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Sunday, June 06, 2004  
A much updated ruin from a much outdated style

Nick Drake
Made To Love Magic

Nick Drake knew he was going to sell more records when he was dead than he did while he was alive. So well, in fact, that he wrote a song about this very certainty on his first album, and he called it “Fruit Tree”. The lyrics could be a gospel for how his myth has slowly prospered over the last thirty years; “fame is but a fruit tree, so very unsound / it can never flourish till it’s stalk is in the ground / … safe in your place deep in the earth / that’s when they’ll really know what you were really worth”. As rock ’n’ roll myth-making goes, it’s pretty prescient. Nick Drake knew he was too fragile for the world he lived in, knew that, because of the way he did what he did, people would find it hard to love his work knowing that he was a man, and all too easy to love his work knowing that he was a ghost. Precious. Tragic. Beautiful. Sensitive. Delicate. Doomed. These are some of the words that people use about Nick Drake, born in Rangoon, died in Tamworth-In-Arden.

They’re all bunkum, of course. Nick Drake isn’t some Platonic essence of the doomed romantic hero. He’s a man who made some records and then died in sad circumstances, a handful of anti-depressants and a headache that wouldn’t go away and a failed and failing career as a folk singer taunting him while lesser talents shone, adding up to a hellish, never-ending night of insomnia. Nick Drake didn’t take Tryptizol because he was depressed; he took it because he couldn’t sleep. Rock ‘n’ roll myth-making is just another way to sell a product, whether you’re throwing paint over the car owned by your record label boss, pretending to be managed by some shadowy svengali, or hiding your homosexuality from your teenage fans. Myth is important in music, but not because it adds wonder or magic or authenticity to an artist or to a body of work. Myth is important to music because it teaches us how much we are still driven by a need to be told stories, whether they be true or not.

My English teacher lent me Way To Blue, An Introduction To Nick Drake when I was a callow, occasionally drug-addled sixteen year old, high on The Beatles, The Verve and The Stone Roses. He said it would be like nothing I’d ever heard before. In return I lent him Screamadelica. I said it would be like nothing he’d ever heard before. We were both right. And it seemed like a fair swap. At university some years later I picked up the Fruit Tree box set, supposedly containing everything Nick Drake had ever recorded, the three studio albums (Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon) and the outtakes and rareties collection Time Of No Reply. It was one of those things you buy because you feel you ought to own it. Unlike The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions however, I still do own it. I still do own Ulysses though, and I doubt I shall ever read it.

Things people neglect to mention about Nick Drake; he was very tall, and had incredibly strong fingers – to play guitar that fast, that powerfully, with such odd tunings, he had to have strong fingers. He was a sarcastic devil – “Poor Boy”, a jazzy number from Bryter Layter, openly mocks his status as a poster-boy for sensitive British folk music. He was a horny devil – “Hazey Jane 1” presents stark images of sexual jealousy, asking a lover if she “is just riding a new man / looks a little like me”. He was cruel – at school with Chris De Burgh he supposedly refused to let the diminutive “Lady In Red” singer join his band because he was “too short”. Nick Drake wrote as many songs about how much he loved to smoke cigarettes as he did explicitly about depression. (One apiece; “Been Smoking Too Long” and “Black Eyed Dog”.) Yet no one talks about Nick Drake as being “that folk singer who liked a fag.” The myth surrounding Nick Drake exists as much because people erroneously believe that slow, quiet and acoustic = sad, and fast, loud and electric = happy. “Northern Sky” is not sad; it’s beautiful. “Cello Song” is not sad; it’s strange. Most of his songs are not sad or depressing in the way that Philip Larkin is sad and depressing. Most of his songs are uplifting and beautiful in the way that Wordsworth is uplifting and beautiful.

