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Nick Drake died aged twenty-six during the night on 24th November 1974 at his home in Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire, UK. from an overdose of an antidepressant drug.. He had gone to bed early after spending the afternoon visiting a friend.
On 2nd December 1974, after a service in the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Tanworth-in-Arden, Nick Drake's remains were cremated at Solihull Crematorium and his ashes later interred under an oak tree in the church's graveyard.
At the inquest in December, the coroner stated that the cause of death was as a result of "Acute amitriptyline poisoning—self-administered when suffering from a depressive illness", and concluded a verdict of suicide. Although the verdict has been disputed by some of his friends and members of his family, there is a wide view that, accidental or not, Nick Drake had by then "given up on life."
Nick Drake's father, Rodney Shuttleworth Drake , had moved to Rangoon, Burma, in the early 1930s to work as an engineer with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Both Nick's parents were musically inclined and each wrote pieces of music. Recordings of Molly Drake's songs, which have come to light since her death, are remarkably similar in tone and outlook to the later work of her son. Mother and son shared a similar fragile vocal delivery; both Gabrielle and biographer Trevor Dann have noted a parallel sense of foreboding and fatalism in their music. Encouraged by his mother, Nick Drake learned to play piano at an early age and began to compose songs which he recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorder kept in the family drawing room.
In 1957, Nick Drake was sent to Eagle House School, a preparatory boarding school in Berkshire. Five years later, he went to Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire, attended by his father, grandfather, and great-grandfather. He developed an interest in sport, becoming an accomplished sprinter over 100 and 200 yards, representing the school's Open Team in 1966. He played rugby for the C1 House team and was appointed a House Captain in his last two terms. School friends recall Nick Drake at this time as having been confident and "quietly authoritative", while often aloof in his manner.
Nick Drake played piano in the school orchestra, and learned clarinet and saxophone. He formed a band, The Perfumed Gardeners, with four schoolmates in 1964 or 1965. With Nick on piano and occasional alto sax and vocals, the group performed R&B covers and jazz standards, as well as The Yardbirds and Manfred Mann numbers. .
His academic performance began to deteriorate, and while he had accelerated a year in Eagle House, at Marlborough he began to neglect his studies in favour of music. In 1963 he attained seven GCE O-Levels, fewer than his teachers had been expecting, failing "Physics with Chemistry", a fall-back for students who struggled with science. In 1965, Nick Drake paid £13 for his first acoustic guitar, and was soon experimenting with open tuning and finger-picking techniques.
In 1966 Nick Drake enrolled at a tutorial college in Five Ways, Birmingham, from where he won a scholarship to study English literature at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. He delayed attendance to spend six months at the University of Aix-Marseille, France, beginning in February 1967, where he began to practice guitar in earnest. To earn money, he would often busk with friends in the town centre. Nick Drake began to smoke cannabis, and that Spring he travelled with friends to Morocco, where "the best pot could be obtained.". Nick most likely began using LSD while in Aix, and lyrics written during this period—in particular for the song "Clothes of Sand"—are suggestive of an interest in hallucinogens.
On returning to England, Nick Drake moved into his sister's flat in Hampstead, London, before enrolling at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University that October to study English Literature. His tutors found him to be a bright student, but unenthusiastic and unwilling to apply himself. He did not perform well at Cambridge and was awarded a third, the lowest honours-pass. His biographer, Trevor Dann, notes that he had difficulty connecting with staff and fellow students alike, and points out that official matriculation photographs from this time reveal a sullen young man. Cambridge placed much emphasis on its rugby and cricket teams, yet by this time Drake had lost interest in playing sport, preferring to stay in his college room smoking cannabis, and listening to and playing music. According to fellow student (now psychiatrist) Brian Wells: "they were the rugger buggers and we were the cool people smoking dope."
In September 1967, Nick met Robert Kirby, a music student who went on to orchestrate many of the string and woodwind arrangements for Nick Drake's first two albums. By this time, Nick Drake had discovered the British and American folk music scenes, and was influenced by performers such as Bob Dylan, Josh White and Phil Ochs. He began performing in local clubs and coffee houses around London, and in February 1968, while playing support to Country Joe and the Fish at the Roundhouse in Camden Town, made an impression on Ashley Hutchings, bass player with Fairport Convention. Ashley Hutchings recalls being impressed by Nick Drake's skill as a guitarist, but even more so by his image; he looked like a star.
