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Off the Beaten Tracks: Alas, poor Nick Drake

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GIVEN that the skunk weed available today is at least double the strength of the cannabis which was on the street fifty years ago, I fear greatly for the mental health of those youngsters who smoke it habitually. After all, look what it did to Nick Drake.

A former public schoolboy from a wealthy upper-middle-class family, Nick was already a heavy marijuana user when he released his first LP at the age of 21 while still a Cambridge student. He thought smoking dope was sufficiently cool for him to call the album Five Leaves Left, after the message in the Rizla cigarette papers predominantly employed for rolling joints, warning that the packet was almost finished.

Just five years later drugs had driven him down so far that he died in despair, a paranoid zombie, filthy and lost, taking an overdose of the prescription pills he used alongside cannabis to try to bring equilibrium to his tortured life. His three brilliant self-written LPs had sold fewer than 4,000 copies all told, owing mainly to his refusal or inability to play them in public or promote them in any way. It was not until after his death that his extraordinary talent came to be recognised. His total album sales now approach three million and he is idolised by generations of music fans, as he appears to predict in his song Fruit Tree – ‘Fame is but a fruit tree, So very unsound. It can never flourish, ‘Til its stock is in the ground.’

So how did such a gifted and privileged individual come to sink so low?

Nicholas Rodney Drake was born on June 19, 1948, in Rangoon, Burma. His father Rodney was a senior engineer, his mother Molly the daughter of a top civil servant. They also had a daughter, Gabrielle, four years Nick’s senior.

In 1950 the family returned to England, where Rodney became chairman of Wolseley Engineering. With their two Burmese servants, they lived in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, in a spacious house named Far Leys. Molly was a keen musician and songwriter, encouraging the children to sing and play piano with her in the music room. There are several poor-quality recordings of family performances there, including this of Nick and Gabrielle singing the American folk song All My Trials.

Shortly before his ninth birthday Nick was sent to boarding school, Eagle House in Berkshire, 120 miles from home. He fitted in well, excelled at running and was eventually named Head Boy, although when he left at 13 his final report from the head noted: ‘Nobody knows him very well.’ Next came Marlborough College, his father’s old school, where contemporaries regarded him as aloof, with a cut-glass accent. In the few recordings I have heard of his spoken voice, he sounds to me very much like a young Prince Charles – an opinion I share with one of his biographers, Trevor Dann.

Nick often hitch-hiked to London when he should have been asleep in his study, frequenting music clubs where he probably had his first experience of weed. His unconventional lifestyle caused his A-level studies to be neglected and it was only with help from family connections that he squeezed into Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, to read English. A condition of his starting in October 1967 was that he should take a French course, ‘in view of the requirement in the English Tripos to translate from French into English’. Dad duly forked out much moolah to enrol Nick for six months at the Universite de Aix-en-Provence. A fateful move.

Nick took the train to France with two equally unacademic chums from Marlborough, Simon Crocker and Jeremy Mason. They found apartments in Aix and soon discovered that the university did not care if they turned up for lectures so long as its fees were paid. ‘We didn’t do any work at all,’ said Mason. Instead, he and Simon chased skirt while Nick, although tall (6ft 3in) and handsome, practised guitar all day and developed his drug habit, smoking marijuana and experimenting with LSD. He fell in with a louche group of rich English students and went on a hash-buying trip to Morocco, where in a restaurant they came across photographer Cecil Beaton with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Anita Pallenberg and assorted hangers-on. The Stones listened patiently as Nick, who had his guitar with him, crooned Dylan and Donovan songs to them.

Having completed his six months in France he moved into sister Gabrielle’s flat in London. She was by then a screen actress who would go on to appear in the science-fiction series UFO, the soaps Crossroads and Coronation Street, and sundry skin flicks. Arriving in Cambridge for his first term, Nick met a choral exhibitioner, Robert Kirby, when they auditioned unsuccessfully for the Footlights revue. Kirby agreed to work on arrangements for some of his songs. Shortly afterwards Nick made a demo tape which he took to Island Records chief Chris Blackwell in London. According to Blackwell, Nick was ‘shy but confident’. He said the songs had ‘a frailty, a vulnerability that really pulled you in’ and invited him to come back in a few months. By December 1967 Nick had managed to get himself on the bill of an all-night concert at the Roundhouse in London, where his music so impressed Fairport Convention bassist Ashley Hutchings that he recommended Nick to the band’s manager Joe Boyd, who agreed to take him on after hearing his demo tape. Boyd said: ‘One thing that was appealing about it was that it was not reaching out to you. In a way he was almost playing to himself. The guitar playing was really strong, really deceptive.’

