March 01, 2010
The magic, mystery and melancholy of Five Leaves Left: Colin Marshall talks to three scholars of singer-songwriter Nick DrakeOn September 1, 1969, the English singer-songwriter and guitarist Nick Drake made his recording debut as his album Five Leaves Left shipped to record stores. Released on producer Joe Boyd's Witchseason label with backing by members of Fairport Convention and string arrangements by Harry Robinson and Drake's Cambridge chum Robert Kirby, the album stands as a haunting, pastoral portrait of the 21-year-old artist as a very young but startlingly musically adept young man. In the four decades since, the record has enchanted new generations of listeners and made insatiable Nick Drake fans of many.
Colin Marshall originally conducted these conversations with Trevor Dann, Patrick Humphries and Peter Hogan, authors of the three books published about Nick Drake, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Five Leaves Left's release on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
Writer, broadcaster and head of the UK Radio Academy Trevor Dann is Nick Drake's newest biographer, having released Darker than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake in 2006.
Can you give us a little background of the musical context of September 1969, the musical world in England into which Five Leaves Left was released?
I think that's a really good question, because people who write about the history of music tend to always concentrate on what was very popular at the time. They forget that there are always substantial undercurrents and smaller genres going on. 1969 people think of as being the year of the first Led Zeppelin album, the year of Woodstock and loud stuff, but aside from that there was a great fashion for rather bespoke, melancholy, quite, folk-y acoustic stuff.
In America, that was John Sebastian at Woodstock. In England, it was the folk revival of people like Cat Stevens. That's the genre into which Nick Drake's music fell, and it was a small market. It was not very popular. It became highly influential, but at the time, it was written about and talked about by the opinion-formers in music of the time.
Because so many of Nick Drake's current fans were, of course, not even around when his music was initially released, how different or similar was his music to that subgenre?
If you went back in time 40 years and switched the radio on, you would hear more music of the type you hear on Five Leaves Left than we now hear. I think that, although it's one of the great timeless records, it's nevertheless of its time more than historians think.
If you were listening to the John Peel show in England at the time, although you did hear what we would call rock music, even hard rock music, you also heard a lot of that kind of thing: John Martyn, even a rock band like Jethro Tull did a lot of acoustic-y kind of work. People were experimenting with what happened when you turned things down, after some years of experimenting with what happened to guitars and other instruments when you turned them up. Although it's become very timeless, I don't think it was as unique a sound as we now think.
I suppose this is the question Nick himself became obsessed with, but if it did fit into a genre, why didn't Five Leaves Left succeed as well as the average release in that genre?
Two simple reasons. One was, he didn't promote it. Even in those days, you had to make some kind of effort, even if your record wasn't being played much on the radio, even if you didn't have a single that could get you in the charts, you had to tour. And he hated touring. He tried it once or twice; he didn't like it. He was playing a kind of music that was very difficult to play in the student common room and at free festivals in those days, because amplification simply wasn't good enough.
He just didn't have the temperament, partly because he didn't have a very loud showbiz personality. Secondly, to be honest with you, he was rather arrogant about his music. I think he felt that it deserved to be listened to, and he didn't work hard enough to win an audience; he assumed that audience should be there for it.
The second reason is the number of problems the record had. It was promoted before it was available in the shops. The sleeve notes don't fit the track listing. The distribution wasn't very good. There were a lot of other technical reasons which meant, having committed everything he'd got to what he thought was this great work of art... it was like being Van Gogh. He'd given everything he could, and he wasn't popular. He hadn't made it. That was one of the reasons why he turned in on himself.
This brings to mind a point you write about a bit in the book, that perhaps a Nick Drake in the age of the internet, of MySpace Music, of a bedroom recording studio out of which you can get good results may have thrived a little more.
I'm absolutely sure that the Nick Drake of our decade would have found this whole thing so much easier. We know, don't we, that you can make — well, we still call them records, but they're audio files or downloads or whatever they are. You can record music as good as he managed to record, literally in your own bedroom, with an easily purchased piece of software, as long as you can play the guitar like an angel, which he could. You've got to have the talent, but in terms of communicating that talent to an audience, I think it's much, much easier to do now, because you don't have that awful barrier of having to be in show business.
A barrier that someone with the personality of a Nick Drake would always find insuperable.
I don't believe that that's ever going to change. Obviously there are some folk singers who became very populist, like Billy Connoly: started off as a folk singer, became such a raconteur that he then became a comedian and stopped playing the guitar altogether. Between 1969 and now, it has become a little bit easier to be weird, to be acceptable through being unacceptable, but you've still got to seek out fame and notoriety enough to make people find you and know whether or not they like you.