Ashley Hutchings introduced Nick Drake to the 25-year-old American producer Joe Boyd, owner of the production and management company Witchseason Productions. The company was, at the time, licensed to Island Records, and Joe, the man who had discovered Fairport Convention and been responsible for introducing John Martyn and The Incredible String Band to a mainstream audience, was a significant and respected figure on the UK folk scene. He and Nick Drake formed an immediate bond, and the producer acted as a mentor to Nick throughout his career. A four-track demo, recorded in Nick Drake's college room in the spring of 1968, led Boyd to offer a management, publishing, and production contract to the then twenty-year-old, and to initiate work on a debut album.
Nick Drake began recording his debut album 'Five Leaves Left' later in 1968, with Boyd assuming the role of producer. The sessions took place in Sound Techniques studio, London, with Nick Drake skipping lectures to travel by train to the capital. Inspired by John Simon's production of Leonard Cohen's first album, Boyd was keen that Nick Drake's voice would be recorded in a similar close and intimate style, "with no shiny pop reverb". He sought to include a string arrangement similar to Simon's, "without overwhelming ... or sounding cheesy". To provide backing, Boyd enlisted various contacts from the London folk rock scene, including Fairport Convention guitarist Richard Thompson and Pentangle bassist Danny Thompson.
Nick Drake ended his studies at Cambridge nine months before graduation, and in autumn 1969 moved to London. His father remembered "writing him long letters, pointing out the disadvantages of going away from Cambridge ... a degree was a safety net, if you manage to get a degree, at least you have something to fall back on; his reply to that was that a safety net was the one thing he did not want." Nick Drake spent his first few months in the capital drifting from place to place, occasionally staying at his sister's Kensington flat, but usually sleeping on friends’ sofas and floors. Eventually, in an attempt to bring some stability and a telephone into Nick Drake's life, Boyd organised and paid for a ground floor bedsit in Belsize Park, North West London.
In August 1969 Nick Drake recorded five songs, three of which were broadcast, for the BBC's John Peel show. Two months later, he opened for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London, followed by appearances at folk clubs in Birmingham and Hull.
Nick Drake then sought to move away from his pastoral sound, and agreed to his producer's suggestions to include bass and drum tracks on the recordings. "It was more of a pop sound, I suppose," Boyd later said. "I imagined it as more commercial." Like its predecessor, the album featured musicians from Fairport Convention, as well as contributions from John Cale on two songs: "Northern Sky" and "Fly". Trevor Dann has noted that while sections of "Northern Sky" sound more characteristic of Cale, the song was the closest Drake came to a release with chart potential.
Soon after its release, Boyd sold 'Witchseason' to Island Records, and moved to Los Angeles to work with Warner Brothers in the development of soundtracks for film. The loss of his key mentor, coupled with the album's poor sales, led Nick Drake to further retreat into depression. His attitude to London had changed: he was unhappy living alone, and visibly nervous and uncomfortable performing at a series of concerts in early 1970. In June, Nick Drake gave one of his final live appearances at Ewell Technical College, Surrey. Ralph McTell, who also performed that night. At that particular gig he was very shy. He did the first set and something awful must have happened. He was doing his song 'Fruit Tree' and walked off halfway through it. He just left the stage.
Nick's frustration turned to depression, and in 1971 he was persuaded by his family to visit a psychiatrist at St Thomas's Hospital, London. He was prescribed a course of antidepressants, but felt uncomfortable and embarrassed about taking them, and tried to hide the fact from his friends. Nick knew enough about drugs to worry about their side effects, and was concerned about how they would react with his regular cannabis use.
Island Records was keen on Nick Drake promoting Bryter Layter through press interviews, radio sessions and live appearances. Nick, who by this time was smoking what Kirby has described as "unbelievable amounts" of cannabis and exhibiting "the first signs of psychosis", refused. Disappointed by the reaction to Bryter Layter, he turned his thoughts inwards, and withdrew from family and friends. He rarely left his flat, and then only to play an occasional concert or to buy drugs. His sister recalled: "This was a very bad time. He once said to me that everything started to go wrong from this time on.
Although Island neither expected nor wanted a third album, Nick Drake approached Wood in October 1971 to begin work on what would be his final release. Sessions took place over two nights, with only Drake and Wood present in the studio. The bleak songs of Pink Moon are short, and the eleven-track album lasts only 28 minutes, a length described by Wood as "just about right. You really wouldn't want it to be any longer." Nick Drake had expressed dissatisfaction with the sound of Bryter Layter, and believed that the string, brass and saxophone arrangements had resulted in a sound that was "too full, too elaborate".
