Born to Die

Knowing how Nick Drake expired helps bring his music to life

The loveliness of this death wish probably could have spawned the Drake cult all by itself. But his appeal among young depressives was guaranteed by "Fruit Tree," arguably the most explicit portrayal of the I'll-be-appreciated-when-I'm-gone fantasy generated during the rock era. After likening fame to a fruit tree ("so very unsound"), Drake keens, "Safe in your place deep in the earth/That's when they'll know what you were truly worth." Morose songwriters have come and gone since then, but no one's ever been able to top that.

As it turned out, Drake didn't, either; Bryter Layter, made the next year with producer Boyd and many of the same supporting players, is a skosh more optimistic (How could it not be?). The opening "Introduction," an appealing orchestral snippet, is more elegiac than somber, and "Hazey Jane II," which follows it, sports a reasonably jaunty brass section, a jazzy melody and couplets about taking time to enjoy the days that fall notably short of being doom-laden. Likewise, "One of These Things First" inventories possibilities, not crushed aspirations; "Fly" contains, of all things, a romantic proposition (albeit one that comes after a brush-off); and the Van Morrison-like "Northern Sky" finds Drake confessing, "I never felt magic crazy like this" and inviting an unknown entity to "brighten my northern sky." Such statements seem especially touching when juxtaposed with the hushed despair of Five Leaves Left; they hint that Drake, while still a bit timid and cautious, is backing away from the ledge.

But no. Following the apathetic reaction of the masses to Bryter Layter, Drake all but disappeared. During the next two years, according to the text of an Island Records bio penned in late 1971 by press officer Dave Sandison and put out in conjunction with the original Pink Moon, Drake stopped by the record company's offices twice -- once for reasons no one could fathom (he hardly said anything to anyone before taking his leave), and a second time to drop off the tapes that became his third LP, which Island personnel had no idea he was making.

That wasn't all Island didn't know; Sandison wrote that execs weren't even certain where Drake was living at the time ("We're pretty sure he left his flat in Hampstead quite a while ago"). Still, Sandison notes, Island put out Pink Moon anyhow, even though "his first two albums haven't sold a shit," because "we believe that Nick Drake is a great talent . . . and maybe one day, someone in authority will stop to listen to [his records] properly and agree with us."

This yearning wasn't satisfied before Drake went down for the count, but in view of the insular quality of Pink Moon, that's no great surprise. The recording, produced and engineered by John Wood, dispenses with Boyd's ornate production techniques and the accompanists he brought along with him: Aside from his acoustic guitar, Drake is entirely on his own. As for the songs themselves, they're generally dour musical miniatures, mere fragments that Drake mates with spare, elliptical poesy. Some of his performances are oddly charming (e.g., his repetitions of the word "pink" on the title song), while others are subtly paranoid (in "Things Behind the Sun," he warns, "Please beware of them that stare") or mildly disturbing (he casts himself as the star of "Parasite"). Despite the occasional glimmer of hopefulness, as in his declaration that "I can take a road that'll see me through" (in "Road"), the disc as a whole evokes retreat -- from his music, from society, from himself. Emblematic is the emaciated blues tune "Know," whose lyrics consist of four truncated lines: "Know that I love you/Know I don't care/Know that I see you/Know I'm not there."

Would songs like these still be prized had Drake simply faded away instead of flickering out in the way that he did? Perhaps: The sustained misery of Five Leaves Left is quite an achievement -- the platter makes Morrissey seem like Mr. Cheerful by comparison -- and both Bryter Layter and Pink Moon have their moments. But it's as clues to Drake's eventual destiny that these albums achieve their greatest impact. Or, to put it another way, the information about the singer that people bring to his compositions makes his music more memorable than it might be without it. Betcha Nick would understand.

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