The great thing now about Nick's music is that we don't know him. He died all those years ago, so we'll never know him. So (a), he never gets old — he'll always be that beautiful man making that beautiful music — and (b), he never says the wrong thing in an interview. He is exactly who he is, and he always is able to be discovered by a new generation and owned by them.
One of the most striking things about your book is that you give evidence of having come to Nick Drake's music a lot earlier than most people did who write about him. When was your first experience with Five Leaves Left? What was your introduction?
There is a story about this, and it concerns me and being at school, which is a horrible old thought, really. I was coming home from school, and there was a record shop quite near. A friend of mine, Malcolm, and I, went into this shop. They had a sale on, and were selling off some albums that were about three to six months old, quite recent, but which they had obviously overstocked. We thought, "Well, these are so cheap" — I think it was a quarter of the price it would have been — and I took a look at Five Leaves Left.
I was really captivated by the cover, an absolutely beautiful shot of this very beautiful-looking boy, taken by Keith Morris. One of the things I liked about him was that he looked a bit like us. Which indeed he was: he was a boy, he went a smart school and spoke properly and was very English. He didn't look like a hippie; he didn't look like John Sebastian, or any of those kind of freaks, they might have been called at the time. You turn the sleeve over, and such-and-such a track features Richard Thompson, a great guitarist, and I was very fond of him.
I thought, "On spec, I'll just buy this. I think it might be quite good." I took it home and played it a couple of times in the afternoon. I rang Malcolm and said, "What's your record like?" He'd bought something by Tyrannosaurus Rex, and he said, "It's rubbish." And I said, "Well, you know, mine might be the greatest record ever made in the history of music." He said, "Don't be so silly." 40 years on, I still can't listen to that record, particularly the beginning of "Cello Song", without thinking, "This is absolutely bloody brilliant!"
This was not a record that had to take its time to grow on you. This was one that, with the first few bars, immediately had you and has not let go.
Nick Drake's music has you because there is no voice like that. That is an absolutely uncannily beautiful English-accented voice. Very few of those around. Most Brits sing with an American accent, and he absolutely didn't. It hits you because the arrangements, again, are very English. Robert Kirby's writing is I'm kind of thinking Debussy, more than Hollywood-soundtrack orchestral.
It also gets you because there is no other guitar playing like that. I've talked to some terrific guitarists who all say, "There's plenty of music that maybe he couldn't play, but his own songs &mdashl; crikey, it's almost impossible to replicate them!" The machine-like accuracy and power in those fingers on the acoustic guitar is, I think, breathtaking, and never been rivaled.
You've brought up "Cello Song", which comes in the early middle of the album —
Can I stop you, then? Now, you see, you're probably a younger man than me, but of course it doesn't come in the middle, it comes at the beginning of side two. It's an interesting thought, this, because, albums — it mattered. It really mattered in those days that you started side two in a certain way and you ended side two in a certain way. It's something that Five Leaves Left gets gloriously right.
Anyway, sorry. I interrupted you.
It's no problem. It's also a function of me being a Yank. I'm over here in America, where his vinyl was not so popular. It's the CD era where people started buying him here. So it's my age and also my nationality combined to mean that I only have him on CD. Thus far.
I forgive you.
The track "Cello Song" — the beginning of side two — you bring it up in the book as the most perfect track on the album. Has it always been your favorite?
It's always been my favorite because, like all good pieces of music, it picks you up in one place and deposits you in another. I don't like songs which start and finish the same.
It has a marvelous introduction. One of the things that's very interesting about Nick Drake's music is how often you now hear it. Even since I wrote my book, I hear Nick Drake music all the time: on television documentaries, the soundtrack, as talkovers on radio shows, as signature tunes and things. It's absolutely compelling, the beginning of "Cello Song". It completely engages you. It as powerful as a bah-bah-bah-bah, or the beginning of "Start Me Up", some of the great beginnings of pieces of music. Once you've heard this, you've got to listen to the whole thing, and it doesn't let you down.
So if we take "Cello Song" as the most perfect, what equals it? Does anything equal it on Five Leaves Left, to you?
I loved "Time Has Told Me". I think it's a beautiful love song, perhaps in some ways second only to "Northern Sky", the best, if you like, "conventional" song he ever wrote. "Fruit Tree" is a very difficult listen, predicting, as it does, his demise. We can argue forever, and people will do, whether he was saying, "You'd better enjoy this, 'cause I won't be around long." That's clearly one interpretation of those lyrics.
