Season’s End, Season’s Start

Nick Drake’s lone surviving live recording

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The English folk musician Nick Drake died in November 1974 at age 26, leaving only three albums behind.

The first, Five Leaves Left — the title a reference to a British cigarette papers packet — appeared in 1969, one of those rare albums with little that preceded it and little that could follow from it, so singular was Drake’s musical tapestry, like the rustic verse of John Clare had met with some Mendelssohn-like stirrings and taken a trip to London to walk the streets before returning to the heath.

Bryter Layter, from 1971, had a touch of strings and brass to go along with Drake’s guitar and a singing style that sounded as new as the next day’s dawn, and old as the peat underfoot.

It also had less melancholia, which was probably a relief to the people in Drake’s life, suffering as he did with depression. A final album, clocking in at well under a half hour, would follow in 1972 with Pink Moon, as stark a piece of music that exists, regardless of genre. If Schubert’s Winter Journey chills you — as it should — then Pink Moon will take your core temperature down a few degrees further, even as its beauty gusts down and back across the chambers of your heart, like a lost wind finding no exit.

So: three albums, 110 minutes of music total, and I have never wished for more from Nick Drake, never needed more, save for one thing I always wanted. I never thought that there wasn’t enough Nick Drake music to listen to for the rest of my life, never thought his music would run out of ways to reach me, never thought there’d be points of my life when I wouldn’t see and hear things in it that I hadn’t previously: things that could be most helpful in terms of processing new experiences, getting past bad memories that had reared up again, moving forward, taking that Sunday walk deeper into the woods, so to speak.

But one of the problems with Nick Drake’s career is that he packed it in with live performances. His anxiety precluded him from touring much. Even coffee house gigs were a rarity.

The people at Island, his record label, were ill at ease with this set-up. This was an age when you toured. Then you toured some more. Then more on top of that, until you veritably beat your presence into the minds of the people who had probably heard you at some point or other simply because you kept turning up so much.

Drake wouldn’t turn up at all. And as I listened to those three studio albums, and a compilation or two with a few stray tracks — like 1974’s “Black Eyed Dog,” the single most terrifying recording I have ever heard, which is about a man’s need to die in a world that won’t have him — I only ever wanted for one thing: a Nick Drake live recording.

One would assume that Drake’s albums probably featured vocals that were first takes, or close to it, because he didn’t seem like a person a producer would be able to coax 30 vocal performances from. So, vocally, at least, they’re very “live.” Pink Moon, of course, being almost entirely just guitar and voice, has this quality to an even more pronounced degree. But there is something about a live performance that is always more romantic — in the Byronic sense — and dramatic than a studio undertaking. This doesn’t mean that a live performance is automatically worthier than music produced in the studio, and normally, musically-speaking, the studio counterpart is the more viable work, the one worth revisiting time and again. But live performances: there is just something about them.

So it was that my Nick Drake listening experience, shifted a few years back, when the news finally came in: Drake’s lone Peel session had been released. The appearance was from 1969, and so done in conjunction with the Five Leaves Left album.

This was a radio gig, essentially, not Drake in front of a crowd, but it was live, and it strikes a listener as both a summation of his discography and an amplification of it as well. That is, you see the hallmarks of his three albums — and even some stray material that didn’t end up on those albums — in one radio appearance that also encapsulates Drake’s touchstone ability to sound simultaneously like the ending and beginning of something. There is no more apt music to listen to come the end of the year.

The session is comprised of five songs: “Time of No Reply,” “River Man,” “Three Hours,” “Bryter Layter,” and “Cello Song.”

“Time of No Reply” wouldn’t make it on to a Drake album — you’d have to wait for a compilation for that — despite being one of Drake’s three or four finest songs, gnomic and sweeping in the manner that only he could be. “Bryter Layter,” of course, would be the title track on his sophomore LP, while the remaining three cuts featured on the Five Leaves Left roster.

Drake begins with “Time of No Reply,” which couldn’t have been an easy choice for him, given that the song is one of great sweep, like some psalm set to bardic music. The opening verse features words that match the pull of that sweep:

Summer was gone and the heat died down
And Autumn reached for her golden crown
I looked behind as I heard a sigh
But this was the time of no reply

Drake sounds nervous at first, but those nerves are calmed before he has completed the first line.

Most musicians tend to speed up when the perform live, especially if they’re nervous, as one would expect from Drake. Drake does the opposite. You can hear him become lost in his own guitar fingerings, letting the strings dance as long as they wish to.

