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nick drake remembered

Forty years ago today, the singer-songwriter Nick Drake died. You will find many tributes elsewhere on the web and in publications large and small.

But I thought you might enjoy reading a couple of previously unpublished pieces, written nearly a decade ago, about two encounters from my own journalistic pursuit of Nick.

The first with his mother Molly and sister Gabrielle in 1992. The second with the actor Brad Pitt in 2004.

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Tanworth in Arden is all you might hope for in a village. A 15th century church. A pub called ‘The Bell.’ Houses and cottages clustered around a small village green and war memorial. Chocolate box. Quintessentially English. All the cliches.

The Drake family – Rodney, his wife Molly, and their young children Gabrielle and Nick – moved here in the early 1950s, just down the road from Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare country. By any standards , the Drakes had already lived an adventurous life – partly through choice, partly through circumstance – on the other side of the world.

Rodney Drake was the son of an eminent London surgeon, set to follow in his father’s footsteps. But when his father had a heart attack and died, the family was left very short of money. Rodney was forced to leave school and go out to work. Thanks to a rich relative with railway connections, he was sent north, working on the railways by day and studying for an engineering degree at night. He saw no future on the railways – startling foresight given the later state of public transport in Britain – and instead applied for an engineering job with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation.

His future wife, Mary Lloyd, known to all as Molly, was already out East. Her father worked for the Indian Civil Service. After completing her schooling in Britain , she had gone to join her parents. Many girls of her age and class set sail for the British Empire in search of a husband – what was known as the ‘fishing fleet.’

“Shortly after they were married,” Gabrielle told me, “the War broke out and life changed from being something quite extraordinary and wonderful and delicious – a delightful playground really – to something quite hard and earnest. My dad was fighting the Japanese and he had a very tough war, and my mother had to walk out of Burma into India. They didn’t meet for quite a while after that.”

When hostilities ceased, Rodney Drake went back to work for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. One of Gabrielle’s earliest memories was of her father building a saw-mill sent from America in packing cases. Gabrielle was born in Lahore in 1944; Nick four years later in Rangoon. “I was very excited when Nick was on the way, except that I was terribly hoping for a sister, so it was a great disappointment to me when he turned out to be a boy.”

Like many colonial families, the Drakes had a nanny. “Ours was a Karen nanny called Rosie. The Karens are a hill race from Burma (now Myanmar) and I think it was a marvellous grounding for us because the Karens have a very great stillness about them and a great wisdom. It was like having three parents really – mummy, daddy and nanny. Mummy was always very glamorous, father was the most wonderful sort of strong person and nanny was nanny. She was always there in a crisis and was the calm centre to our lives.”

Like their peers, Gabrielle and Nick were to be educated at schools in the UK, splitting up the family. But in 1952, after Rodney Drake was offered a job with an engineering  company in Birmingham, the Drakes decided to give up their Far East adventure and return to England. Complete with Burmese nanny, they found a rambling house in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, and settled down to live a typical upper-middle class English life.

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Over the years, legions of Nick Drake fans from all over the world found their way to Tanworth and to ‘Far Leys,’ the Drake family home. It had become a place of pilgrimage. They came to pay their respects; ask questions about Nick’s guitar tunings; visit his grave in the village churchyard; see the house where he’d spent the last three years of his life, imprisoned by an illness that had turned his life-long shyness into something far darker, and where he had died.

It’s a November day in 1992. Gabrielle suggested meeting at noon. Her mother had an appointment with a consultant. 12 o’clock would give them plenty of time get back from the hospital. The Drakes had sold ‘Far Leys’ a few years earlier – Rodney died in 1988 – and Molly, by now in her late 70s, had moved to a smaller house in the centre of the village. Ever resourceful, fans were still finding their way to her door. But as Nick’s cult following began to grow, what had once been an occasional event was turning into an almost daily occurence.

This was my first visit to Tanworth. I had been a Nick Drake fan since the mid-1980s when Island Records released ‘Heaven In A Wild Flower,’ a 14-track compilation of songs drawn from his three albums with the title taken from a poem by William Blake. I instantly loved what I heard, annoyed it had taken me so long to ‘discover’ Nick. The album sleeve notes went some way to explaining why.

