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It feels weird to say that I’ve been listening to the music of Nick Drake for more than half of my life, but perhaps “singular” is a better way of putting it. My connection with Drake has always felt unlikely, given its specificity and depth, but I imagine there are thousands of others who’ve felt the same way, in their way, since the British composer/singer—I am loath to call him a mere folk musician, as all of the histories do—passed away forty years ago, November 25, 1974. He was twenty-six, either a suicide or the casualty of a drug overdose.
I have just entered my fortieth year on this planet, and I’ve always been conscious of that mathematical symmetry with an artist who has meant so much to me. If you’ve not heard of Drake, don’t fret; he released only three albums, none of which sold. He battled life-stomping depression, could barely function socially, smoked copious amounts of pot, practiced his guitar late into the night, and bemoaned to the few people he was capable of bemoaning to how his genius hadn’t led to anything. Not recognition, money, and, crucially, not happiness.
His slim output ought to have vanished from public consciousness, but as with Schubert, so with Drake, only in less time. By the end of the 1970s, a Drake reawakening was underway, and scores of musicians stepped forward to claim his influence. He was an artist so out of step with his own time that he came to be, somehow, in lockstep with the things not bound by time. Which is to say, the things of all time.
Drake devotees can get so into the man and his music that they think he’s better known than he actually is. You can be a music obsessive and never have heard of the guy. And, even now, he occupies his own particular interstices of the popular music hagiography. He’s an in-betweener, not exactly this or that, and not suggestive of a place you end up, but rather of processes, of moving from one island of life to another, which, when you think about it, is what life is about.
Rarely has music made in such loneliness engendered such a feeling of fellowship.
Drake’s recording career breaks down into what I see as two phases. As an undergrad at Cambridge—bored with his classes, put off by the sporty “rugger buggers” on campus, and struggling to fit in—he holed up in his room, wrote some of the most bucolic songs you will ever hear, and eventually came into the orbit of the twenty-five-year-old American producer Joe Boyd. A record deal with Island followed. Then, in early September 1969, came Drake’s first album, Five Leaves Left, the title a reference to a tobacco product and also an O. Henry story about a doomed artist who paints his masterpiece just before the last leaf on a tree by his window falls.
I began listening to Five Leaves Left when I was eighteen, not far from Drake’s age when he recorded it. I’d never heard anything like it, and later, as the circumstances of my own life changed, I came to detect in it something so purely autumnal, so of the forest, if you will, and leaves underfoot and grouse fluttering off, that I was transported. It was like listening to “Strawberry Fields Forever” or certain passages of Bach’s The Art of Fugue—those musical moments that take you out of your realm and put you in another, but really you’ve been restored to where you ought to have been the whole time.
Drake didn’t have a wide vocal range, but he was one of the better singers of the past fifty years, at once suggestive of wind blowing between rows of birch saplings and yet declarative enough to sound elemental, a breathy force of nature. His albums, for whatever reason, always came out in the fall or dead of winter, like the summer sun was not apropos for this particular canon, and it was best heard when it was possible to walk outside and either see one’s breath or think how that time was soon coming. Consider “Way to Blue,” which features strings that advance and die away like little gusts, as Drake, on the bridge, ventures into a major key, a rarity for him.
Can you now recall all that you have known
Will you never fall
When the light has flown
Tell me all that you may know
Show me what you have to show
Won’t you come and say
If you know the way to blue?
The way to blue. What a curious transference this is, this notion of arriving at a color. This, of course, is no simple shade of the rainbow but a state of being, a melancholia that, to this singer’s thinking, is where answers might be sourced. It is, presumably, a transitional state from which to advance to something gaudier and happier. There is a lot of motion in Drake’s music, the feel of constantly walking about, looking, hoping, always seeking to find and then moving on to the next vantage point.
Career-wise that would be the sophomore effort, Bryter Layter, which came out in early November 1970 and added elements of folk-baroque and what I think of as a bank of sonic fog. There’s a mistiness to cuts such as “Hazey Jane II” and “At the Chime of a City Clock” that makes you feel like you’re strolling about the background of one of Monet’s British Parliament paintings, before another soul has yet to awake.
As far as Drake goes, Bryter Layter is as safe a listening choice as you can make. Among his albums, it is probably the one I’ve listened to most because it is the Drake record that calms, that puts its vapory arm in the crook of yours and says, come, let us amble, let us see what is to be seen, be it past that glen up there, or around that bend of your life over there.
I walked a lot to Bryter Layter in woods not, I imagine, unlike those in Drake’s English hometown of Tanworth-in-Arden, returning to his music at a point in my life when I’d not listened to it for some time. Some artists are better at creating work that connects with you in different ways at different points along your journey, and these are ways you can almost never see coming.
The details are not relevant here, but it is enough to say that my life fell apart, I lost everything, I knew depression so extreme that I wondered if I had died and was in hell and pondered the logistics of these things, whether that’s how it really went and you weren’t given official notice.