Nick signed a contract which made Boyd his agent, manager, publisher and producer, an arrangement which would lead to resentment in later years. Boyd’s Witchseason company had a licensing deal with Island, then the hippest label going. It gave young Master Drake £10 a week on top of his student grant, which he would spend on dope.

He embarked on a double life – ostensibly studying at Fitzwilliam while spending much of his time in Chelsea with the decadent chums he met in Aix. Eventually he was introduced to sound engineer John Wood and they began to create Five Leaves Left. After some false starts, Nick persuaded producer Boyd that his friend Robert Kirby should provide the arrangements. The brilliant Danny Thompson was hired to play acoustic bass.

Five Leaves Left was released in July, 1969, into a critical void. There were no reviews apart from one paragraph in Melody Maker which mentioned the Rizla reference and added: ‘His debut album for Island is interesting.’ The album did not reach the shops until September and there was no promotion whatsoever. Matters were not helped by Nick’s reluctance to play live after failing to win over the rowdy audience at a Cambridge May Ball.

He was persuaded, however, to record a solo session in August for John Peel’s midweek Radio One programme. Producer Pete Ritzema described him as ‘a gloomy fellow, very very quiet’. Interviewed by Peel between tracks, Nick was asked to describe his life. ‘Wasting my time in Cambridge,’ he replied. Soon afterwards he decided not to complete his degree course, to his father’s dismay, and moved permanently to London.

Trevor Dann quotes Island A & R man Muff Winwood referring to Drake as ‘a complete pain in the arse’. He adds: ‘I lost count of the TV and radio sessions we missed because he was so untogether.’ He ‘used to stay up until six smoking dope and then my job was to get him out of his stinky bed’. One concert Nick did get up for was at the Royal Festival Hall, supporting Fairport Convention on their comeback performance after their tragic crash on the M1. Although the night proved a triumph for Richard Thompson and Co, it was a disaster for the Drake family. Nick took ages between songs to retune his guitar and when he did sing it was so quiet that he couldn’t be heard at the back. His parents, who attended without his knowledge because they did not want to put him off, conceded that his stagecraft was lacking. Molly told a BBC interviewer: ‘Nick just came in, played, got up, went out, you know, there was no showmanship of any sort.’

Five Leaves Left begins with the beautiful Time Has Told Me. It never ceases to amaze me that young whippersnappers such as Nick Drake and Jackson Browne https://am-records.com/2019/04/09/a-jackson-browne-study-part-one/ could come up with world-weary classics while still in their teens. Nick’s gentle vocals and sturdy acoustic guitar are complemented by Danny Thompson on bass, Richard Thompson (no relation) on lead guitar and Paul Harris on piano. This song was my introduction to Nick’s music as it was included on the Island sampler Nice Enough To Eat released in November 1969 at a price of 15s 6d (77.5p), sandwiched between Traffic’s Forty Thousand Headmen and King Crimson’s Twenty-First Century Schizoid Man. I loved it and was one of the very few who went on to buy Five Leaves Left. Certainly the only one in Nelson, Lancashire, according to Les Baxter of the Electron. 

Track two is River Man, which features a string arrangement by Harry Robinson, a band leader and orchestral composer, because Robert Kirby didn’t feel up to it. This melancholic marvel remains one of Nick’s masterpieces. The enigmatic Three Hours is followed by another cracker, Way To Blue, which Kirby did feel able to orchestrate.

Here also is an earlier version with Nick on piano, accompanied by a wonderful collection of family pictures. Kirby is again on form for Day is Done, then a superb guitar intro takes us into Cello Song, whose lyrics talk about a character ‘in the cloud’. Of smoke, one assumes.

Another drug reference comes in The Thoughts of Mary Jane (Mary Jane = marijuana). This is one of my very favourite Drake songs. Here it is accompanied by Kirby’s strings, but I think I prefer this version released some years later, with Richard Thompson on lead.

I am not desperately keen on Man in a Shed or Saturday Sun, but sandwiched between them is Fruit Tree, sad, lovely and prophetic.

Five Leaves Left is an extraordinary debut by a musical genius. Its lack of commercial success, coupled with ‘industrial amounts’ of cannabis, plunged Nick into new depths of apathy and paranoia. Yet for now at least, he retained some of his creative spark. Of which, more next week.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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