Helpless Dancer

The Endless Note

Nick Drake & Robert Kirby

nick drake biography

I have almost finished reading the above Nick Drake biography and it is without doubt an interesting read.

The author was not allowed access to Drake’s lyrics and the assistance of his direct family was withdrawn as such making the task at hand very difficult.

I have made several Nick Drake postings in recent times many of which were song specific. This posting hopefully will try to highlight more of the man behind the music and what made him tick.

The music more than anything else provides an insight into the man as anyone who reads the biography or has knowledge of the background of Nick Drake will realise that beyond songwriting he could be a man of few words.

This post is now of even more importance to me as it will also provide a opportunnity to recognise the great work of Robert Kirby who sadly passed away on the 3rd October aged 61.

Robert_kirby

Born in 1948, Kirby met Drake at Cambridge University in early 1968 and put together a string section to accompany the singer-songwriter at live appearances.

When Drake recorded his debut album, ‘Five Leaves Left’, in the summer of 1968, producer Joe Boyd had already lined-up another string arranger – but the singer rejected his arrangements and insisted Kirby was brought in.

He then returned to arrange the strings on 1970’s ‘Bryter Layter’ and during the following decade he arranged the strings on more than 40 albums. Many of them were by folk artists such as Ralph McTell, Al Stewart and Vashti Bunyan, but he also worked on Elton John‘s ‘Madman Across The Water’, David Ackles‘American Gothic’ and John Cale‘s ‘Helen Of Troy’.

Kirby also spent three years playing keyboards in The Strawbs in the mid-1970s, but at the end of the decade opted for a career in marketing.

He made only occasional returns to the studio in the 1980s, most notably on Elvis Costello‘s ‘Almost Blue’. However, as Drake‘s cult status grew in the 1990s, he returned to the limelight.

Paul Weller invited him to arrange the strings on several tracks on his 2000 album ‘Heliocentric’. Further invitations followed to work on albums by The Magic Numbers, Linda Thompson and on Vashti Bunyan‘s comeback, more than 35 years after their previous collaboration.

Kirby also added new string arrangements to several tracks on ‘Made To Love Magic’, the compilation album of Drake out-takes and remixed tracks, released in 2004.

Here from the 1969 debut album “Five Leaves Left” is a prime example of both their work.

“River Man” – Nick Drake

Betty came by on her way
Said she had a word to say
About things today
And fallen leaves.

Said she hadn’t heard the news
Hadn’t had the time to choose
A way to lose
But she believes.

Gonna see the river man
Gonna tell him all I can
About the plan
For lilac time.

If he tells me all he knows
’bout the way his river flows
And all night shows
In summertime.

Betty said she prayed today
For the sky to blow away
Or maybe stay
She wasn’t sure.

For when she thought of summer rain
Calling for her mind again
She lost the pain
And stayed for more.

Gonna see the river man
Gonna tell him all I can
’bout the ban
On feeling free.

If he tells me all he knows
About the way his river flows
I don’t suppose
It’s meant for me.

Oh, how they come and go
Oh, how they come and go

River Man

The song is primarily in a 5/4 timing, although it shifts to 4/4 almost seamlessly throughout, and is one of the few songs Drake wrote to be played in standard tuning. The string arrangement was composed by Harry Robinson and Robert Kirby, after Drake’s friend Robert Kirby felt he couldn’t compose it alone, although he did most of the composing for the rest of Five Leaves Left.

In his lifetime Drake never revealed the identity of the ‘Betty’ character in the lyrics, although Trevor Dann speculated that she may have been drawn from Betty Foy, a character in Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy“, a poem Drake had studied while attending Cambridge. Those familiar with Wordsworth’s “The Idiot Boy” will not recognize poem references in the song, but that is not to say Drake wasn’t inspired by it. There is a Betty; there is not much more.