The value of I Was Made To Love Magic depends on how much you buy into the myth of Nick Drake the tragic, romantic figure who was too beautiful to last, whether you are as excited by the prospect of a new photo of Nick Drake as you are by the prospect of a new song (and there is only one new song). There are long-thought-lost string arrangements by Robert Kirby, restored to some songs. The four ‘last session’ tracks from Time Of No Reply are remixed into stereo, the wisdom and worth of which is debatable; “Black Eyed Dog” certainly suffers having it’s stark, frightening edge, previously seared by the incongruously joyous guitar break halfway through, blunted by stereophonic clarity. He no longer sounds as if he is crying as he enunciates the words. There is an early version of “Three Hours” featuring Rebob Kwaku Baah, who would later act as percussionist with Can, but sadly the lines between Folk, Krautrock and Afrobeat are left unblurred. And of course there is the new song, “Tow The Line”, which can best be described as ‘sturdy’ and ‘Pink Moonish’. There is a reason why some things remain rare, why some things are deemed not fit enough to be anything more than outtakes.

Amazon user reviews reveal the usual Nick Drake fan hyperbole; this new release is “a MUST HAVE” and “a towering achievement”, “a good place to start” even. I long since gave away my own copy of the Way To Blue compilation to a girlfriend, but it is telling that whenever I dip into Fruit Tree it is to visit those songs that Way To Blue and my English teacher introduced me to. I see I Was Made To Love Magic as nothing more than another morbid, myth-building curio, further proof that Nick Drake was right all along about how he would be treated.

NJS

6/06/2004 12:43:00 am

4 Comments:

Blogger Erick - 9:51 pm

Just wanted to say excellent write-up here on Drake, and really great photos, particularly the ocean skyline one from June 1.

 
Blogger John - 9:07 pm

Normally I don't write reviews, but I must say you have inspired me. Let's just say I disagree with you, but I refuse to write one of those hate-filled diatribes just because we disagree. I'm not stupid enough to think everyone is going to agree with my taste in music, but the irony is you and I often do agree on music and other things, if ILM is any indication. If this were not the case, I wouldn't be reading your blog or posting here. Before I share my own account of this CD, I would like to point out the inaccuracy in your review: "Been Smoking Too Long" was not actually written by Drake, but by a woman who's name now escapes me. Furthermore, it has been pointed out that "Thoughts of Mary Jane" easily could have been alluding to smoking.

I also object to statements such as "He was a sarcastic devil" "a horny devil" "He was cruel". He may indeed have been all of these things but I would never think myself qualified to speak such sweeping generalizations without knowing him personally. If you don't like the CD, fine, but this is really overreaching, and you even admit that the Chris De Burge "justification" is only a rumour.

I'm saying all this because I actually like you, Nick, and enjoy your site and the things you post. I may never write another review again, but as I said, you inspired me (yes I know I could put this up on a blog of my own but I really don't want a blog right now)

6/7/04

He’s back.

And in his birth month, no less.

I’ve seen a bad review of this release, the unexpected addendum to a career cut short by an early death. I maintain that those who fail to appreciate this release were not really fans of Nick Drake’s work to begin with. Though there are only a handful of new versions on this release, the rest being just remastered versions of recordings heard before, it would have been out of context merely to have released these new versions on their own without attempting to weave them back into the context from which they came, and generally the remasters sound crisp and pristine to these ears. Somehow amongst the newer versions, something new in the old versions miraculously jumps out. It appears even the order of the songs is handled with great care. To have ended this CD any other way than “Black Eyed Dog” just prior to the last, new song, would have been tragic, and would shown a horrible misunderstanding of his career and the reverence so many hold for him.

The real showpiece here is the alternate version of “Hanging On a Star”, far more relaxed than the previously heard version, and displaying a surprisingly pronounced and accomplished falsetto on the part of our hero. “Three Hours” is a treat, as well, helped along by latter day Can member ‘Reebop’ Kwaakhu Baah on congas. “Mayfair” actually swings (!) more than the previously heard version, and continues the theme here of more relaxed, and therefore, more powerful, honest and intimate versions of these songs. “Time Of No Reply” and “Magic” finally solve the long-standing, niggling “what if?” question of how the esteemed Robert Kirby might have scored these songs, rather than Nick’s first (and later regretted) choice of arranger, Richard Hewson. Nick’s vocal on “Magic”, slightly sped up with modern technology without changing the pitch, seems to communicate a different mood to the listener than before. Perhaps it’s that Kirby hangs back with the orchestration whereas Hewson overwhelmed Nick in the mix. Kirby respectfully lets Nick tell the story and merely adds flourishes here and there.

