Online Edition: Summer 1999

Nick Drake: The Biography

Nick Drake: The Biography

Patrick Humphries

Bloomsbury Books ($24.95)

by Mark Terrill

For those not familiar with the late English singer/songwriter Nick Drake, who died in 1974 at the age of 26 from an "accidental overdose" of anti-depressants, it may come as some surprise that such a relatively meager legacy of work (three albums released during his lifetime, nine tracks released posthumously, comprising a total of 40 tracks) could form the matrix of a full-blown cult of myth-like proportions. Nick Drake performed live maybe a dozen times total, never toured America, and gave only one official interview. Nonetheless, a quick name check of the people and groups who are said to have been influenced by Nick Drake's music includes such diverse acts as REM, Elton John, Paul Weller, Jackson Browne, Everything But the Girl, Tom Verlaine, Matt Johnson of The The, Kate Bush, and Mark Eitzel.

Nick Drake's story is not one of rock-and-roll excess, or of the usual cliches of life lived in the fast lane and burning the candle at both ends; nor does his story have much in common with other rock-and-roll tragedies of his time. Whereas Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones, and Jim Morrison all seemed to sort of explode at the pinnacle (or shortly thereafter) of their careers, Nick Drake just quietly imploded in almost total obscurity. But as far as myth-making goes, Nick Drake had it all going for him: tall, good-looking, softly spoken, quintessentially British, and inordinately shy and withdrawn, at times described as "Shellyesque" or "Byronesque," or just plain "elegant," with an inimitable guitar style and a penchant for writing haunting, poetic, introspective songs laced with a delicate beauty that still carry their weight after all these years. But the burdens that Nick Drake had to bear himself were obviously too much.

Despite missing session logs, vanished archives, lost correspondence, and the fact that two of the people who knew Nick best decided not to cooperate with this biography (namely Joe Boyd, Nick's producer, and Gabrielle Drake, Nick's older sister), Patrick Humphries has produced a most informative book, and the Nick Drake that emerges here contrasts sharply with the popular image of the shy, sensitive, introverted songwriter. Classmates from his years at Marlborough College and Cambridge University, where Nick was a popular if not model student, active in both drama and sports, remembered Nick for his "motivation" and "competitive streak," contradicting the familiar image of the withdrawn and virtually catatonic "artist." Nevertheless, this sober account of Nick's life and gradual decline at the hands of the commercial music combine and his eventual death is well supported by many interviews with former session musicians and music business professionals, and gives the reader a multi-faceted portrait of an otherwise enigmatic individual.

An integral part of the mythical aspect of Nick Drake is the cause and the circumstances of his death. Was it really accidental? Was it really just his irreconcilable depression? Was it the music business? Was it failure to come to terms with demands of becoming a star? Was he a repressed homosexual? Did he take too many drugs? Patrick Humphries offers no single answer to any of these intriguing questions, but does provide enough detailed and factual information for the reader to form his/her own conclusions (it was probably all of the above), without veering off into sensationalist muckraking. A sad story, but a compelling one, and an excellent biography of a highly influential and seminal singer/songwriter, well worthy of the myth that now surrounds his short life and untimely death.

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Summer 1999 Table of Contents