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the soul with no footprint: a paper thin life
on 7 October 2004
Molly Drake's poignant assessment of her son as being a "soul with no footprint" was no understatement. Nick Drake left no writings (beyond a few lyrics, understandably treasured by his family), no film or footage of any sort, virtually no possessions and only one interview. There were a handful of concerts and no proper tours or promotions. Pity, then, poor Patrick Humphries, who has actually managed to produce a highly readable biography of a man who left nothing behind. The book is composed almost entirely of personal reminiscences but the critical lack of co-operation from Gabrielle Drake or Joe Boyd (Drake's producer) has resulted in there being no permission to quote Drake's lyrics. This is a major loss (but hardly the author's fault).
I felt that Humphries was tackling his subject from a little too remote an angle and so the analysis becomes, at times, too close to hypothesis. It may be said that Humphries could have written a briefer book (he had SO little to work with!) but he has developed some themes with skill: the folk scene of the early 1970's; Nick mysterious guitar tunings; his isolation and detachment (the poor man spent hours - even days, it seems - doing nothing whatsoever, in silence, even in company); his gradual tragic slide into deep depression; and the curious cult that now defines him moreso even than his music.
I would have loved to have personal insight from Gabrielle Drake (the book feels hollow without it and, in certain places, it cries out for some personal perspective from someone who wasn't a schoolfriend or a musician) and just a little more anecdote. But the author has done something quite subtle: he has written a book that obliges you to pursue Drake's music further for he raises more questions about the man's brief life than he answers. As I read the book, I listened to Drake's three albums over and over again and I like them even more now. But I still don't feel I know very much about the man who wrote them.
The account of the sinking of the Titanic at the beginning is bizarre and irrelevant - and I'm not sure that the author's grandfather being the doctor who brought Drake into the world is of any concern or interest to anyone except Mr Humphries (who seems disproportionately proud of this incidental achievement of his forebear).
The prose is fine overall but there are purple passages. Try this from page 172: "Pink Moon has all the hallmarks of a finely crafted beauty, a sombre resonance which finds echo all these years on. The songs are pale and wistful, like the late light of a Warwickshire afternoon. It is like watching smoke coil up from a hand-rolled cigarette, as the chill fog of a late-autumn evening sneaks up and wraps itself around you, like an old frind keen to betray you. Hearing Nick Drake's voice here conjures up again the lost boy, creating a mood as irredeemable as childhood, as plaintive as unrequited love, as tragic as lost promise".