Saturday, February 10, 2007


35 years ago: Feb. 1972

Pink Moon is Nick Drake's third album and the last one he finished. He died in 1974. None of his albums did well in his lifetime and Drake had problems with performing, and with people generally, apparently. Not a viable candidate for show-biz.

I never heard of Nick Drake until somewhere around November 2000. No doubt the reason that I noticed the existence of Fruit Tree, the 4 CD box set of his three albums and a fourth containing the last tracks he recorded plus some other out-take stuff, was that it was placed in prominence in Cutler's in New Haven, and no doubt that was because of the effect the use of "Pink Moon" on a Volkswagen commercial in 2000 had on sales of Drake's albums. So, though I didn't hear the song on the commercial until after I'd become familiar with all his albums (through fairly steady and continuous play in Nov. and Dec. 2000), I probably owe some thanks to that commercial for making Drake a viable commodity.

It's odd that I never got wind of his music in the thirty-plus years from his first album in 1969 till 2000, particularly as the kind of arrangements and vocals he favors are flavored with the lyrical melancholy I associate with British folk music. I also wonder why, when sensitive singer-songwriters were all the rage in the early '70s, Drake wasn't pushed more, or didn't meet with more appreciative reviews or audience response. With Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, and female singers such as Phoebe Snow and Janis Ian all over the airwaves, couldn't someone find a way to work Drake into the playlist? Who knows, but it's too late now.

It's hard not to hear these songs as the musings of a loner, something of an outcast, stuck in the parental home, smoking herb and practicing guitar at all hours, while the world of fame and fortune happens elsewhere: "Now I'm darker than the deepest sea / Just hand me down, give me a place to be"; "Please beware of them that stare / They'll only smile to see you while / Your time away / And once you've seen what they have been / To win the earth just won't seem worth / Your night or your day"; "Take a look you may see me on the ground / For I am the parasite of this town"; "And none of you stand so tall / Pink moon gonna get ye all."

There's something significant about not hearing this music until long after Drake's death, if only because at times the persona on these albums is the more poignant for the embattled, possibly at times embittered, neglect the artist had to live with, but which his current fame partly offsets (Drake songs became somewhat ubiquitous in movies for a time -- notably, for me, in Noah Baumbach's Kicking and Screaming, and in Lynne Ramsey's The Ratcatcher).

Pink Moon is the sparest, most stripped-down and unadorned of all Drake's records, providing more grounds for the glory of "unplugged" which became all the rage for a time in the '90s. The unvarnished recording also makes the songs sound personal, private, as if recorded at home. This music is even quieter than a Leonard Cohen album, but the guitar playing is nothing short of luminous. Again, because I love Cohen (and I can remember when even he got airplay) and other albums generally referred to as "dark" -- like Lou Reed's Berlin -- or "non-commercial" -- like Neil Young's Tonight's the Night -- it's surprising to me that I didn't pick up on Nick Drake much sooner. Then again, I realize that, without the internet, there was much less opportunity to pick up on obscure stuff (and I wasn't really online till 2000).

It's a singular album. The two previous Drake albums offer much more in the way of lovely arrangements, a factor which makes them sound more like albums of their day, which is to say at least nominally produced for a market. Pink Moon is more "timeless" in a sense, though there's some quality in Drake's voice and in his sense of melody -- in the title song, in "Road," in "Things Behind the Sun," and particularly in the melody of the line "Hear me calling, won't you give me / A free ride" -- that evokes for me the time when these songs were current. So part of the "loss" of Drake is the loss of a time, an era, some quality intrinsic to the music that is less notable in songs one has heard at various times over the years. Drake's sound is a little time capsule, a glance back at a timeless time that is also finally, ironically, current.

Know that I love you
Know I don't care
Know that I see you
Know I'm not there

--Nick Drake, "Know" (1972)


Andrew Shields said...

I first heard Drake because of Brad Mehldau, who has recorded several Drake tunes with his trio. The first one I heard, though, was a piece at his solo concert in Basel in 1999 (which also included a Brian Wilson piece and his incredible solo-piano version of Radiohead's "Paranoid Android").

Donald Brown said...

And this is the first I've heard of Brad Mehldau

Andrew Shields said...

Jazz pianist, does lots of standards, but also does Radiohead, the Beatles, Nick Drake. I've even heard him do "A New York State of Mind" by Billy Joel!