Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Nick Drake, Emily Dickinson, and the Fruit Tree

Somewhere along the line it came to my attention that there is no known footage of Nick Drake performing. I found this surprising, given the amount of respect and importance he seemed to have, but more curious than unthinkable; when I learned the same thing about Big Star -- as I understand it, there is footage of them rehearsing, but it has no sound -- it didn't exactly throw me into a tailspin either.

It wasn't until my buddy Frank leant me a copy of Joe Boyd's killer memoir White Bicycles that I really gave this any serious thought. Boyd was a baby-boomer American, born in Boston and educated at Harvard, who went overseas to become the secret hero of the British underground rock, blues, and folk scenes. He co-founded the legendary UFO club where Pink Floyd and Soft Machine built their legends (Boyd produced Floyd's first single, "Arnold Layne," the wonderfully bizarre tale of a cross-dresser who's sentenced to the chain gang), recorded the original version of Eric Clapton's "Crossroads," produced the Fairport Convention's best records, and managed the Incredible String Band through their influential (though often tumultuous) career.

Oh yeah, and he all but single-handedly discovered and signed Nick Drake to Island Records.

Boyd's book fleshed out the Drake mystique: The tall, quiet child of privilege and learning with tobacco stains on his long fingers, which he used to play intricate folk-picking patterns while singing soft, melancholy melodies of haunting beauty. The songs often employed bizarre time signatures and cryptic tunings that only Drake seemed to know, which led to long, silent pauses between songs when he played for other people. For Boyd, Drake seemed to arrive fully-formed -- for all of his bizarre rhythms and complicated guitar accompaniments, Boyd never recalls Drake ever flubbing a guitar part or losing his way with a vocal; every performance felt full and complete, whether live or in the studio.

Drake's lack of stage banter and prolonged tuning breaks between songs made him a challenging live act, and after playing a few awkward shows to less-than-receptive audiences, he seldom performed live ever again. His was a sheltered, almost secret existence: Boyd produced his first two records, but it was not obvious the best way to flesh out this odd music, and one can hear him reaching for a sound. Employing members of the Fairport Convention and various string arrangers, Drake's first album, 1969's Five Leaves Left, employed a more folk-oriented sound, while his second, 1970's Bryter Layer, was the closest thing he came to rock music. (To my ears, Boyd's production of Drake's "Hazey Jane II" virtually invents Belle and Sebastian's signature fey chamber pop-with-trumpet sound roughly two and a half decades before the fact.)

Drake recorded his best-known and most celebrated album, Pink Moon, in the fall of 1971; this time, he chose to work without Boyd and instead made the album in two two-hour midnight sessions with producer John Wood. His prior albums' struggle with presentation was solved with a simple solution: Apart from a minor piano overdub here and there, Drake simply let his songs stand naked. As Island Records proudly touted in their media campaign, the first they learned of the record was when Drake delivered it to the label; indeed, it seems that no one outside of Drake or Wood (including Boyd) knew about this record until it was finished.

Pink Moon was released in early 1972 with little fanfare, in large part because Drake refused to do any promotion for its release. The one exception was that he agreed to do an interview for Sounds Magazine; it was the only one published in his lifetime (and one of the few contemporary press articles about his career, period). But Pink Moon failed to sell very many copies. In fact, compared with Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layer before it, Pink Moon sold the poorest of his studio albums -- none of which sold more than 5,000 copies upon their initial release.

In the months around the release of Pink Moon, Drake grew increasingly withdrawn and depressed. He suffered a nervous breakdown, moved back home with his parents, and the only income he received was a 20-pound weekly stipend from Island Records. He would disappear for days and show up randomly at friends' houses, stay a few days and be uncommunicative, and then leave just as suddenly as he came. Sometimes he drove his parents' car around until he ran out of gas. His appearance became increasingly disheveled and he acted in moody ways that worried his friends and family.

In the fall of 1974, he contacted Boyd and Wood to make a fourth album, but Drake's health had deteriorated to the point where he literally could not sing and play guitar at the same time. His personality was also much more unstable and he lashed out at Boyd for his lack of fame. The sessions collapsed after only four songs were recorded.

In November, Drake died of an overdose of antidepressants at the age of 26. The authorities concluded it was a suicide, but no note was ever found and many suspect it was accidental. Boyd, for one, claims that Drake was feeling better in the weeks leading up to his death and imagines that he took the drugs in a last-ditch effort to rid himself of all of the depression that plagued him. It's a tempting theory, but I'm not convinced. Drake had serious anxiety and depression issues, and it is not uncommon for a suicidal person to appear happier in the time just before their death because their decision to kill themselves has given them relief. Like so many other famous musicians' deaths, we'll likely never know the whole truth.

But Nick Drake was not a famous musician. He was a frustrated musician who sold only a minimal amount of records and was virtually unknown outside of a small network of British folk musicians and enthusiasts. But as what often happens with great artists, their work eventually finds an audience beyond anything they experienced in their lifetime. I for one first discovered Nick Drake the way that most people in my generation did: from the title track of Pink Moon being used in a BMW commercial. That perked my ears up and after reading several glowing reviews, I grabbed a copy. At first I found it a little dry, but then, after hearing it repeatedly while spilling late-night secrets in a coed's freshman dorm room, its subtle grace grew on me and I at last got the hype. Boyd's book inspired me to buy the rest of the catalog (I'm a sucker for short, condensed, and high-quality bodies of work) and fill in the cracks of my knowledge of him.

And yet, like so many other people who can call themselves fans of his music, listening to Nick Drake makes me feel more than just a little bit perplexed. I'm the first to admit that a large part of his draw for me is the romanticism surrounding his mystique and I make no effort to try and separate the myth from the music. (Indeed, similar mystiques around Robert Johnson and Jeff Buckley have drawn me into their bodies of music, and my life has been all the more richer for it.)

