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Nick Drake, Fallen Angel 2006-11-15
Shiloh Noone

*Rock historian, author of Seeker’s Guide to the Rhythms of Yesteryear, shiloh@telkomsa.net

Perhaps there is something inherently beautiful about isolated intensity that shivers with pain and loneliness, a space where the finest of poets, painters and musicians find solace and reality?

This predestined template fell heavily on a young Nick Drake, born in the Burma Japanese aftermath of 1948. Bred into a wealthy upper class Colonial family, Nick started composing tunes at the age of six that he would record on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. After his graduation to Marlborough College in Wiltshire where he captained the rugby team, Nick took to playing clarinet, saxophone and piano and achieved no less than seven GCE O- Levels, but failing Physics and Chemistry like all artists. During this time he bought his first acoustic guitar and started experimenting with open tuning. By 1966, Nick had won a scholarship to study English literature at the University of Cambridge that was pre-empted by his six-month sabbatical at the University of Aix France. It was here in the whore-trampled cobbles of Henry Miller’s Paris that Nick started earnestly writing and indulging in all manner of additives. The Parisian encounters also gained a new intimacy with singer Françoise Hardy. Nick often stayed at her flat in Paris and did numerous recordings, which Françoise Hardy has vowed never to release. On his return to London, he played support for Country Joe & the Fish at the Roundhouse in Camden Town where he impressed Ashley Hutchings, founder of Fairport Convention. After the concert Ashley introduced Nick to Island’s Joe Boyd resulting in the 1969 Spring recording of Five Leaves Left supported by Fairport Convention and engineered by his college mate Robert Kirby .The album was astute specifically the insular “River Man” with its  5/4 time, harmonic changes and use of prosody. Nick’s guitar picking was magnificent and shimmered best on the flute fearless “Three Hours”, and severing “Cello Song”, courtesy of Strawbs convert Claire Lowther.(Walkabouts covered this).The first “Three Hour” sessions had Traffic refugee Reebob Kwaakhu Baah applying his voodoo textures and Tintagel’s Ian McDonald on flute.

After the album, Nick dropped out of college and moved to London where he recorded three unaccompanied songs for BBC’s John Peel. That same year he awkwardly supported Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London, not facing or talking to the audience and retuning between each song. Nick’s jazzy follow up Bryter Layter attracted minimalist John Cale from Velvet Underground who played organ and celesta on the spectacular “Northern Skies”, a favorite with Piet Botha’s band. Here was the innocent flirting with the halos of angels that bathed in the borealis and still the world would not notice. Nothing in flesh and spirit comes near the transient “Northern Sky”. (Inspired while backpacking through Norway) Cale’s Celeste breathes like a showering mist through this evaporating window. Uncharacteristically Bryter Lyter was more of a fusion cocktail of hazy folk with gutsy jazz surges like “Hazy Jane 11”. The album was fraternized with innuendo by Melody Maker largely due to the Fairport backing. Flautist's Ray Warleigh and Lyn Dobson blow respectively through the instrumentals “Bryter Layter” and “Sunday” while Ian joined King Crimson. It is important to note that Nick’s instrumentals were not symptomatic of writers block, but rather sensitive links between the mood variants. The finger picking “Hazy Jane 1” that swirled with Kirby’s orchestral later reached the shores of Africa through two small shops in Stellenbosch, Sigma Records and Adrian’s Records. Amongst those baptized were Koos Du Plessis and the Kombuis that I can personally testify to!!  The jazzy “Poor Boy” supported by South African ex Blue Notes pianist Chris McGregor then a member of Brotherhood Of Breath could well have entered any Ronnie Scott constabulary.(Chris withdrew from numerous tracks because he didn’t feel it warranted the jazz).

The London clatter with its pressures and obligations became a migraine glare for Nick who now lifted his wings and withdrew to his silent flat. That same year Nick walked out of Ralph Mctell’s concert after the first set. Shortly afterwards Nick’s family persuaded him to visit a psychiatrist at St Thomas’ where antidepressants were prescribed. Now only conversing with John Martyn and his wife Beverley, whom Nick adored, Nick would reel through the netherworld and wander aimlessly through the lives of his friends like a phantom in freefall.  Nick then re –entered the studios and recorded the stark, unaccompanied Pink Moon, barring a piano overdub and an earlier demo called “Place to Be”. This was Drake in solitary refinement seated in the craters of the moon where stillness breaths awe and shadows run from themselves. During the sagging of 1974, John Martyn wrote his cautionary “Solid Air” for Nick who had managed to record a further four songs. The 25 th of November Nick passed through the door due to an accidental overdose of Tryptizol and buried under an oak tree in the Tanworth graveyard. The artistic Drake blood continued to flow through the TV soapy “Crossroads” via the talents of his sister Gabriella while Nick’s legacy awoke spiritually through the likes of R.E.M, Paul Weller, Dream Academy and many more.  Nick was truly the richness of an autumn leaf and will be an ever reminder of how fragile the life and times of a true poet can be.

 

In the year 2004 BBC Radio 2 launched a documentary about Nick Drake’s life now a cult hero, hosted by Hollywood superstar Brad Pitt. Pitt says: "I was introduced to Nick Drake's music about five years ago, and am a huge admirer of his records. When Radio 2 approached me to get involved in this project, I was delighted to be asked and pleased that I was able to fit it into my schedule.

 


 


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