Vincent van Gogh is one of the most renowned painters in the history of the world. His paintings are worth tens of millions of dollars. Unfortunately for van Gogh he would never live to see this good fortune. His renown would come only after his death by suicide. The life of van Gogh was one of full of suffering, and his gifts were not sufficient to alleviate that suffering.
As far as posthumous success goes, Nick Drake is to music what van Gogh is to painting. November 25 marked the 40th anniversary of the death of the Burmese-born British singer/songwriter and guitar player. In 2014, his music attracts fans from all over the world. All three albums that Drake recorded (Fives Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon) would make Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All-Time list. There is an annual pilgrimage to his hometown of Tanworth-in-Arden, a small village in the English Midlands. His music can be heard in movies such as in the climatic scene in Serendipity with Jon Cusack and Kate Beckinsale. Brad Pitt would narrate a documentary of Drake’s life for BBC Radio 2. Six demos of previously unreleased material were to be auctioned off last summer and were expected to fetch in the neighborhood of $425,000 until Drake’s estate objected and the auction was postponed indefinitely.
That unearthed recordings of Nick Drake could fetch nearly half a million dollars is astonishing. At the time of his death, one would be hard pressed to find any of his albums in the 99 cent bin. When Nick Drake was found dead in his bedroom by his mother on the morning of November 25, 1974, his passing stirred as little interest as his music had during his 26 years on this mortal coil. While Drake was admired by fellow musicians and by critics, he was virtually ignored by the record-buying public. This indifference contributed greatly to the depression he suffered through nearly his entire adult life. In death Drake would continue to be ignored. A proper obituary would not be written until the following year by Nick Kent of NME. Kent’s obit of Drake was recently reprinted in the Guardian:
All I can say when all is said and done is that I liked Nick Drake. His music was the proverbial good companion at a time when I appreciated such a commodity. It was strange really: after turning my back on that whole particular era of my life some two and a half years ago, I only recently rediscovered how fine his music was some few weeks before his death was reported (and it must have been the most pitifully under-publicized death in the whole ugly, depressing tradition of the whole “death” in rock thing.)
Island Records have not decided anything yet concerning any kind of recorded memorial (for example a “Best of” which could utilize the four recently recorded tracks) and, sure, it might be cited as a tasteless gesture — but Nick Drake’s music should be heard by more people. Its own tastefulness speaks for itself.
Well, it would take a little time, but Nick Drake’s music would be heard by more people. In 1979, Island Records would release all three of his albums in a box set called Fruit Tree featuring liner notes by Arthur Lubow that describe Drake’s disappointment with his lot in life:
Producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood say Bryter Layter is the one perfect album they have made. When it was released, Boyd said it was a masterpiece, that it would make Nick Drake a star. But he was wrong; the album didn’t sell, and Nick was crushed. For someone who despised money so much that he tried not to carry change in his pockets, commercial success had assumed a symbolic importance. “He was one of the few people I’ve met who was completely pure and honest,” says Robert Kirby. “Maybe he thought he could change people. And he realized that music couldn’t change people.” He had few close relationships; now the distant love of admiring millions also seemed beyond his grasp.
Later editions of the Fruit Tree would include a fourth album Time of No Reply, featuring previously unreleased material, alternate takes on songs, plus four songs he recorded only months before his death, including the stark “Black Eyed Dog”. More people would hear Drake’s music in a 1994 compilation CD titled Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake.
But it was a car commercial, of all things, that exposed Nick Drake to the public at large on both sides of the Atlantic, myself included. To be precise, it was a commercial for the Volkswagen Cabrio. I first saw it in 2000 a few months after moving to Boston. Let me set the scene for the ad. It is dark night with a full moon. There are four young people driving out in the country with only the moonlight to guide them, and they are in awe of the natural beauty of their surroundings. They arrive at a party and see their contemporaries making drunken fools of themselves. The driver turns to his passengers and gives them a look, and they give the same look back to him. Without saying a word, they leave the party and continue to drive the night away by the moonlight. While all this is going on, we hear Nick Drake singing “Pink Moon.” It is especially powerful at the very end of the commercial when Drake sings in a low timbre, “Pink, pink, pink, pink. Pink Moon.” Of the millions of commercials I’ve seen on television in my lifetime, this one is my favorite.
