Nearly 40 years after his death, Nick Drake remains an elusive enigma. He’s been dead nearly twice as long as he lived, yet the more time passes, the more recordings are unearthed, the less we seem to know about the man. Drake is a genuinely legendary figure in music, yet his music went nearly unnoticed during his lifetime. In fact, he probably sold more albums after his song “Pink Moon” appeared in a Volkswagen commercial in the late ’90s than he did while he was alive. And in the age of the youtubes, when archival video performances of the most obscure bands to roam the planet are just a click away, there is no video footage of Nick Drake to be found.
I first discovered Nick Drake from a various artists compilation CD that came out in 1992 called Brittle Days. I picked it up because it had Loop on it. It wasn’t very good. My introduction to Drake’s actual music came when the owner of record store I was working at played Bryter Layter. I thought it was woefully depressing and barked at him for playing it. But when he played Pink Moon a few months later, I was floored. Folk music wasn’t at all my thing at the time. But this was different. There was something to this music. Something elusive and enigmatic.
This video of John Martyn is spectacular. Not only is he funny as he deals with his busted guitar string, but he is absolutely stunning as he plays and sings his song about his friend, Nick Drake. Well, friend may be too strong a word. A cursory glance at any Drake biography reveals the man to be very detached and aloof, coming and going unannounced, and prone to breakdowns and temper tantrums. John Martyn was anything but those things. He was a big guy with a big personality.
“Solid Air” was released a year before Drake died. Martyn said of the song, “It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I’m very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It has got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself.”
I was a fan of this song long before I knew it was about Nick Drake. Now that I know, it makes so much more sense and I like it even more. And I think Martyn’s performance there from 1978 is fantastic.
Less fantastic were the Dream Academy. When “Life in a Northern Town” came out in 1985, it was inescapable. I guess the first 9,000 times I heard it, it was a pleasant diversion from the glut of Huey Lewis and the News, Madonna, Wham! and REO Speedwagon noise Top 40 radio was farting out at the time. It had a sound that harkened back to a time when Ronald Reagan was making movies with chimps instead of planning Iran-Contra with them. It was somber, yet uplifting. Like Simon and Garfunkel on Quaaludes minus any sense of fun.
I swear there was a point in 1986 where the opening chords of that song would make my eye twitch. It got to the point where I couldn’t turn on MTV or go out to the grocery store without hearing the “Hey-Yo-Mama” chorus. Mercifully, the Dream Academy were a one-hit wonder and their song about Nick Drake became the opposite of its subject.
So I’m left here quite stumped about how to wrap this up. Listening to Nick Drake is still a transcendental experience for me. I’m not sure if it’s the same for everyone else, but when I listen to him, I always get a bit wrapped up in the mystery of the man. I wonder what would have happened had he lived on to make more music. What would I give to see videos of him performing? Would it make him less an enigma if footage of him did exist? It doesn’t matter, really. I have the music he made and I can think of only a handful of artists who have brought me joy in the good times and solace in the bad like Nick Drake still does nearly 20 years after discovering him.