Nick Drake’s post-posthumous fame

The English folkie left behind three perfect records when he died of an overdose in 1974. It took a recent Volkswagen commercial for them to find an audience.

Topics: Music,

English singer and guitarist Nick Drake, born 52 years ago Monday, died of an overdose of antidepressants in 1974. His third and final album, “Pink Moon,” had been released two years earlier, and had sold fewer than 5,000 copies. This spring, it took less than three weeks for SoundScan to register an additional 5,000 sales of “Pink Moon,” after its title song appeared in a Volkswagen commercial. And at one point, “Pink Moon” was’s No. 5 bestselling album. (Amazon’s sales aren’t included in SoundScan figures.)

Posthumous fame is nothing new to pop music, but it’s usually immediately posthumous. This was the first time that a recording artist found his first real success 25 years after his death — the first time that a lost genius of rock’s past had been found, suddenly and spectacularly. Drake’s music is almost unbelievably pure, graceful and powerful; hearing 30 seconds of his voice and guitar playing in an ad for a car has inspired tens of thousands of people to buy his records. The question, then, isn’t why so many people should want to hear his music now — it’s why they never have before.

The answer is a little depressing: The music world is driven by publicity and by events. The only relevant events of Drake’s life happened when his three finished albums, “Five Leaves Left,” “Bryter Layter” and “Pink Moon,” were released. After his death, they were followed by a collection of other material, “Time of No Reply,” and a box containing everything, “Fruit Tree.” His life’s work is finite, small and, with a single exception, perfect. There is no ramp-up or decline. He didn’t live to build his early work’s reputation through touring and recording and headline making, the way that Lou Reed did with the Velvet Underground or Iggy Pop did with the Stooges. He said his piece, and then he took too much Tryptizol and died.

Patrick Humphries published a not terribly authorized Nick Drake biography a few years ago; it revealed that Drake was the quiet type, mostly kept to himself, smoked a lot of pot, practiced guitar for hours on end and suffered from severe depression in the last few years of his life. Anyone could have told you that from listening to his records, and beyond that there was no real substance to the book. From all evidence, there couldn’t have been: Drake simply didn’t lead a very interesting life. There is no grand myth; there’s no string of B-sides and rarities and outside collaborations (although Richard Thompson and other members of Fairport Convention played on his first two albums). There are only enough published interviews to occupy, perhaps, one side of a piece of paper, and there is only a single classic anecdote: Drake dropped off a parcel in Island Records’ offices and left without a word; a few days later, people there realized that it was his new album, “Pink Moon.”

There is simply the work: “Fruit Tree,” and its isolated beauty. Drake’s music doesn’t have any audible association with a specific time — or, rather, it has sounded contemporary since it was recorded. It has no particular antecedents, beyond a touch of blues and a hint of the English folk scene. Not many musicians have been stylistically influenced by Drake, even those few who’ve covered his songs. What’s there is all there is.

In fact, all that has kept Drake’s memory alive for the past quarter-century is his listeners passing recordings from hand to hand. A friend of mine somehow heard “The Thoughts of Mary Jane,” from “Five Leaves Left,” some years ago; it was the first time she had ever heard Drake, and it was 9:15 at night. She immediately called every record store in town, and managed to find the one that had “Fruit Tree” in stock just before it closed for the night. Any Drake record heard for the first time sounds like a shared secret, as if it’s the only copy in the world of something as fragile as breath.

And the more people scrabble for more, the less they turn up. There’s a bootleg, “Tamworth-in-Arden,” including late-’60s home recordings, which, it’s rumored, will be officially released later this year. It isn’t terribly good, and nobody’s pretending it is. But it’s a relic, an actual extant scrap of Drake’s making. Still, “Time of No Reply” is almost a demonstration that the well is dry. It has a couple of early songs too good to stay outtakes, a few alternate arrangements, a couple of pieces of purely historical interest and finally the four last songs: magnificent, chilling pieces recorded at the beginning of 1974, at the pit of Drake’s depression. They’re stripped down to mythic essentials, with language so simple that only his absolute sincerity lets him get away with it. “Rider on the Wheel” rhymes “name,” “same” and “blame”; “new,” “you” and “true”; and “go,” “slow” and “show,” and it seems archetypal rather than clichid. And then there are no more songs — no duets with Frangoise Hardy or Kiki Dee, no disco crossover hits, no ’90s rearrangements for “Unplugged,” nothing but 25 years of word of mouth and, finally, the very effective word of mouth of somebody at an ad agency.

As for that exception mentioned above, there is a single flaw in Nick Drake’s catalog — not a Homeric nod like “Poor Boy” from “Bryter Layter,” but an actual error. It can be heard two minutes into “Things Behind the Sun,” almost exactly in the middle of “Pink Moon.” As he executes a typically elegant figure on his acoustic guitar, a finger on his singularly strong left hand slips. The note clunks instead of ringing. A friend once wrote me that her morning had been spoiled by that mistake. But it works like the flaw in a handmade Persian rug, as proof that Drake lived in our world, not another one, and that he had to fight for every moment of grace.

Douglas Wolk is the author of "Reading Comics."

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