New box set proves Nick Drake#039;s day is not done

by Beacon Staff • November 28, 2007

Fame eluded singer-songwriter Nick Drake during his brief lifetime. In 1974, at the age of 26, Drake died from an apparently accidental overdose of anti-depressant medication. In the years that followed, his fame rose among contemporary artists who were born when Drake's life was spiraling out of control.

In 1979, Island Records released Fruit Tree, one of the first box sets sold for any artist. The set included all three of Drake's albums: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972). A reissue of the set included a fourth disc of rarities, Time of No Reply. As of now, the retrospective box set is being released as yet another reincarnation of itself-21st century style.

In an attempt to bring Drake's music to new listeners, the newest version includes a DVD of the documentary A Skin Too Few, which traces Drake's brief life through interviews with close friends and family. It also contains the three Drake albums, as well as his extensive liner notes. However, noticeably absent from the third installment is the Drake rarities disc, which became available on its own in the '80s.

The entire production of the box set was overseen by Drake's sister, Gabrielle, and his former producer/discoverer, Joe Boyd. While it's nice to know that the people who knew the singer-songwriter best are behind the development of the set, previous fans of Drake will gain nothing from the new edition of Fruit Tree.

Boyd has been significantly involved in keeping the music of Drake alive. When he sold his record label, Witchseason Productions, in the early '70s to Island Records, a condition of the buyout was never to allow Drake's music to go out of print. Boyd's first introduction to Drake came when Ashley Hutchings, a friend of Drake's and member of the Boyd-managed English folk act Fairport Convention, introduced the two and, almost instantly, a bond was formed. The then-20-year-old Drake brought his dorm-room recorded, four-track demo to Boyd. Upon hearing the tracks for the first time, Boyd signed the singer-songwriter in a heart beat.

"It was immediately clear that Nick was completely unlike any singer-songwriter around at the time," Boyd said. "A complete musician from the first bars I heard."

While the two had a relationship that allowed Drake to continue to grow as an artist, with Boyd giving him total control over his sound, the two differed at times over whether or not Drake should hang on to the organic sound that Boyd heard on the musician's early demo. Drake's decision to include more instrumentation on his sophomore record Bryter Layter came after the underwhelming success of his debut, and Drake hoped the lighter mood of the album would be more commercially successful, Boyd said.

"The instrumentals on Bryter Layter, with all their strings and flutes, were Nick's idea entirely," Boyd said. "They were included on the album against my wishes."

Even with the record's jazzier and more upbeat melodies, along with contributions from John Cale of The Velvet Underground on the elegaic tracks "Fly" and "Northern Sky," the record sold only 3,000 copies. Bryter Layter was the last time Drake would try for commercial success. In the documentary, A Skin Too Few, Boyd recalls Drake canceling a tour because club patrons weren't interested in hearing the soft-spoken, singer-songwriter perform his songs.

But commercial viability reared its head in the '90s, with Drake's song "Pink Moon" appearing in Volkswagen commercials. After all, it was the car ad that brought younger record buyers to Drake and overnight success to the artist-25 years after his death.

While all of Drake's albums are gems, the true masterpiece of his catalogue is Pink Moon, his final record. Recorded alone over the course of two nights with only an acoustic guitar and piano, Pink Moon is a snapshot of Drake in his darkest and most difficult days. The album clocks in at less than 30 minutes, but the songs are powerful enough to be forever etched in the listener's mind. As Drake's former sound engineer, John Wood, once said, "If something's that intense, it can't really be measured in minutes."

The beauty of Nick Drake's music has always been the fragility of the musician himself. His wistfulness and ability to leave listeners with a yearning for peaceful simplicity are the perfect distractions from the pressures of modern life. Though it is easy to look back on Drake as a sullen artist, Boyd remembers him otherwise.

"Nick was happiest playing his music," Boyd said. "And that's how I remember him."

As Drake sang of self-revelation on the song "Fruit Tree," "Fame is but a fruit tree / so very unsound / it can never flourish / until its stalk is in the ground / so men of fame / who never find the way / until time has flown / far from their dying day." It shows that fame is never what he yearned for. Instead, Drake showed us all that the tragedy and beauty of our lives could be summed up with a finger-plucked guitar, and that's one of the reasons why he has become a posthumous legend.