The 18th was the birthday of Nick Drake, one of the, for a time, most unduly neglected figures of his time. In the 2000s he enjoyed a rediscovery and flourishing, but it was too late: he had been dead since 1974. Indeed, Drake is one of the more poignant of the “dead before their time” figures from the Sixties, if only because, unlike most of them, he never experienced the flush of success.
He released three albums in his lifetime and none of them did well commercially. There are all sorts of reasons for that, I suppose, because it happened thus. And nothing happens without some kind of causal determination. It seems that part of the secret to his obscurity is that he was a very withdrawn person, not outgoing in the way that seems to be the type for the performing arts. Writers, poets, painters can be tortured and morose. Their work speaks for them. Singer-songwriters generally have to deal with the public face-to-face. Drake seemed to be more of the kind of artist who would prefer to work in a studio and never face his audience.
Once he was gone, it became possible to get into his music without any thought as to why he’s avoiding his listeners. His albums, I found when I discovered them in 2000-01, speak for themselves rather well. The question of “which is the best” does pose itself and my answer changes from time to time. Since their re-release on vinyl, I think I’ve had opportunity to enjoy them all about equally. The first one, Five Leaves Left (1969), may be my favorite because it’s more austere than Bryter Layter (1970) but not as austere as Pink Moon (1972). The latter is probably the one that sounds most like Drake wanted to sound: very spare, no embellishments. It’s the one where the unadorned sound of his voice and his guitar weaves its most hypnotic spell. But the first album is hypnotic too, and with some orchestration and accompaniment that give a fuller aura to the spell. The songs are more fully realized as well. Bryter Layter may still be my favorite for the very reason that would have made that unlikely in 1970. At the time, the odd folk-meets-jazz arrangements would have felt like a misguided attempt to use Sixties-style Easy Listening sounds to make Drake seem a different kind of artist. There were a fair amount of folkish big band attempts back then and, now, the album seems a unique application of some of those techniques, in service to songs they oddly suit. IF you can forget the associations that would have been unignorable at the time.
Today’s song is from the latter album and it’s not one of the exhibits of what I mean. This one is largely arranged by John Cale, whom Drake’s producer brought in to help with the album. Cale worked on two of the songs and both are favorites of mine from Bryter Layter. “Northern Sky” gets the nod as the most upbeat of Drake's songs, with its lovely piano work from Cale and the uplift of “would you love me through the winter / Would you love me ‘til I’m dead / Oh, if you would and you could / Come blow your horn on high.” But the song I chose is “Fly” where Cale’s viola does most of the work, with some harpsichord to add its courtliness. In fact Cale and Drake are well matched in that regard. Both can be very romantic, with a dash of dark melancholy that tinges everything, but with, when they want to, a stirring sweetness. And both have somber voices.
Drake’s voice never rises much above a murmur. And “Fly” is one of the best in that regard. Its acoustic version on Time of No Reply (a collection of unused bits and songs recorded for his unfinished fourth album) has the stark sense of Pink Moon, but on Bryter Layter, Cale’s viola gives the song a texture that works against its understatement. It feels not quite elegiac, but as if the past still infuses present possibility, even as the lyric keeps returning to the rueful reflection, “It’s really too hard / For to fly.”
Asking for a “second grace” and a “second face,” the singer seems to mourn a missed chance in the past, but perhaps there will be another. “I just need your star for a day” may seem kind of hippie or else sort of casual, but there’s a desperation in Drake’s delivery that makes it sound as if he’s willing to make do with so little. Just a little boost is all he needs, honest. And one of the loveliest couplets, in its delivery (full of tenderness): “So come, come and ride in my streetcar by the bay / For I must know how fine you are in your way.” The following line smacks of Cale’s lyrics: “And the sea sure as I / But she won’t need to cry.”
It’s a chastened song, but with hope. It’s the song that grabbed me immediately upon first listening to Bryter Layter and though I’ve gotten to know many of his songs as well, it’s still the one that marks me most, in a way. And that’s probably because to my ear the “trick” of Cale’s viola had already left its mark from “Gideon’s Bible” on Vintage Violence, released earlier that same year.
Now if it’s time for recompense for what’s done