The Church Of Me
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Kissing in the churchyard, I know a righteous woman

Monday, January 27, 2003
"you don't even know I'm here, do you?"

There are few places on this planet more frightening to me than that blank space between Oxford and Headington, when walked, on foot, in the dark. The parks and their postcard views annulled by the night, all that's left is a Sisyphus of an ascending pathway, finally yielding to a highway, houses set well back on either side, patrolled by unblinking lights. It looks so much larger and more immense in the dark. To my right will eventually materialise the library where she worked. To my left, the school which she attended. About a quarter of a mile further away on my right is where she now lies. The highway back to her becomes dreamed; but the dream is not idyllic. I am reminded of an enormous intensive care unit; the low-cast lighting, the low-ceilinged claustrophobia. A depot, a clearing house, a mortuary. And later on I will spend the evening in a pub just 200 yards from Laura's grave, subsequently walking back through Old Headington to the Oxford Tube stop as though it were an abandoned film set; the walls of the houses merely props.

It was a cold but very pleasant day in Oxford. The bum with a bruised face squatting outside the meadows, his radio loudly blaring Dale Winton's 1963 Pick of the Pops. The girls passing by who voice their repulsion, not so much of the man, but of the music he is playing. The bizarre peace of the Westgate Library. Being reminded of the unmatchable brilliance of the Carfax Chippy. The saddest birthday anyone could have spent; knowing that, had things been different, I would have spent my birthday here, but not alone or alienated.

I last listened to Nick Drake's works on an extended Friday evening journey from Victoria to Gloucester Green on the Oxford Tube, back in the winter of 1999. A slow and pressurising trip, as Friday evening ones tend to be, including the inevitable pile-up at the Lewknor turnoff and the consequent crawl down the barely perceptible forest that is/was the "old" A40. Peace and repose in the midst of chaos. The famous shot on the sleeve of Bryter Layter wherein Drake stands in the street and bemusedly views a commuter frantically rushing past him.

Yet Drake was no talisman or avatar. After 30 years of trying to work him out, the task remains as hard as ever. No one tried as hard not to talk or sing to anyone except himself. His music is some of the most inward-looking outside of the more featureless plains of free improvisation. How did it happen? The teenage Drake was apparently perfectly sociable and up for it - from the days of his school band, whose line-up briefly included a young Chris De Burgh, he was good-looking, keen on the ladies, a fine athlete and not a bad musician. From there to Cambridge, where he barely lasted through his first year - out of the womb into another; why would he feel so alienated? Thence to London, in various states of dis/repair, and finally back to the family home. Just a few live performances in 1968; then nothing - only one music press interview, no promotion; a reluctance to live?

If Scott Walker was the Dirk Bogarde of Brit (or honorary Brit) introspective troubadours - grandiloquent, immense, avant-garde - then Drake would be the James Fox; always apologising for breathing, so reticent that you feel that he perhaps would have been happier within a gated religious cult (as Fox later briefly was). But it's not quite accurate to assume that Drake's world is a blissful, asexual, even pre-sexual garden; in fact, if we take Barthes' identification of the "grain" of a voice corresponding with its "diction" - how the singer has assimilated the "pheno-song" and "geno-song" components, and how the singer renders them to the not necessarily passive listener - then Drake's voice is sometimes as carnal as hell. This is obviously more apparent on early things like his reading of Robin Frederick's "Been Smoking Too Long" where his voice is surprisingly earthy, almost Hoagy Carmichael-ish; but take a real listen to his 1968 debut album, Five Leaves Left - hear particularly his Sinatra-derived habit of extending the final consonants/syllable of key words in his lyrics, sometimes with a barely suppressed growl; the "love" in "Time Has Told Me"; the "time" in "River Man"; even the "slave" in "Three Hours." His natural baritone voice confirms that everything here is suggested/suggestive - Drake's voice is, more often than you might think, very sexy.