There's one song on it which I don't like very much, which is the lighthearted little ramble called "Man in the Shed". It's meant to be, you know, Nick's lighter side. To me, it's a real throwaway. If I'd been Joe Boyd, I think I'd have said, "Nick, let's leave that one off, shall we?" To me, it's the "With a Little Help from My Friends" track; there was always one on a Beatles album, sung by Ringo. Of course, in today's world of downloads, you don't have to have it there at all.
True, you can put it in whatever order you'd like to have it, although I know there are many Nick Drake purists who would gasp at the suggestion that you would move around anything on the album.
"Timeless" is a word we've brought up. How accurate is that? Obviously one can put it to a date, listening to it, but then again, the appeal seems to have only grown over time. How does "timeless" apply to this album?
What "timeless" means to me is that is sounds like it was made yesterday. That's, of course, a tribute to Nick Drake and his guitar-playing, but it's also a tribute to John Wood, the engineer, and up to a point, Joe Boyd, the producer.
I tried, as an experiment, listening to some other records from 1969 and wondering if they did sound contemporary. You're talking about the era of records like "Get Back" by the Beatles, you're talking about Led Zeppelin I. Those records, when you hear then now, they're great records, great performances, but the recording of them is somehow mushy and old. You feel like you need to sprinkle a bit of fairy dust on them.
But you put Five Leaves Left on now — bang. It sounds like he's in the room with you. I think that is one of the great attributes those records have, this sound so shiny and new and modern whilst at the same time touching some very deep and subconscious themes.
This quality, do you find it in all three of the released albums in Nick Drake's lifetime, or is this more of a Five Leaves Left thing?
I think Five Leaves Left is the most timeless of them, in terms of their sound. Pink Moon runs at a very close second. Bryter Layter, the second album, is the controversial one, because as soon as you put a band in there, you're starting to talk about the way musical instruments were played at a certain time. I think that's more dated, although I really love songs like "Hazy Jane" I and II, and "Northern Sky", obviously one of the great highlights of his career.
There's something about Bryter Layter which does sound more like it comes from the archives. You know how still on radio stations, people say, "Here's a record from 19-whenever," and it's meant to take us back in time to that period. We play "Born to Run" and it sounds like then. Some records take you back somewhere else. Bryter Layter does make me think of 1970, 71. Five Leaves Left I don't think does that. It sounds as contemporary now as it did then.
When you were researching this album for your book, what did you find that can actually be put into words about how this was achieved? You mentioned the skills of the engineer, you mentioned Nick's own skills, but what can actually be said about what was done to make this album so timeless?
I'm no engineer, and John Wood, the guy who did engineer these records so brilliantly, will not speak any longer. We had an e-mail conversation, but that was as far as it went. People who know more about records than I do tell me that it's all about where you put the microphones. John Wood had a special idea about how you mic up an acoustic guitar so that you get all the good sounds — all the music, all the notes, all the depth, all the profound quality of a big, fat acoustic guitar — and none of the horrid slide-y noises of the fingers on the strings.
I don't know how you do that, I'll be absolutely frank with you, but I'll tell you what: if you listen to a James Taylor record of the same period, you'll wish that John Wood had been engineering that as well. You can hear far too much extraneous mechanism to the sound.
Since you've been listening to Five Leaves Left for almost the length of time it's been in the world, how has your appreciation of it changed over time? I know that's a grand question, but something's got to have changed with the 40 years.
Let me tell you a story about Nick Drake's music. I have a girl who works for me at the Radio Academy here in England who's 25, something like that, and saw an article about Nick Drake. She said, "You like him, don't you? What's he like?" So I said, "I'll make you a little file of stuff," as we do in this modern age.
I passed them on. Well, she's become as devoted as I am. I think that shows you, whether you're the teenager or the young woman or, as in my case, the old git, it still speaks to you. There's still something very profound about what he says as well as the way in which he says it.
In 1997, Patrick Humphries, author of books on musicians like Bruce Springsteen, Paul Simon, Tom Waits and Elvis Presley, became Nick Drake's first biographer with the publication of Nick Drake: The Biography.
The fandom that Nick Drake has grown so much that it's hard for new listeners to understand — what is your recollection of the interest in Nick Drake at the time you were writing this book?
It was pretty minimal, to be honest. For once in my writing career, I got it just right: if the book had come out a year or two earlier, it would've died because nobody had heard of Nick Drake. If it had come out a year or two later, it would have been jumping on the bandwagon.
