Boy from the black stuff

Nick Drake died 25 years ago, in despair and little known. Today his songs are hugely influential. But is it because they're great or because he's dead?
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The Independent Culture

When singer-songwriter Nick Drake took to his bed on the evening of 24 November 1974, his name was little known beyond the few thousand people who had bought each of his three finely crafted albums. It was only after his death in the early hours of the following morning that the legend of Nick Drake began to take root.

When singer-songwriter Nick Drake took to his bed on the evening of 24 November 1974, his name was little known beyond the few thousand people who had bought each of his three finely crafted albums. It was only after his death in the early hours of the following morning that the legend of Nick Drake began to take root.

Even in the increasingly mummified world of pop, the cult surrounding Drake is bizarre. Posthumous praise has been heaped on the heads of many other rock icons, but - from Jimi Hendrix to Kurt Cobain - their fame was already well-established. Drake's career is unique for not having started until after his death. Although he only released three albums during his lifetime - Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon - all now feature regularly in "Best Ever" polls. And Drake has become the name to drop: everyone from Super Furry Animals to Blur, Radiohead and REM namechecks him, and he has been cited as an influence by Paul Weller, Beth Orton, Lucinda Williams, The Cardigans, Everything But The Girl and Morcheeba.

Born in Burma on 19 June 1948, Drake came to Britain with his parents and sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, while still a small child. The family settled in the idyllic Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, in a house where Drake would spend most of his short life. He attended Marlborough College, with contemporaries including Captain Mark Phillips and Chris de Burgh. The popular image of Drake as a doomed, isolated outsider is very much at odds with the recollections of friends and teachers who knew him at school. He studied diligently, was good at athletics and played in a number of school groups.

When Drake left school in 1966, Bob Dylan had just electrified the world with rock's first double album, Blonde on Blonde, and The Beatles were about to unleash Revolver. With time on his hands, he travelled down to Aix-en-Provence, ostensibly to polish his French prior to going to Cambridge to read English. But like most of his public-school contemporaries in Aix, study came a poor second to wine, Gauloises and smoking dope.

During that heady summer of 1967 Drake spent long hours practising his guitar technique and perfecting the unique tunings that fascinate musicians to this day. He also began tentatively to write his own songs. There is little doubt that Drake had already decided to be a musician; and during his first year at Cambridge, he was spotted, while performing at London's Roundhouse, by Fairport Convention's Ashley Hutchings. By the end of his first year at university, Drake had already started recording his début album for Island Records.

When Five Leaves Left appeared in September 1969, Drake left Cambridge and went on the road to promote his album. At school, he had relished performing with friends in Marlborough's many R&B and pop groups; but now, standing alone on stage accompanied only by his guitar, as he opened for Genesis, Ralph McTell or Fairport Convention, his antipathy to performance became painfully apparent. A 1969 review in the Croydon Advertiser described Drake singing "sad, personal songs... with the slightly amateur incoherencies one associates with this sort of performance".

In the late Sixties, live performance was the only way to alert audiences to your music. Cat Stevens travelled 145,000 miles in one year to promote his albums; Drake played just a handful of gigs in folk clubs around the UK before quitting live work for good. He gave only one print interview and performed two radio sessions. No footage of him performing survives.

All Drake's brushes with fame were strictly tangential: as a teenager travelling across Morocco, he bumped into the Rolling Stones, who were resting up following the Redlands drug bust. In 1970, Elton John was employed as a session singer to demo Drake's songs in an effort to persuade other, more established singers to cover them.

Another fleeting brush with fame came when a Cambridge friend was house-sitting at John Lennon's Berkshire mansion. Sometime during 1971, while John and Yoko were out of the country, Drake visited his friend and, wandering through the mansion, saw for himself the assembled spoils of rock'n'roll fame.

This image of Drake gazing atBeatles memorabilia, the rooms full of Rickenbacker guitars, the walls covered with gold discs, seems unbearably poignant. When Drake died at the age of only 26, the music he left behind was clearly inimitable: REM's Peter Buck compares his stark final album to the work of the late, great bluesman Robert Johnson. "There is that loneliness. Close-up, intimate, scary." But when it was released, in February 1972, Pink Moon was soon overwhelmed - other albums released that week included Paul Simon's solo début, Neil Young's Harvest and Carly Simon's Anticipation. There simply wasn't space for Drake.

After three years and three albums, his career was effectively over. Depressed, Drake retreated to his parents' home in Tanworth; he even underwent a spell in a local psychiatric hospital in a desperate effort to combat the despair that had enshrouded him. But it was all to no avail. And back once again in the bedroom he had first occupied as a child, Drake died from an overdose of Tryptizol, the antidepressant prescribed by his psychiatrist.

The coroner's verdict was suicide, but no note was ever found, and to the end of their days, Drake's parents refused to accept that their only son had deliberately committed suicide. It was in 1979, with the release of the box-set Fruit Tree, that the seeds of the cult were sown - and it has grown steadily in the 20 years since then. Recently though, the level of interest seems to have accelerated - with Drake's songs appearing in Hollywood films ( Hideous Kinky and Practical Magic), a TV drama ( Heartbeat), and even a Nike ad. Recent newspaper polls have voted Drake's first two albums among the five best ever made; while Q magazine rated him the 43rd most influential musician of the century - above Charlie Parker, Hank Williams and Debussy.

There have been television and radio documentaries, tribute albums, cover versions and, in September, the Barbican hosted a day-long tribute to Drake as part of its "English Originals" season. Ironically, his record sales, even today, are tiny in comparison with those of the late Freddie Mercury, Kurt Cobain or Michael Hutchence: in the week that the latter's much-vaunted posthumous solo album was released, the 1994 Drake compilation Way To Blue was finally certified Gold in the UK. But in terms of column inches and influence, Drake outweighs them all.

The big question is why such a cult has grown up around him. He was, of course, an extraordinary guitarist with an intimate, intensely English style of singing; he was also strikingly good- looking and charismatic.But while Drake's three albums undoubtedly form a flawless body of work, are they that much better than contemporary equivalents by Richard Thompson or Al Stewart? An untimely death always helps fuel a cult following, but many other singer-songwriters have died before their time, and little is heard today of Tim Hardin or Jackson C Frank - so why Drake?

One possible explanation is the abiding sense of mystery that has attached itself to his life - the idea of Drake as, in his own phrase, "a soul with no footprint". He is perhaps the perfect blank canvas for our times. Last year, following publication of my biography of Drake, I was contacted by someone who'd been with him in Aix in the spring of 1967. He invited me to hear a recording he had made of Drake singing and playing guitar. It was a revelation. On the tape was a teenager, fresh out of school, confident and relaxed and full of promise. He sang songs by Bob Dylan and Bert Jansch, only hazarding one original composition, but the style was already well honed. Within 18 months, he would be recording professionally; and within seven years of this first recording, Drake would be gone.

The writer is the author of 'Nick Drake: The Biography' (Bloomsbury). Elton John's demos of four Drake songs can be heard on the Italian import 'Sweet Suggestions'

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