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25 of 25 people found the following review helpful
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".
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21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Once you get past the ridiculous account of the sinking of the Titanic in the introduction, this book becomes quite absorbing. Humphries writes engagingly about Drake’s early years, with reference to the culture of the fifties and speculations on possible early musical influences. The description of the British pop scene in the early 1960s and how it related to Drake’s years at Marlborough school is very helpful in framing Drake’s music in time and place.
It’s interesting that the singer had completed his schooldays in 1966 when The Beatles released Revolver and Dylan was making waves with Blonde On Blonde. Nick’s visits to France and Marrakech are covered in detail. The description of the UK folk scene of those times is very informative, as Humphries writes about musicians like Danny Thompson, Fairport Convention and Richard & Linda Thompson and the clubs and circuits where they performed.
Much of the text consists of various peoples’ recollections of Drake, most of them within the music industry. So there is an amount of repetition and revisiting the same eras and incidents through the eyes of different narrators. Humphries also discusses Drake’s rare coverage by various music publications of the time like Sounds and Melody Maker, including reviews of his albums. In addition, he attempts to recreate the circumstances of the recording of each album and provides illuminating information and opinions on most of the individual songs. I was particularly pleased to read about John Cale’s contribution to Bryter Layter and his recollections of the recording sessions.
Drake’s tragic decline from a happy, well-adjusted school kid to increasingly isolated and alienated young man is treated with understatement, but the overall effect leaves a strong impression. The chapters on Drake’s posthumous rediscovery and growing influence are well-researched and provides detailed information on covers of his songs and compilation albums that contain his work. There are eight pages of black & white plates with photographs, a lino cut and a pencil sketch. The book concludes with a discography that includes Drake’s individual and compilation albums, multi-artist compilations and the tribute album Brittle Days.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2013
A very interesting book I devoured in a couple of days which touches a fair bit on Drake's Island label mates John Martyn, The Incredible String Band and Fairport Convention. Producer and mentor Joe Boyd features prominently although along with some family members apparently refused to contribute to this project although I don't think this is particularly evident (incidentally I would recommend Boyd's excellent "White Bicycles" memoirs as a companion piece to this account). However the book does suffer a bit from being repetitive in places and consequently a bit overlong - for example the middle section labours many examples of Drake's discomfort on stage, and is sometimes disjointed giving the impression that different sections were written at different times out of order and then joined together without an overall edit. For instance established characters are (re)introduced later in the book as if for the first time, and vice versa. These criticisms aside the book did encourage me to dust off my Nick Drake CDs and listen to them again with renewed insight. Thank you!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 8 September 2009
There are many ironies in the Nick Drake 'story', some sad and some funny. The greatest irony is that his posthumous fame was secured by the use of his music - much of which represents a rejection of the material world and a dedication to the experiences of emotion, the senses and imagination - in a Volkswagen commercial. Another irony is that Melody Maker famously brushed Drake's music off in the early 1970s as "coffee'n'chat music" and his songs are now, almost forty years later following a phenomenal rise to fame, played in Starbucks across the globe (as John Cale has recently complained in jest). Predictably, increased interest in Drake's music has been accompanied by widespread romanticisation of him as irrevocably bleak and humourless, but - a further irony - his lyrics can be surprisingly funny (e.g."You'll find sheds are nicer than you thought" in Man in A Shed), his relaxed laughter can be heard on Family Tree when he forgets the words to a song, and his band in school was called, with typical adolescent humour, The Perfumed Gardeners.

One final irony was that someone as verbose and fond of purple prose as Patrick Humphries seems to be, became the first biographer of a man who has a reputation for having been almost intractably silent in person and whose lyrics comprise sparse and unusually mature poetry. Bizarrely, his account of Drake's life begins (as others have noted) with a recap of the sinking of the Titanic and the funeral of Edward VII. Describing the arrival of a new year, Humphries' prose cannot resist a flourish: "The end of the first year of a new decade lay bitten and spat out, like an old cigar". Straining to describe the spirit of Drake's second album Bryter Layter, Humphries gets carried away: "The atmophere is dense, suggesting silver moons sailing on a raven-black sea, wind lightly ruffling the hair of the treetops..." (you start to understand why Zappa was fond of deriding music journalism).

