In the early 1970s wistful young male singer / songwriters were ten a penny.
It would have been a remarkably fortunate trip to your local joss-stick permeated record shop that at some point did not entail hearing the latest melancholic dirge from the likes of Al Stewart, Cat Stevens or James Taylor. If Nick Drake, an English public school boy with long wavy hair, sixth-form lyrics and a selection of jazz-inflected acoustic songs, stood out from the crowd in any way at all it was by his sheer typicality. Releasing three albums to increasing public indifference, it would have surprised no-one if his reputation had by now faded away to that of a small footnote in the story of the Cambridge folk movement.
And yet… whilst the vast majority of his contemporaries have, quite rightly, now disappeared from the public consciousness, Nick Drake's reputation has gradually grown in both stature and commercial success. Away from the initial glare of fame and fortune, his voice and unusual guitar technique have captivated an ever-increasing congregation of admirers and now, with his entire back catalogue digitally re-released, we also have Made To Love Magic, a 'new' album of outtakes and re-recordings providing the final traces of his short career.
What is it about Drake that attracts such a fascination thirty years after his death? Could it simply be that while many similar singers of the period have matured into middle-aged, pot-bellied Real Ale enthusiasts with the occasional slot at family-friendly folk festivals to be introduced on stage by 'Whispering' Bob Harris, Nick Drake: the James Dean of the folksinger world;managed to die young, thin, handsome and undiscovered, unsoiled by the stains of fame and success? If Drake had recovered from the crippling depression that darkened the last years of his life, given up on the 'music thing' and gone on to a moderately successful career in P.R. and advertising, would there really still have been this mounting interest in his work that, in recent years, has led to a best selling biography, Pink Moon's use as a commercial for Ford cars in the US and Brad Pitt's narration of a radio documentary?
Whilst there is little doubt that, like Kurt Cobain after him, the dubious myth of Drake as rock's 'lost boy' has helped to bolster his reputation, I do believe it is ultimately the music that first captures people's attention, as, for many, the songs come long before they had even heard the story behind the singer.
Like many others, I came to Nick Drake by accident. Many years ago and still a student, I borrowed a tape I wanted to hear from a friend. Back in my room, I realised that the cassette holder I had taken held the wrong cassette inside. I vaguely recognised the short name scrawled in pencil on the front and, out of mild curiosity, inserted it anyway. The music that emerged was arresting, but seemed difficult to pin down, difficult to respond to. The songs did not correspond to the traditional verse-chorus approach I was used to. There was no obvious hook, no obvious meaning. And yet… they towed me in. Not even knowing the names of half the songs, I increasingly found myself coming back to them over the coming months, but only ever either very late at night or very early in the morning. Even now, having nearly worn out the CD I bought to replace the tape (never returned to its owner), I could not tell you what songs such as River Man, Pink Moon and Way To Blue are actually about, but feel this to be an integral part of their appeal. Whilst creating a deep sense of melancholic regret, their real intentions are hard to grasp and so difficult to discard as mere sentimental folly as one ages alongside them.