I have a very clear memory of seeing the 1999 commercial for the Volkswagen Cabriolet for the first time and thinking, “What is that gorgeous music?” After a little digging, I discovered it was “Pink Moon” by Nick Drake, but when I went looking for more information about the artist, I was shocked to learn he’d died in 1974. His music sounded so fresh to me, I couldn’t imagine it was 25 years old. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one to find the song relevant. Thanks to that commercial, for the first time ever, a Nick Drake song made it to the Billboard Top 100.
Crippling shyness, devastatingly-low self-confidence, and struggles with mental illness nearly prevented Nick Drake’s staggering talent from seeing the light of day.
“His shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent. He sat on a small stool, hunched tight over a tiny Guild guitar, beginning songs and, halfway through, forgetting where he was and stumbling back to the start of that song, or beginning an entirely different song which he would then abandon mid-way through if he remembered the remainder of the first. He sang away from the microphone, mumbled and whispered, all with a sense of precariousness and doom. It was like being at the bedside of a dying man who wants to tell you a secret, but who keeps changing his mind at the last minute.” -Brian Cullman, talking about Nick Drake’s set at Les Cousins in 1970
He very quickly gave up on performing live, although not before Island Records signed him for a three-record deal. While he did make those three records, reviewers didn’t seem to know what to make of his music, which was all over the place by early ’70’s standards. He was too folky for jazz, too jazzy for folk, and his orchestrations swung wildly from the very spare to classical overtones to loungy horns to over-the-top cinematic strings.
“The more you listen to Drake, the more compelling his music becomes—but all the time it hides from you … It could be that Nick Drake does not exist at all.” -Mark Plummer, Melody Maker, May 1972
Of course, these days, with the lines between genres blurred, sometimes beyond recognition, his beautiful, unpredictable style, shy vocals, and lovely melodies are finally getting him the appreciation he didn’t receive during his lifetime.
Drake died in 1974 at the age of 26 of an antidepressant overdose in his childhood bedroom. It’s very sad that his music didn’t bring him peace. I certainly find it soothing. A mini-documentary was made about his life which is worth checking out: “A Skin Too Few – The Days of Nick Drake.”