I imagined that, had I known Drake, I could have at least voiced the theory to him, though I doubt, given his state of mind, he’d have welcomed the conversation. But there’d be common ground, anyway. I had an attack of the sort you normally don’t have until you’re thirty or forty years my senior, and when you have it, you die. I did not. But I took to walking in great forests, and I brought two things with me most commonly: the music of Nick Drake—or his first two albums, anyway—on my iPod, and a collection of works by the nineteenth-century English poet John Clare, in a satchel. There was also a Swiss Army knife in the satchel to notch tree trunks so I wouldn’t get lost when I was half a dozen miles out in the sticks, but that would happen anyway. Yet I was never scared to see the sun go down over the cedars and beeches as I picked up my pace and listened to Drake’s “One of These Things First,” a sing-songy piece of would-be doggerel that buoys the spirit like Clare’s more happily restive verse.
I could have been a sailor
Could have been a cook
A real live lover
Could have been a book
I could have been a signpost
Could have been a clock
As simple as a kettle
Steady as a rock
Yes, all true. But could Nick Drake be Nick Drake, could that artist be a kind of artist for others, without acclaim or compensation? That takes an outrageous outlay of strength, when the creation of art at this level already requires so much. For Drake, in one way, that cost would prove too great. And then again, in another, there were reserves so sizable, and which are paying off still, that we learn a valuable lesson in what is exhaustible and what is not. Human endurance is one thing; the art made from the struggle to maintain that endurance another.
• • •
Enter, then, the second phase. Pink Moon, released in February 1972, and what are known as the “final four” comprised the music I thought I should avoid for a while, not take into any real or metaphorical woods. Those first two Nick Drake records had strings and members of Fairport Convention doing things, but Pink Moon, excepting some piano on the title track, is Drake alone with his guitar for twenty-eight minutes. About the length, in one sense, of a sitcom; and about the length, in another sense, of the universe. The universe of human frailty, despair, and, from another point of view, strength and steadfastness. In other words: twenty-eight minutes can be awful short or awful long, and with Drake, once again, it’s as though we’ve stepped out of one world—the time-governed one—and tumbled headlong into another, governed by a whole different set of stimuli and metrics. You might think of it as an audio rendering of Goya’s Caprichos (1799), only with the gnarled forms of the English countryside standing in for his posse of human monstrosities.
Pink Moon is a middle finger to the muses, the neurotoxins of the brain, the sweaty vice-grip hold of despair. Genius gets off the mat to create this.
The oft-circulated story is that Drake turned up at the Island offices and left the tape canister at the reception desk, muttering, “That’s all that’s left.” The story isn’t true, but it is revealing in its own way. Pink Moon would be Drake’s last studio album.
If you ever wanted to get fucked out of your mind with fear, to experience how much we can be made to hurt, give Pink Moon a shot. “Parasite” and “Things Behind the Sun” will go right through you, and you will either get caught up in trying to relate to how someone else could feel this way, or, more likely, how you once did, hope not to again, or presently do. Listen during that post-twilight nakedness of the night, when we cannot help but be with at least a smidge of ourselves, no matter how hard we try.
Not that Pink Moon is a hair shirt of a record. It guts you by the sheer allure of its beauty. It’s a gossamer creation, a forest spring of melody, a triumph of stark poetics, and—what I like best about it—a middle finger to the muses, the neurotoxins of the brain, the sweaty vice-grip hold of despair, depression, the pain done to us by others and ourselves. Genius gets off the mat to create this. Even if that happens but once—and Pink Moon is Drake’s one creation of pure genius—in this world, where we have our new stimuli and our new metrics, one is the same as a million or a quadrillion or the next number after that. Sometimes after I listen to Pink Moon—and it is virtually impossible to do so without crying both tears of sadness and tears of gratitude for reawakened faith in the human spirit—I cannot help but think, right, twenty-eight minutes my royal Boston arse. That’s no twenty-eight minutes. That’s a kingdom of life. With kickass guitar playing.
• • •
During my own ordeal, when I wasn’t listening to Drake, I was often listening to the records of another English musician, Jamie Treays, who goes by Jamie T. Unlike Drake, Treays’s music tends to be fiercely electric, with big, trip-hop beats married to explosive street slang and chronicles about friends who venture off with your girl around the back of some shed so that she comes back limping.
Despite a few differences, I find the outputs of both artists remarkably similar, and I was gobsmacked when Treays’s new album, Carry on the Grudge, revealed itself as the closest thing to Pink Moon since Pink Moon. I don’t know what happened to this musician to make him write these songs, and we need to be careful in thinking that the narrator of a song is one and the same as the guy who wrote the thing, but I find it fascinating that Treays has cut back on the electric aspect and, on his best new songs, gone in for a more Drake-esque soundscape. His guitar textures aren’t as tendril-like as those favored by Drake on Pink Moon especially, but they’re similarly evocative. And he is singing of a black dog. As Drake did. At the very end.
Drake’s albums never made much money, and he refused to play live. By 1974, two years after the release of Pink Moon, he had moved back in with his parents and was taking so many drugs that he was losing his ability to play and sing. He cut four sides in February of what was to be the final year of his life. We’re doing the compaction thing here, again—four sides do not an album make, but trust me: put these back to back to back to back and burn them to CD and I don’t think you’re going to find that you’ve been short-changed out of a record.
