To paraphrase R.E.M.’s Peter Buck: “You can turn a Nick Drake album all the way up and he still sounds quiet.” I know I don’t usually write posts about music, but over the last 20 years Nick Drake’s songs have become a staple of both the indie world (Kicking and Screaming, The Royal Tenenbaums, Garden State) and mainstream movies (Practical Magic, The Lake House, The Blind Side… all starring Sandra Bullock). There’s even a movie named for one of his songs (Things Behind the Sun). A select group has grown to worship his music. Unfortunately, unlike some of the other “tragic romantic” figures of the singer-songwriter world – Kurt Cobain, Jeff Buckley, Elliott Smith – Drake lived in a time when his particular melancholy style was not appreciated by the masses. The moody 90s were a long ways off.
Last night I decided to listen to his first album, Five Leaves Left (1969), remembering when I discovered it in high school. Each of that record’s ten songs meant (and still means) a lot to me. I used to link Drake’s lyrics with the poetry of John Keats, which I suppose is sort of funny since the two men were so physically different: Keats was tiny, barely over five feet tall, while Nick Drake was 6′ 3″, uncomfortable in his ungainly height in addition to his shyness, often seen slouching or hunched over in photographs. Like Keats, though, there are no moving film images of Drake, save for some footage of him as a young child. It’s understandable why there would be no film clips of Keats, but for Drake, who was alive until 1974, it’s quite sad that his introversion and other factors prevented him from even performing live in public more than a handful of times. He didn’t give the public chances to know him; he didn’t want to deal with that. Drake will always be an enigma, keeping himself at a distance from us. If only he knew how many people have learned to appreciate him, though perhaps it’s something that could only have happened because of his early death.
“Pink Moon,” the intensely personal and poetic title track from his last album in 1972, is a song I could listen to endlessly. I guess that’s why it kind of blows my mind to know that Drake’s music has been used in commercials to sell Volkswagen cars and AT&T phones. What’s particularly bizarre about the AT&T ad is that it mentions that “the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude have no direct or indirect affiliation or involvement with AT&T” (the ad basically rips off their Central Park “Gates” installation) but there is no mention of Drake. Are we supposed to think that his name/memory/brand “endorses” AT&T? Surely someone associated with his estate had to sign off on using the music. Who decided that that was a good idea? Is it exploitative to use a singer’s music to sell products after the person has died, not knowing whether it’s something that person would have wanted, even if permission has been granted by whoever owns the rights to the music in question? I wonder. I wonder what would have happened if Drake had lived, if he had lived to see his 65th birthday today. Maybe he wouldn’t mind endorsing a phone company if it meant some degree of popularity. (But, of course, you wonder if it’s the right kind of popularity, being affiliated with a corporation.) Then, of course, if that were the case, Drake might not be known or remembered as the mysterious, quietly beautiful singer people identify with. He would just be another aging fellow from Tanworth-in-Arden, one of a spate of folk singers from the late 60s and 70s. He probably would not have been immortalized and idolized with all three of his albums listed by Rolling Stone among the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. Senior citizenry was not in the cards for Nick Drake. It’s his loss, his family’s loss and the loss of every person who connects with his music.