Bryter Layter: The Songs Of Nick Drake

Around midday on 25th November 1974, Molly Drake knocked on her son Nick’s bedroom door.  It was not all that unusual for him to sleep late but she was a little concerned when no reply came.  Entering the room, she was horrified to see her son lying across his bed, looking pale and lifeless. She knew at once that he was dead. Over the past year, Nick Drake had been subject to periods of intense depression and introspection. He had always been a quiet, somewhat sensitive soul, but it seemed that life had started to become troublesome and problematic for Nick, feelings that were poignantly reflected in the lyrics and music found in the three albums he left behind.

Born in Burma on 19th June 1948, Nick was the son of Rodney Drake, an engineer with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation and his wife Molly, a talented singer who would encourage her son’s musical proclivities; the couple already had one daughter, Gabrielle who was born in 1944 and would later become an actress. The Drake family returned to England in 1950 and settled in Tanworth-in-Arden. At the age of 9, Nick was sent to Eagle House, a boarding school in Berkshire before attending Marlborough College, where he excelled at music and was a keen sportsman.

After spending six months at the University of Aix-Marseille, Nick went up to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge in October 1967. One fellow student remembered how Nick had been disillusioned by Cambridge, recalling that ‘He had this wonderful vision of going up to Cambridge – the dreaming spires, the wonderful, erudite people. We went up to visit and he was in this grim, redbrick building, sitting in this tiny motel-like bedroom. He was completely crushed. He just sat there saying ‘it’s so awful’. It was anathema to him. Torture.’

Nevertheless, it was at Cambridge that Nick met Robert Kirby would arrange his first two albums and who was struck by how ‘Nick was in some strange way out of time. When you were with him, you always had a sad feeling of him being born in the wrong century. If he would have lived in the 17th Century, at the Elizabethan Court, together with composers like Dowland or William Byrd, he would have been alright. Nick was elegant, honest, a lost romantic – and at the same time so cool. In brief: the perfect Elizabethan.’ Already writing and publicly perform his own songs, in February 1968 Nick appeared at the Roundhouse in Camden where he was introduced to Ashley Hutchings, the bass player with the folk band, Fairport Convention. Through Hutchings, Nick made the acquaintance of Joe Boyd, an American producer who offered to manage him and produce his first album.

In 1969, Five Leaves Left, Nick Drake’s debut album was released with songs including River Man, apparently inspired by his daily crossing of the Cam, Way to Blue and the haunting Day Is Done. Moving to Hampstead after leaving Cambridge, Nick then recorded his second album, Bryter Layter, accompanied in part by Fairport Convention. Featuring such songs as Poor Boy and Northern Sky, it was stronger than his previous work and more self-assured. In spite of his impressive outpourings, Nick never achieved commercial success during his lifetime, largely because of his own reluctance to publicise himself and his music. His final album, Pink Moon, was released in February 1972 and is his darkest, mirroring its creator’s ongoing battle deep depression that threatened to engulf him.

The poor reception of Pink Moon caused Nick to doubt himself and as a consequence, he became increasingly withdrawn, resisting the efforts made by his family and friends to console him and telling his mother, ‘I have failed in everything I have tried to do.’ Still living in a damp bedsit in Hampstead, Nick would go missing for several weeks at a time and his appearance became progressively more dishevelled. As a result of the concern expressed by his parents, Nick agreed to see a doctor about his deteriorating mental state and the impact it was having upon his physical well-being; he was prescribed Tryptizol, an antidepressant.

Above: Nick Drake – From The Morning (1972)

It was an overdose of Trytizol that was found to be the cause of death after Nick’s body was discovered by his mother on that bleak November day. A verdict of suicide was recorded, and in a strange way, his family took comfort from the idea that he had made a conscious decision to put an end to the unhappiness that plagued him. Speaking about her brother, Gabrielle Drake confessed that ‘I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide, in the sense that I’d rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible: for it to be a plea for help that nobody hears.’

The acclaim that eluded him in life was granted to Nick Drake after he died, and by the 1980s, he was frequently named as an influence and inspiration by some of the decade’s most popular recording artists. Nick was laid to rest at the Church of St. Mary Magdalene in Tanworth-in-Arden. Today, his headstone, which lies beneath an aged oak, is littered with tokens of affection from his many admirers. Its inscription is a lyric taken from the last track of Pink Moon, ‘And now we rise and we are everywhere.’