And then there’s the new song, “Tow The Line”. It’s a shame that so much attention had to be focused on this song because it’s not quite as good as the other 4 songs Nick left us with from the same session. Nevertheless, it’s greatest value may be as a reminder that the last song Nick actually recorded was not something as suicidal as “Black Eyed Dog”. Whereas that song shows a painfully resigned individual, and can be uncomfortable to listen to, “Tow The Line” tells us that the situation was likely more complex than we give it credit for.

“Made To Love Magic” is a welcome and unexpected whisper in the ear for long time fans. It may not convert anyone, but that was never the point.

 
Blogger John - 9:10 pm

Also, I don't suppose there's any reason for me to be mysterious here. You might know me better as Bimble.

 
Blogger Nick - 10:10 am

Firstly, I hold my hand up; I had it in my head that "Man In A Shed" was written by someone else, and that "Smoking Too Long" was his own. As for "Thoughts Of Mary Jane" being about smoking, I'll have to have another listen to it - I still think the point I was illustrating stands though, that as many Drake songs were explicitly about smoking cigarettes as were explicitly about depression (i.e. one of each). (As for what one considers a 'Drake song', his own idiosyncratic performative skills almost make authorship a moot point; if he performs it, it becomes a 'Drake song' because of how he performs it, i.e. as Nick Drake.)

This was an odd piece for me to write; I've not listened to Drake much in a number of years, and was so unmoved by the new collection that I had little to say about it; hence, as a necessity, the piece became about him and his other music. I ran it past a couple of serius Nick Drake fans who I know and have a lot of time for before we published it on Stylus (and indeed before I posted it here), and they both said it was a good piece; not saying anything that hadn't been said before, but drawing together different strands of thought and opinion on Drake that perhaps hadn't sat together previously.

As far as the collection itself stands, I have the overbearing sense (prompted by some observations by Dom Passantino about that 'song recognition' thingy and Drake's recent use in adverts etcetera) that marketing/record company meetings about the release probably featured the words 'Eva' and 'Cassidy' quite prominantly; that I didn't think the musical content was worth attention furthers my sense of distaste; posthumous releases and fame are an odd and uncomfortable phenomena, too often we seem (as a society) to bestow a degree of untouchability on the dead, and I think this is wrong.

This also feeds into my personal quest to try and debunk myths. As much as you may find it overreaching of me to describe Drake as 'horny' or 'cruel' when I didn't know him and have scant evidence (what is evidence? - discussion on the train last night with Ben led me to say that I intensely distrust the word 'know' and all derivations thereof, because people generally [always?] mean 'feel' or 'think' or 'accept') for this, I find it overreaching when people use the words I detailed in the first paragraph of my review ("Precious. Tragic. Beautiful. Sensitive. Delicate. Doomed."); they're all acceptable memes about Drake based only on the mythology surrounding him, a mythology enforced, certainly, by his musical output, but memes nonetheless. Very few people think before they trot out those words. Very few people who use them knew him either, but there is no assumed separation between art and artist, something which I feel is very important (and intend to write about at some point in greater length). Also the common practice of assuming 'slow & acoustic' = 'sad & maudlin', when most of Drake's best songs (where 'best' = the ones I like) are not sad & maudlin, but beautiful. But obviously, as with anything I write (anything anyone writes) this is all opinion, and it's only good that opinions should differ.

 

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Nick Southall is Contributing Editor at Stylus Magazine and occasionally writes for various other places on and offline. You can contact him by emailing auspiciousfishNO@SPAMgmail.com


All material © Nick Southall, 2003/2004/2005