Forty years ago, the ashes of the English singer-songwriter Nick Drake were interred in the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene parish church, in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden. Drake grew up in the village, in a comfortable country house named Far Leys, and, after a peripatetic early adulthood down and out in Paris and London, returned here during the last, difficult years of his short life. Afflicted by a long depression that turned him painfully reclusive and nearly mute, Drake died in the early morning hours of 25 November 1974, in his childhood bedroom, from an overdose of antidepressants. He was 26 years old.
During his lifetime, Drake recorded three albums and sold few copies of any of them. He gave fewer than two dozen public performances, and sat for only one interview. His unassailable reputation as a songwriter and musician of great technical skill, musical inventiveness and emotional grace has been built almost entirely posthumously. Though he drew on the work of his peers – American songwriter Randy Newman, and English folk revivalist Bert Jansch – his songs sound like no one else’s, and, though his name has become a lazy shorthand for all things sad, acoustic and dreamy, no one else has ever managed to sound like Nick Drake.
Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left (1969), released when he was 21, is a very English pastoral, while his second, Bryter Layter (1970), bears the trace of jazz. While some moments on these first two albums are excessively fey in mood or mannered in arrangement, Pink Moon (1972), his third and final album, is as stark a recording as you will ever hear. There is an absence of ego in Drake’s music that is both rare and disquieting: his songs seem to ask nothing of you, make no active claims upon your attention. Yet, once you have let them in, those songs have a way of permanently entwining themselves about your life. I was perhaps 15 years old when I first heard Nick Drake. More than 15 years later, he remains the only musician whose grave I have ever felt compelled to visit.
Tanworth-in-Arden is Shakespeare country. Stratford-upon-Avon is a half-hour’s drive south-east. As the name indicates, Tanworth itself once lay within the Forest of Arden, a half-remembered, half-fictionalised version of which formed the setting of As You Like It, Shakespeare’s loveliest and most ruminative comedy. This piece of England could have sprung from the pages of a picture book: a shire of gentle, verdant hills, white sheep and hedgerows. Neat plaques affixed to front gates bear names like The Birches or Old Grove Farmhouse – spectral hints of the forest that was being cut down even within Shakespeare’s lifetime. The great industrial city of Birmingham, with its architectural glories of the Gothic Revival squashed cheek-by-jowl against multi-storey car parks, is a short distance north, but you wouldn’t know it from here.
It is late autumn in England, and therefore it is raining. My intention is to walk 11 kilometres through the fields and remnant forest of Tanworth, reaching the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene around halfway. In a moment of foolishness I choose to wear sneakers rather than boots – five minutes into the walk my shoes are sodden and my feet are freezing, and a flock of angry sheep is making clear to me how little they appreciate my intrusion into their pasture. But I am on a pilgrimage, and what is a pilgrimage without hardship?
There have been times in my life when Nick Drake has felt like the one friend I could rely on. His singing voice, breathy in timbre yet meticulously enunciated, never cracks or wavers, and his guitar playing, which consists largely of complex, fingerpicked patterns that create both melodies and countermelodies, is uncannily perfect. Because of the way in which he seems not so much to inhabit his own songs as to transcend them, an emanation rather than a fully embodied presence, his music radiates calm.
It is easy to listen to Nick Drake – I can listen to him all day – but his music is not easy listening. His chord clusters, the product of his own self-devised guitar tunings, contain too much deliberate dissonance, and that serene self-possession springs not from contentment but from a radical and finally terrible isolation. “What will happen in the morning / When the world it gets so crowded / That you can’t look out the window in the morning?” he sings on ‘Hazey Jane II’, from Bryter Layter. His songs watch over the inhabited world, always at one remove from it. “When the winter is coming / can you sign up and leave?” he asks again on the sister song, ‘Hazey Jane I’.
On at least three days out of seven I am convinced that Bryter Layter is Nick Drake’s best album. There is a sameness of atmosphere to Five Leaves Left, though it contains some of his best-known songs, including ‘River Man’ and ‘Way to Blue’ (the latter with a distinctive, stately string section scored by Drake’s celebrated arranger, Robert Kirby, who met Drake at Cambridge while the two were undergraduates). Bryter Layter, by contrast, is as full and as varied a recording as Drake would ever attempt – and for that reason the one that most divides opinion.