As he was signed to Island Records, a label founded by Chris Blackwell in Jamaica in 1959 though relocated to the UK in 1962 and used to promote the music of Jamaica and marginalised folk and blues, it is perhaps not surprising that the first cover of a Drake song was released in 1970 by Millie of “My Boy Lollipop” fame.

The song chosen was a 1968 demo titled “Mayfair” here is the cover version, the original can be found on the 2004 compilation release “Made To Love Magic”

“Mayfair” – Millie

time will tell

It is amazing today that none of the three albums Drake recorded and released from 1969-1972 sold more than 5,000 copies after their initial release.

The lack of sales can be attributed to his personality and in particular his lack of willingness to perform and tour plus the fact that at Island Records whilst he was admired and respected much of their promotional budget was being expended on bands such as Fairport Convention, Free, reggae in general and of course Cat Stevens who alone in the early 70’s contributed 20% of the labels total sales.

Although the publicity generated by Five Leaves Left was minor, producer Joe Boyd was keen to build on what momentum there was. 1970’s Bryter Layter, again produced by Boyd and engineered by Wood, introduced a more upbeat,jazzier sound.

Disappointed by his debut’s poor commercial performance, Drake sought to move away from his pastoral sound, and agreed to his producer’s suggestions to include bass and drum tracks on the recordings. “It was more of a pop sound, I suppose”, Boyd later said, “I imagined it as more commercial.”

Like its predecessor, the album featured musicians from Fairport Convention, as well as contributions from John Cale on two songs: “Northern Sky” and “Fly”. Trevor Dann has noted that while sections of “Northern Sky” sound more characteristic of Cale, the song was the closest Drake came to a release with chart potential.

This theory was finally found to be true when the song became the key ingredient in the film score for the brilliant film Serendipity (Click HERE for my previous posting on this).

bryter lyter

I have already featured “Poor Boy” one of my favourite tracks from this album check it out HERE

My chosen track therefore is the instrumental “Sunday”

“Sunday” – Nick Drake

Island Records was keen that Drake promote Bryter Layter through press interviews, radio sessions and live appearances. Drake, who was by this time smoking what Kirby has described as “unbelievable amounts” of marijuana and exhibiting “the first signs of psychosis”, refused. By the winter of 1970, he had isolated himself in London.

Disappointed by the reaction to Bryter Layter, he turned his thoughts inwards, and withdrew from family and friends. He rarely left his flat, and then only to play an occasional concert or to buy drugs. “This was a very bad time”, his sister Gabrielle Drake recalled, “He once said to me that everything started to go wrong from [this] time on, and I think that was when things started to go wrong.”

Although Island neither expected nor wanted a third album, Drake approached Wood in October 1971 to begin work on what would be his final release. The sessions took place over two nights, with only Drake and Wood present in the studio which much to the disappointment of Robert Kirby.

The bleak songs of Pink Moon are short, and the eleven-track album lasts only 28 minutes, a length described by Wood as “just about right. You really wouldn’t want it to be any longer.”

Drake had expressed dissatisfaction with the sound of Bryter Layter, and believed that the string, brass and saxophone arrangements had resulted in a sound that was “too full, too elaborate”. Drake appears unaccompanied on Pink Moon, save for a single piano overdub on the title track. “He was very determined to make this very stark, bare record,” Wood later recalled. “He definitely wanted it to be him more than anything. And I think, in some ways, Pink Moon is probably more like Nick is than the other two records.”

pink moon

The album does however, as the closing track, feature a song which is dear to his parents and for them brings a degree of comfort following his early death in 1974.

“From The Morning” – Nick Drake

A day once dawned, and it was beautiful
A day once dawned from the ground
Then the night she fell
And the air was beautiful
The night she fell all around.

So look see the days
The endless coloured ways
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning.

And now we rise
And we are everywhere
And now we rise from the ground
And see she flies
And she is everywhere
See she flies all around

So look see the sights
The endless summer nights
And go play the game that you learnt
From the morning.