His career had been dogged by poor sales, a brief, traumatic spell as a live performer, a slow descent into depression and that final overdose. The compilation served, as was intended, as a taster. I had to hear more and went to my local record shop in Bury, Lancashire in search of his albums, expecting to have to order them. To the owner’s eternal credit, amongst the new releases from Dire Straits and Madonna, he found space in the racks for Nick’s timeless trilogy, all on vinyl in their original sleeves – ‘Five Leaves Left,’ ‘Bryter Layter’ and ‘Pink Moon.’

I had first met Molly and Gabrielle 18 months earlier. Gabrielle, an established actress, had appeared in popular British tv shows like ‘The Brothers’ and ‘Crossroads.’ Between tv jobs and occasional film roles, she worked on the stage.That summer she was appearing in a play at the Opera House in Manchester where I was then working. It seemed a good opportunity to learn more about Nick, so I contacted her, explaining my interest as a journalist and fan.

Without hesitation, she suggested we meet for a drink to talk about her brother and his music. Other journalists had been down this road before. Nick Kent, that doyen of rock music criticism, had written an ‘obituary’ article shortly after Nick died for the NME, then the Bible of weekly music papers. It was followed by a major piece by the ‘New York Times’ writer Arthur Lubow, who interviewed Rodney and Molly plus several of Nick’s friends. Over the years, other articles were commissioned and published, all adding to his cult status. The Drakes, always willing to talk about their lost son and the music he left behind, taking consolation in the interest of strangers.

“The funny thing is that Mummy is coming to see the play tomorrow evening,” explained Gabrielle. “Why don’t you come backstage afterwards and meet her?” Starring alongside Gabrielle was Ian Lavender, forever known as the loveable Private Pike in the classic British tv comedy ‘Dad’s Army.’ The eternal youth, now sporting a head of grey hair. The performance of ‘Risky Kisses’ was professionally delivered into a cavernous theatre, with seats for a few thousand. For this mid-week performance, I counted no more than a hundred people, huddled together in the stalls. It seemed an ironic echo of the lack of attention Nick had suffered during his career.

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The room at Molly’s home in Tanworth was dotted with family photographs. She was sitting next to Gabrielle on a sofa.

I have never enjoyed interviewing people about the dead. As a trainee newspaper reporter, I was sent out to ‘get the story’ on road accident victims or house fire casualties, usually when their relatives were still in a state of shock. On one occasion, I was tongue-lashed by the news editor for missing the first edition deadline. The explanation was simple. The parents of ‘the deceased’ – a 16 year-old girl, who got off her bus home late one night and walked straight into the path of a car – wanted someone to talk to. After the police had taken their statements, I was the first person to arrive, who was willing to listen.

The journalist in me had spent the previous few years trying in vain to interest my BBC bosses in a programme about Nick Drake. As there was no film or tv footage of Nick performing, I eventually reasoned that radio was the best bet. I was a tv journalist. Undeterred, I received a crash course from a colleague in using a Uher – a reel-to-reel tape recorder that was the industry workhorse for recording interviews. I figured I would worry about what to do with the results of the interview later. That is, if I successfully managed to actually record an interview.

Perched on the edge of an armchair, I pointed the microphone in the general direction of my interviewees, asked for some ‘level,’ pressed a few buttons – and prayed. I knew Molly and Gabrielle must have been asked every conceivable question about Nick over the years, but they were gracious and helpful.

“How did Nick become interested in music?” I began, rather predictably. Molly described a musical family. “There was music going on in the family the whole time. We were all into music in a very big way. Every time any music started, Nick as a tiny child would stand and conduct, and we always used to say he’s going to be a famous conductor.” Music clearly meant classical music.

She then explained how relatives on both sides of the family had composed, played instruments, and sung. Among them, one of her uncles, who she said was mentioned in the ‘Oxford Companion to Music,’ the standard one volume music reference book edited by Percy A.Scholes and first published in 1938. “He wrote oratorios and all sorts of tremendous organ music.”

