Matt Bellingham, Lecturer in Music Technology
Way to Blue: Happy Birthday Nick
June 19th 2013 would have been Nick Drake’s 65th birthday.
Nick Drake was one of several wonderful musicians to emerge from the fertile folk and folk-rock scenes of the 1960s and early 1970s. While always a solo artist he worked with some of the great musicians of the time; Richard Thompson played on his first album, and John Martyn’s Solid Air was written for and about Drake. Nick Drake’s work is intimate, intricate and highly personal; the themes are universal and the performances captivating.
Drake was not, however, a good ‘fit’ with the folk scene of the late 1960s. Although folk music was enjoying a revival he was not singing traditional songs. His performances were of original material which was quite dissimilar to traditional folk music. Drake’s music did not make use of catchy sing-along choruses and he was cripplingly shy, making live performance difficult. Neither did his recordings find a ready audience. A review in Melody Maker described his first album, rather dismissively, as ‘an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz’. His records, now considered classics, sold poorly; his last album, Pink Moon, sold fewer than 5,000 copies in his lifetime.
The dominant narrative around Nick Drake casts him as a tragic, doomed figure; he is frequently portrayed as the ‘Romantic poet’ of the scene. Drake suffered with depression, and it is assumed that the overdose that killed him was deliberate. It is easy to look at the subsequent fame that he achieved and add him to the list of artists for whom contemporaneous respect, fame and fortune was denied. Robert Johnson was another musician whose records sold poorly in his lifetime; his posthumous success started in the early 1960s, at which time Nick Drake became a fan of his work. The story arc of the ‘tragic genius’, however, often overshadows the sheer quality of Drake’s recorded output.
There is a long list of creative people who have suffered with depression, from Beethoven to Cobain. The subject has both mainstream and academic representation; Stephen Fry has written and spoken widely and with candour about his life with bipolar disorder and there is a significant body of research looking at the links between creativity and mental health. There remains, however, a stigma surrounding mental health which is the focus of the Time To Change campaign.
There is also strong evidence that many creatives who develop drug or alcohol dependencies are self-medicating due to depression and/or anxiety. Some genres of music became intrinsically linked with substance abuse; for example, Charlie Parker’s genius was incorrectly assumed by many aspiring musicians to be the result of his heroin addiction, leading to a jazz scene seriously blighted by drug use.
Thankfully, organisations such as Mind offer significant support and advice. Understanding of mental health issues is increasing in the creative sector as well as in the wider community.
Nick Drake’s birthday is an opportunity to be thankful for the music that he created. It is also as good a chance as any to make sure that we, and those around us, are safe, supported and respected.