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The Passion of Nick Drake

Words by Ivan Bucalo

Listening to Nick Drake’s music, to paraphrase Carl Jung’s words about
another great artist, is like watching someone dive gracefully to the
bottom of the ocean. Over the course of three albums, his guitarwork
matured into a sparseness that belied a trained musical ear. His lyricism
moved away from the pastiche of the nature poets he admired, like
Keats and Wordsworth. Drake’s best lyrics on 1972’s Pink Moon (his
final album before an overdose of anti-depressants at twenty-six) is the
most unglamorous and accurate representation of how depression is
experienced. Depression is not a positive affectation; it is, in fact, the
absence of something crucial to a complete experience of life. Few could
understand this better than Nick Drake.

You can get a biography elsewhere, so I won’t dwell on the small details.
Just imagine a young, English private school boy with a spellbinding
tone on the six-string. In another life, he would have taken the bus to
Manchester to join the 70s New Wave explosion. But he continued to
slave away on the acoustic while studying English at Cambridge,
convinced there was yet something to be wrested from it, something that
only made sense on an instrument that was unwieldy, unrefined, and
recalled a time when music was thought to be a gift from the gods.

Nick Drake was always trying to get closer to that unknowable sublime,
and he did this by getting closer to the corporeal parts of nature. His
songs are about enchanted rivers, lovers spied across a moor, celestial
wonders, and things that generally wouldn’t seem out of place in a fairy
tale. The first verse of “Northern Sky” is characteristic of Drake’s
interests, which are things that have been here since the beginning of
time and will be here till the end of it.

…I never felt magic crazy as this /
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea /
I never held the ocean in the palm of my hand /
I felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree /
But now you’re here — brighten my Northern Sky…

These are the only things, in Drake’s craft, that are worth relating to
because they are, in every sense, greater than us. And what’s to be
learned from comparing yourself to something you already understand?
What sort of self-effacing ambition is that?

Someone recently complained to me that they don’t like Drake’s lyrics
because they seem too easy, like something you find written in a
birthday card. Unlike me, they didn’t know how Drake’s story ended.
Something happened to him that made him withdraw from his loved
ones and spend hours on end fiddling with his guitar. Despite lacklustre
record sales during his life, he developed a small cult following and
eventually underwent, much too late, a popular and critical reappraisal.
Currently, all three of his albums appear on Rolling Stone’s list of the
best 500 albums ever. All were released over the course of four years,
and Drake did not live long enough to listen to many of the artists he
would share the Pantheon with, which is fitting given his music comes
from a place outside of contemporaneous concerns.

I’m not saying that Nick Drake’s art should be interpreted in light of his
torment. But it is also impossible for me to forget about it and listen to
“Place to Be” from a disinterested vantage, when he sings:

…When I was young, younger than before /
I never saw the truth hanging from the door /
And now I’m older, see it face to face /
And now I’m older, gotta get up, clean the place…

When you hear words like this, you’re listening to an artist who will not
take anything less than the cold, unadulterated truth for the terms of their
reality. This is the challenge they set themselves, and how they
negotiate it is the process through which they create something
beautiful.

For Drake, that process began and ended with a guitar in his lap. Writing
music is not a great way of negotiating your feelings, as it necessarily
requires you to make them into something more potent and more
resilient to reason than they may initially be. This, I think, is not only the
effect his music had on his own constitution, but also on his charmingly
innocent song-writing. This doesn’t mean Nick Drake should be listened
to as a tormented artist, that worst of all clichés. Nick Drake’s music has
been around for as long as time itself, and I suspect it will continue to be
so, for the sole reason that when we listen to it, we remember, to quote
a poet he admired greatly, that there are more things in heaven and
earth than are dreamt of in all our philosophies. Whatever cold comfort
this idea may be, few artists have represented it as truthfully as Nick
Drake did.

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