Sunday, June 06, 2004
A much updated ruin from a much outdated style
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.
6/06/2004 12:43:00 am