But Nick Drake's music demands more from us, if only because his existence was that much more isolated and the rediscovery of his music has proven it to be that much more striking and brilliant. His voice is just too pure, his guitar work just too precise to be believed. And yet, he plays the role of a ready-made martyr with his songs that obsess over fame and brood about death. For someone so keen on reaching music immortality, he sang as though he was already dead.

More than any other popular musician of the rock and roll era, Drake sounded completely out of his time; the only other music figures that come close are yodeling minstrel singer Emmett Miller from the late '20s and early '30s and outsider indie-trailblazers the Shaggs, a trio of girls whose bizarre sing-songy melodies and matching guitar lines -- not to mention the drums that keep an entirely random time than the song they're playing -- have to be heard to be believed. But neither can hold a candle to Drake because he has them beat in two major categories: Drake is immensely popular and well-known (nowadays, anyway) and he was prophetic enough to live out the greater story his songs implied.

For one thing that you hear about Drake again and again is how he didn't sound like anyone else. His music doesn't really exist in a greater context, it outright defies any greater context that tries to present itself -- just try to listen to Five Leaves Left alongside other albums released that year: The Beatles' Abbey Road, the Rolling Stones' Let It Bleed, the Who's Tommy, the Band's self-titled "Brown Album." What is so remarkable about Nick Drake is that, unlike other albums released that year, his music isn't a defiant reaction to what's going on (like the Stooges' self-titled debut), a mockery of it (like Frank Zappa's Uncle Meat), a way out of it (Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band's Trout Mask Replica), or attempt to come to terms with it (Elvis Presley's From Elvis in Memphis). It is instead something that exists entirely outside of this music, on its own terms and in its own time.

All of this has led me to believe that in order to find an accurate and worthy parallel for Nick Drake, we must look beyond the world of popular music and into the realm of literature, where we find Emily Dickinson. Both are utterly unique in their respective creative fields, defying categorization with a singular, forward-looking vision. Both worked in virtual self-exile, moody, depressive, and cut off from the world, despite a privileged background and the support of family. And both worked secretly, pondering nature, death, and fame to an audience in their heads that would not exist in real life until decades after their deaths.

Dickinson of course is the more extreme of the two, rarely leaving her room for the majority of her creative life, and being so secretive that her family was surprised to find the neat bundles of the hundreds of poems she left behind. She lived her life like a phantom -- leaving us only one known photograph (although some people believe there is a second, although it hasn't been officially authenticated) and publishing only a couple of poems, anonymously and with severe edits, in her lifetime. Before long, the mystique becomes more real than the person it surrounds.

Music historian and critic Ian MacDonald (who himself committed suicide a few years back) writes in a lovely essay about Drake how fans born after Drake's death cannot believe that MacDonald met him when Drake played him and his friends a few songs in his college dorm room. MacDonald claims his latter-day fans asked if Drake could walk on water, shocked that anyone could have actually known someone whose life is so defined by their death. It challenges the senses and attempts to make the surreal real; I felt a similar way when I learned that a friend went to a party where a young Jeff Buckley was hanging around after a show, walking around randomly and plunking a two-string ukelele. And many Drake revisionists (at least some of who are his friends and former classmates) argue against the dour portrayal that's grown around his music and insist that he was outgoing and somewhat of a prankster. But of course, the actual historical record is mighty thin.

Which brings us back to where we began: There is no known footage of Nick Drake performing. The only known film of Drake is private family movies from when he was a child, and that's it. There is one phone interview I've heard online, but the sound quality is so poor (and Drake's voice is so quiet, as everyone always said it was) that I can hardly make out any of it. He left us no real personal writing or memoirs, no signed glossy pictures, not even any confirmed lovers. All we have of him are three LPs worth of music, all of it excellent, and some demos, outtakes, rehearsals, and various odds-and-ends that have been regularly reissued since his rediscovery. And that's about it.

What ultimately ties Nick Drake and Emily Dickinson together for me, then, is the unanswerable riddle of how they viewed themselves. Both were serious artists who spent years perfecting their craft, yet led such secret existences in which death was the only path to fame. Is this because death is safer than fame? One can spend their entire lives striving for fame, only to fail at achieving it again and again. But death -- once you get death in the picture, everything shifts; it puts a final cap on things that throws your chance at immortality into the hands of fate. Maybe you'll get famous, maybe you won't, but once you're dead it's entirely out of your hands.

As I already mentioned, both Drake and Dickinson explicitly dealt with fame in their art. Drake did so towards the end of his debut album in the song "Fruit Tree":

Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound
It can never flourish
'Till its stalk is in the ground

For Drake, it seems that the only element that could be considered essential to the creation of fame is time -- time to develop, time to gain popularity, time to prove one's own cultural or historical relevance.

Meanwhile, Dickinson characteristically summed up the whole concept of fame in twelve words of brevity, wit, and grace:

Fame's Boys and Girls, who never die
And are too seldom born --

The way she puts death before birth makes it feel backwards; the way she ends it with a dash instead of a predicate makes it feel incomplete. It gives the poem a sense of tension, a gasp of air that is never released, a tune that is never resolved. Fame is fundamentally incomplete, Dickinson seems to be implying on one level -- in order to be a true immortal, one must keep up their fame and posterity long after they have died, which would require some greater knowledge beyond what we know in this world.

Perhaps this is why Nick Drake envisioned fame as a Fruit Tree: It represented forbidden knowledge, tempted by the Devil and beyond what any human mind should be able to grasp. Death, on the other hand, is well within the human grasp, and if we are to believe that Drake's death was a suicide, one cannot help but wonder whether after admitting defeat in the face of fame, he saw death as the only alternative.

His music certainly sounded like he did.

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