A blog about Bloomsbury Academic's 33 1/3 series, our other books about music, and the world of sound in general.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Nick Drake's Pink Moon

Following closely on the heels of our recent U2 and Belle & Sebastian books in the series, Amanda Petrusich's book on Nick Drake is now available.

The book gives a little backstory into Drake's life, charts the circumstances of the album's creation, and takes a long look at the ad campaign that brought the album to the attention of mainstream America a few years ago. Here's an extract from right at the start of the book:


Thirty-three years have passed since Nick Drake’s death, but it is still shamefully easy to romanticize his demise—to sniff and glaze, translating a pedestrian drug overdose into epic, ridiculous verse, twisting his story into one long, tortured poem about art and depression and youth and emptiness. Unfortunately, part of what makes Nick Drake so potent a figure is also what makes his legacy feel so contrived: Drake’s (presumed) suicide validated his music much as Kurt Cobain’s would two decades later, lending his songs credence and weight. Now, when we hear Drake sing about feeling anxious and alone and invisible, we trust his despair. When we listen to Pink Moon, it is impossible not to feel death, huge and looming, inevitable and infinite, close and closer.

Flipping off all the lights, propping open a creaky old window, and listening to Pink Moon is just about as close as anyone can get to Nick Drake now. Only the fortunate few who knew Drake personally can effectively evoke his body and voice. There is no confirmed footage of Drake performing, smoking cigarettes, smiling, reading, eating, sleeping, sighing, walking, or breathing, although if you paw through the amateur videos posted on YouTube for long enough, you’ll eventually uncover a mute, eleven-second, slow-motion video clip of a tall, lanky figure with long hair loping through a folk festival, wearing a maroon blazer and beige pants. The clip’s silence is chilling; below, in the website’s comments section, agitated fans debate whether or not the figure—it could be anyone—is actually Nick Drake. Likewise, there is only one confirmed document of Drake’s speaking voice, aside from a few inconsequential bits of speech caught during recording sessions: Several years ago, a short, garbled audiotape of a nineteen-year-old Drake, rambling into a recorder after returning home to Far Leys from a party, emerged. “Good evening, or should I say good morning? It’s twenty-five to five, I’ve been sitting here for some time, actually, in this room,” Drake warbles. His voice is deep and soft and thick with alcohol. The tape’s contents swing from unintentionally hilarious (“I think I must have drunk rather a lot. . . . I think I drove the whole way home on the right side of the road. . . . It is extremely pleasant sitting here now, because I think there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the doorknob before one goes to bed, there’s something uncanny about it”) to dismal (“In moments of stress, such as was this journey home, one forgets, so easily, the lies, the truth, and the pain”).

Because there are so few artifacts of Nick Drake’s life (as Molly Drake later explained, “There is so little that Nick left behind, apart from the legacy of his music. . . . He never wrote anything down, never kept a diary, hardly even wrote his name in his own books . . . it was as if he didn’t want anything of himself to remain except his songs”) we are now required to piece together a figure from other people’s memories, parsing hindsight from truth, re-examining lyrics, chords, tunings, and syntax, scouring all available options for clues to Drake’s truth. As Patrick Humphries notes, the dearth of nonmusical insights into Drake’s persona also leads to a certain amount of projection, with Drake’s massive mythology trumping, in many cases, his work. “Nick Drake becomes a blank canvas on which admirers can paint their own pictures, project their own lives and troubles; a mirror in which people see their own pain and lost promise,” Humphries writes. And because Drake’s music is so intensely personal—as producer Joe Boyd told the NME, “He’s someone whose story really is in the songs . . . the songs in a way became less about other people and more about himself as time went on”—it is especially difficult to divorce Drake’s music from the dire circumstances of his waking life, to listen honestly and without bias. Instead, we build tiny bridges, linking sighs and pauses and dark bits of lyrics with our notions of Drake—his hair matted and thick with grease, clothes rumpled and stained, fingernails gnarled and curling, his body slumped at a desk, speechless, lifeless, hopeless.

Within Drake’s limited discography—within Pink Moon, especially—it’s possible (easy, even) to establish a timeline of depressive illness. Still, it feels dangerous and disingenuous, conflating art with life, making presumptions, reading anguish into each dismal couplet, imposing external narratives on an internal art. The single-named Cally—a former creative director at Island Records’ London office who, along with Drake’s sister, Gabrielle, now manages Drake’s posthumous estate— adamantly maintains that Drake recorded Pink Moon while in temporary remission from his depression and that, accordingly, the record should not be understood as an artifact of his disease. “Nick was incapable of writing and recording whilst he was suffering from periods of depression. He was not depressed during the writing or recording of Pink Moon and was immensely proud of the album, as letters to his father testify,” Cally insists. “Some journalists and book writers have found this fact disappointing, as it doesn’t reflect their own impression of the album. Nick confounded these impressions often. I think all of Nick’s albums are understood and misunderstood to the same degree. In that lies their great beauty and welcomed mystery. When it came to the album’s creator, well, no one understood him as such.” I recognize the hazards and falsehoods inherent to crossing these particular wires. That doesn’t always mean I can stop myself.



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Anonymous said...

I'd like to say that this was a good piece of music journalism. When I returned from studying in Ireland (Cork) to be exact, I started going back to this music from my library that looked to come from peaceful village greens. Nick Drake took on new shades for me.
But in Amanda Petrusich's contextualizing, she cites the The Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry and consequent attacks in England. This was a bad time to release a meditation.
I can say from friend's reports (for I didn't go North) that the mood is still somber in the north. Faces are more withdrawn, morose I was told. While the southern Irish revel in all their enthusiasm and drunkenness and charm, I found.
Compare this to Petrusich's Post-911 NY evocations it's easy to see that this record is a fallout record. After your break up, after the war. And since these things are a bit heavy, the essays are given breathing room by the interviews.
I would suggest reading the Gram Parsons bio by Jessica Hundley where interviews shed light on some of the best alt country rockers of today and guys like Jon Richman as well!
In regards to the television use of Pink Moon. I can only appreciate. I have similar reservations, but many have friends have gone through "Nick Drake phases" and they probably wouldn't have if it weren't for this commercial. This isn't Europe in terms of art patronage. I think Nic Harcourt's opinion is altruistic and, it's probably what makes him Nic Harcourt...
'How great, how great that this song now gets to be heard by millions of people who wouldn't have heard it otherwise.'
Amen to that, for I was one of 'em.
Good read.

Danny Marroquin
Norman, Okla.

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Mountain said...

I've just begun to read this account of Nick Drake's final gift to us (as far as his intentions were concerned). Whether or not Nick Drake would have preferred it, we've heard some of what was recorded before and after Pink Moon. We treasure his work; it seems one can discover something new upon each listen. We were thrilled again when yet another song was found and prompted the release and remastering of alternate takes and different arrangements. It all seems such a cloudy subject that grows more mysterious as time goes on. Everything written about it at this point is just rehash, more a less a cutting and pasting of what is already written and researched. In your selection of the book included in this post, the author transcribes Nick Drake's monologue that was recorded after a night of being out at a party. The author heard "there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the "DOORKNOB" before one goes to bed, there’s something uncanny about it,” when it seems clear to me that he says "there’s something extraordinarily nice about seeing the "DAWN UP" before one goes to bed; there’s something uncanny about it.” He is referring to being out and up all night and in turn seeing the sun rise before going to bed. As the author has so much to say regarding Drake's pronunciation of words in her lengthy breakdown of the album's title track, I would think that she should pay equal attention to these recorded words as well.