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Jim DeRogatis Remembers Nick Drake

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Jim DeRogatis Remembers Nick Drake

Nick Drake Billboard Ad 1971 (Wikimedia Commons)

Musician Nick Drake was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. The English singer and guitarist – only 26 when he died Nov. 25, 1974, of a drug overdose that may or may have not been intentional – recorded three studio albums between 1969 and 1972: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. None sold more than 10,000 copies when originally released.

Yet in the 40 years since his death, Drake has had two singles on the U.K. singles chart. Bryter Layter was named the No. 1 alternative album of all time by The Guardian newspaper. He's been the subject of multiple documentaries on film and in radio, and honored in live concerts and in tribute albums. Previously discarded songs he recorded have been compiled and successfully released. A diverse group of performers – including Michael Stipe of R.E.M., Natalie Merchant, Robert Smith of the Cure, Ben Folds and Lucinda Williams – cite Drake as an influence.

Music critic and author Jim DeRogatis, co-host of National Public Radio's Sound Opinions, spoke to Legacy.com about Drake, his music and his legacy. For more about DeRogatis, visit jimdero.com or www.soundopinions.org.

How do you explain the popularity of Nick Drake and his music decades after his last recording?

"It's really weird in the indie rock world how certain influences are completely ignored for 20 years or 30 years and then they have a resurgence. … For Nick Drake, there's a bunch of reasons: Number one, his music was so far ahead of his time. The orchestral pop moment of the last couple of years, bands like the Decemberists or Polyphonic Spree and some of what Wilco did on Summerteeth, Five Leaves got there first with these beautiful orchestrations that at their heart are very simple and heartfelt folk songs. I think he was emo before emo was emo. … Even in the singer-songwriter genre, if we look at some the artists of that time, like a Cat Stevens in the U.K. or a James Taylor in the U.S., the depth of emotions in a Nick Drake song is light-years beyond that.

"There's also the commercial, a mundane reason, but the Volkswagen commercial. (In 1999, the automaker featured Drake's song 'Pink Moon' in a 60-second television ad that reignited interest in Drake's music.)

"There’s also the bogus, but undeniable capital 'R' romantic reason: There is no greater sign of authenticity or genuineness in art, this myth of the artist who lives fast and dies young, but it's a horrible myth. There's nothing romantic about Nick Drake being gone from us. We would much rather have him here as a senior citizen still creating music or at least being a happy, living human being."

Is he a folk artist?

"For lack of a better word, I would say probably. … Folk seems limiting to me, but he's a guy with an acoustic guitar and a voice who has something to say. So we'll label it that because we don't have anything better."

Who do you think influenced his music?

"He was a sponge. … He was raised in a music household. He loved classical music. He loved the rock music of the time, certainly the Beatles and (Bob) Dylan. I think he was aware of British folk music and the coffee house tradition he started out in. I think he was one of those people who just listened to everything and anything."

Some have said Drake's music is melancholy and depressing. I've read that "Black Eyed Dog," a song he recorded right before his death, is his obituary. Your thoughts?

"I don't think he's as dire as some people think. Knowing the end of the story, I think some people tend to read in emotions that weren't necessarily there at the beginning. I feel this way about Kurt Cobain, too. I sat with this guy, Cobain, and he was full of life. He was excited for his music. He had a rare philosophy of life that, whatever the problems, he wanted to pick up that guitar and play it for the world. I look at Nick Drake the same way. Drake was a great creator of music, and whatever we say about his depression and mental state and happiness in life, he still wanted to share with people. He still wanted his voice to be heard.

"I just hear an earnestness and a joy with making music. I also hear some melancholy, but it's like the blues in America. The act of singing about being miserable purges you of a part of the misery."

Drake was apparently very shy. He didn't like to give interviews. He was known to be socially awkward. He started an American tour of small clubs and universities and quickly ended it, because he felt audience members weren't paying attention and the ambient sounds of clinking barware were too loud. Would he be a star in today's entertainment world? 

"That's a hard one to answer. It's always tough: 'How would he fit in today?' … The signs that he might be a star are that people relate now and actively seek out ... for lack of a better word, emo. There's no mistaking the earnestness in Nick Drake's words. On the other hand, I can't picture him having a Twitter account or caring about how many friends he had on Facebook. But that's one of the things I like about Nick Drake."

Three adjectives to describe him best?

"Earnest, heartfelt and unforgettable. Distinctly personal."

I've also heard "ethereal." Would you agree with that?

"That sounds too much like a rock critic word. I think people are reading these things into him: 'He must not have been fully of this earth because of the way he left it.' You know what I mean? The guy was a great songwriter, and even if he didn't feel confident in it, a very good performer, at least in the recording studio. This idea of him being a spirit here among us mere mortals, again we romanticize a sad end of the artist, and it's a fatal myth. … That's not what makes Nick Drake great. What makes Nick Drake great is the music he left us."

Drake apparently had a highly original guitar technique that involved de-tuning his guitar, whatever that means. Could you explain his playing to a lay person? 

"I've heard (record producer) Joe Boyd talk eloquently about that stuff, but I think it's not a musical thing. You're not a human being if you listen to Pink Moon and don't feel something. I think that holds at any age, any culture, any preferred genre of music. You can be the nastiest death metal fan and sit down and listen to that album and it's going to move you if you're a thinking, sentient human being. It has nothing to do with the chord progression."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."