Suicide in song

Darker Than the Deepest Sea: the search for Nick Drake

Trevor Dann <em>Portrait, 288pp, £17.99</em

In popular music, a premature death has long been a good career move. In HMV these days, you can hardly move for Big Bopper, Stone the Crows and Thin Lizzy box sets. Certainly, when Nick Drake's body was found on the morning of 25 November 1974, a copy of The Myth of Sisyphus and a half-empty bottle of antidepressants beside his bed and one of Bach's Brandenburg Concertos idling on the stereo, the 26-year-old singer had barely a handful of admirers. In his brief life, the Marlborough-educated Drake produced just three albums. He gave one, monosyllabic interview and performed live only a few times. Yet this lack of output helped turn him, after his death, into something close to a religious icon.

To the dutiful, Drake's studio LPs offered a holy trinity to worship; they could be read as a chronicle of his tragic trajectory. Five Leaves Left was a start-ling debut, wistful beyond its years but full of promise. Bryter Layter, its lushly arranged, jazzier follow-up, revealed a hunger to court success - and dabble in comic spelling. And Pink Moon was the bitter farewell of the spurned, a suicide note in song for voice and solo guitar.

It is nine years since Patrick Hum-phries's biography of Drake appeared. In the interim, a couple of long-thought-lost recordings have surfaced, the odd acquaintance has emerged, and Drake's style of melancholy music has grown in popularity. Folk rock is back in vogue. So it might seem like a good time for another book-length appraisal. On the evidence produced here, however, you wonder what there is left to say.

When facts are as thin on the ground as they are with Drake, there's an inevitable tendency to bulk up on background detail. Humphries chose to fill in the holes by ladling in social and cultural context, a method that reached its nadir when he included a television schedule for the evening Drake died. Trevor Dann, an interviewee in Humphries's book, has the credentials to be a better-informed biographer. A near contemporary of Drake's at Cambridge, he upheld the flame long before it was trendy to do so. Going on to work as a BBC DJ and producer, in1985 he selected the tracks for Heaven in a Wild Flower, a compilation that can be credited with igniting Drake's revival. (I bought it myself, aged 14.)

But Dann's approach to Drake is bizarrely topographical. Much of this book feels like Drake's story as told by a town planner. "With its proximity to Birmingham Airport and the M40 into London," Dann writes, "Tanworth is rapidly becoming an ideal base for international business." His use of sources is similarly injudicious. Few of his interviewees offer anything new, and people with nothing much to say are allowed to burble on. And though Dann's pet theory about the cause of Drake's rapid mental decline - cannabis-induced schizophrenia - sounds convincing, the phrase "it seems likely that" turns up with dismaying regularity.

Curiously, given his closeness in age to his subject, Dann is overly fond of ascribing contemporary values to the past. He grumbles about poor marketing strategies, record deals and cover designs in a way that assumes managers and artists were as clued up and target-audience- driven in the 1970s as they are now. (As James Blunt proves, selling off-the-shelf ex-public-school boy strummers has become a depressingly exact science.)

Perhaps I am being unduly harsh. This is a book written with the guileless pedantry of an enthusiast and, accordingly, it will be lapped up by kindred souls. But just as Wittgenstein commented that the way to show you like a jacket is to wear it, if you dig Drake your time (and money) is probably better spent on the records.

Travis Elborough is the author of The Bus We Loved: London's affair with the Routemaster (Granta Books)