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11 June 2023

Nick Drake’s dark places

The songwriter is revered as a tortured genius – but Richard Morton Jack’s new biography shows that behind the romantic myth is a stark and pitiful story of mental illness.

By Kate Mossman

A few years ago, obsessive fans started chipping away at the grave of Nick Drake in Warwickshire and taking bits of it home. It might have gone the way of Jim Morrison’s in Paris had Drake’s sister Gabrielle, a rather fabulous character who acted in Crossroads in the Eighties, not had it removed and renovated. Around the same time, she produced a book, Nick Drake: Remembered For a While, compiling dozens of letters and diaries from the family – a family that began in British India, where both children were born, in the last days of the Raj – in an attempt to dispel some of the myths that had grown up around her brother, who died aged 26 in 1974 after releasing three albums. Now, Gabrielle assists the music writer Richard Morton Jack by giving over those documents, her own memories and dozens of childhood contacts for a more conventional biography. It is not, she says, an “authorised” one, as that would indicate a “straitjacketed affair” tailored by the estate to fit a certain image of its subject. I thought her choice of words was unusual.

When someone dies by suicide, you ask why. But Nick Drake is unique among famous musicians who died young: aside from his songs he has no voice at all. There are only two interviews, as he shirked most press commitments, and there is no moving footage of him, as he played only 40 (mostly small) gigs; there is nothing besides his music from which to piece together his psychology. Though he stokes new imaginations and gains new fans year on year, he is also strangely static: a country headstone playing incandescent music, with a velvet voice, waterwheel finger-work and lines such as “Fame is but a fruit tree/so very unsound/It can never flourish/Till its stock is in the ground.”

Morton Jack’s book – accidentally, I believe – is a long, sharp shock for anyone who romanticises the figure of the tortured songwriter. It does not illuminate the creative methods of an enigmatic artist but brings into lurid relief the reality of Drake’s mental illness: his depression was not a feature of his genius but the very thing that stood in the way of it. Creativity receded into darkness very quickly as commercial success failed to follow from the hopes placed on him when he was a student at Cambridge.

No one from the music world got to attend his funeral – not his mentor, Joe Boyd, nor the elite musicians on the Island label with whom he recorded. In the genteel service the vicar talked about how he was good at running at school. The author thinks the funeral reflects how Drake compartmentalised his life and friends – but it wasn’t as though he was in charge of the guest list. To me, it says more about the shock and shame of suicide, and the grief of the family with whom he had lived in his final months. “Sad little ceremony this morning at the churchyard,” wrote his father, Ronald, a playful retired engineer, after the private interment of his ashes in mid January 1975.

Publishers love authorised biographies but an author is always at risk when writing a book with the family. They are doubly at risk when the subject died without speaking for himself, and the family are recalling a boy who lived 70 years ago. “He was the handsome, delightful child that every parent would want their own to be,” recalled the Drakes’ old friend Andrew Hicks, who knew him when they were both about six. This is the tone for the first part of the book – a strange sense of turning over stones: this was such a happy family, nothing to see here.

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His sister, quoted by Morton Jack, has a very powerful voice – a voice from another time, both vivid and concealing. “Mother was very glamorous, and father was the most wonderful sort of strong person,” she effuses. Gabrielle – and, through letters, her mother and father too – shape Morton Jack’s writing an odd way. “It did not reflect emotional coldness on his parents’ part,” he writes, that they sent Nick to the famously harsh Eagle House school in Sandhurst, where one boy was known to have been forced to eat a rotten egg; it was simply convention. “Uprooting Nick from his happy home for months at a time was collateral damage that had to be borne… to maximise his chance of fulfilling his potential.” This is not the voice of a rock critic, but lofty and strange and entrenched in family lore.

[See also: On This is Really Going to Hurt, Flyte perfect the art of the break-up album]

Although Rodney and Molly Drake adored their son – and his music, in a strikingly modern, generation-gap-traversing way – and although they did everything they could to save him, something about the family dynamic feels stifling. When he was sectioned at a psychiatric institution not far from his home, his duty officer found him to be “muddled” as to his relationship with his parents, with “some guilt complex about leaving Cambridge” – which he had done, against his father’s wishes, upon the release of his first album, Five Leaves Left, in 1969 – and Molly and Rodney were advised not to visit so often.

