October 18, 2013 7:12 pm

Nick Drake: Doomed Romantic

‘Cult following, until it reaches a critical mass, feels like no following at all’
Album cover of Nick Drake

The name of Joe Boyd is rarely heard without its obligatory prefix “legendary rock producer”. If you’ve never heard of him, then you haven’t engaged seriously with the music of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Here are three of his achievements. He produced the brilliantly whimsical first Pink Floyd single, “Arnold Layne”. He devised and co-directed Jimi Hendrix, the definitive 1973 documentary on the virtuoso guitarist. And he signed Nick Drake.

The fragile talent of Drake was a high point of the British singer-songwriter scene of that era. Trouble is, not many people realised it at the time. Drake’s three studio albums went largely unloved and unsold. A coterie of rock luminaries thought he was touched by genius. But Drake, moody, introverted and contemptuous of any attempt to market him, slowly sank from lack of recognition.

It was the X factor in reverse: the more opportunities he threw away – he refused virtually every interview and hardly ever played live – the greater his pain at being overlooked for palpably lesser talents. Cult following, until it reaches a critical mass, feels like no following at all. Drake died at the age of 26 from an overdose of antidepressants. It may, or may not, have been suicide.

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Peter Aspden

Last weekend, Boston-born Boyd hosted a quiet evening at the House of St Barnabas in Soho, a fashionable private members’ club that supports a charitable foundation for the homeless, as part of its “Classic Album Sundays” series. He was there to introduce to a small and devoted audience a solemn playing of Drake’s second record, 1970’s Bryter Layter, which he produced.

To say the atmosphere was reverential would be to understate matters. The gathering was held in the house’s lavish Anglo-Catholic chapel, and the record played in vinyl format on a dizzyingly expensive sound system. We were asked not to speak during the music. Does anybody do that with albums any more? Does anyone know what an album is?

Church-goers will know this but it’s amazing where the mind goes when it is not allowed to process emails and there is a large crucifix suspended from the ceiling in the twilight. Drake’s music never sounded more spiritually laden, even though Bryter Layter is the happiest of his three albums.

His breathy voice was virtually unintelligible, as if even to make himself understood constituted a form of commercial betrayal. The playing, from a team of randomly gathered sidemen, including the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, was skilled and sympathetic. Bryter Layter was supposed to be a breakout album, full of strings and saxes and relatively upbeat tempos. Boyd and his colleagues laboured mightily over the arrangements and the mix. They finally played the finished version to Drake, who immediately said that his next album would be just him and his guitar. If Boyd was crushed by that verdict, he didn’t let on. He had other projects to work on, not least masterminding the rise of Fairport Convention, the still under-appreciated pioneers of British folk-rock. Drake had no projects to work on, other than his accelerating retreat from the world.

His next and final album, Pink Moon, not even half an hour in length, was a bleak harbinger of his ultimate demise. But the very title track of that record played a key role in bringing him back to the attention of the public. In 2000 it was used in an unusually oneiric advertisement for the Volkswagen Cabrio. Watch it on YouTube, and to this day, passionate and eloquent arguments rock back and forth as to the tastefulness of using troubled art to sell cars. But sell cars it did – and it also began to sell the music of Nick Drake.

Drake, who won a scholarship to read English at Cambridge, knew a thing or two about doomed Romantics, but not a lot about the corporate world. He resisted it with a self-defeating stubbornness that bordered on the surreal.

When Island tried to break him in America, they invited journalists to the Troubadour club in Los Angeles, where they were confronted by a cardboard cut-out of the singer on stage. The ever-desperate label had tried to make a cute selling point of Drake’s reclusiveness. Guess what, it didn’t work.

But give the corporate world enough time, and it gets there in the end. The Cabrio commercial helped spark a wave of interest in Drake. His music sells steadily now, and is quoted by many a contemporary musician for its potent lyricism. There have been documentaries, repackaged outtakes, blizzards of tributes. Can a biopic be far behind?

All these thoughts turned around our minds as we bowed before the crucifix in Soho, worshipping a long-gone rock star and a defunct medium. But it made for a meditative study in art and time, or rather the way in which art can be cheated by its own time. Where would Nick Drake have ended up in today’s cultural landscape – a much less patient world? Perhaps he would have felt pressured to finish his degree, given up the silly songwriting, gone into advertising? But where would he have found a song as good as “Pink Moon”?

He could barely have felt more of an outcast than he did back in what should have been his heyday. Take it from one who was there at the time, and remembers. “The world just wasn’t ready for him,” said Boyd in the candlelight glow at the end of the evening, and he wasn’t talking about Jesus Christ.

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peter.aspden@ft.com , @peteraspden

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

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