There had been a couple of articles over the years: off the top of my head, I can think of the Arthur Lubow essay that appeared with the Fruit Tree box set that came out about ten years after Nick died and a very good series of pieces by Nick Kent in New Musical Express. Apart from that, there was very little to go on. Don't forget, when I began writing the book it was effectively the pre-internet era. You couldn't just Google "Nick Drake" or "Island Records" or "Witchseason" or whatever. You had to go newspaper libraries to track down yellowing back issues of Melody Maker and ZigZag and try to find people who knew him. It was really ground zero, because nobody who had known Nick had ever been properly interviewed about him.
He was this incredibly unknown quantity. It's strange now, because you can turn on the radio, go to the movies, look at televison adverts and Nick's all over the place. Back then, he was — as I think I say in the book — a footnote to a footnote in the history of rock and roll.
Indeed, now his music is absolutely everywhere. Looking at your complete body of work thus far, it is funny, the extent to which Nick Drake's name stands out among all of these cultural titans that you've written about.
Yeah, it is odd. I think it's important to tell people just how unknown he was in his lifetime. I won't say "until my book appeared," but it was around that time that the compilations began appearing, and the cover versions — Nick has become incredibly popular.
I remember talking to a writer called Pete Frame, who ran ZigZag, the nearest UK equivalent to Rolling Stone. It was one of the few magazines that treated pop rock music seriously. I remember saying to Frame when I interviewed him, "You were around when Nick was recording and performing. What are your memories of him?" He said, "Well, the fact that he was on Island Records was interesting, the fact that he was produced by Joe Boyd was interesting, the fact that some of Fairport were on the album, but there was so much other music around at the time. Nick didn't do interviews, he didn't gig much. There was so much else going on that he was overlooked." It was true of Gram Parsons; he was of interest because he'd been in the Byrds. It was only posthumously that these artists received the recognition that they deserved in their lifetimes.
What can you remember about your first exposure to the music of Nick Drake? Was it Five Leaves Left?
I wish I could say there was some personal moment. The whole thing that got me into it was, I went to the Bath Music Festival in 1970. Pink Floyd were there, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Donovan — it was an incredible bill. Fairport Convention were on, and I'd been dimly aware of them. This was around the time that Sandy Denny had left, and they were playing much of the Full House album, Richard Thompson and Dave Swarbrick were doing these incredible gigs onstage. I thought that was terrific; I really enjoyed that.
That got me into Fairport and anybody in the Fairport orbit. Nick was there, but not in his lifetime was I much aware of him. There was an Island sampler, You Can All Join In or Nice Enough to Eat, that had a Nick song on it. That was nice, but in a sense, it wasn't really the music that attracted me to Nick; it was the fact that I discovered, very late, that my uncle, Dr. James Wallace Lusk, was the doctor who actually delivered Nick into the world. He was a doctor for the British community in Burma during the Second World War and just after. Just before he died, he asked me, did I known the singer called Nicholas Drake? Knowing my uncle's age and his musical interests, I assumed it was some sort of Bing Crosby-type crooner. He said, "There's a record called Fruit Tree." I thought, "Oh, Nick Drake, yeah."
That was here, and then I'd written a book about Richard Thompson, who I admire and esteem greatly still. A wonderful artist, contemporary of Nick. Richard agreed to cooperate with the book; I spoke to him, his family, his sister, his wife, his children, musicians he'd worked with. Because the Island-Witchseason group was fairly closely knit, Nick's name just kept coming up. Dave Pegg would say, "I was doing a session for Nick Drake." Richard would say, "Oh yes, Nick was in the office once."
I remember coming back to my wife and saying, "God, Nick Drake, there's so little known." She said, "Well, you should do a book on Nick." I said, "There's nothing known about him!" My flatmate and literary agent at the time, Peter Hogan, we had dinner with him, and he said, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm thinking about doing a book on Nick Drake, but I don't think it's going to be a very long book." Peter said, "Well, make it a short book." I go, "Yeah, fine, why not?" Of course, once I started writing, once I started searching, investigating, talking to people who knew Nick, I realized that, in fact, there was enough for a long book.
If you hadn't liked the music all that much, I can't imagine you would've been able to write such a book. Did the music itself grab you in any way when you came upon it, or was this a slow-acting agent?
It helped that I wasn't completely obsessed by Nick's music. In effect, when I was writing the book, there were the three albums, the four tracks he did just before he died, and that was it. Gradually, you tap into the subterranean world of bootlegs and people who've got every last cough and spit that you can hear, but effectively, when I was writing the book, there were only those three dozen songs. One way to put you off someone's music is to write a book about them, because you're living with that music. But Nick's music — there's something unique about Nick Drake. There's something about his sound, about his voice, about his guitar playing.