“Rider on the Wheel” is a cry for help, a shimmering ghost of a song that has this feel of being almost weightless, were songs possessed of physical qualities such that you could just plop one on a scale. “Voice from a Mountain” and “Hanging on a Star” continue that theme—note the imagery, the distance, the cosmic inevitability: wheel, star, mountain, hanging.
But them’s nothing compared to “Black Eyed Dog.” Churchill said he disliked standing at the edge of a train platform or the side of a ship overlooking the water, lest he be tempted to give in and plunge. “Black Eyed Dog” is the musical equivalent of that edge. It has more in common with the blues than folk and outpaces anything Robert Johnson cooked up over Mississippi Delta crossroads lore. “Hellhound on my Trail” is “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” next to “Black Eyed Dog.”
The song starts with a prick of Drake’s guitar, like we’ve been lanced. The timbre is needle-sharp, pointed, and even has a metallic pinch to it. And then it just hangs in the air and widens while Drake taps the body of his guitar. The combination imitates change-ringing bells. This is a summoning. And then that voice. Here are the lyrics in full. There need not be any more.
A black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
A black eyed dog he knew my name
A black eyed dog he knew my name
A black eyed dog
A black eyed dog
I'm growing old and I wanna go home
I'm growing old and I don’t wanna know
I'm growing old and I wanna go home
A black eyed dog he called at my door
A black eyed dog he called for more
Home, as you well know, is not the flat with the refrigerator stocked with Mama Celeste pizzas and milk for tomorrow morning’s cereal. This is the home from which there is no returning for the person, but only, in a best-case scenario, for that person’s art.
Churchill disliked standing at the edge of a train platform lest he be tempted to give in and plunge. ‘Black Eyed Dog’ is the musical equivalent of that edge.
Blues songs and ghost stories like black dogs. So do heavy metal bands aping old blues musicians. But a black dog is one thing; a black-eyed dog another. What this means is you are eyeball to eyeball with the beast, perhaps reduced to your version of on-all-fours, and what is posited as evil, or as pain, is now situated in the portion of the creature that beholds you, that sees you, most fully experiences you, and you it.
I think of Drake and his music being between things, filling up those interstices, when I listen to “Black Eyed Dog,” a pursuit that I’d suggest is good for you. The force of this art feels vastly stronger than the forces that snuffed out this particular life, whatever that amalgam of forces may have been. A big old black-eyed mastiff trails all of us, to some degree, our own personalized version. Some people pay it heed, others don’t, and others can’t but focus on it.
But if I was once scared of the title character of Drake’s most evocative song, that passed when I became more concerned about what I might create from my own abyss, whether I could lob something back into the corporeal world that would mean something to that world, even if I couldn’t disentangle myself from my own wreckage. When I heard Drake do this, and understood him to be doing so, I began to understand how I could as well. Rarely has music made in such loneliness engendered such a feeling of fellowship. I wonder if Drake would be surprised, and I think, sometimes, yes, but more often, no. Not at all.
Clare, the poet whose works I would take into those woods along with Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, was in a Pink Moon sort of way at the end of his own tragic life. He was so poor that, at times, he wrote on bark. People thought he was mad because he would utter lines such as, “I’m John Clare now. I was Byron and Shakespeare formerly.” But I think that comes down to those spaces, those gaps, those islands, those transitions. Maybe, in a way, Jamie T. is Nick Drake now, and Nick Drake was me as I got lost in those woods, and the black-eyed dog is the spark to remind us of what some rare people are capable of, the stuff the rest of us need, whether we choose to use it or not. Or even see it. The black-eyed dog has a way of disappearing from the corner of your vision.
The most beautiful song I have heard post–Pink Moon is “They Told Me it Rained” from Theays’s latest, a masterpiece of its time—which is to say, out of step with these times, and locked in for all time. The song is an existential koan for the surceasing of pain, and a sort of conquering ode, too, to reclaiming one’s humanity. To loving without being loved, and loving all the same. Creation without guaranteed, or even likely, reward.
Feed the black dog
Refuse to breathe
Refuse to fuck
And oh my love
She played a cool pinball
They told me it rained
Yeah, they told me it rained
I give up
I give in
Just show me love
Show me love
You’re never lost
I’ll never win
Just show me love
Show me love
And ask the boy who would be king
Just show me love
Show me love
I’ll never ask for anything
Just show me love, show me love
Here the dog gets fed. No matter. Let him get as a big as can be. His pace will slacken as the listener’s picks up, be it in woods literal or metaphorical, such that you might say, for a spell, I am Nick Drake now, I was so-and-so previously, and so-and-so before that, and some day I shall be wholly myself.
Colin Fleming’s fiction appears in the VQR, Black Clock, Boulevard, and elsewhere. He also writes for Sports Illustrated, The Boston Globe, The Atlantic, and Rolling Stone and is a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss is forthcoming in August 2015.
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