THE GREAT UNKOWN
Written by Tobin Wait
This November 25 will mark the 40th anniversary of Nick Drake‘s death at age 26. The adjectives used to describe Nick Drake during the nearly 40 years since that day could fill a three ring binder: genius, recluse, brilliant, misunderstood, ahead-of-his-time, virtuoso, mysterious, enigmatic.
Here is what we do know: Nick Drake was a young British folk singer, who released three albums during his lifetime, all of which went virtually unnoticed. Intensely sensitive and shy, he only performed live only a handful of times during his short career – in fact, there exists absolutely no video footage off Nick Drake…zero, zilch, nada one. For the last two years of his life, he battled severe depression, disconnected completely from the world around him. On November 25, 1974, at age 26, he died in his childhood bedroom, after taking one too many anti-depressant pills – whether purposely or not remains one of the many mysteries surrounding Nick Drake.
And it is these mysteries that Patrick Humphries examines, and attempts to solve, in his 1997 biography: Nick Drake. And who doesn’t love a great mystery…especially one that involves a real person, a person who is considered one of music’s’s greatest singer/songwriters, despite having recorded only 31 songs in his lifetime.
Nick Drake’s story is not a unique one. From Mozart, to Shakespeare, to Robert Johnson, to James Dean, to Tupac Shakur, history is littered with tragic and mysterious stories: those who were ignored during their lifetime, only to achieve posthumous acclaim; those who died too young, unable to fulfill their limitless potential; those whose life and death are shrouded in rumour and mystery, but not necessarily truth. Nick Drake is unique because his life (and death) is all three of those storylines…an enigma stuffed inside a riddle.
Through interviews with family, friends and contemporaries, Humphries does a masterful job of tracing the arc of Nick Drake’s short life: from a happy childhood, to his time at Cambridge University, to his first record deal, to his ultimate demise. It is a gripping, heartbreaking and fascinating story. It by no means fills in the many blanks of Nick Drake’s life, but it does make the reader curious, and want to know more.
The book is also a revealing slice of social and musical history, capturing the emerging British folk scene of the late 60’s and early 70’s. Along the way, we discover some of Drake’s contemporaries, artists just starting out who would go on to enjoy successful careers: Van Morrison, Cat Stevens, and Elton John – their success and longevity the antithesis of Nick Drake’s career. It ie enough to make one wonder, “What if”?
And perhaps most important, you needn’t be a fan of folk music to be fascinated by the story of Nick Drake. It transcends music. It is the stuff of myth and legend: a young musician who refused to perform or conduct interviews, who sold fewer then 15,000 records, and who, after his death, goes on to become one of the 20th century’s most influential musicians. The list of musicians who have cited Nick Drake as a major influence on their lives and their music is long and diverse: Robert Smith, Peter Buck, Beck, Paul Weller, and Kate Bush, to name a few.
Nick Drake: the Biography is a well-researched book of non-fiction that reads like a novel. And although it leaves the reader with more questions than answers, it also makes the reader want to find the answers to those questions, to discover all they can about the legend of Nick Drake, and, most importantly, to discover the music that started it all.