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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Keiron Pim

Nick Drake by Richard Morton Jack review – genius remembered

Nick Drake
Nick Drake in 1967. Photograph: PR handout free

“Do you curse where you come from?” Nick Drake asks an imagined lover in his 1971 song Hazey Jane I. This first comprehensive account of the revered singer-songwriter’s short life makes it clear that he did. It uses previously unseen family papers to illuminate Drake’s final years, in which, despairing at his apparent failure as a musician, he withdrew to his detested childhood home in Tanworth-in-Arden.

Towards the end of his life, Drake was pulled between two places he felt damaged him in contrasting ways. London, the hub of his musical career, was overwhelming; his family’s comfortable home in rural Warwickshire was safe but stultifying. “There’s no outlet to say what I think about this bloody place!” he told his mother and bemoaned that in Britain, unlike the US, people could never “break away from their background”. This meticulous and ultimately heartbreaking biography is the story of a man who believed he’d “failed in every single thing I’ve ever tried to do”. It’s true that a quarter of a century after his death he would become famous for his music; but also as an archetype of the doomed artist whose only acclaim is posthumous.

This painfully taciturn man lived for 26 years, the first three quarters in smooth upper-middle-class transit from early childhood in newly independent Burma through the English private school system to Cambridge, despite academic mediocrity. He was enigmatic and inscrutable, leading an uneventful life until his final five years. It was then that he released three exquisite albums – the romantic pastoral Five Leaves Left; Bryter Layter with its focus on the city; the chillingly introspective Pink Moon – but refused to promote them, causing their commercial failure and contributing to his psychological collapse.

Richard Morton Jack’s diligence, sensitivity and musical knowledge have enabled him to extract a readable and informative biography from sometimes unpromising material. He has tracked down schoolfriends with whom Drake travelled to Aix-en-Provence and Morocco; fans who attended his few concerts; musical collaborators (producer Joe Boyd and studio engineer John Wood make vivid contributions); a family friend who tried to help before Drake’s death in 1974. He acknowledges the generous help of Patrick Humphries, whose 1997 biography was hamstrung by a lack of cooperation from key figures. Morton Jack’s has been written with the blessing of Nick’s sister, Gabrielle Drake, which is both a strength and a weakness.

In her foreword, Gabrielle pays tribute to their parents, the “outstanding”, “exceptional” Molly and Rodney. The book closes with a psychiatrist’s letter reassuring them they could have done no more to prevent his death. But by then it’s clear that, however good their intentions, Drake’s relationship with them was fundamental to his distress. He was consumed by rage at feeling misunderstood, monitored and controlled, especially by Rodney, who tried to steer him towards a “proper” career. After moving back to the family home in 1971 he would ignore his parents for days, breaking his silence only to swear at them. I wanted exploration and analysis of this, his most important relationship – for instance through Nick’s friends’ recollections of exactly why he so resented his parents, which need not have implied culpability for his death. But perhaps doing so would have turned up material contradicting Gabrielle’s line that they were beyond reproach.

Even so, the book’s greatest asset is the access Gabrielle granted to revelatory documents from the family archive. Candid letters from Rodney scold Nick for his indolence, introversion and cannabis-smoking. “The man who resorts to pot as the solution to his problems becomes bemused, befuddled and vegetable-like,” lectured Drake senior, the self-assured old Burma hand and managing director of an engineering company. “How do I know this, you say? Because I saw it again and again in the East.” A letter Nick wrote to the radical psychiatrist Leon Redler gives a rare insight into his own thoughts about his breakdown. “There was a lot of pressure around and I suppose I sort of cracked up,” Drake explained. He said that although he’d been treated for depression, “I never really understood the word and felt that ‘confusion’ was more apt.” Psychiatrists were mystified by his decline into a state of mute catatonia, interrupted only by explosions of fury and destructive violence (he smashed guitars, a chair, a radio, his car window). They tentatively diagnosed “simple schizophrenia” but conceded that this catch-all term had little meaning.

As I finish writing this review in a cafe, Pink Moon has started to play. The waitress tells me she’s a Nick Drake fan. So many people are now. Drake knew he lived at the wrong time, as well as feeling he was from the wrong place. He took an overdose of antidepressants in November 1974. Two years earlier, Rodney noted in his diary that his “despondent” son said “he’d finished his life’s work and had done more than many in a lifetime. One day,” Nick Drake insisted, “people would realise.”

Nick Drake: The Life by Richard Morton Jack is published by John Murray (£30). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at Delivery charges may apply.

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