Nick Drake appears on Pink Moon accompanied only by his own carefully recorded guitar save for a single piano overdub on the title track. Wood later said: "He was very determined to make this very stark, bare record. He definitely wanted it to be him more than anything. And I think, in some ways, Pink Moon is probably more like Nick is than the other two records."
The piano overdub on "Pink Moon" displays a musicality absent from some of the barer tracks on Nick Drake's final album.
Drake delivered the tapes of Pink Moon to Chris Blackwell at Island Records, contrary to a popular legend which claims he dropped them off at the receptionist's desk without saying a word. An advertisement for the album in Melody Maker in February opened with "Pink Moon—Nick Drake's latest album: the first we heard of it was when it was finished." ' Pink Moon' sold fewer copies than either of its predecessors, although it received some favourable reviews. In Zigzag magazine, Connor McKnight wrote, "Nick Drake is an artist who never fakes. The album makes no concession to the theory that music should be escapist. It's simply one musician's view of life at the time, and you can't ask for more than that."
Chris Blackwell felt 'Pink Moon' had the potential to bring Nick Drake to a mainstream audience; however, his staff were disappointed by the artist's unwillingness to undertake any promotional activity. A&R manager Muff Winwood recalls "tearing his hair out" in frustration, and admits that without Blackwell's enthusiastic support, "the rest of us would have given him the boot." Following persistent nagging from Boyd, Nick Drake agreed to an interview with Jerry Gilbert of Sounds Magazine.
The "shy and introverted folk singer" spoke of his dislike of live appearances and very little else. "There wasn't any connection whatsoever", Gilbert has said. "I don't think he made eye contact with me once." Disheartened and convinced he would be unable to write again, Nick Drake decided to retire from music. He toyed with the idea of a different career, even considering the army.
In the months following Pink Moon's release, Nick Drake became increasingly asocial and distant from those close to him. He returned to live at his parents' home in Tanworth-in-Arden, and while he resented the regression, he accepted that his illness made it necessary. "I don't like it at home," he told his mother, "but I can't bear it anywhere else."
His return was often difficult for his family; as his sister Gabrielle explained, "good days in my parents' home were good days for Nick, and bad days were bad days for Nick. And that was what their life revolved around, really."
"Black Eyed Dog" from one of Nick Drake's final recording sessions in February 1974. The title was inspired by Winston Churchill's description, taken from Samuel Johnson, of depression as a black dog.
Nick Drake lived a frugal existence, his only source of income being a £20-a-week retainer he received from Island Records. At one point he could not afford a new pair of shoes. He would often disappear for days, sometimes turning up unannounced at friends' houses, uncommunicative and withdrawn. Robert Kirby described a typical visit: "He would arrive and not talk, sit down, listen to music, have a smoke, have a drink, sleep there the night, and two or three days later he wasn't there, he'd be gone. And three months later he'd be back." Nick's supervision partner at Cambridge, John Venning, once saw him on a tube train in London and felt he was seriously clinically depressed. "There was something about him which suggested that he would have looked straight through me and not registered me at all. So I turned around."
Referring to this period, John Martyn (who in 1973 wrote the title song of his album 'Solid Air' for and about Drake) described him as the most withdrawn person he had ever met. He would borrow his mother's car and drive for hours without purpose on occasion, until he ran out of petrol and had to ring his parents to ask to be collected. Friends have recalled the extent to which his appearance had changed. During particularly bleak periods of his illness, he refused to wash his hair or cut his nails. Early in 1972, Nick Drake had a nervous breakdown, and was hospitalized for five weeks.
In February 1974, Nick Drake contacted John Wood, stating he was ready to begin work on a fourth album. Boyd was in England at the time, and agreed to attend the recordings. The initial session was followed by further recordings in July.
By autumn 1974, Nick Drake's weekly retainer from Island had ceased, and his illness meant he remained in contact with only a few close friends. He had tried to stay in touch with Sophia Ryde, whom he had first met in London in 1968. Ryde has been described by Drake's biographers as "the nearest thing" to a girlfriend in his life, but she now prefers the description "best friend". In a 2005 interview, Ryde revealed that a week before he died, she had sought to end the relationship: "I couldn't cope with it. I asked him for some time. And I never saw him again." As with the relationship he had earlier shared with fellow folk musician Linda Thompson, Drake's relationship with Ryde was never consummated.
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song: 'River Man' by Nick Drake