Drake became morbidly obsessed with the story of the artist Richard Dadd, who had murdered his father after the latter’s intervention in his mental health treatment, and he worried that he, like Dadd, would live out his creative life in an institution. But Morton Jack does not investigate these relationships. He shuts things down. Drake’s key musical influence was his mother, herself a songwriter, who had also had a nervous breakdown straight after her marriage to Rodney and had to move back in with her parents. This compelling revelation is covered in just one line. “She had no more such episodes,” Morton Jack writes. One envisions Gabrielle taking a neat sip of tea.

Dozens of first-hand accounts of Drake’s young life stack up to say pretty much the same thing: as a teenager he was “detached” from all things apart from music; passive, uninterested, unengaged. “There is evidence of an all-round lack of drive, almost sleepiness,” said his teacher at Marlborough College. One family friend remembered him aged 14 on a bad day: “It was as though one were sitting next to a black hole.” As he comes of age, there is a sense of a mysterious mental makeup hardening. There was some concern over his heavy marijuana use, which began at Cambridge, though it appears to have stopped when he returned home. A doctor gave his parents a diagnosis of “simple schizophrenia”, an archaic term for a subtype of the condition characterised by blunted emotional effect and low motivation: it often presents in early adulthood, and generally gets worse.

Drake’s Island labelmate John Martyn once said that Drake’s lack of commercial success floored him because until then he had always excelled at everything. Martyn, more of a frenemy than a friend, exerted a powerful influence over Drake and had little tolerance for his mental health struggles. Martyn wrote the song “Solid Air” about Drake: “You’ve been taking your time/and you’ve been living on solid air.” Though Drake had been signed to Island at the age of 20, and early reviews were enthusiastic, his albums only sold around 3,000 copies each. Reluctant to promote his second record, Bryter Layter, in 1971, he started to isolate himself.

Here Drake takes shape as someone who had it all at his feet but was never confident enough to act: who expected success – felt he deserved it – but hovered on the edge and ran, then spent the rest of his extremely short life beating himself up. No one rated his final album Pink Moon at the time (these days, it is seen as a masterpiece). Yet still, when he handed it in at the reception of Island Records, so unwell by then that he could barely speak, they wrote him his £500 advance cheque on the spot without listening to it. Island wanted anything he had to give.

The label didn’t care if he didn’t tour, and on the album’s release in 1972 they issued a satirical press release saying that his records “haven’t sold a shit” but they believed in him, even if no one else did. Like so many of the most difficult people Drake also believed in himself – the problem was, he hated himself too. He told his father at 24 that he had finished his life’s work – and that people would understand it one day.

[See also: On This is Really Going to Hurt, Flyte perfect the art of the break-up album]

In December 1974, in a rambling obituary, the journalist Nick Kent said that Drake’s death, from an overdose of his antidepressants, could not possibly have been suicide, as he was working on new songs – Boyd was keen to record with him again (in reality, when Boyd drove Drake to Island for a meeting, Drake could not face getting out of the car).

For me, the most awful aspect of Drake’s decline in this book is the sense of just how hard he was trying to write songs in the weeks before he died. Forget the artist wandering in the woods, waiting for the muse: he’d lock himself in the music room – orange armchair, reel to reel tape recorder, set of Encyclopaedia Britannica – and force himself for days on ends. Once, his parents returned to find his equipment smashed. Another time he sat for many hours unmoving with his head in his hands. He never stopped trying, writing a track list for an imaginary fourth album, only part of which he ever completed, reproduced here in his curly hand. In an unusual moment of confession three months before his death, he told his friend David Ward of his frustrations with two people: Boyd, “because [Drake] hadn’t been more successful, and his father, from whom he felt an undercurrent of pressure to do something else with his life, commit to a course.”

One day around this time, after another trip to London on one of his sporadic better days, Drake was found by police at a zebra crossing in Swiss Cottage unable to “muster the wherewithal to cross the road”. The image of the suffering creative will always appeal, and Drake will always hold some of our most powerful projections, because he was enigmatic, beautiful, nomadic and utterly unknown. To know him better, through this book, is to reimagine that figure as a very sick man unable to walk across a road. Though clearly written as an act of love, it is hard to read.

Nick Drake: The Life
Richard Morton Jack
John Murray Press, 576pp, £30

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[See also: How the Strokes’ Is This It captured the short-lived optimism of the millennium]

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This article appears in the 14 Jun 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Over and Out