Eternal credit to producer Joe Boyd and engineer John Wood; the sound they got on those records makes them absolutely timeless. You put on other records from the early seventies and they sound incredibly dated, either in terms of their production or the musical instrumentation or the lyrics. But Nick's records, which are 40 years old now, really do sound like they could have been recorded last year. Now, a decade after having written the book and living with Nick on a daily basis because of what you hear and what people write to me about — there's an incredible uniqueness to Nick Drake. But he died before his full potential could be realized.
Somebody like Richard Thompson, who's 60 this year, has grown and matured and developed as an artist, as a songwriter, as a craftsman. Nick never had that luxury. He was cut off in his prime, and, lyrically particularly, his music is quite adolescent. He casts himself as the misunderstood outsider. Had he grown and developed, his music would've developed with him. Even having said that, you hear Nick Drake now and you know nobody else sounds like him.
This timelessness, especially when you put it the context of the albums of the time, always comes up in conversations about Five Leaves Left. I want to get your perspective here, because, having written the book and having listened to him day in and day out while writing it, and having no doubt been contacted by people like me over and over again to talk about Nick Drake and his music — when I asked you to talk a bit about Five Leaves Left, was there an element of, "Oh, I've got to listen to this album one more time," or is there still joy remaining in putting it on the turntable?
Oh yes. I don't want you to think I'm being negative about Nick's music; I think it's an extraordinarily accomplished debut album. Of course, it comes with this enormous weight around it, knowing that this is Nick's debut album and he was dead within five years and only had two other records in him. Everything about Nick is put under the microscope and examined in great detail, and always hovering over any of his work is this tragically premature death.
I hope what I did in the book — and I will get around to Five Leaves Left, I promise — was say, "Actually, let's look at this life." He was 26 when he died, which is far too young to die, but I really do believe that, for 23 or 24 of those years, he was, by and large, very happy. He came from a very loving family, he was noted by musicians, people admired him. The last two years of his life were clouded by terrible depression. What's a disservice to Nick and to his memory and to his music is this image of the doomed outsider. He wanted success. He was ambitious. He wanted his music to be heard by as wide an audience as possible.
I listen to Five Leaves Left and I'm amazed at how accomplished it is. You think of how young he was when he made this record, and the sound of it, the depths of it, particularly "Cello Song", "River Man", "Thee Hours" — these pieces really do stand up remarkably well over the years. There's a great deal to be drawn from Five Leaves Left; I just think that, had Nick lived, he would've developed and progressed. And of course, death took that from us. We will never know. The climate Nick was creating music in was so vastly different from what it is today, and I think that's one reason why his legend has grown: so little is known about him because so little was written at the time.
There are many moments when I listen to these albums and think to myself, "I wonder what Nick Drake, had he lived, would have been doing in" — not even the present, but 1987, for example. You can think of what a John Martyn or Richard Thompson was doing at that time and try to extrapolate Nick out that way, but it all seems like a vaguely preposterous exercise.
When I talk to people about Nick, particularly young people who have only got into him very recently, young people who have grown up in an age of MP3 downloads, CDs, the internet — cast your mind back to 1969 and 1972, when Nick was making music. I grew up in that time, and I remember it very well. It was clunky old LPs. To listen to the last songs, you'd have to turn the record over.
Nobody was writing about this stuff. The music press of the time, the weekly papers, were writing about chart acts or the big underground names: Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd. They weren't writing about singer-songwriters like Nick. Young people today find it very difficult to imagine the climate of the industry Nick was making his music in. The image of Nick was that he loathed performing. I had somebody on the phone not long ago who said, "Nick only played four gigs in his entire life and one of them was behind a curtain." I said, "Well, no, actually." Nobody's quite sure how many gigs it was, but it was probably a couple of dozen.
When I was talking to people who knew Nick at school — when I began the book, of course, all I knew was what had already appeared in print, that he was terrified of performing live — he was in bands at school! He loved performing, but in a group context. What put Nick off performing live when he signed to Island was, it was just him and his guitar. He didn't have a roadie, he didn't have a road crew, he didn't have a minder. He'd turn up at a pub in the north of England playing to an audience who, if it was a folk set, wanted to sing along to the songs, and the one thing with songs of Nick's you couldn't really do was sing along. He felt that very isolating, and I think that contributed to his withdrawal from performance.