John Martyn knew Nick Drake very well, being on the same label and playing on the same circuits, Martyn out grew the folkie genre but never forgot “poor Nicky” who he believed was the most withdrawn person he had ever met

‘Solid Air’, the title track, of Martyn’s 1973 album release was dedicated to his friend Nick Drake.

Tragically Drake died of an antidepressant overdose 18 months after the album was released. Martyn said of the track “It was done for a friend of mine, and it was done right with very clear motives, and I’m very pleased with it, for varying reasons. It has got a very simple message, but you’ll have to work that one out for yourself.”

By autumn 1974, Drake’s weekly retainer from Island had ceased, and his illness meant he remained in contact with only a few close friends. He had tried to stay in touch with Sophia Ryde, whom he had first met in London in 1968.

Ryde has been described by Drake’s biographers as “the nearest thing” to a girlfriend in his life, but she now prefers the description ‘best (girl) friend’. In a 2005 interview, Ryde revealed that a week before he died, she had sought to end the relationship: “I couldn’t cope with it. I asked him for some time. And I never saw him again.”

Similar to the relationship Drake had earlier shared with fellow folk musician Linda Thompson, Drake’s relationship with Ryde was never,  for what it’s worth, consummated.

At some time during the night of 24/25 November 1974, Nick Drake died at home in Far Leys from an overdose of amitriptyline, a type of antidepressant. He had gone to bed early the night before, after spending the afternoon visiting a friend.

 His mother claimed that, around dawn, he left his room for the kitchen. His family was used to hearing him do this many times before but, during this instance, he did not make a sound. They presumed that he was eating a bowl of cereal. He returned to his room a short while later, and took some pills “to help him sleep”.

 Drake was accustomed to keeping his own hours; he frequently had difficulty sleeping, and would often stay up through the night playing and listening to music, then sleeping late into the following morning. Recalling the events of that night, his mother later stated: “I never used to disturb him at all. But it was about 12 o’clock, and I went in, because really it seemed it was time he got up  and he was lying across the bed.

The first thing I saw was his long, long legs.” There was no suicide note, although a letter addressed to Ryde was found close to his bed.

Drake’s gravestone is inscribed with the epitaph ‘Now we rise/And we are everywhere’, taken from the final song  “From The Morning” as posted above.

At the inquest that December, Drake’s coroner stated that the cause of death was as a result of “Acute amitriptyline poisoning — self-administered when suffering from a depressive illness”, and concluded a verdict of suicide. Though this has been disputed by some members of his family, there is a general view that accidental or not, Drake had by then given up on life.

Rodney described his son’s death as unexpected and extraordinary; however, in a 1979 interview he admitted to “always [being] worried about Nick being so depressed. We used to hide away the aspirin and pills and things like that.”[

Boyd has stated that he prefers to believe the overdose was accidental. He recalled that Drake’s parents had described his mood in the preceding weeks as having been very positive, and that he had planned to move back to London to restart his music career. Boyd believes that this levity was followed by a “crash back into despair”. Reasoning that Drake may have taken a high dosage of his antidepressants in order to recapture this sense of optimism, he said he prefers to imagine Drake “making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death”.

Writing in 1975, NME journalist Nick Kent comments on the irony of Drake’s death at a time when he had just begun to regain a sense of “personal balance”.

In contrast, Gabrielle Drake has said she prefers to think Drake 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…”

On 2 December 1974, after a service in the Church of St Mary Magdalene, Tanworth-in-Arden, Drake’s remains were cremated at the Solihull Crematorium and his ashes later interred under an oak tree in the adjoining graveyard of St Mary’s.

There for the grace…………………………………

There were no press obituaries, documentaries or compilation albums in the wake of Drake’s death.

 His public profile remained low throughout the mid and late 1970s, although occasional mentions of his name began to appear in the music press. Island Records initially saw little commercial value in his back catalogue, and following a 1975 NME article written by Nick Kent, stated “…we have no intention of repackaging Nick’s three albums, either now or at anytime in the foreseeable future”.

