Nick Drake (19th June 1948 to 25th November 1974)

 

Here I am under a tree by the grave bearing the ashes of Nick Drake who was an introverted singer-songwriter who gained nearly all his fame after his death aged 26.  It’s behind a picturesque church in a sleepy village called Tanworth-In-Arden, Warwickshire. It’s been well visited over the years by fans from all over the world though there’s a sign up asking people not to leave gifts.

 

Not far from this trees sits the family home where Nick learned to play piano and compose songs as a lad. He recorded it on reel-to-reel tape recorder kept in the family drawing room. Both his middle-class parents were musical. His dad Rodney had spent years working overseas for the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation. Here he met Mary and in 1950 they returned to England to live in a large family home called Far Leys. Though Rodney was a big earner as Managing Director of Wolseley Engineering he could not buy happiness for his son.

 

Nick was sent to a preparatory boarding school in Berkshire. Here aged 16 he formed a band with four school friends, The Perfumed Gardeners. The singer Chris de Burgh was there and asked to join the band but taste was "too poppy" and he was rejected. Chums recall Nick being confident, "quietly authoritative", often aloof and difficult to get to know. His studies suffered as he delved deeper into music yet he still passed seven GCE O-Levels. He the Head Boy yet later the headmaster would say he found Nick inscrutable. As his dad, grand-dad and great granddad had done he attended Marlborough College in Wiltshire. He spent six months at the University of Aix-Marseille in France, a guitar attached to him most of the time. Here he began to smoke cannabis and LSD, possibly the biggest mistake of his life (as it seems to make some people go a little mad.)

 

Aged 18 he enrolled at a Fitzwilliam College in Cambridge but he didn’t seem interested and staff found him difficulty connecting with him. The college was well-known for its highly competitive rugby and cricket teams but Nick usually stayed in his room smoking cannabis while listening to music. A pot-smoking guitar-strumming hippie kind of lifestyle followed but what made Nick different from the others who followed this path? While playing in local clubs and coffee houses around London he was noticed by the bass player with Fairport Convention. He saw that not only was he technically immaculate on the guitar he looked like a star and his songs were soulful. Nick was introduced to the owner of a production company working for Island Records and four songs he’d recorded on his reel-to-reel tape in his room at college led to the 20-year-old being offered a contract. The melancholic moody dude was uncharacteristically visibly excited. This was his break.

 

I won’t run through his career here but it started when Nick was 20 with his debut album Five Leaves Left. It didn’t sell well and was considered too mournful like its creator.  He terminated his studies at Cambridge nine months before graduation and moved to London (to this parent’s disappointment.) He stayed at his sister's Kensington flat but drifted around sleeping on sofas and floors. In October 1969 he was on a proper stage opening a concert for Fairport Convention at the Royal Festival Hall in London. He appeared at folk clubs but the few folkies in attendance weren’t enamoured: the introverted singer didn’t say a word all evening, wouldn’t make eye contact, just played and the experience was so awkward for player and viewer.

 

Where did the mental descent start? The mentor who’d given Nick a chance at his production company sold up and moved to Los Angeles. This loss compounded by poor record sales pulled Nick down. He lost his nerve and was visibly nervous and uncomfortable at a series of concerts in 1970. At a concert at Ewell Technical College in Surrey he stopped playing Fruit Tree and walked off stage. Something was so profoundly wrong the 23-year-old was persuaded to visit a psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants but he turned in on himself. He only left his flat to do the odd performance or buy drugs. He’d graduated to cannabis which but drives some people bonkers - Nick was one of them. He was smoking piles of it - enough to spark flashes of psychosis. Intensely shy he might go into the recording studio and not make eye contact with anyone. There were no close friends and relationships with girlfriends went unconsummated

 

Island records didn’t expect a third album but Pink Moon was finished, eleven bleak songs lasting 28 minutes that mirrored Nick’s mind. It sold less than previous albums, not helped by Nick’s unwillingness to promote it. Disheartened and in a fog drugs he cut himself off from people and returned to live at his parents' home in Tanworth-in-Arden. Here he lived off a £20/week retainer from Island Records and had holes in his shoes. He’d turn up unannounced at friend’s houses and be withdrawn, quiet and simply look through his host with little connection. Sometimes he’d drive his mum’s car without a purpose or destination and have to ring her when the tank was empty. His well-to-do well-meaning parents and sister looked with on bewildered helplessness.

 

Early in 1972 Nick was put in hospital for five weeks after a nervous breakdown. Two years drifted by and he was ready to make music again. However in autumn 1974 the £20/week wages from Island Records stopped. A week before he committed suicide his best female friend but not girlfriend Sophia Ryde sought to end their tenuous relationship. This chap was a suicide waiting to happen. In the early hours of Monday 25th November 1974 at the family home his rose in the night. This was nothing new as he kept strange hours. His mum heard her son go down to the kitchen. They were none of the usual noises of him pouring cereal and returning to his room. The sun rose and nothing seemed unusual. Nick wasn’t up but he often stayed in bed till noon. However when the housemaid looked in on Nick at 11:45am she found his dead body lying across the bed. He’d taken approximately 30 antidepressant pills. The doctor who was called said he’d been dead for hour. The coroner concluded a verdict of suicide which was probably accurate as friends and family said Nick had given up on life.

 

He was cremated at Solihull Crematorium and his ashes later interred under the oak tree after a service in the Church of St Mary Magdalene where I’m stood (his parent’s ashes are here, too.) About fifty mourners were in attendance and Nick’s life was so compartmentalised that many of his friends met for the first time that morning. The death didn’t make an impact on the main newspapers. Lord Lucan’s recent absence was still big news. Nick’s profile scudded along the bottom of the world of music through the 1970s but in the 1980s his parents reported they were receiving an increasing number of fans and admirers at their home. Slowly the albums mushroomed to gain cult status and appeared on Rolling Stone magazine's list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” When Nick released the albums they each sold less than 5,000 copies despite people telling him he was a genius. I wonder what he’d make of it now.

 

I had a saunter around the graveyard which neighbours some allotments. As I took a few photographs one of the look up from their spades with an expression that said, “Here’s yet another geek.” A blue plaque has recently been bolted onto Far Leys where Nick died.

 

As I’m a geek I also visited Solihull Crematorium where Nick was turned to dust forever. I knew there was nothing there to see but I just wanted to see the building where the service was held and the chimney through which a few particles of Nick passed through. I did a hearty salute and left.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Back out on the road. The view from the church…

 

 

Far Leys where Nick lived and died…

 

 

 

 

 

Nick’s bedroom where he died…

 

 

The view from his window…

 

At Solihull Cemetery where Nick was cremated…

 

 

 

The chimney of the crematorium which emitted some particles of Nick. Hope you find happiness in the afterlife, buddy…