Nick Drake's music moves more than Volkswagens

"Like potent narcotics"

By Salon Staff

Published June 23, 2000 1:05AM (EDT)

Nick Drake's post-posthumous fame BY DOUGLAS WOLK (06/19/00)

Thanks for running a piece on the interesting phenomenon of Nick Drake's post-Volkswagen commercial, post-posthumous fame. Allow me to correct one significant inaccuracy in an otherwise interesting and well-written story. Your writer asserts that this is the first time a previously obscure artist has risen to fame long after death. Without even thinking about it, I can come up with another example -- blues legend Robert Johnson -- and my hunch is that there are probably others. Johnson, who died penniless in 1938, was virtually unknown outside of the Mississippi delta to all but the most ardent blues-ologists until Columbia Records put out two albums of his collected output during the '60s. Those "King of the Delta Blues" volumes inspired a number of cover versions of his songs, including Cream's "Crossroads" and the Rolling Stones' "Love in Vain," to cite just two. But Johnson's real turn at posthumous success wouldn't come until 1990, when a boxed set of his music bearing the endorsement of boomer icons Eric Clapton and Keith Richards sold 500,000 copies, pushing the bluesman into Billboard's Top 40 more than 50 years after his death. Now that's post-posthumous fame!

-- Joe Martin

Readers might be interested to know that when Chris Blackwell sold Island Records to Polygram, one stipulation of the sale was that Nick Drake's albums HAD to be kept in print in perpetuity ...

-- A fan since 1972,
Russell Leisenheimer

Thank you, thank you for publishing the appreciation of the brilliant Nick Drake. I first started listening to his music about 18 years ago, when a friend of mine in Italy turned me on to "Bryter Later." I had never heard anything so perfect, and I could never understand why he remained anonymous and unappreciated throughout his (short) life and afterward. No matter how many times I've listened to his small collection of songs over the years, they still have the power to take my breath away whenever I hear them. I must say I was a little chagrined to hear the song "Pink Moon" being played as background for a Volkswagen commercial; it was like this wonderful secret that only a few of us shared was being divulged, for the purpose of selling cars, no less! I'm not sure he would have cared for that. But perhaps, if nothing else, it will bring some of the much-deserved recognition that eluded him when he was alive.

-- Domenica Marchetti

It felt great to turn on my computer this morning, log into Salon, and discover that lovely article on Nick Drake. While I share many of the thoughts of the writer especially about the tragedy of Drake's much too early retirement from life, he is entirely off the mark when he says that Nick Drake's music has not influenced many artists. Everything from the lush string arrangements and his distinctive picking style to his melancholic, gray-day songwriting can be heard in dozens of artists of the last 20 years. David Sylvian, Everything but the Girl, The Blue Nile, American Music Club, Bernard Butler (from Suede), Peter Buck (from REM), Duncan Sheik and June Tabor have all cited Nick Drake as a major influence and you can hear it in their work. And while relatively underground, there have been Nick Drake tribute shows in New York for the last five years. The beauty of his music is as undeniable and permanent as its influence.

-- Paul Darrah

I well remember my first encounter with Nick Drake's music, and the profound effect it had on my tender student soul. It was the end of the '70s, and at my tiny college in the rainy Pacific Northwest -- already deeply nostalgic for '60s countercultural artifacts like the British folk-rock scene -- Drake's albums were passed around like potent narcotics smuggled in from England. Even now, listening to those songs, I can still feel traces of the powerful, almost mystical, emotion they evoked -- and the haunting sense that in exploring his own despair, Drake had unearthed some deeper understanding of the human subconscious. Wolk's use of the word "archetypal" to describe Drake's art is hardly misplaced, and, I think, goes far to explain its revival. We live, as Jung said almost 40 years ago, in a time when the old symbols of Western culture have lost their potency, and no longer touch our collective subconscious. Certainly, nothing in the popular media these days would suggest Jung was wrong on that one. When he died, Drake left behind a rare nugget of authentic emotional (dare I say, religious?) experience. This now stands out like a symphony orchestra in an endless ocean of cultural white noise. That the instrument of Drake's artistic resurrection was a Volkswagen ad is sad but hardly surprising -- the ad industry, after all, is in the business of eliciting reactions, and we all know how tough that is getting to be. The ad guys may not understand the collective conscious, but boy they sure know it when they hear it. "In search of a master, in search of a slave," Drake sang. What a great line for the next dot-com ad.

-- Bill Montague

Salon Staff

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