Poor Nick

A folk legend’s brief life’s journey
By JAMES PARKER  |  January 9, 2007

DAZED HERO: Down to the city he went, like something from a folk tale, to make his name.

On New Year’s Day 1975, an English businessman named Rodney Drake, from his home Far Leys in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, wrote a letter of several pages to his family doctor, James Lusk, who 26 years earlier had assisted at the birth of his son Nick. The letter began: “My dear Lusko, Thank you so very much for your most interesting letter and for the time and trouble you took to give us such a helpful opinion about Nick. I am very sorry to say that we have lost poor Nick.”

Limpidly and terribly crystallized in these lines — in their almost parodic English modesty, and in the density of that word “lost” — is a complete miniature account of Nick Drake, the singer-songwriter who died during the night of November 24, 1974, of a self-administered overdose of anti-depressants: “poor Nick,” about whom such helpful opinions were offered and such trouble was taken, and about whom, in the end, nothing could be done. Drake was a son of English privilege: born in Burma, raised in a big house amid the sheep-studded fields of middle England, educated at Marlborough and then Cambridge. His conservative parents largely stood back, in attitudes of cautious indulgence, as gentle, long-fingered, music-obsessed Nick grew tall and handsome, singing exquisite songs in a gauzy summer whisper. Easy years the mid ’60s, pollinated with promise. Smoke curled in the air, record deals were floating about. Down to the city he went, like something from a folk tale, to make not his fortune (that was already secure) but his name.

And back he came, three comprehensively ignored albums later, in a state of ruin.

For the last two years of his life Nick Drake was engaged, to the exclusion of activities like smiling, talking, and washing, in one of the most absorptively distressing rites of young manhood: the attempted Return. Utterly thrown by life in London, unable to understand why his beautiful music wasn’t making him famous, chemically confused, “falling fast and falling free” as he sang in “Harvest Breed,” Drake had retreated to Far Leys, to his old bedroom, his (by now very worried) parents. He had gone back to his Eden, the scene of his earliest bliss, and found it in ashes. In his last days he was reading Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus over 3 am bowls of cereal. Trevor Dann’s Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake (Da Capo) is the second major biography of Drake. The first, in 1997, was Patrick Humphries’s authoritative Nick Drake, from which the above quotation from Rodney Drake’s letter was taken. I won’t do Dann the discourtesy of wondering why he felt another biography was necessary; enough to note that his book is quite as compassionate, insightful, well written, and thoroughly researched as its predecessor, without (it seems to me) significantly expanding our understanding.

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