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.

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