Humphries is also surprisingly non-plussed about Drake's music in places. For example, he writes: "On their own merits, the songs of Nick Drake are not particularly strong". This seems like a very flippant claim in the light of the precocious maturity of his lyrics (most of which were written before Nick turned 24), his innovative open and loose tunings and his extraordinarily rhythmic finger-picking (I mean he first learnt to play the guitar in 1965 and was already sitting in Joe Boyd's office in 1967!). Humphries offers a shaky, contradictory analysis of Five Leaves Left: on one page he writes "the arrangements are a tad lash" and "the language is ornate, self-conscious even" (he can talk!) and on the next page tells us it is "a remarkable debut".

Readers could have also profited from more emotional engagement with his subject. While the many recollections of Drake's friends and acquaintances are undoubtedly interesting to read, there is little analysis that burrows into his inner life, musical objectives and lyrics. More often than not Humphries' account is tainted by regurgitating the mythologisation of Drake as an artist doomed from the start. We are left with many open questions, especially: How and why was it that with a deep-seated sense of helplessness seemingly ingrained in his psyche which hindered him in many areas of his life - helplessness on stage, in interviews, in social situations, this never-ending silence with which he is associated - Drake became such a precociously great and confident communicator through the medium of music?

* A Skin Too Few - documentary on Drake collected in the Fruit Tree box set, its release as a stand-alone DVD is also planned
* Ian MacDonald's essay 'Exiled from Heaven: The Unheard Message of Nick Drake' (collected in The People's Music in 2003, but also available online)
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 April 2013
Sadly, most people who are really into their music now know the story of Nick Drake, or at least of him. I only got into Nick in the last 18 months or so by a very roundabout route, but I was aware of who he was and his very premature death. Nick's family declined to be involved in this respectful biography, but the author was able to quote from previous interviews given. There was a good deal from music industry insiders who worked with Nick, and perhaps most insightfully his schoolfriends, old tutors and teenage friends. The fact that Nick himself gave very few even then and unilluminating interviews, and only rare live performances, makes the biographers job very difficult. The author makes a good job of this story of a brief lifetime. No-one knows whether Nick's death was accidental or suicide. No lovers of either sex (apart from one uncollaborated account) emerge. Nick's personality seems to be a mixture of overwhelming shyness and inability to cope with the world, as against his seemingly happy days at shcool where he was a good sportsman and musician; his refusal to perform live yet the feeling that he was totaly aware of his outsider image and "coolness" from day one. I learned a lot of things I didn't know from this book but like the author I am still perplexed by Nick Drake and what he hoped to achieve through his music.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 25 November 2002
I can honestly say that I have never been so moved by the tragedy of a man's death and the awful loss of potential and talent as I have been by Nick Drake's - and this book is largely responsible. At one point I was asking - where is the detail of biography? However I quickly realized how superfluous this would be; Patrick Humphries has perfectly caught the feeling that Nick faded in and out of life's focus and touched many people in the process. Such a short life, but as Patrick explores the trials and Tribulations of family and musical friends it seems so appropriate to capture as much of his short life as possible.
Insteading of stopping short at Nick's untimely death, Patrick succumbs to the temptation to consider "what if?..... he hadn't died but found a new way back from the troubled world which he inhabited? All round a valuable biography of a valuable talent and a sad loss.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 24 May 2010
Firstly, and this had to be said, the lack of cooperation from the Drake estate and his surviving family members severely limits the author and this is keenly felt on almost every page. For this reason if no other this book fails to be the definitive biography of Nick Drake, how could be otherwise when the author is unable even to quote from Drake's song lyrics. Also, throughout the book there are many often bizarre non sequiturs and tangents followed by the author which, I suspect, are kept in place as padding in lieu of anything more substantial to put.

Leaving these points aside the book is well written and easy to read and follows a conventional linear structure with the often sparse facts of Drake's life illuminated by interviews with friends, schoolmates, contemporaries and virtually anyone who ever encountered him. Nick Drake's final dark days remain just that but the author does his best with the limited materials on hand to speculate into why Nick followed the path that he did.