Most of the songs on Five Leaves Left concern Drake's wish to enter the world and maybe enter the Other. It's an album of negotiations and occasional bewilderment - the plea for the rich girl to come and share his metaphorical "rotted" shed in "Man With A Shed" ("Please stop my world from raining through my head...you'll find that sheds are nicer than you thought") - touched with the realisation that some Others will forever remain unreachable ("Thoughts Of Mary Jane," "Cello Song" - the latter using the same rhythm as "Sympathy For The Devil" and yet its polar opposite, its negative). And of course - and this is where legends of prematurely stilled talents come into blossom - he muses on death; generally in "Fruit Tree," specifically in "River Man" wherein the protagonist, Betty, is dying (this is confirmed by the excised verse subsequently discovered in one of Drake's notebooks). Robert Kirby's near-static but ominously progressing string lines indicate clouds about to blot out the sun; the pain which lies under no idyll. It's the natural counterpart to PiL's "Death Disco" but with ten years' less wisdom. The album concludes with the go-down-easy vibes (literally) of "Saturday Sun" - and even this sunny vision is punctumised by the recognition of "Sunday's rain." It's a remote cousin to Lennon's "In My Life" - a rueful nostalgia realising its own selectiveness and redundancy; the same sort of feeling for which Jon McGregor tries in his novel If No One Speaks Of Remarkable Things, with the same foreknowledge of impermanence and tragedy.

It would be facile but no less true to say that, if Five Leaves Left was Drake's rural album, 1970's Bryter Layter is a noticeably more urban one, with a full band on most tracks, but is it any more outgoing? There's a strange ecstasy in Drake's cascading, descending lines which he tries hard not to let spill out of the conflicting rhythms of "Hazey Jane II" ("Andwhatwillhappeninthemorningwhentheworlditgetssocrowdedthatyoucan'tlookoutyourwindowinthe morning?" - all sung in that one breath, and with a strange ecstasy) but there are also suburban-meets-pastoral instrumental interludes; idealised visions of a forever sunny Muswell Hill on a Sunday morning. Don't be fooled, however, by the title of "At The Chime Of A City Clock" which foresees Weller's urban alienation nine years later in the Jam's "Strange Town." Again and again we return to the motif of an ideal lost, or unable to be regained or even reached.

"Fly" has Drake importuning for "second grace" but the sentiment is knowingly defeated by the conflicting lyrical themes of "now I just sit on the ground, in your way" (cf. "Standing" from Buffy: The Musical) and "for it's really too hard for to fly" (cf. Walker's "Rosemary"). Unlike Walker or even Al Stewart (the Terence Stamp of bedsit Brit bards?) - and very pointedly, unlike his more confident, objective and aware mirror images, Richard Thompson and especially John Martyn - he's unlikely ever to "get it on" (no "Duchess" or "Love Chronicles" from him). Instead we get a not entirely satirical stab at self-deprecation in "Poor Boy" which is the one instance in Drake's recorded works where he does show the barest hint of self-consciousness. Harder men would have made a career out of that one element. Not that it suited him; "Poor Boy" is only lent punctum by the involvement of the great Chris McGregor, leader of the Brotherhood of Breath (the link is Joe Boyd, who produced both), whose deadpan Protestant-kwela piano block chords and always intelligent chordal and melodic runs work healthily against the lyric, as does the acidic alto sax of Ray Warleigh, sounding very like McGregor's right-hand man Dudu Pukwana (who was first choice for the session but at the time was across town recording with the Incredible String Band).

Then we get "Northern Sky"; a song which doubtless will be extracted for a commercial or a Hugh Grant film and get to number one before long.
Nathalie says this song is like "one big tear" but it's a tear of happiness; the one song in Drake's career where he is actually and unequivocally happy. John Cale's celeste chimes in the background as though Drake's Christmas had indeed come. He has found his Other. Too much emphasis has been placed on the line "would you love me 'til I'm dead?" because of what happened to him; but this is an expression of unalloyed bliss. The instrumental "Sunday" which closes the album expresses the same foreseen regrets as "Saturday Sun," Lyn Dobson's flute sounding as though it is crying (cf the unbearable poignancy of Leila's "Young Ones"). As though it were an exit from the world - which is what it turned out to be.