A run of three songs on Bryter Layter’s second half demonstrates the overall spirit of quiet confidence and musical risk-taking. There is the baroque soliloquy ‘Fly’, with viola and harpsichord played by John Cale of The Velvet Underground, followed by the jazzy lament of ‘Poor Boy’, with delightfully sly backing vocals provided by the soul singers Pat Arnold and Doris Troy. “Nobody knows / How cold it blows,” sings Drake, and the two women tease with their retort: “Oh, poor boy / So sorry for himself.” Drake is not often credited with humour or self-deprecation, but ‘Poor Boy’ proves that he was capable of both.
Then there is ‘Northern Sky’ – so beautiful, so complete, and, for all that, not even my favourite Nick Drake song. Drake strums rather than picks his guitar – a rare choice for him – but it is John Cale, again, who provides most of the instrumentation: a wandering piano line, a touch of Hammond organ, and a dusting of the aptly named celeste, an unusual instrument that looks like a small piano and sounds something like a glockenspiel crossed with a glass harmonica. “I never felt magic crazy as this,” goes the opening line – the song is as close as Drake ever came to capturing the dizzy euphoria of falling in love, and he captures it better than any other songwriter I’ve heard. But ‘Northen Sky’ is tinged with darkness, moving repeatedly between major and minor chords; it is a song that I have always imagined could be played at a funeral as easily as at a wedding. “Would you love me through the winter?” Drake murmurs, during the bridge. “Would you love me ’til I’m dead?”
Kilometres from the angry sheep, my feet beyond cold, I nearly walk straight past the gate that leads onto a small and sloping meadow, at the top of which lies the graveyard of St Mary Magdalene’s. Halfway up the meadow I pass a man walking in the opposite direction, a quintessential English country gentleman dressed in cloth cap and wellingtons, and leading an enthusiastic golden retriever puppy. I stop to pat the dog, and fall into polite conversation with the man. Almost immediately, he asks if I am there to visit Nick Drake. Is it so obvious? It turns out that another pilgrim is just ahead of me, at the grave, and he wonders if we have travelled together. “People come from all over the world,” he says, in a tone of quiet admiration.
He tells me that he lives in the house, by which he means Far Leys, formerly the Drake family home. He doesn’t mind if I go there and take photographs – many people do. The opportunistic journalist in me resists the urge to grab him by the lapels of his expensive coat and demand an interview, for what could he possibly have to say? Drake himself is so absent – no live recordings, no moving footage, only the briefest example of his speaking voice – that people, including me, are willing to reach for the most tenuous connection to him. Drake stands for the possibility of being lost to history, for there was no guarantee, after his death, that his music would be recognised. Equally, and more hopefully, he stands for the possibility of history’s redemption. Nick Drake will never be widely popular, but he is beloved, his listening audience a global collection of devoted individuals. “Now we rise / And we are everywhere,” he sings on ‘From the Morning’, the final song on his final album. The words are carved into his headstone.
Too many of my friends died young. One is too many, but after three died within 12 months, none older than 30, any romance attached to the idea of a premature death was, for me, gone forever. What I felt most acutely was the loss of a future: how our lives, intermingled, would have created moments that could now never be. In my grief, popular music failed me for the first time I could remember. I quickly realised that, melancholy or downright miserable though some of it is, very little by way of popular song is suited to a state of grieving. One of the only albums I could bear listening to – and then repeatedly, almost obsessively – was Pink Moon.
A mere 28 minutes long, Pink Moon has been called harrowing, but I think the more accurate word is bereft. It is the sound of someone settling on a profound and permanent withdrawal from life – reportedly, Drake recorded the songs, alone with his acoustic guitar, facing the studio wall and not the engineer.
And I empathise with the decision that Drake made, if such burdensome illness can even be called a decision. In me, too, lives the impulse to withdraw and to give up: an impulse that has carried me, like it carried Nick Drake, to the psychiatric ward. I understand that his last songs must have been created out of tremendous strength of will – that they exist despite and not because of his torment.
Drake’s headstone is unassuming, fading into the landscape, the same colour as the trunk of an oak tree that stands beside it. I sit and listen to Pink Moon, the hush of which makes perfect sense in, and of, this sad and lovely place. I reach out and trace my finger along the letters of his name. And I thank him. It’s hard to know what else to say.
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