Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Review: Nick Drake, Remembered for a While

The just-released don't-call-it-a-biography will please both the casual fan and obsessive completist of Nick Drake's music. For starts, it is in large part the work of Nick's sister, Gabrielle, who wanted to personally correct the misconceptions, myths, and legends that have been told about her brother since his tragic death in 1974. When facts and details are sparse, the human mind produces a convincing facsimile of truth.

Nick Drake: Remembered for a While is beautifully designed, particularly showcasing Drake's handwritten lyrics. But in the midst of beauty comes numerous anecdotes from those who knew him when he was alive. It seems that most people, aside from family, found him distant and secretive. He curiously had no documented love life, few (if any) partners, and gives the impression at times of almost being asexual. Though at times his lyrics entertain the idea of romance and love, he does not elaborate. Outside commentators have suggested Drake might have been gay and closeted. Though this is possible, it is impossible to prove convincingly.    
Some know of Nick Drake the depressive more than the folk musician, and, to be sure, that information is provided as well. The most harrowing passage comes transcribed directly from the journals that Nick's father kept to document his son's daily struggles. Some were better than others, but it is clear that for the last two unhappy years of his life he was a semi-recluse. During this last period, he produced a total of four new songs, but was in no condition to record upon arrival at the studio. He rarely left his childhood home and the company of his parents, passing away at only 26 due to what the family insists was an accidental, or at least incautious overdose of antidepressant medication.

During his lifetime, as has often been noted, Nick Drake's pathological shyness meant that he played few live shows. A list provided early in the book documents the handful of gigs he performed, which are more than one might initially think, but far fewer than needed for greater success. But he did play enough gigs to attract the attention of Joe Boyd, the American emigre and up-and-coming record producer.

Boyd had produced the first single and a live recording of a group then called The Pink Floyd. He now sought to commit Nick's music to tape. The British music press gave Drake's first album, Five Leaves Left, scant notice, as they would for the whole of the short time he was actively recording.

Past thinkers have tried to posthumously diagnose Drake from a psychiatric standpoint. The book never makes a formal medical judgment. We know that Nick Drake was a depressive personality who, at least part of the time, took medication to treat it. At the end of his life, he toyed with the idea of electroshock therapy but never committed to it. Psychiatry was not nearly as evolved forty years ago, but in fairness he never took medication long enough for it to reach its optimum effectiveness, a far-too-common complaint with those who suffer with mental illness.

As intended, this book is the authorized companion to the music of Nick Drake. Fans should dig out their copies of his albums to play along with their reading. The book somewhat cautiously reveals the most sensitive information, not willing to resort to sensationalizing. But what awaits us is the most intimate and complete rendering of yet another musician who died at too young an age.

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