The first time I heard Nick Drake was, appropriately enough, in the dead of a 1974 winter. A Washington D.C. winter I should add. The trees were bare, the air painfully cold, and a walk home from school through empty parks and neighborhoods only reinforced a sense of loneliness and melancholy. Upon entering my house I turned on the radio of my stereo system to an alternative FM station that I could generally count on to play great music by unknown artists with few commercial interruptions. All of a sudden I heard a very slow paced but powerful acoustic guitar strumming that got my attention, accompanied by an easy-paced voice that sang of “gonna see the River Man, gonna tell him all I can…. ” The song instantly transported me far from this frigid suburban setting and whisked me away , to some place way down south, maybe along the banks of the Mississippi River on a hot summer afternoon where , in my mind’s eye I sat down beneath a large oak tree and fished with a wise old black man who proceeded to…. “tell me all he knows, about the way this river flows“. And yet, as I would find out later, the singer was as British as a British bard can be and the song had nothing to do with the American South but was perhaps inspired by the singer’s memory of sitting on the banks of the River Avon as a young schoolboy; or, just as likely, the chords and lyrics simply came to him one night late as he stretched out on a friends couch in a London flat amidst the clatter of traffic and people just outside his window, far removed from any J.R.R. Tolkien or Walt Whitman-esque literary nature romp. For the artist never visited America, never crossed the big pond to see our sprawling continent with its tall forests, prairies, teeming metropolises and highways stretching in every direction. But no matter, Nick Drake’s music goes far deeper than mere geography and his song writing has touched the hearts of people worldwide, both past, present and unborn. Here in the U.S. of A. we can only selfishly stamp our own New World field of focus upon lyrics and songs not written with us in mind, songs that originated not down on the Louisiana bayou or in a quaint village in the Berkshires or in the coffee house circuit in Greenwich Village, but rather in the mind and soul of a traveling minstrel of Merrie Old England, a true Renaissance Man with one foot in the Middle Ages while the other foot pounded the pavement trying to sign record deals or looking for his next paying gig in the fast-paced 60’s. Sadly, during his brief life he believed that he had failed utterly as an artist, and thus he joins the ranks of immortals like Emily Dickinson and El Greco; shunned and unrecognized during his own lifetime but constantly resurrected in death as new listeners come under the spell of his compelling body of work. Here then, with much appreciation from my corner of the world, is my own slant on just a few of his many soulful songs….
Maury River near Glasgow, Virginia, a serene, bucolic setting that invokes the dreamy break in River Man when he sings with a perfectly-timed string arrangement, “Betty said she prayed today….for the sky to blow away…”
Three hours from sundown, Jeremy flies
No matter that “Three Hours” has a line saying, “Three hours from London“, the moment I heard the first picking notes of this song, images of being an outlaw on the run or criminal fleeing a local posse in a vast expanse of desert all came to mind; this moody piece could’ve been a background track on any spaghetti western. Had Nick lived longer I have no doubt that he would’ve found a second career writing songs for movies.
Hoping to keep, the sun from his eyes
I could be
I would be, I should be
I could have been
One of these things first
I could have been
One of these things first
From “One Of These Things First”, Nick was certainly not alone in this universal lament. Who hasn’t reflected from time to time on how one’s life might’ve turned out differently?
So come, come ride in my street-car by the bay
For now I must know how fine you are in your way
And the sea sure as I
But she won’t need to cry
For it’s really too hard
For to fly
Oh, poor boy
So sorry for himself
Oh, poor boy
So worried for his health
“Poor Boy”, a melancholy song that in typical Nick Drake fashion surprises the listener with an upbeat, gospel-like jubilee chorus that reveals his jazz and blues influence. Brilliant.
I never felt magic crazy as this
I never saw moons, knew the meaning of the sea
I never held emotion in the palm of my hand
Or felt sweet breezes in the top of a tree
But now you’re here, brighten my northern sky
“Northern Sky”, self-evident by its title, have never been able to place this one exactly but it always makes me think of my travels in the north woods of the Adirondacks and, colder still, among the spruce forests and “lacs” of Parc National du Mont-Tremblant, Quebec.
And time has told me
Not to ask for more
For some day our ocean
Will find its shore
“Time Has Told Me”, yes, the song also sings of “a troubled cure for a troubled mind”, but for me its always been more of a love song simply because my wife and amorcita Lindita (above) and I spent so much time together listening to “Five Leaves Left”, and besides, Nick (and his gifted collaborators lest we forget!) had the magic of being able to create a mood with just a few key words, lines or notes that often superseded the rest of the song. Or so time has told me.
Excuse the complete departure from my North American theme, but I feel duty-bound to mention that years ago I used the instrumental song, “Sunday”, as background music on a public radio program in which I read excerpts of “Histories”; by the Greek historian Herodotus, and his account of the Battle of Thermopylae.
Who can know
The thoughts of Mary Jane
Why she flies
Or goes out in the rain
From “The Thoughts of Mary Jane”, for me the sweetest song of all and my eternal gratitude to my man Nick Drake because I always enjoyed singing this to my beautiful daughter Raquelita, with a slight name change, just for her….
“Who can tell, the thoughts of….. Raquelita?”
Where she’s been
And who she’s seen
In her journey to the stars
Therein lies my most affectionate tie to Nick Drake’s music…. to be honest, I can hardly hear any of his songs without instantly thinking of her, I love. For how can I ever thank this man enough? This man who walked many a highway and dim city street alone, in silence, fighting his own demons; never knowing that he would write a song that one day, in some distant time and place, would be such a source of joy between a father and daughter he never met? I think only a true man of heart can do that, indeed it is the gift of the artist to have that kind of influence even after they are long gone. So let me set the record straight, especially to the naysayers in case anyone should ever doubt; Nick Drake was not just a “doomed romantic” singing sad songs, far from it; his was truly that “Voice From The Mountain” that we would all do well to listen to.
Of course all of these supposed connections to Nick Drake’s music are entirely flights of my own fancy, knowing that he was actually a native son of a little village in the Midlands called Tanworth-In-Arden, and his cosmography was one of narrow country lanes, medieval churches, thick hedgerows, rowhouses and gently rolling green hills. Further, the timeline of his life was already passed before I had even heard the first chord of “River Man”, in fact little did I realize at the time but he had probably only recently passed away. So my love affair with Nick’s music has been very much conjured up within my own American mind, but that’s ok I believe. For he has been a part of my life for a long time now, and I for one am the richer for it. Further, Nick would surely be gratified to know that his music is alive and well and continues to resonate around the world; with those of us who have been there from early on as well as those who, like myself on a wintry day decades ago, will come home one afternoon or be driving around somewhere, or watching a VW tv commercial and suddenly hear one of his songs for the very first time; only to ask ,”My God,who is this?”
Voice from the mountain
And voice from the sea
Voice from in my neighbourhood
And a voice calling me.
Tell me my friend my friend
Tell me with love
Where can it end
This voice from above
Gracias compadre, nos veremos en el proximo mundo