Both of Nick’s parents also composed, largely for fun. In Molly’s case, this meant songs with witty and thoughtful lyrics performed at the piano. She taught Nick to play the piano, an experience she described as “fairly disastrous, but we plugged on and then he went to school and had some proper lessons. And it was one of the proudest days of my life when he said to me: ‘Oh, mum, I’m glad you made me go on because now it’s my favourite thing.'”

Nick’s songwriting also started early. At this point, mother and daughter burst into fits of giggles as they remembered one of his early efforts – “Cowboy Small” – about the two things they said he was most interested in as a little boy – cowboys and food. His education followed a predictably conventional path. Local schools until he was 8, then a boarding school in Berkshire. At 13, he followed in Rodney’s footsteps and went to Marlborough College where he excelled at sport, particularly athetics, and music. He added to his musical skills by learning clarinet, saxophone and guitar.

In 1966 aged 18, he was offered a place at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to read English starting in October 1967. In the interim, he travelled with friends on trips to France and North Africa, and spent a spell at the university in Aix-en-Provence. Neither Molly nor Gabrielle could offer much in the way of clues as to how Nick composed his songs. But both remembered him returning from his travels with three or four songs he had written. Among the titles they could remember – ‘Bird Flew By,’ ‘Princess of the Sands,’  and ‘Seasons.’

While still a first year student at Cambridge, Nick was spotted performing in London and on the strength of a demo tape, he was signed by Joe Boyd to his Witchseason stable – home to artists like The Incredible String Band , Fairport Convention and John and Beverley Martyn.

“I knew that Nick was working on a record,” said Gabrielle. “But I had no idea how far it had progressed until one day, Nick walked in and threw down ‘Five Leaves Left’ onto my bed. There it was, complete with dust jacket and everything. It was amazing.”

The album’s release was swiftly followed by a prestigious concert at the Royal Festival Hall in London in September 1969. Nick was the support act for Fairport Convention, who had just recorded their landmark folk/rock album ‘Liege and Lief.’ Unbeknownst to Nick, his parents were there that night. 

“Rodney and I crept in. We were at least 30 or 40 years older than practically all the rest of the audience. We dare not show ourselves at all because we were afraid it would absolutely throw Nick. We never told him we were going. But we sat there pretty well entranced really. One almost wanted to leap up and say, ‘that’s my son.’ But we were quiet as a mouse. And Nick just came in, played, got up and went out. There was no showmanship of any sort at all. It was totally lacking in that.”

This no-frills approach proved less successful when he went on tour, playing universities and clubs. Molly remembered one performance that Nick had described to her. “It was an absolute disaster. He couldn’t bear it. They were all talking and not listening to him at all, and it was a frightful crushing blow to him. I think he felt that people didn’t want his music.”

Suddenly, a conversation began.

Gabrielle: “And his record company never forced him to do another tour. This is the sort of thing that happens to anyone, who’s a public performer. You’ve got to battle through the resistance of people. They aren’t just going to sit there and receive your creation, whatever it is. You’ve got to fight them and make them listen. And that was what Nick couldn’t do.” 

Molly: “He did not have the right kind of temperament.”

Gabrielle: “No.”

Molly: “No self-promotion at all.”

Gabrielle: “And, you know, to be a public performer of any sort, you’ve got to have a very soft interior and a very tough exterior, and what he didn’t have was the tough exterior.”

By this point, the tape on my Uher was whirring rapidly towards its end. I had a second reel, but with limited recording time, I homed in on a key moment in Nick’s life – his decision to leave Cambridge and become a full-time musician.

“Of course, we were very distraught,” remembered Molly, “and Rodney said to him,’Oh, Nick. just plug on and take your degree. It will always be a safety net.’  And Nick said, ‘The last thing in life I want is a safety net.'”

“We thought it was rather a shame to leave in the middle of it,” she added. “His tutor came to the house. We tried very hard to persuade Nick. But he felt that somehow he would lose his place. He had brought out ‘Five Leaves Left’ and he felt ‘I must go on from this.’ So he finally left, much to our sorrow really. But it was his life. It’s what he wanted to do.”

