With every passing year, it becomes a little less accurate to say that Nick Drake has a cult following. Cults, by their very nature, tend to exist on the margins, the subject of their admiration unknown or even unloved by the vast majority of people. Mention Nick Drake to a certain generation of music fan and chances are you won’t have to explain yourself. Latterly, Drake’s name has become a byword for a certain kind of acoustic music. Gentility, melancholia and a seemingly casual mastery of the fretboard – in the minds of many listeners, any combination of these traits warrants comparison to Nick Drake. As a result, Drake is perpetually referenced across the reviews sections of every music title. That quite often the records in question bear no meaningful resemblance to Drake’s music speaks volumes. His legacy may, in one sense, be huge. But there’s painfully little of it: just three complete albums – Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), Pink Moon (1972) and a number of songs recorded shortly before his death. As his relevance increases, so does an insatiable communal yearning for their source to yield more. Hence the constant namechecks. Hence the constant repackaging and remixing of the same old bootleg recordings. Somehow we cannot quite accept the fact that this was all he left behind.
It was this relentless interest that, in 2003, finally prompted some of the people closest to Nick to come together and examine what remained in the archives. They were surprised by what they found. Released the following spring, the resulting album – Made To Love Magic – saw two of Nick’s oldest compositions reunited with the arrangements originally written for them. Also featured beside them was a hitherto lost track – Toe The Line. When the single Magic was taken from the album, it spawned Drake’s first Top 30 hit. To see him feature on the Top Of The Pops chart rundown wasn’t without a certain irony. Towards the end of his life, Drake appeared to long for the vindication that comes with commercial success. And yet he seemed incapable of compromising himself to the pursuit of recognition. His shyness made interviews difficult. Live performances became increasingly rare. When recording music, the only compass he used was his own intuition. For Five Leaves left, he asserted himself when he needed to – dispensing with the arranger suggested by Island and replacing him with his old Cambridge associate Robert Kirby. Pink Moon was just Drake and a guitar, an exercise in intricate desolation, no less perfect for its stark brevity. Commercial success may not have vindicated him, but the intervening years certainly have. Five years ago, he entered the Billboard 100 (and the Amazon Top Five) for the first time. Thirty seconds of Pink Moon used in a Volkswagen advert alerted America to the otherworldly magic of Drake’s hushed English tones. His friend and label-mate Linda Thompson recalls recently hearing the song in LA over a supermarket tannoy: “I couldn’t believe how amazing, how right it sounded. How did he know?” Writing about Drake, the late Ian McDonald attempted to put into words why Drake’s music should have achieved such a relevance in the century after its creator brought it into being. In a celebrated essay, McDonald posited the suggestion that songs such as River Man and Way To Blue reconnect us with a part of our selves that modern life has all but eroded away. Certainly, much of his music is endowed with a peculiar prescience. Over arrangements that seem to mimic the bustle of a world moving too fast, the prescient Hazey Jane II sees Drake impishly enquiring, “And what will happen in the morning when the world it gets/So crowded that you can’t look out the window in the morning.”
The manner in which Drake’s life ended has inevitably coloured the way his songs are perceived: among them, the haunting Black-Eyed Dog and the self-mocking Poor Boy. “Don’t you worry,” he sings on Fruit Tree, “They’ll stand and stare when you’re gone.” In the liner notes to 1994’s Way To Blue compilation, Drake’s producer and mentor Joe Boyd commented that, “listening to his lyrics… he may have planned it all this way.” Did he mean that Drake was blessed with Cassandra-like qualities? A few years later, Boyd elaborated on those remarks, suggesting that the metaphysical outlook of the Baudelaire-reading teenage Nick may have, in the intervening years, gathered its own tragic momentum: “Even if Nick imagined at the age of nineteen that he would only be remembered when he was gone, that’s a nice easy thing for a nineteen year-old to think. Because you’re not thinking about what it will actually mean to confront mortality before you’re thirty. But when I met him in 1974, I think he saw … that it was a dead end. And no fun.”
That there is sadness to be found in Nick Drake’s songs has been well-documented. What sometimes tends to be overlooked is that this sadness was frequently the corollary of an all-consuming joy. As often as not, you’ll find both extremes within the same song: the autumnal languor of I Was Made To Love Magic; the life-affirming brush-strokes of Northern Sky (“I’ve never felt magic as crazy as this”). Records born exclusively of misery and catharsis can do little other than depress their listeners. Their candour may garner critical bouquets but they rarely return to the CD tray. Drake certainly suffered from depression – most notably in the latter two years of his life – but his music was not a function of that depression. Richard Thompson who played on Five Leaves Left and Bryter Later remembers a quiet character, though not a miserable one: “He seemed like he was enjoying everything. His expression was one of amusement. Not painfully introverted. He struck you as someone who just preferred to watch, you know?” As Drake puts it on Hazey Jane II, “If songs were lines/In a conversation/The situation would be fine.”
Thirty years have now passed since Nick Drake’s death. Original pressings of his records change hands for around £200. Dedicated fanzines and websites continue to interpret and second-guess every note and utterance. The bucolic village of Tanworth-In-Arden, where Drake grew up, attracts a steady trickle of visitors – somehow seeking to climb further inside the music. And yet as his father Rodney recalled, “And I remember in one of his reports towards the end of the time at his first school, the headmaster… said at the end that none of us seemed to know him very well. And I think that was it. All the way through with Nick. People didn't know him very much.” It’s impossible to keep count of the contemporary artists who cite Drake as an inspiration, but a cursory round-up includes R.E.M., Paul Weller, Travis, Portishead, The Coral, Coldplay, David Gray, Damien Rice, Super Furry Animals, Four Tet, Keane and Beth Orton. Along with household names of his creative lifetime – the Stones, The Beatles, Marley, Hendrix – his albums have become an unofficial set text for anyone passionate about music. In 2004, he has become so much more than the sum total of his work. The greater our fascination with him, the more we reveal about ourselves. In this sense, maybe Ian McDonald was right. Perhaps his music allows us to feel a little less like, as Drake put it, “a remnant of something that’s passed.”