We talk now so much of controlling what you can control, to the point that it has become one of the great clichés in an age full of them. But here is Drake doing exactly that, with his performance standing in for our bromidic rhetoric, knowing that the natural pull — the genius, really — of his music is going to take care of what needs taking care of, so long as it is granted clearance.

Drake’s breath control is impeccable — better, even, than on the studio version of the song. He picks tendril-like lead lines on his guitar while strumming the rhythm underneath. The effect is like when you listen to Robert Johnson and can’t believe that only one guitarist is at work, much like we’re always agog when two lighting bolts seem to cross in the night’s sky.

But nature, and how nature mirrors and amplifies the human experience in some ways, is always present in these songs, and never more so than on this session.

The following song, “Three Hours,” is a bucolic blues with an extended guitar intro that shows that Drake was one of the finest acoustic players of his era. This is the point in the session when you get the sense that no label could ever really do Drake justice. His music feels utterly out of kilter with the very notion of recording a live radio session in London at the end of the 1960s. He could be singing by a mote in Chaucerian times, busking in the era of Pepys, playing something for you in your Harvard dorm room right now. Utterly eraless, entirely Drake-ian.

Three hours from sundown
Jeremy flies
Hoping to keep
The sun from his eyes
East from the city
And down to the cave
In search of a master
In search of a slave

The movement implicit in the lyric is held in check by the guitar, which we come to hear as the conductor, after a fashion, of what is tantamount to an emotional set piece.

“Bryter Layter” is an instrumental with a flute duetting with Drake’s guitar. This is a pastoral. Drake’s guitar offers a restrained counterpoint underneath the airy lines of the lyric, with the song as a whole working as a gathering of reserves for what will follow in the next cut. Drake didn’t perform live often, but it’s interesting to note how he structures his appearance here, almost like he’s building a cohesive mini-album, which, as it turns out, is what we ultimately have now.

The instrumental repose of “Bryter Layter” puts everyone in a better place — singer and audience members — to hear what follows: the mighty “Cello Song.”

Again we have flute and guitar, but guitar is well in the lead with virtuosic finger picking from Drake. For the first time on the session, he’s moving quite fast, even as his vocals retain their aerated, melismatic quality. This is the best song in the Drake canon, and this Peel session version is perhaps the single best performance he ever gave.

The guitar gets faster as the song proceeds, but Drake, one feels, has total control. This is no case of nerves. It’s a matter of instrumental backing, and vocal performance, meshing as one. The words are musical in their own right, but that musicality is bolstered by Drake’s guitar work. It is locomotive-like, but in the fashion of train sounds off in the distance: present, churning, incessant, but not right outside your window, not pressed up right against your ears.

You would seem so frail
In the cold of the night
When the armies of emotion
Go out to fight
But while the earth
Sinks to its grave
You sail to the sky
On the crest of a wave

So forget this cruel world
Where I belong
I’ll just sit and wait
And sing my song
And if one day you should see me in the crowd
Let a hand and lift me
To your place in the cloud

We don’t know if the overdose that killed Drake was accidental or not, but what has to strike anyone who hears this remarkable session is how something that feels like such a clear-cut end, can also be a definitive opening towards something new. For Drake, that would be several more studio sessions, but not nearly as many as anyone who has ever heard his music would likely hope for. What does it say, then, that one rarely wishes for more with Nick Drake, and that this live session takes care of a good chunk of those remaining wishes? It says that when one starts at an ending that contains wonders, one has met a new beginning. •

Images courtesy of Wally Gobetz via Flickr (Creative Commons)

Colin Fleming writes on art, literature, film, rock, jazz, classical music, and sports for Rolling Stone, JazzTimes, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post, and a number of other publications. His fiction has recently appeared in AGNI, Boulevard, Cincinnati Review, Commentary, and Post Road, and he’s the author of The Anglerfish Comedy Troupe: Stories from the Abyss (Dzanc), and is writing a memoir, Many Moments More: A Story About the Art of Endurance, and a novel about a reluctant piano genius, age seven or eight, called The Freeze Tag Sessions. He’s a regular contributor to NPR’s Weekend Edition. His tattered, on-the-mend website is colinfleminglit.com, and he highly recommends reading The Smart Set daily, along with ten mile coastal walks and lots of Keats and hockey for the soul.
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