In those days, in the late sixties and early seventies, if you weren't out gigging, you weren't reaching an audience. I remember talking to David Betteridge, who was Chris Blackwell's number two at Island Records, and saying, "There is a conspiracy theory that the music industry almost killed Nick because he was too good to live." He said, "No, the truth was, anybody on Island Records — if it was Bob Marley or Roxy Music or John Martyn or Fairport, Sandy Denny — whenever we had a meeting about the current album, it was, 'Is there a single on the album?' and 'Are they gigging?' Nick never released a single in his lifetime, and he gave up gigging after maybe a dozen shows to promote Five Leaves Left. In the year that Bryter Layter came out, Nick's exact contemporary on Island, Cat Stevens, played hundreds of gigs and flew 250,000 miles to promote the album. Nick didn't do anything." That's why he was unknown in his lifetime.
To come round to answering your question, I think, had he lived, the climate would be a lot more encouraging today. He needn't have gone out on the road to perform. He could be in a basement somewhere and be on YouTube. He could be writing songs taht he could put out to other artists. He could be interviewed in MOJO magazine or Rolling Stone, magazines that would give him the space to articulate his thoughts and feelings. None of this was available when Nick was performing.
It's fascinating, if fruitless, to speculate what he would have done, but I think people underestimate his ambition. They see him as this very bruised, damaged, sensitive soul, but he was also very ambitious. He wanted his music to be heard, and the only way of making it heard in those days was by performing, which was anathema to him. Were he alive in the eighties or nineties, there'd be the opportunity of videos and television exposure and more radio. That would've been a platform for his music.
There does seem to be a fable-like quality to this element of Nick's life and career, in that — I would say it still obtains somewhat to day — no matter how good your actual product is, for example, if it's a Five Leaves Left or his other albums, it may well sink despite any level of quality if you're not willing to promote it in whatever is the fashion of the day.
I think that's true. In Nick's time, it was going out. If you were on Island records and you were a singer-songwriter, you would have gone out on a bill either headlined by Fotheringay or Fairport, and John and Beverly Martyn would have been the supporting act, and the opening act would have been Nick Drake, which indeed was the case on a number of occasions. The idea then was that people in the audience would hear this new singer-songwriter whose work they were not familiar with, would be sufficiently intrigued and would go out and spend 32 and six on his new album.
That was the platform that existed at the time for people like Nick. When that was taken away from him, that effectively ended his career. It wasn't the machinations of the record industry; Joe Boyd and Chris Blackwell were tremendously supportive of Nick. Don't forget, these record sales were negligible. In the book, I estimated and talked to people and worked out that, during his entire lifetime, the three albums he recorded sold, in total, worldwide, probably less than 10,000 copies. People weren't aware of him, and when Pink Moon appeared on the Volkswagen ad years ago, Nick sold more records the day that appeared, through downloads, than he sold in his entire lifetime.
It is fascinating to think about how you can see the shape of his career change so much even after he was long gone. I wonder, with the perspective you have, with decades of listening to Nick Drake and of learning so much, essentially more than anybody else about Nick Drake, with the three albums he released in his lifetime, how do you regard the position of Five Leaves Left among those? You call Bryter Layter his masterpiece in your book, but that was a while ago. My opinion changes about which is the favorite or which I find the best. How do you see the place of this album in his career?
I think Five Leaves Left is an extraordinarily competent and confident debut album, but it is, nonetheless, a debut album. There's very few great debuts: Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, Sex Pistols, whoever, the debut albums are not the defining records. I still maintain that Bryter Layter is the masterpiece, and if we treat it as a sign post, that's the way he could have gone and could have developed. I know the failure of Bryter Layter was what contributed to Nick's personal decline, the failure of that record he put everything into. That began the downward spiral.
I think the problem of all the records of people who have died prematurely — be they Jeff Buckley, Tim Buckley, Tim Hardin or whoever — you read so much into them. Five Leaves Left, there's some beautiful playing on it and there's some lovely instrumentation, Robert Kirby's orchestrations, again you come back to Joe Boyd and John Wood getting that incredibly rich sound. Even the photos, Keith Morris' photos. There's something very elegant about the whole package. I know Ian McDonald, a contemporary of Nick's at Cambridge, the defining image of Nick is that running-man photo on the back of the album: Nick stock-sill, leaning very elegantly against the wall, and the man in a terrible hurry, rushing past him. I think that is the defining image of Nick.
The first interview I did for the book — because, as I say, so little was known at the time and the image that defined him was gloomy, unsmiling, always dressed in black, only ever listened to Leonard Cohen, was very, very dark — I tracked down some people who'd been at school with Nick. The very first interview I did was of an old friend of his from school, Jeremy Mason. We got to know each other very well; we still keep in touch. He's a massive Bob Dylan fan, as indeed am I, and every month or so we're on the phone about Bob or Nick. But Jeremy is the only person we know is the subject of a song by Nick Drake; he's Jeremy in "Three Hours". Everyone assumed this is the time it took to get from Cambridge, where Nick was at university, to London, but in fact both Jeremy and I believe it's the time it took to get from Marlborough, where they were both at school, to London by car. "Jeremy flies," you know, this is Jeremy Mason.
