Darker than the Deepest Sea: the search for Nick Drake by Trevor Dann

Poor boy, so sorry for himself

Suzi Feay
Sunday 19 February 2006 01:00

It's easy to become expert in the works of the singer-songwriter Nick Drake: the canon comprises just three albums (the final one, Pink Moon, lasting a mere 28 minutes) and a handful of other songs and bootlegs. Of course, considerable musical expertise is required to fathom the complicated tunings and meticulous guitar technique that awe musicians even today, but the freshness and immediacy of the songs, now over 30 years old, still seem to draw the listener into what feels like an intimate relationship with "Nick".

He died in 1974 aged 26, burned out, like Keats, by illness even before his premature death. His decline is horribly charted in sessions with the photographer Keith Morris. In 1970, he's a tall, gangly, studenty type with an open, fresh face. Just over a year later, he's a hunched, dishevelled figure, staring vacantly at Morris, ignoring the overtures of a friendly labrador or gazing blankly over Hampstead Heath. He had three painful years left to live, and looking at him, you wonder that he lasted so long.

Patrick Humphries' excellent and fairly exhaustive Nick Drake: The Biography came out in 1997. Is there much left to say about so short a life? Actually, yes; and much of it is a question of tone and emphasis. In contrast to Humphries' mournful reverence, Dann presents a less etherial figure, tracking down acquaintances prepared to talk in uncomplimentary terms. The result is a more realistic portrait. Muff Winwood, Island Record's A&R man, remembers with a distinct lack of enchantment: "My job was to get him out of his stinky bed... He was a complete pain in the arse, drove me up the wall." The conductor of the first and last published Nick Drake interview, journalist Jerry Gilbert, when asked whether he liked Nick, replies bluntly: "Well, what's to like? There was nothing expressive about him... if you wanted to be uncharitable you could say he was just a spoilt boy with a silver spoon and went round feeling sorry for himself. Horrible thing to say, but..."

Where Humphries was reticent about drug use, Dann reveals that Drake was such a good customer that his Cockney heroin dealer bought him a car ("he's gotta 'av wheels"). Catastrophically, in terms of his mental health, he smoked "industrial quantities of cannabis", and Dann unpicks the details of Drake's disputed "suicide", pointing out that he could have taken only slightly more than double his customary dose of antidepressants; it's not hard to imagine someone in his state of mind doing that by accident.

Some vexed questions are unlikely ever to be settled. Drake compartmentalised his life and relationships so severely that several groups of friends only met at his funeral. Consequently, in interview irreconcilable views emerge, particularly on the question of his sexuality. Gay? Schoolfriends said no: "We knew what gay boys were... but it never occurred to me that Nick was that way inclined." The singer Linda Thompson had a "romance" with Drake, but noted: "It was very odd that it wasn't a full sexual thing... whatever he was, he wasn't what we'd call red-blooded, definitely not." Brian Wells, a Cambridge friend turned psychologist, says: "I can't really imagine Nick having sex with anyone because he would have to take his clothes off, and he was always much too shy to do that." But another student friend remembers going round to his hall of residence: "One Saturday or Sunday morning he hadn't got any clothes on and he clearly had company as well, female company, two females in fact, so it wasn't the time."

This aura of mystery is what makes him so compelling, even decades after his death. His "natural quietness... made it easy to weave a web of fantasies around him," observes another female friend. "Falling in love with Nick was a no-brainer and I promptly did."

On the practical side, Dann demonstrates amusing necro-stalker tendencies: "If you walk confidently past the porters' lodge, you should be able to walk up to P Block. Go straight on across Tree Walk..." And his painstaking song-by-song analysis will send you back to the albums with fresh ears ("Finicky listeners may enjoy the little mistake by the session drummer at 2'50"). This is a haunting tribute to this most passionately adored of musicians. As his own lyric (inscribed on his gravestone) has it: "Now we rise / and we are everywhere."

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