This was the single-minded Nick Drake I had read about – the one who, as a recording studio novice, had ‘sacked’ the seasoned pro hired to work on string arrangments for his debut album and brought in his Cambridge friend Robert Kirby instead. The one who thought his lushly arranged second album ‘Bryter Layter’ was over produced, and so followed it with ‘Pink Moon’ featuring just his voice and guitar.

Molly then came up with another example of Nick’s character that only a mother could. “He was frightfully keen on everthing being exactly the way he wanted it to be. I’ll never forget the time we went to buy him a pair of bedroom slippers. We went to about 15 shops until we found exactly the slippers he’d got in mind. I think he was very meticulous and he got what he wanted.”

But the album sales that he desperately wanted didn’t materialise. Nick went off the rails. Doctors were consulted, tablets prescribed. Nick went to live at home with his parents. Molly thought it was this lack of commercial success that had floored him. “That was the basis of all his troubles and sadnesses really. I think he felt that he had got something, but other people didn’t realise what it was . He became more and more withdrawn. I remember this is what his friend Paul Wheeler said. He just went in, and in, and in – until he disappeared. Further and further into himself.”      

 She then ran through a list of people, who had tried to help Nick. John Martyn, a fellow Witchseason artist, made the trip to ‘Far Leys’ and spent time with Nick. Guy Norton, who Molly said had decided he was going to help Nick get back on an even keel, arranged for him to stay with friends on a houseboat in Paris.

“Nick went over there and had a really wonderful time, and Guy wrote and said ‘Nick is here and he’s talking volubly.’ I always remember that. It was really about the happiest time I’ve had. You really felt that Nick was coming out of the gloom. And then he came back from Paris and it was alright, and then he decided he would go back and get a job in Paris. I remember beavering away on all his old clothes. He wouldn’t have anything new, so I patched them all up. His trousers and his jacket. And then quite suddenly, it all exploded again and he went back – right back down. Heaven knows why.”

By this time, Nick had turned his back on music and considered other career options. His father arranged a job for him as a computer programmer, but he didn’t complete the training course. He also considered joining the Army. The memory of this brought a smile to Molly’s face. “Well, that was a pretty good disaster. He went to the interview and didn’t even bother to have his hair cut. It was down to his shoulders.”

Shortly before his death, Nick had been recording again. The results became known as ‘the last four songs,’ released in 1979 as part of a Nick Drake box set by Island Records. I had only recently heard these songs and they shocked me. I felt that one in particular, ‘Black Eyed Dog,’ was truly disturbing. It sounded like a song from someone on the brink. Of what, I didn’t really know.

“Was he happy with those last four recordings?” I asked Molly.

“No, I don’t think he was. He said to me, ‘Honestly, they’re not good enough.’ And I said, ‘Well, do they think they’re good enough at Island?’ He said, ‘Yes, they do.’ And I said, ‘You must take it that they are good enough.’ He said, ‘They’re not. They’re not.’ I think Nick was a very strong critic of himself. He had very high standards. Very high standards, and he knew exactly how he wanted something to be.”

By now, my second reel of tape was nearing its end. I struggled to find words to sum up the tragic story that had unfolded before me. “Comfort’s probably the wrong word,” I ventured. “But is it a comfort to you to get the response with letters arriving….”

Sensing my difficulty, Molly came to my rescue. “Of course. It’s the only comfort. It’s wonderful to know that Nick is not really dead because with people listening to his music, he lives on. It’s been the most immense joy and comfort, always.

“He wanted to help people and people particularly, who had the same sorts of difficulties with life and living that he had. Since he’s died, the numbers of young people that have written and actually come to see me and told me that Nick has helped them through some terrible black periods of their life. This is what he would have liked.

“That is why he said to me, ‘I’ve failed in every single thing I’ve tried to do,’ because he thought he hadn’t been able to help anyone and get through to them. But he has, and I hope he knows.”

The following summer, Molly died. I sent Gabrielle a cassette of the interview, and explained that I had failed to find a home for it. No-one seemed interested. The two tape boxes remained on a shelf in my study, gathering dust. 

