Nick First Hand - his Life and Music in Quotes
During my research at university for a book and dissertation, I had the privilege of talking to several friends and aquaintenses of Nick from school and university. Though I didn't discover anything new, it was always interesting to hear another perspective on Nick (I particularly like the C. G Reynold quote). I also spoke with Dave Barber who was researching a film documentary about Nick. He told me how difficult the project had been as firstly, there was little or no footage of Nick himself, but secondly because his life "just wasn't that interesting". This at first sounded a little harsh. Though his music was rarely less than remarkable, his life was in many senses unremarkable.He hadn't taken the cliched path of drug fuelled excess that many contemporaries had been taking at the time. He had had a privileged and comfortable upbringing, going from public school to Cambridge. However, despite being a shy and introspective individual, he rarely failed to leave a lasting impression on people.
Your first impression of Nick was of incredible elegance. Only later would you notice his shabby lace-up shoes and ill-fitting jacket.
Paul Wheeler, a friend of Nick
"Nick was in some strange way out of time. When you were with him, you always had a sad feeling of him being born in the wrong century. If he would have lived in the 17th Century, at the Elizabethan Court, together with composers like Dowland or William Byrd, he would have been alright. Nick was elegant, honest, a lost romantic - and at the same time so cool. In brief: the perfect Elizabethan."
Robert Kirby, a Cambridge friend of Nick's who orchestrated his first 2 albums
His set of friends were a year or so older than me, and generally from a slightly 'smart' social background as I recall. I seem to remember that he was one of the pleasanter people among them, and was quite relaxed about life at school - laid back as it is now termed.
He was a swift runner and in the school athletics team - 100 yards / 200 yards I think (he smoked a bit so should have been better). Marlborough College had a good tradition, including one or two national team members, plus good facilities...
...I remember him playing the guitar, at a School Open Day Fair, during which boys were encouraged to man stalls and mini exhibitions. Nick donned a denim jacket and jeans, and lounged against the pillars at the entrance of the grandest school building - C House, playing the harmonica slung around his neck, and singing Dylan, Guthrie and some early Donovon songs, I think; whether there were any of his I do not know. I had no idea whether he had obtained permission to perform like this - one presumes so.
This was mildly scandalising to a fairly conventionally minded boy like me - I was 20 feet away filling balloons for children with hydrogen, and attaching labels to them for charity."
C.G.Reynold., an acquaintance from school
[public school is a place] "where the sensitive experience a horrified dissociation from reality that can sometimes never fade away."
...I was at Fitzwilliam, Cambridge at the same time as Nick Drake and we were supervision partners in the second year. He was always a somewhat mysterious figure and spent no time at all socializing with his year or the college. He came from his school (Marlborough, i think) and spent his time with friends either from there or musical friends. He did play quite a bit in Cambridge, and I heard him play on several occasions, including a May Ball at Cains. I shared supervisions with a don who used his wife's rooms in an old house in West Road, in the attics. The remarkable thing was that however early I arrived for supervisions Nick was always there before me, standing waiting on the stairs gazing out of the window. I once got there 3/4 of an hour in advance and he was there ahead of me! The cover of Five Leaves Left bears an astonishing resemblance to his appearance. He would never say much, and he had never done the work for the supervisions, he was simply going through the motions.
Of all the albums I ever made, the two I produced by Nick are the ones I'm most proud of. I listen to them often because he was extraordinarily good - nothing he ever did was less than striking, and he had the gift of writing melodies of incredible beauty.
Joe Boyd, producer of Nick's first two albums
Five Leaves Left
"The first strong memory I have of Nick was at the second or third session for 'Five Leaves Left'". Richard Hewson, a well known arranger, and a fifteen piece orchestra had been brought in to arrange Nick's songs. "Nick started getting hotter and hotter under the collar. He was very young and he had struck me as a person you could push about. Some people in a recording session will do whatever you tell them. But he was getting quietly more and more aggravated, and in the end he dug his heels in and dismissed the arrangements. He said he'd get this friend at Cambridge, Robert Kirby, he thought would be much more sympathetic to what he was doing. Robert had never before done anything in his life in a recording studio. But two weeks later we booked him together with a bunch of musicians- a smaller bunch than the fist time, I remember... We were flabbergasted. He was so good"
John Wood, sound engineer for Five Leaves Left
"It's very rare that you wouldn't want to change an album, but it's the only one I wouldn't change, or feel I could have done better"
John Wood, sound engineer for Bryter Layter
When Bryter Layter didn't give Nick the success that everyone had expected, selling just 3-4000 copies at the time, Nick, who was already shy and introspective, began to show signs of depression and confusion and became increasingly uncommunicative.