To close this brief review, if you are looking for a straightforward account of the life of Nick Drake then this is a useful starting point. Hopefully there will one day be a full and authorised and complete biography of this talented and troubled young man.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
on 8 March 2002
There are those that will say that Nick Drake's wonderful and now very highly-regarded music is all that matters, and a biography is something of a distraction. I would disagree totally with such an opinion. An artist's work derives from what he or she is, and cannot be properly understood without biographical details. That's why this book is so important. Those who see him as a tragic, lonely figure should read this book and discover that their perception is misplaced - the author reveals that for some 23 of his 26 years, Drake was pretty much the same as anyone else. It was only in the last three years that he suffered from some unknown form of depression that defied his doctors - and the author wisely avoids the temptation to undertake amateur psychoanalysis. The account of Drake's schooldays is exceptionally interesting. And I would never have imagined that his favourite album was the Hammond-driven R&B classic "The Sound of '65" by the mighty Graham Bond Organisation! That one piece of information alone paints an entirely new picture of Drake, taking him away from the folk category and placing him in a much broader context. Drake's favourite writer is revealed as William Blake; that's not surprising, but both Blake and Drake sought - albeit unsuccessfully - volume sales for their work during their lives. It's wrong to see their works as somehow unrelated to commercialism. The author does not come across as a particular fan of Drake's music, and that's undoubtedly a good thing, because it makes the book far more objective. Permission to include some of Drake's lyrics in the book was refused, foolishly in my opinion, but this might have been a blessing in disguise because it prevents literary-style analyses of the 'real meanings' in the songs. The popular belief that Drake was gay is dismissied; unfortunately, at least one of his girlfriends kept silent about their relationship and I was left with the strong impression that the book is unavoidably somewhat incomplete in terms of his love interests. Probably, that will be covered in years to come. For now, if you're a fan of his music, do buy this book, and get much closer to the real Nick Drake.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 31 July 2006
This book is worth reading if you're a Nick Drake fan because there is a fair bit of research and a lot of interviews with his friends and colleagues and it builds a picture of the tormented life and death of a gifted and tragic young man. Where it is let down is in the writing style and structure:
- it jumps about too much chronologically
- there is a lot of repetition (eg we are told twice, in successive paragraphs, that Churchill nicknamed his depression "a black dog")
- he is hampered by an inability to quote Drake's wonderful lyrics that would have illuminated and enriched the book's theme; instead the author tries to wax lyrical himself, not particularly effectively
- there is too much scene painting, trying to capture the mood of the 60s and 70s pop culture - much of the references are obscure and fairly narrow in scope
- it's hard to escape but there is a lot of speculation, about Drake's motivations, influences, sexuality, drug use
- the lack of cooperation from the Drake family is unfortunate as it limits the amount of childhood background that could be so revealing
- there is not enough technical data on his tunings and songwriting techniques, guitars and playing style - which are unique and also his drug habit and medical history.
- there is a tendency to laziness in comparing Drake to other "victims" of the music industry eg Hendrix and Joplin. The comparison with Robert Johnson is a bit ridiculous (by the author's own admission)although interesting.
Humphries doesn't come across as a particularly big fan of Drake (this isn't important) and I didn't find the work to be hagiographic but there is little room for a view of Drake as a spoilt, upper-middle class, public school boy who couldn't bear it that his debut album didn't receive universal acclaim and guarantee stardom. I don't think that's the case but I'm sure there are those near him who may have felt that at the time.
Don't let this put you off - I'm glad I read the book and discovered what many contemporary musicians thought of Drake, his therapeutic driving excursions and the way Island recorded his stuff and managed him. There is just so much superfluous, mixed up baggage in this book that, as in his short life, it is sometimes a surprise when Drake just appears unannounced on the page. There's a better biography to be written.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 11 September 2012
Along with Trevor Dann's 'Darker Than The Deepest Sea', this biography is an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in Nick Drake. It evokes a haunting and elegiac portrait of a frail and introverted songwriter who became tormented by commercial failure. Equally important are the two television documentaries ["A Stranger Among Us" 1999 and "A Skin Too Few" 2002]. Together, these four sources will - along with the music of Drake - quickly acquaint you with the man who inspired Robert Smith to name his band "The Cure" [culled from the lyrics, 'A troubled cure for a troubled mind'].

Very minor tedious aside for which I apologise unreservedly: Inspired by the life & death of this tragic romantic figure, I composed the story "The Melancholy Haunting Of Nicholas Parkes" which was first published in 2010.
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