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Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Do You Love Nick Drake? Then Thank His Parents

Posted By on Tue, Jun 21, 2011 at 8:39 AM

Nick Drake
  • Nick Drake

Over a six-year stretch beginning in 1994, Jason Creed published 19 issues of Pink Moon, a fanzine dedicated to the life and music of deceased English folk singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Pink Moon featured interviews with primary characters in the Drake narrative, as well as dispatches regarding his burgeoning pop cultural presence. (Like this: Cool ad, shitty car.) However, the most captivating content was generally the original artwork, poetry, and testimonials contributed by fans, each submission a tiny -- sometimes opaque, sometimes cracked -- window into the impassioned soul of a Drake devotee.

Last August, Creed e-mailed me to ask for permission to include a piece I did for Stylus in a Drake compendium he was pulling together. The content was culled from issues of Pink Moon, as well as bits of writing published elsewhere. I promptly agreed and was compensated in three ways: 1.) Creed mailed me a free copy of the book, titled The Pink Moon Files; 2.) I could now include the designation "published Drake scholar" on my resume, a title guaranteed to awe potential employers; 3.) And finally, inclusion in this book meant that long after the links to my online refuse have died, there is something that confirms I once walked this earth. This is a comforting consideration, particularly since my stumble to 40 has involved being tormented by the notion that the tiny footprints I'm leaving behind will be swept away, washed over, or covered in pavement by an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act road project.

There is evidence that Drake was similarly uneasy, that until his death at 26 -- an age, quite frankly, when posthumous concerns don't regularly occupy one's thoughts -- he was frequently thinking about his legacy. There's an oft-repeated quote from his mother, Molly: "I don't think he wanted to be a star, and I don't honestly think he was the least interested in money. But, I think he had this feeling that he'd got something to say, to people of his own generation." More telling are his lyrics to various songs: "Day Is Done," "Road," and most famously, "

Fruit Tree," where Drake is bewitched by those artists who had the halo of glory attached to their names only after taking their last breaths.

Drake would come to share their fate. As issues of Creed's Pink Moon so haphazardly detailed, interest in the singer-songwriter began to swell in the early '90s, nearly two decades after he died in relative anonymity. Saying Drake was prescient, that he felt a kinship with artists who had progressed from marginal in life to venerated in death (he adored William Blake and John Keats) because he anticipated a similar destiny is an exercise in mythmaking. Drake was merely desperate, having dealt with the consequences of failure. Combined, his three studio albums sold less than 15,000 copies in his lifetime; his introverted manner alienated audiences during gigs. He failed to find success in music while alive; maybe the blind cynic in him wondered if the act of dying would hasten fame's arrival.

What he never counted on was his parents interceding. As the years accumulated and parenthood developed into my primary focus, Molly and Rodney Drake's story developed into a fixation of sorts. I became preoccupied with the acts of generosity and hospitality they committed in the name of their son. In the years following his death, fans from Europe, America, and Australia began arriving at their Tanworth-in-Arden home, Far Leys, pilgrimages spurred by a bended-knee worship of a total stranger's tiny catalog of music. The Drakes fed and bathed these visitors, some of whom later contributed to Creed's Pink Moon 15 years later. The Drakes let them snap photos of their son's untouched bedroom, gave them permission to run a hand along his small-bodied Guild M20 guitar, made gifts of the homemade music he taped on his Beocord reel-to-reel recorder, bought them pints at the local pub, and carpooled them to the gravesite.

"I know both parents were grateful for the attention Nick was getting -- grateful and enthusiastic," Martin "Cally" Calliman, manager of the music side of Drake's estate, writes me in an e-mail. "I have heard many touching stories about fans being put up for the night at Far Leys. You will understand that by, say ... 1979, Nick was almost completely unknown by the new young fans that were devouring music at that time."

I once read an interview with Mary Guibert, mother of deceased singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, in which she discussed how fan letters extolling her son's music and personal qualities carried her through the gloomiest of days. Molly and Rodney possibly found similar peace in coalescing with fans. It's said that part of the healing process involves learning to live amongst the living again.

Over time, the helplessness the Drakes experienced in dealing with their son's illness was replaced with rock-hard persistence. Having their son's music fade into total obscurity would have been like losing him all over again. Grief nudged them in unexpected directions. I understand that's normal when parents have experienced the most devastating and unconscionable of losses. You find yourself patiently taking a phone call in the wee hours from some fast-talking, fervent soul from Singapore who just heard "River Man" for the first time and wants to expound on how it felt like he was holding his breath for 25 years -- his entire life, in fact -- and how when he listened to that song he could finally exhale. (I had initially put an exclamation point at the end of the preceding sentence, but my ever-pretentious self thinks using an exclamation point in an article dedicated to Drake feels odd.)

I'm especially taken by how grassroots the Drakes' crusade was, that their son's legacy can trace its roots to the simple act of their answering a knock at the front door. Or how frequently the relationship with fans was flipped, the Drakes falling under the spell of their most ardent visitors as freely and completely as these visitors did for their son's fragile voice and finger-picked melodies. Or how they turned Far Leys into a velvet-cordoned exhibition, Drake's possessions essentially becoming museum pieces, yet it never veered toward exploitation. Or how they acted so resolutely despite being so isolated in their endeavors. (Aside from manager/producer Joe Boyd, there were few champions for Drake's music within the industry.)

"I'm sure you can empathize with any couple who lose a child," Calliman tells me. "People tend to forget that this is what they had to bear: to bear the unbearable. If there were any chance that Nick's 'life' could continue through his music, any parent would want that to happen, surely."

The Nick Drake story has so many intertwined and compelling themes -- loss, idolatry, legacy, redemption -- but the one that stands out for me is perseverance. Rodney and Molly believed their son and his music deserved a better fate, destiny, legacy -- call it whatever you like -- and set about achieving that goal. They set a course and never veered from it. As we amble down life's many paths, creating our own tiny legacies, I suppose we can all hope to possess the same determination.


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Ryan Foley


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