He had this way of answering the telephone as if he just happened to have this thing in his hand and he was surprised to hear a voice come out of it. We talked for a while and he said he was very unhappy and I told him he should see a psychiatrist, there was nothing wrong with it, maybe it would help him.
"He would be staying at my flat and we would be talking, and he'd say: 'Do you mind if I go into the kitchen and take my pills [anti-depressants] . I'm frightfully sorry, frightfully sorry.'
Sophia Ryde, a friend of Nick's
When he did take them he was a bit better, but then he would stop taking them and say: 'I'm going to get through this my own way'
Rodney Drake, Nick's father
"He arrived at midnight and we started. It was done very quickly. After we had finished I asked him what I should keep, and he said all of it, which was a complete contrast to his former stance. He came in for another evening and that was it. It took hardly any time to mix, since it was only his voice and guitar, with one overdub only. Nick was adamant about what he wanted. He wanted it to be spare and stark, and he wanted it to be spontaneously recorded."
John Wood, sound engineer for Pink Moon
"He didn't want any more songs. He had no more material, and he thought that was part of the deal. And he was right. I wouldn't want to hear anymore before turning it over. If something is that intense, it can't really be measured in minutes
John Wood, on the album that clocked in at just under half an hour
The final years
After the release of Pink Moon, Nick became increasingly depressed and moved back in with his parents. In April 1972, he suffered a nervous breakdown and checked himself into a local psychiatric hospital for five weeks.
"I can't cope, all the defences are gone. All the nerves are exposed."
"I can't think of words. I feel no emotion about anything. I don't want to laugh or cry. I'm numb-dead inside."
Nick Drake, in conversation with John Wood
If you're so unhappy Nick, why haven't you killed yourself?"
Sheila Wood (John Wood's wife)
"It's too cowardly, and besides, I don't have the courage"
Nick (in response to Sheila Wood)
Nick decided to try taking up something other than music. He tried working in a recording studio. He even visited an army recruitment officer, but didn't get past the first interview.
"He came up with this idea of being a computer programmer, I didn't know much about it, but I dashed down to my firm to talk to the fellow who ran the computer. So, old Nick went down there and passed the intelligence test, and one of the companies in the group took him on."
Rodney Drake, Nick's father
"He started on Monday, and the Monday afterwards they sent him to London, and he had to live alone in a hotel and go off by himself. And he walked right off it."Molly Drake, Nick's mother
After receiving a bit of a 'pep talk' from Joe Boyd in late 1973 about the talent he was wasting, Nick eventually picked up his guitar again and penned lyrics to four guitar parts he had put down nearly a year before. Things were beginning to look up for Nick, he was writing songs again, the 4 tracks they recorded were considered 'absolutely wonderful' by Boyd and Wood, and Nick even had a steady girlfriend.
"We were so absolutely thrilled to think that Nick was happy because there hadn't been any happiness in Nick's life for years"Molly Drake, Nick's mother
However, Nick's gradual process of withdrawal over the years had taken its toll, and so his moods were still unpredictable and his mother said he had to fight hard against his 'illness'. On the evening of November 24th, 1974, Nick was in his bedroom in his family home in Tamworth in Arden working on new songs and putting them down on his home recorder. No one knows exactly what happened in those final hours following up to his death at 6am the following morning, but the verdict of suicide seems questionable. Nick had died of an overdose of Tryptizol, the anti-depressant he had been prescribed that he often used to help him sleep. He was unaware that even a small overdose could be lethal.
I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide, in the sense that I'd rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible: for it to be a plea for help that nobody hears.
Gabrielle Drake, Nick's sister