Music History

Nick Drake's Pink Moon turns forty

In his best selling book Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman asserts that "the best career move any musician can make is to stop breathing." When examining Kurt Cobain's post-mortem transformation from junkie dad to iconic voice of a generation, Klosterman notes that the suicide told everyone that "he wasn't kidding," and therefore his songs suddenly became multi-dimensional.

Although for the most part the musicians mentioned in Klosterman's book were at least mildly successful during their lives, the fact that they were still breathing was apparently disguising their true genius from the world. When an artist is a virtual nobody throughout their careers (such as Van Gough or Kafka), and then the following generation "discovers" them, the potential for myth-making, for seeing new clues into the tortured characters behind the work, increases astronomically.

Such is the case with forever-26 year old Nick Drake. Only releasing three albums in as many years, Drake was as famous as a gnat in a cave when he was alive, but since his death, he's become the iconic prototype for the tortured young singer, paving the way for effeminate, bookish self-loathers like Michael Stipe,Connor Oberst and Morrissey.

Things weren't always stale wine and dying roses for Nick Drake, though. Born into the privileged life of boarding schools and country estates in Warwickshire, England, Drake eventually attended the prestigious Cambridge University, soaking up the works of William Blake and W.B. Yeats -- although he would later end up dropping out nine months before graduation, having been corrupted by marijuana, folk records and a recording contract from Island Records.

His debut album, Five Leaves Left, was respected by BBC DJ John Peel and the writers of Melody Maker,, but it left almost no imprint on either side of the Atlantic. For his follow-up, Bryter Layter, he explored a jazzier, fuller sound, with former Velvet Underground guitarist John Cale sitting in on two tracks. While today the album is praised as an enduring classic, at the time, it came and went quietly on the charts the same way as Drake's first release.

Drake's live performances were a real-time version of his album sales, with audiences bored and rude, completely unaware of the talent they were being graced with. It wasn't that Drake's sound wasn't popular at the time -- folkies like Neil Young, Joni Mitchel and James Taylor were selling amazingly well, but those musicians were doing endless rounds of promotion through interviews, tours and hosting parties with other celebrities. After the failures of Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter, Drake rarely left the house except to record or purchase drugs.

A long-term sufferer of insomnia and depression, Drake had begun smoking exceptional amounts of marijuana in an attempt to balance out his condition. After painful kidney stones were added to his list of ailments, Drake turned to heroin on the recommendation of John Cale. In light of poor sales and a complete disinterest in self-promotion (even gigs were beginning to be seen as a chore), Island Records was prepared to drop Drake and would have done so if not for the protest of a few respected individuals inside the company.

In a desperate attempt to revive the reclusive singer's career, Drake reluctantly gave his solitary interview to Sounds Magazine. The process was awkward, and the writer would go on to describe him as "just a spoiled boy with a silver spoon who went around feeling sorry for himself."

When the time came to record his third and final album, Pink Moon, Drake was coming apart at the seams. Sleeplessness and drug addiction, mixed with increasing mental illness was leading him to almost complete isolation, hardly uttering a word when he did spend time with friends and family. At the same time, he was writing the most beautifully heartbreaking music of his time.

At not even a half hour, the eleven-song album was a stripped down affair, doing away with all other instrumentation (aside from a small piano overdub on the title track). "He was very determined to make a stark, bare record," recalls producer John Wood. "He definitely wanted it to be more him than anything. And I think, in some ways, Pink Moon is probably more like Nick is than the other two records."

In opposition to the optimistic summer sounds of his previous albums, the lyrical imagery of Pink Moon is autumnal, suggesting, as so many Drake-enthusiasts are wont to do, a prophecy of seasons changing, ashes to ashes, full circle expiration. This idea reaches its zenith on the title track where Drake darkly threatens "none of you stand so tall/Pink moon gonna get you all," pointing to the inevitability of death no matter how young you may be.

Beyond the myth-making qualities of the lyrics, the sound of Pink Moon reflects the Drakes insomnia with its nocturnal, ethereal sound, the feeling of being too restless to sleep yet too tired to attempt anything productive. The dreamy, childlike feel of twilight hours, the time when memories surface and longing expands.

The album was recorded, amazingly, in only two separate sessions -- lasting a mere two hours each. Shortly after being delivered to Island (who had neither expected nor desired a record from Drake), the failed musician suffered a crippling mental breakdown, walking off the stage of a concert in mid-song and moving back into his parent's estate in Warwickshire.

Joe Boyd, the man who discovered Drake and produced his first two albums, recalls the heavy disappointment Drake felt at having not been a success. "[He said that] I had told him he was a genius, and others concurred. Why wasn't he famous and rich? This rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years."

Unfortunately there weren't too many years left. While living with his family, Drake was moody and unpredictable, borrowing the car at unexpected hours and driving all night, only to call his father after running out of gas, too shy to even go to a gas station. One late night in 1974 Drake -- whether intentional or accidental -- overdosed on Amitriptyline, the antidepressant he had been prescribed. His funeral was attended by fifty mourners, with his headstone reading a quote from the final song of Pink Moon, "From the Morning": "Now we rise/And we are everywhere." Thirty years later, the song would appear on an AT&T commercial.

Indeed Drake did eventual rise, and was everywhere. In the decades to follow, bands like the Cure, Belle & Sebastian, Blur and Badly Drawn Boy had endlessly sung the praises of the Drake's once bargain-bin relegated albums. Reissues and box sets gradually crept into record stores, and the Bryter Layter track, "Fly," made an appearance on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack. It was the bizarre inclusion of "Pink Moon" on a Volkswagon commercial that ironically skyrocketed the hermetic folk singer back into public consciousness.

In his life, Drake's dissatisfaction with live performance was the lack of surrender by his audiences. The folkies of his time wanted loud protest songs with choruses that spoke to them. Many of Drake's songs had no choruses, and they were the type of music that could only be enjoyed by leaning forward, by seeking out the treasure, like a date playing hard to get. His music would eventually achieve that, but it would require his death and three decades of music buyers gradually leaning forward, digging through bins of records, before his music could be really heard and appreciated.

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Josiah M. Hesse
Contact: Josiah M. Hesse