Amanda Petrusich writes at length about the Volkswagen Cabrio ad in her 2007 book on the Pink Moon album in the acclaimed 33 1/3 series. The commercial, dubbed “Milky Way,” was conceived by Arnold Communications, a Boston-based advertising agency. Initially, Nick Drake fans objected to his music being utilized in such a manner and the commercial’s creators were subject to a litany of hate email. These objections subsided when Shane Hutton, one of the copywriters involved with developing the commercial, informed one of his correspondents that Drake’s sister, Gabrielle Drake (who is an actress in Britain), had authorized the use of the song and reminded him that Drake spent his life wanting to have his songs heard. Nick Drake would at long last get his wish:
Obviously, for Nick Drake, the Cabrio commercial was more beneficial than exploitative, facilitating a second renaissance, bringing Drake’s name and sound to a considerably larger audience than he had ever entertained before. I ask Hutton if he was surprised by the jump in sales for Pink Moon. “It went from zero to s#*tload, Hutton says. “I know that. Nick was number one on Amazon.com for thirteen weeks or something like that, twenty-five years after his death. We knew people might want to buy it, because historically people had asked about buying other songs that we had used on-air. But each time you do (use a song), it’s a gamble. I would love to say we were fully aware of what was going to happen and everything went according to a checklist we had created, and we expected the phenomenon, but you can only throw the dice on the table — you can’t predict the numbers. We knew some people were gonna want to buy it — but no one was prepared for how many.
Although the Cabrio commercial made an impression, I would not start listening to Nick Drake in earnest until summer of 2001. At this point, I had been spending a great deal of time listening to the songs of Tim Buckley, another artist sorely overlooked during his all too brief life. When I read about Buckley in books and magazine articles, I would invariably come across Drake’s name and vice versa. In the 2000 documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake there is a brief glimpse into his bedroom, which features a turntable on top of a bureau. Behind the table there is one album, Tim Buckley’s Happy Sad. This would arouse my curiosity sufficiently to warrant listening to his music in far more depth.
Whether listening to songs such as “Cello Song,” “The Thoughts of Mary Jane,” “Parasite,” or “I Was Made to Love Magic,” I was struck not only the musicianship that went into crafting them, but to their underlying melancholy. It was like van Gogh set to music. I’m not the only one left with this impression, as you can see and hear in this YouTube video of van Gogh’s paintings set to the Drake instrumental “Horn.” In his 1997 book Nick Drake: The Biography, Patrick Humphries writes:
In a feature for the Scotsman in 1995, Brian Pendreigh charted Nick’s posthumous appeal: “Literature and painting have thrown up numerous examples of people whose work was recognized only after their death: few of Emily Dickinson’s poems were published in her lifetime and Vincent Van Gogh only ever sold one painting. But Nick Drake is probably the first rock singer to be discovered after his death. Death certainly boosted the careers of Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and others, but they were already major stars. They were too wild to get through life. Drake was the opposite. He was too delicate.”
Indeed, Lubow’s liner notes in Fruit Tree feature a quote by Sheila Wood (the wife of Drake’s recording engineer, John Wood) asking Drake, “If you’re so unhappy, Nick, why haven’t you killed yourself?” Drake told her, “It’s too cowardly, and besides, I don’t have the courage.” Drake did not die by way of a gunshot as van Gogh did, but rather by an overdose of Tryptizol. The coroner would rule his death a suicide although many who were close to him claim that he had been more upbeat in the final months of his life and that his death was accidental.
Whatever the circumstances of his death, Nick Drake left this world far too soon. When people finally discovered his music we were left wanting more. And by more, I mean anything. Despite recording three albums, Drake never appeared on TV due to his discomfort with performing live. A few years ago, a video surfaced on the Internet purportedly showing Drake walking for a few seconds at a music festival in the early ’70s. You can’t see his face, but the man is about Drake’s height (about 6’3″ or 6’4″) and has his hairstyle. Of course, it is impossible to tell if it was Drake. Yet he was often photographed from the back. The possibility is just too tantalizing not to consider. Should there ever be a feature film made about Drake, Benedict Cumberbatch of Sherlock fame would be a natural, and I’m not the only one who thinks this way.
Timeless is a word overused to describe a song or an artist’s work. In the case of Nick Drake, timeless is an apt word to describe his music precisely because its beauty and melancholy reminds us that our time here is so short. As Drake writes in “Fruit Tree”:
Safe in the womb of an everlasting night
You find the darkness can give the brightest light
Safe in your place deep in the earth
That’s when they’ll know what you were truly worth
Forgotten while you’re here
Remembered for a while
A much updated ruin
From a much outdated style
Both Vincent van Gogh and Nick Drake were forgotten while they were here, but they will be remembered for a while. A very long while.
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