA BING) www.badabingrecords.com
ISBN 978-0-9909164-0-6 Softcover. 255pp. 

“His scarred body housed a beautiful soul” – so writes Jim Abbott at the start of this, the first-ever biography of US singer-songwriter Jackson C Frank, and he challenges you to agree with him. Frank’s story is challenging enough in itself. The victim of a school fire in boyhood, he suffered horrific burns and carried the scars, physical and mental, for the rest of his life. In later years he battled paranoid schizophrenia and partial blindness, alternating homelessness and periods in institutional care. But, in between, he had one glorious moment. Using the insurance pay-out from the fire, he travelled to England. There, with a batch of newly composed songs (among them the classic ‘Blues Run The Game’) and Paul Simon as producer, he made a self-titled album that influenced everyone who heard it. Hanging out with Al Stewart, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn, dating Sandy Denny, the man was at the epicentre of the London folk scene of the mid-1960s. 

Later, ever a prophet without honour in his own country, Frank returned to the States. When he hit rock bottom in the 1990s, Abbott befriended him, became his legal guardian, and even encouraged him to record again.  So the book is both biography and memoir. It brings out, often in poignant detail, how creativity and destructiveness are two sides of the same coin. Anecdotes of how he sabotaged his chances of reconciliation with his only surviving child, descriptions of his bloated body in later life, the “translucent skin” stretched over “layers of subcutaneous fat, yellow and rippled” – these make for painful reading.

Abbott pitches a strong case for the later recordings, particularly ‘Marlene’, an elegy for a girlfriend who perished in the school fire. But, for my money, Frank never again matched the perfection of his 1965 debut. A flawed, if not a “beautiful”, soul, he has found his ideal biographer.

First published in R2 (Rock’n’Reel)