Pink Moon, Drake's third album, appeared in 1972, and only because the receptionist at Island Records noticed a package which Drake got the courier to take in. In the package was the master tape of the 28 minutes of Pink Moon; no band, no producer, Drake, now completely disillusioned, now completely on his own - just him and his guitar with the occasional piano overdub. One of the most self-referential records ever made, Pink Moon ceaselessly refers back to previous Drake songs, it is also one of the most pitying/pitiless records ever made. His lyrics here are sometimes reduced to bleak haikus (the title track, the genuinely frightening deadness of "Know"), dealing with the reductions of his ambitions ("You can take the road that takes you to the stars now/I can take a road that'll see me through" - "Road") and the fatal fallacy of all other humanity (the musically achingly beautiful "Things Behind The Sun"). "Free Ride" shares a lyrical theme with "Man In A Shed" but here there's not even the pretence of humility and uncertainty; he just wants saving. This is made yet starker in the numbing "Parasite" ("for I am the parasite who hangs from your skirt") which cleverly inverts the themes of "City Clock."

And then there was no more in Drake's lifetime; not that there was much within it. These albums sold minimally while Drake was alive, were hardly ever reviewed. It's always easier to build a cult out of a stopped genius than it is to pay him while he's alive and capable of creation. An example to no one? Hard to see how he could be. Patrick Humphries has written a full and minutely detailed biography; Drake's Cambridge contemporary Ian MacDonald has written movingly about the man and authoritatively about his radical approach to guitar tuning and chording; his lyrics have been analysed to atoms.

The voice? By the time of Pink Moon it had gradually become more slurred and more "horn-like" in its delivery, noticeably very much like John Martyn. Except, as suggested above, Martyn is a tougher and perhaps more adventurous character who was able to connect with the world - even if only obliquely - and Martyn of course acknowledged this failure in Drake's chemistry as the theme to his song "Soild Air" in which Martyn does indeed stretch out vowels and consonants almost beyond the point of comprehension. Could Drake ever have made an album like Solid Air (the line-up of musicians being nearly identical to that of Five Leaves Left)? I don't think he could have - the musical adventure in Drake lay entirely in his delivery, indeed his "diction." I doubt that any avant-garde or New Wave would have interested him even slightly. And - and here is the barrier which still prevents me from surrendering completely to his music - his music is ultimately so insular, so of him, so insistent that you have to be Nick Drake to understand him, that you wonder whether he had much thought for anyone or anything else in the world. He would never have been capable of something like Blue. Much has been made of 1974's admittedly bruising "Black Eyed Dog" but if there's any dread or helplessness here, it is audibly unreachable. He sings it as if he's waving you away with your fist even though you're trying to help him.

He died, as you probably know, in November 1974 aged 26, of what appears to have been an accidental overdose. Thus was the cult initiated; no middle-age to let everyone down, no Phil Collins-produced AoR records, no duets with David Gray on Later With Jools Holland, no Daniel Lanois/Mitchell Froom "avantings" to deal with. It's a world I can examine with morbid curiosity, and even frequently be moved by, but I would never wish to live in it - perhaps because it echoes my own so closely and so sinisterly.

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But still it stays with me, just as Oxford does, because I can't get rid of it, indeed cannot think of living without constantly being drawn back to it. That great cut which divides Oxfordshire from the rest of the world (note how the London radio stations immediately cut off once you enter the cavernous "tunnel") suggests a bountiful utopia when you reach the immense view on the other side. And I cannot live without Oxford, I cannot deny it. This particular umbilical cord will take a lifetime to cut. Not that I wish to cut it. Not until, at the very least, I have grieved properly.


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