Full disclosure: Pink Moon is one of my favourite albums of all time. Intense, poetic, spare and utterly gorgeous, Pink Moon is a triumph. Nick Drake, however, is something of an enigma. Only the bare facts have been known of his life until recently, that he was enrolled in a literature course at Cambridge and dropped out to pursue music, his success essentially guaranteed from those around him, including his producer, Joe Boyd, and the session musicians he played with. When his second album, Bryter Layter, didn’t sell well, Drake’s depression worsened. Shy and introverted, Drake gave one interview in his lifetime, and gave very few live shows. At these live shows he played his songs, taking a long time to retune his guitar for each tune, as many of his songs used very irregular tunings. People would talk over him and he’d simply walk off stage.
During his first and only tour, Drake rang Boyd and said he was finished. Due to their being no first hand testimony from the man himself, his songs are often used to elucidate light upon his mental state at the time. Bryter Layter shows traces of deep unease with living in London and a generally worsening mental state – no one knows how steep my stairs, no body sees how shaky my knees – he sings on ‘Poor Boy’. Drake’s elusiveness – a state that his mother remarked left her son as ‘a soul without a footprint’ – has allowed many myths and misconceptions to arise around him, and thus Drake is rarely seen on his own terms. Certainly I can make no claim to that. One friend remembered that, upon visiting Drake in London, he got no answer at the door. He peered in the window, and saw Drake, sat on the floor, starring at the wall. On one occasion his sister received a phone call from the police, as he couldn’t move at a zebra crossing. He’d been standing there for an hour. With his mental state worsening, he moved back in to his parent’s house, leaving London behind to return to the small village of Tanworth-in-Arden.
Drake was quickly prescribed anti-depressants. Eventually he would spend time in a psychiatric hospital. He found driving a great comfort, often calling his parents in the middle of the night, asking to be picked up, as he’d rather run out of petrol than ask the attendant for gas. He visited friends, but was often quiet and catatonic. Drake embodied the typical attitude of his time, as his father Rodney reports “he would stop taking them [antidepressants] and say: ‘I’m going to get through this my own way’”. From friends remembrances, it’s clear that Drake was ashamed of his depression, with one friend commenting, “”He would be staying at my flat and we would be talking, and he’d say: ‘Do you mind if I go into the kitchen and take my pills [anti-depressants]. I’m frightfully sorry, frightfully sorry.’” His mental state worsened, with Drake commenting “”I can’t cope, all the defences are gone. All the nerves are exposed” and “I can’t think of words. I feel no emotion about anything. I don’t want to laugh or cry. I’m numb-dead inside.”. He resented being at his parents house, telling his mother “I don’t like it at home yet I can’t bear it anywhere else.”
Amidst all this, he booked two midnight sessions to record what would be his final album, Pink Moon. With next to no overdubs recording was quick and the album saw release even quicker. Here Drake abandoned the orchestrations of his previous two albums, opting for a spare style. The album, bar a piano overdub, is just Drake and his guitar. The album is a slim twenty eight minutes long, however, as his sound engineer John Wood said, “If something is that intense, it can’t really be measured in minutes”. Wood said of the recording session, “He arrived at midnight and we started. It was done very quickly. After we had finished I asked him what I should keep, and he said all of it, which was a complete contrast to his former stance. He came in for another evening and that was it. It took hardly any time to mix, since it was only his voice and guitar, with one overdub only. Nick was adamant about what he wanted. He wanted it to be spare and stark, and he wanted it to be spontaneously recorded.”. The record is indelibly imbued with Drake’s worsening mental landscape, as he sings in ‘Parasite’ “take a look, you may see me on the ground, for I am the parasite of this town.”. Despite this, however, the album as a whole can’t truly be said to be depressing. As it opens, Drake sings “thought I’d see when day was done” and “give me a place to be”. In it’s middle section the landscape darkens, as Drake’s guitar cuts through the clean air, often piercing in its power and intensity. However ultimately the album, at its darkest point, begins to see light, and the album ends with imagery of the morning, after the night has passed, with Drake singing in the album’s final lyric “go play the game that you learnt from the morning”.
Unfortunately this positive note wasn’t reflected in Drake’s life. His mental state worsened as Pink Moon also failed to sell. Drake’s resentment grew, as many around him had promised him success. In his final recording session he recorded a song, Hanging on A Star, singing “why leave me hanging on a star, when you deem me so high?”. From his father Rodney’s diary, that he kept during this period, an image emerges of a young man who is sinking and doesn’t know what to do. He smashes chairs in frustration, and he can only point blame inward. Gradually, things seemed to improve, with Drake taking some time away in France.
However, this period wasn’t to last. Drake’s deterioration can be seen in the last session he ever did, where he was in such a state that he couldn’t sing and play guitar at the same time, something he’d previously always been able to do. His mental state also shines through in the final songs he recorded, among them ‘Black-Eyed Dog’, where he sings with resignation “I’m growing old and I wanna go home” ending the song with “A black eyed dog he called at my door, a black eyed dog he called for more”. Evidently, the black eyed dog wasn’t finished with Nick Drake.
Shortly after those final sessions, Nick Drake died, aged twenty six. The coroner ruled his death a suicide, having overdoseed on antidepressants. However this verdict has been disputed, as the antidepressants Drake was taking at the time were so potent that merely taking one more than the prescribed dose could have killed him. Thus, it remains in the eye of the beholder. Intentional or not, however, a young man remains dead, and all we’re left with is his discography, numbering at three albums, two compilations and a single John Peel session.
In the decades after Drake’s death his parents often received visitors wishing to honour Drake’s memory, with his parents often sharing his home recordings with visitors (hence the bootlegs that float around the internet). In the 90’s the titular song of his final album was featured in a Volkswagen advert, and within a single week Drake sold more records than he had in his entire lifetime. His stature amongst musicians only continues to grow. Nick Drake often said to his mother that he wished his music could have helped a single person, then it all would have been worth it. I, along with thousands of others can say that Drake has done just that and more, but unfortunately, he isn’t around to see it.