"Did Nick ever explain?" He said, "No, never. I've thought about it and I can't — I don't know why I'm there. I don't know why he wrote about me." He asked Nick; he said the last time he saw him, just before Pink Moon came out, they went to a pub in Chelsea. Jeremy said, "Why am I in this song?" Nick said, "It was a perception of how I perceived you at the time," and that's all he would say. I was talking to Jeremy quite recently — I think somebody else was doing a program about Nick — and he said, "Oh yes, since your book I've become quite famous. Now I'm known to be the subject of a song by Nick Drake. I'm in an elite category alongside Mrs. Robinson and Peggy Sue." He's quite pleased with the results.
Music writer Peter Hogan is the author of the 2008 critical study of Nick Drake's entire career, Nick Drake: The Complete Guide to His Music.
We have such different portraits of the artist as a young man, you might say, although a young man was as far as he got, in Nick Drake's three albums. Who would you say is the Nick Drake we hear in the first album specifically, as opposed to the more mature Nick Drakes of the next two?
He's not at the start of his career at this point, because he'd actually been playing music for a few years and had made several demo tapes, mainly cover versions of songs by people like Joni Mitchell and Bert Jansch and other artists of the era that he liked. Some of that material would later surface on the Family Tree album. Those tapes also contained his first attempts at songwriting, and very little of that material actually made it onto Five Leaves Left. By the time he does Five Leaves Left, he's already a couple of years into his career and a little bit more mature in his writing. Although there are several songs that are, you could say, weak, or naïve, there are also pieces like "River Man", which is as good as anything he did in his entire career.
Going by your book, I have you down as being introduced to his music via the label's sampler. How did you receive this first album when you heard it yourself, the album in its entirety?
I thought it was patchy, which I still kind of do. There are things on it that I really like and other things that I thought were not so hot. It didn't convince me at the time that Nick was anything more than just another singer-songwriter. Bryter Layter was really the album that convinced me of that, and then I backtracked to the first one and grew to appreciate it more.
Earlier in this program, we spoke to both Trevor Dann and Patrick Humphries. Trevor said he picked up the album and thought, "This is the best album in recorded history." Humphries said that he has now settled on Bryter Later as his favorite. You've gone back and forth, then?
I like all of them for different reasons and in different ways. In some ways, I think Pink Moon is his best album; it has a warmth and maturity that is a culmination, for all the fact that it is very stark in its arrangements. All three albums are kind of astonishing when you consider the competition at the time. They've obviously got a maturity that causes them to last down the years in the way that, say, the worlds of Al Stewart or Roy Harper didn't really manage to achieve. People often say there's a freshness about Nick's music, that it sounds as if it could have been recorded yesterday.
What particularly about Five Leaves Left do you think represents its high points, what it does very well even in comparison with the other two?
I think in the best songs, there's a kind of timelessness which you could say is rooted in the fact that Nick was studying English and French Romantic poetry. You could say there's an element of mysticism there that tied into the hippie era when it was recorded. Like I said, there's this mysterious "factor x" which has caused it to last down the years. It's a bit like Love's Forever Changes; it just sounds timeless. It doesn't sound like a product of its time in the way that a lot of the psychedelic music — both the west coast stuff and the English stuff — it's great and I love it, but it sounds like a product of its time.
Would I be correct in assuming that, when you're writing a book about Nick Drake, that is the prime challenge? To try to convey whatever you can of the so-called "x factor"?
Partly that. There's also a thing with Nick in that there's a lot of romanticism attached to him because he died so young. A mystery of the heart of that is that people want to know, was it an accident? Was it suicide? If it was suicide, what were the reasons? Ultimately, questions you can't answer. Nonetheless, you can't help speculating about it. That's part of the point of doing a book, I suppose.
As someone who had been listening to his music for so long, what did you make of the last ten-year burst of popularity in Nick Drake's music? It really is confined to the last decade that his music has gotten so popular. What did you think of this when it started becoming obvious?
Well, all very odd, really. I don't feel like these people are trampling on my personal preserve or anything. I think it's great. I just wish, for Nick's sake, that it had happened in his lifetime, but better late than never.
You mentioned your reaction to Five Leaves Left initially being one of finding it somewhat patchy. How have your thoughts about it changed over the decades?