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It’s early April 2004. A car glides silently to a halt outside. It’s an overcast day in West Hollywood. The driver emerges. Visibly tanned, he’s casually dressed in sweater, t-shirt and shorts.

Though I’ve seen his picture in a thousand magazines and watched his films, there’s another reason why I know the man walking towards me is one of the most famous movie stars on the planet. Brad Pitt has arranged to meet me here. As he offfers a hand in greeting, I remind myself there’s no need to be nervous. We’ve got plenty in common. After all, he too is a Nick Drake fan.

A few months earlier, I had been asked by the BBC to re-make a radio documentary about Nick I had produced in 1998 for what would have been his 50th birthday. Top of our shortlist of ‘celebrity fans’ to narrate the new documentary was Michael Stipe. The front man of REM had already said ‘no.’ Or rather his publicist had said ‘no.’ Too busy in the studio apparently, recording the band’s next album.

Brad Pitt wasn’t exactly second best, but he was next on the list. Like many music fans, he had discovered Nick in the last few years. Gossip column reports of his wedding to ‘Friends’ star Jennifer Aniston claimed a Nick Drake track had been played at the lavish ceremony, so the omens, I told myself, were encouraging.

A fax was dutifully despatched to Brad’s management company in Los Angeles, enthusing about his presumed passion for Nick’s music and inquiring ‘if Mr.Pitt would be interested in this exciting project.’ It was certainly a long shot, but then Brad knew all about long shots. I’d read somewhere that one of his first jobs when he arrived in Los Angeles, seeking fame and fortune, was handing out leaflets for a fast-food restaurant, dressed as a chicken.

Back inside the recording studio, Brad asked me a few questions. As promised, had I brought along the recently discovered ‘lost’ track ‘Tow The Line?’  I had. Drake fans had long debated whether the vaults contained any un-released gems. A song just over two minutes long, Nick was working on it a few months before his death. Brad put on his headphones and sat listening to the song – an insistent low note on the guitar, supporting a repeated chord pattern, the stress of the beat difficult to place at first. But then Nick’s voice drifts in. Always clear and yet fragile, here it sounded uncertain, distracted – almost other wordly.

The song’s lyric seemed as autobiographical as anything Nick Drake ever wrote. He’d been signed while still a student at Cambridge University by the legendary folk/rock producer Joe Boyd. Nick hoped to follow in the influential and successful footsteps of other Boyd ‘discoveries’ like Pink Floyd , the Incredible String Band, and Fairport Convention. But it hadn’t turned out that way.

For me, 1969’s ‘Five Leaves Left’ is up there with the greatest debut albums – the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Led Zeppelin, The Doors, The Velvet Underground and Nico. Its stand-out song ‘River Man,’ with its mesmirising string arrangment by Harry Robinson, still sounds unlike any other. ‘Bryter Layter,’ the follow-up, is much more lushly arranged and features session-playing to die for. South African jazz pianist Christ McGregor’s solo on ‘Poor Boy’ was a first take and is a spine-tingling flurry of notes. ‘Northern Sky,’ decorated by the keyboard work of the Velvets’ John Cale, is an uplifting love song that demolishes Nick’s reputation as one of music’s great depressives in one glorious sweep.

When his mentor Joe Boyd went back to America before ‘Bryter Layter’ was released, it was as if Drake lost heart. The album, like its predecessor, bombed; he stopped performing and took refuge in his parents home in Warwickshire, sinking into a lonely world of disappointed dreams and unfulfilled promise.

The final album, 1972’s ‘Pink Moon,’ a fractured and stripped down cycle of songs featuring just Nick and his guitar plus one piano overdub, was never destined to trouble the charts, and by the summer of 1974, his ‘career’ as a musician was effectively washed up. ‘Tow the Line’ was a song recorded for a projected fourth album that he never lived to complete. Depressed and dishevelled, he was reportedly unable to sing and play at the same time.

As a fan, Brad knew the few bare facts about Nick’s life. But as he recorded the documentary script, he seemed struck by the injustice of it all. How could someone, who had made such great music and was clearly so talented, not have made it big while he was still alive? 

“The guy just didn’t get a break, did he?”

 

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