Nick Drake – A Genius

Genius, Music, Nick Drake

It is 40 years since the death of my favourite British singer/songwriter. Few artists have ever had the ability to create music as poignant, wonderful, and enduring as Nick Drake. Dead from an antidepressant overdose (likely to be intentional) at the age of 26, he has become, as long-time friend and arranger Robert Kirby stated, “the patron saint of the miserable”. To reduce Drake to this would be to do his music a disservice – certainly sometimes melancholy, but often uplifting (particularly the album Bryter Layter), and always staggeringly beautiful.

I recall vividly the first time I heard Drake, a seminal moment as it was for so many of his fans. For me, it was in my Dad’s car, and the album was his debut, Five Leaves Left. What hit me was the fragility of both his voice, a thing of overwhelmingly serene splendour, and his guitar playing. The work was delicate, the gentle fingerpicking floating, so delicate that one felt that a noise or movement could scare it away. And the songs. ‘Time Has Told Me’, ‘Riverman’, ‘Three Hours’ – they were sublime. The sadness was evident, but often the best music has that element to it. Radiohead, Scott Walker, Neil Young – they find the beauty in sadness. Drake did it better than anyone.

It was devastating that my subsequent voyage of discovery was so brief. Drake finished his third, final, and in my opinion best, album Pink Moon at the age of 23. He then withdrew, crushed by his perceived failure to have an impact. Pink Moon is, in many ways, a fitting elegy to the man. At under 30 minutes, it is all too brief, it leaves you wanting more, wondering where it could have gone next. Most importantly, it is indescribably stunning, the finest example of Drake coalescing despair and wonder, heartache and beauty. When the final song, the exquisite ‘From the Morning’, closes, you are speechless. You just want more, but you know that what you have experienced in such a short time is like nothing else. Drake’s time was tragically brief, but what he did with it was magnificent.

He was harrowed by depression, expressed in the perfect ‘Place to Be’ and ‘Black Eyed Dog’ (Churchill’s description of misery), but Drake had the capacity to feel love, joy, wonderment, and all other positive sensations. In Bryter Layter’s ‘Northern Sky’, he created what is, in my opinion, the greatest ever love song. Maybe he is something of a ‘patron saint for the miserable’, but he is so much more.

But don’t take my word for it – listen to his music. His whole life’s recordings can be completed within three hours, but what a three hours.

It’s Better to Burn Out Than to Fade Away

Music, Past, Reunion, Uncategorized

Ever since the early influence* of my Dad on the infant, but no more exuberant, version of myself, I have been a person known to somewhat belie my age with my musical tastes. One of my earliest memories of school comes from my Year 1 class, when we were all asked various “favourite” questions (favourite colour, favourite book, favourite totalitarian dictator – you know how they go). One of the topics on the arbitrary list was “favourite singer”. The class all opted for Robbie Williams and Spice Girls. They didn’t differentiate between the singular “singer” and the multiple entities that make up the Spice Girls. Of course they didn’t – they were five years old. They all chose popular, hit making acts of the time. Of course they did – they were five years old. The teacher tried to haul herself from the mental stupor induced by listening to 30 inane responses from five year olds who, as Louis CK says, have never said anything important in their entire lives. Once she built the willpower, she came to my desk and glanced at my answers. I had not written Robbie Williams or Spice Girls. I had plumped for Scott Walker who, at that time, had completed his intense, avant-garde record Tilt, and was embarking on an 11 year hiatus.

 

*Brainwashing

 

I had absolutely no idea that this was unusual. I was stunned when my teacher asked who Scott Walker was, thinking that he, Jacques Brel, and Kraftwerk, were staples of the average five year old’s diet. I have since realised that my Dad had managed to somehow turn me into what would now be deemed a hipster, before I was able to tell the time or tie my shoelaces.

 

These formative experiences have left me with something of a yearning for an era that precedes my own existence. It has often been punctuated by disappointment, being unable to experience many of my favourite artists in the flesh (a problem exacerbated by a love for artists with an apparent proclivity for suicide). However, the last decade or so has seen a shift towards the “reunion acts”. Over the next few weeks, I get the chance to see Neutral Milk Hotel, The Libertines, and Pixies, the latter for the second time in 7 months. Neutral Milk Hotel created one of the greatest albums of all time with In the Aeroplane over the Sea, The Libertines defined a subset of a generation, and Pixies have a strong claim to being the most significant band this side of 1970. The question is, will this trio of gigs be the incredible experience that it would have been in years gone by?

 

As far as Pixies go, they were phenomenal in Manchester at the backend of 2013. However, the worry is that they are the exception rather than the rule. I have seen Sex Pistols, The Stranglers, Blondie and Television in the last 7 years. At each gig, you could not overcome the feeling that it was 30 years too late. The songs largely held up, the technical ability had not diminished significantly, but it was difficult to shake off the “classics by numbers” feelings. In the case of Sex Pistols, the cry to arms of Anarchy in the UK and God Save the Queen were devoid of the punk spirit (or at least what we define as the punk spirit 35 years after the event). Instead, it was a band looking for one last payday, fronted by a man who, since he screamed “I am an antichrist, I am an anarchist”, has appeared on I’m a Celebrity, Get Me out of Here, and a butter advert. Ever feel like you’ve been cheated?

 

This is in contrast to the success of Lydon’s other, oft criminally overlooked, band – Public Image Ltd’s – reunion. I saw them at Glastonbury 2013, and they were fantastic, bristling with energy, swagger and, most importantly, songs that sound original 30+ years after their release. It raises a question: are bands products of their time? Should they be consigned to history, bowing out gracefully, or crashing out spectacularly, at the peak of their powers, never to return again? Can the spirit and, when necessary, vitriol, of youth be regained after a hiatus? For every Public Image Ltd, there is a Sex Pistols; for every Blur, there is a Television. Is it a case of memory making the past shine brighter? Perhaps, as Neil Young and subsequently Kurt Cobain said, “it’s better to burn out than to fade away”.