It's almost like, with the three major albums, stages of Nick's career, Nick's life. What you get with Five Leaves Left is a young guy at university, writing observations about life and love with maybe more maturity for his years than you might expect. But nonetheless, as time goes on, he improves as a songwriter, even though it does become a bit darker and bleaker. In a way, what you have with the first album is a younger, happier, more optimistic Nick, possibly. If there's a bit of naivety there and a couple of songs that make you wince, that's just part of the package. The good stuff more than makes up for the bad.
Both Trevor and Patrick did a bit of trampling on "Man in the Shed". Judging by your book, you are no fan of that track as well.
No, no. I nearly mentioned it a minute ago. I think it's awful. Sorry. If there's anybody out there that loves it, good luck to you, but I'm not one of them.
Have you met anybody who does? I'm fascinated by how the track has become the whipping boy for the album.
I can't say I've ever had anybody jabbing me in the chest and going, "You're completely wrong about this one." No, no. Never.
It's just so funny. I'd heard it so many times, I'd never given it a second thought, and then these three books all say, "Well this track stinks." I guess maybe it does.
Yep, that's about the size of it.
More than the low points of the album, it's important to focus on the high points. What do you consider the high points? What strikes you every time about Five Leaves Left?
"Day is Done", "River Man", "Way to Blue", which is extraordinary. "Time Has Told Me". And "Thoughts of Mary Jane", "Cello Song". Those are the ones I really like.
When you've spent so much time listening to Nick Drake's music and you've already given it plenty of thought and there are two books out, how do you go about putting your own stamp on the telling of Nick Drake's story and the analysis of his music?
I can't claim to have done the original research that Patrick and Trevor did, because they'd pretty much covered everybody. Ultimately, what I am left with is my opinion, my insight, for what it's worth, a few theories, and to bring the whole thing together. Also, with the spate of releases, like you say, in the last decade, there were things that Patrick and Trevor hadn't touched on yet that I was able to cover, but other than that, I honestly don't think there are any real major pieces of the jigsaw missing. We probably know as much as we're ever going ot know.
The fact that your book is specifically focused on the music — of course there are details about Nick Drake's life as well, and one will get a decent overview of that reading your book, but — it does bring up an issue that has come to my mind a lot regarding Nick Drake, which is the fact that, as we've mentioned, there is the romantic element: died young, never got his due. I don't think the music gets fogotten, but it does seem the music gets a tad drowned out, perhaps more than it should, based on the tragic elements of his life. Is that something you have also found?
I think it's kind of inevitable, and people do to project their own romanticism onto Nick. People who've been heartbroken tend to think, "Oh, Nick must've been heartbroken." People who are gay think he must've been gay. Whatever the evidence or lack of evidence, people will always have their own personal theories about it. I think it can tend to overshadow the music. In a way, it's very hard to divorce the two.
One thing a lot of people say to me is, "Nick Drake is great, but it's depressing." I've never felt that. I've never felt the music was depressing. Maybe towards the end when you get things like "Black Eyed Dog", yes, these are a little difficult to listen to. But Pink Moon I don't find depressing, and certainly not the earlier two. I think there is a sort of projection of the fact that Nick's life, Nick's death — these were depressing. It was writing about him I find very difficult, very draining, just because it is such a sad story. But I don't think that carries through to the music. The music, if anything, transcends that. That's Nick's victory. You listen to that music and there's joy and there's beauty.
Most of Nick Drake's most fervent fans seem to have been born after Nick died, and you were listening to his music when he was not yet a romantic, tragic, mythical figure almost. When he was alive and, to everyone's knowledge, well. What can you tell us about the experience of hearing Nick Drake before Nick Drake was the mythical Nick Drake?
You wanted more, basically. Once I'd heard Bryter Layter I went out and made sure I gave Five Leaves Left another thorough listening-to. Then you're basically sitting, waiting for the next one to come out. There would be the odd occasional snippet in the music papers of, "Oh yes, Nick is recording a new album," and you think, "Oh, great! Something to look forward to!" Eventually you got Pink Moon, and then there would be rumors that he was doing another one.
The next thing anybody knew, he'd died. Nobody had written about Nick at all at that point, so the fact that he was suffering from depression, had withdrawn and was living with mum and dad — the record-buying public knew none of this. All of these things you found out later. In a way, you got the music without any of that. You judged it on its own terms. I don't think most people pick up on Nick because it's a romantic story and he looked good. I think for most people, they hear the music, they like it and they want more. They go out and buy a best-of and take it from there. Which is as it should be, really. If there are people who are picking up on him because he looked good and he's dead, it's all rather sad. It says something rather sad about them.
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