By the mid 1980s, Drake was being cited as an influence by musicians such as R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck and Robert Smith of The Cure. Smith credited the origin of his band’s name to a lyric from Drake’s song “Time Has Told Me” (“a troubled cure for a troubled mind”).

 Drake gained further exposure in 1985 with the release of The Dream Academy‘s hit single “Life in a Northern Town“, which included an on-sleeve dedication to Drake. His reputation continued to grow, and by the end of the 1980s, Nick Drake’s name was appearing regularly in newspapers and music magazines in the United Kingdom, and though he was still largely a cult figure, he was no longer unknown.

Drake had come to represent a kind of mythical doomed romantic hero in the eyes of many, an “enigma wrapped inside a mystery”.

In recent years, several musicians, including Lucinda Williams, Badly Drawn Boy and Lou Barlow have cited Drake as an influence. In 2004, nearly 30 years after his death, Drake gained his first chart placing when two singles (“Magic” and “River Man“), released to coincide with the compilation album Made to Love Magic, made the middle reaches of the U.K. charts. Later that year, the BBC aired a radio documentary about Drake, narrated by Brad Pitt.

Made To Love Magic

The 2004 compilation “Made To Love Magic” is by no means a scraping the barrel release.

It was the aforementioned Pete Buck who made the comparison between Nick Drake and legendary bluesman Robert Johnson. Both had “something” burning and eating away at their soul, both were withdrawn and Pink Moon has been said to have been recorded in a similar fashion to Johnson’s limited sessions with the musician facing the wall and playing for themselves and no one else.

Johnson believed he was trailed by the devil and is easy to make a similar argument for Drake.

This song from the 2004 compilation is a good illustration and could easily been a Johnson composition.

“Black Eyed Dog” – Nick Drake.

A black eyed dog he called at my door
The black eyed dog he called for more
A black eyed dog he knew my name
A black eyed dog he knew my name
A black eyed dog
A black eyed dog.

I’m growing old and I wanna go home
I’m growiing old and I don’t wanna know
I’m growing old and I wanna go home.

A black eyed dog he called at my door
A black eyed dog he called for more.

Black dogs of course in folklore are linked to the devil

Nick Drake did return to recording after Pink Moon (in itself again in folklore linked to the devil and bringing of bad luck) only a handful of songs were recorded and this was the last

“Tow The Line” – Nick Drake

This day is the day that we rise or we fall
This night is the night that we win or lose all
This time is the time that we wait for a while
This year is the year that we wait with a smile

If you call, we will follow
If you show us we can tow the line

And now that you’re here you can show me the way
Now that you’re here we can try make it pay
For while you were gone it was hard it was cold
While you were gone we were time we were old

If you call we will follow
If you show us we can tow the line

Finally we close the circle and return to a demo recorded in 1968 by Robert Kirby, an acoustic version of “River Man” ironically without the orchestration which would in time make Robert famous.

Hopefully you are now both making music somewhere else.

“River Man (1968 Demo) – Nick Drake

nickDrake

If you don’t have the music of Nick Drake buy it HERE now….if you do it will be with you forever.

Biography detail, extracted, edited and added to from Wikipedia

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November 12, 2009 - Posted by | Cover Stories, Old Music, Video | , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. What a wonderful piece. I found about his sad demise about a month ago and completely forgot about it til now. I have put up a portion of yr post at my blog here with a link to the rest of yr post. If you do not want me to do that I am more than happy to remove it…
    Regards/

    Comment by Mona | December 18, 2009 | Reply

    • Thanks for dropping in.

      HD

      Comment by thehelplessdancer | December 18, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] See previous posting on Robert Kirky bly clicking HERE […]

    Pingback by Paul Weller Salutes Robert Kirby « Helpless Dancer | October 5, 2010 | Reply


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