When “Pink Moon,” Nick Drake’s final album, hit the shelves in 1972, there was barely a murmur in the market. Just like his last two records, it wasn’t selling. Not long after it came out, Drake apparently showed up at the Notting Hill flat of his manager, Joe Boyd, and demanded to know why his music wasn’t achieving the success he hoped it would. “I don’t understand… People say I’m great and I’ve got nothing to show for it.” He said, lamenting the crushing fact that another album had flopped. Boyd tried to suggest he play some live shows and record some new songs, but nothing came of it.
Maybe it was his crippling social anxiety or his refusal to play live promotional shows for his albums, but Nick Drake just couldn’t manage to bring his internal and external worlds into harmony. In the next few years after “Pink Moon,” the two would only drift farther apart, and his enchanting music became a distinct pleasure only for those lucky enough to have bought his albums in the late 60s and early 70s. For the rest of us he seemed doomed to fade away and disappear into the folds of time.
Fast forward 25 years later to a Volkswagen advertisement campaign, and you (and millions of others) could suddenly hear the title track from “Pink Moon” soundtrack a lovely country drive in a VW Cabriolet. It’s almost too amazing to comprehend when you watch it, but it’s all there: Drake’s soothing voice, his spectral guitar, the romantic sweep of the camera and a magical night time drive under the stars. Drake’s music had finally, against all odds, returned from the fathomless realms of obscurity. Prior to the advertisement, the sales of “Pink Moon” in the U.S. had been a measly 6,000 copies. In 2000 that number jumped to 74,000. Something had shifted over the last few decades, and the world was beginning to wake up to Nick Drake.
Yet Nick Drake would never know about the eventual success of his music. In November 1974 he died of an overdose antidepressant medication at his parent’s home in rural Warwickshire, his music loved (though deeply) by only a few. Those who were close to him mourned his passing and the loss of a musical voice that was as unique as they come.
Between his death and the VW commercial, things slowly began to change. Artists began citing Nick Drake as an influence. “Life in a Northern Town,” the hit song by The Dream Academy, was written as an elegy to him. Music lovers spread the word about his albums. Yet even as compilations and outtakes were released over the years, the enigma that was Nick Drake still seemed shrouded in mystery. With people aching to understand him through his songs, “Pink Moon” remained the last artistic statement of a man that would become an archetype of the ill-fated romantic artist, one so ethereal he hardly seemed to belong in this world.
There are many reasons the album is so well loved. “Pink Moon” captures the mood and mystique of Nick Drake better than any other record he made. His previous two studio albums, the stellar “Five Leaves Left” and “Bryter Layter” were excellent efforts, but rested their laurels on a full sound, with Drake’s deft fingerpicking accompanied by everything from buoyant piano chords to warm string sections. On “Pink Moon,” Nick elected to leave his songs bare, with only a single acoustic guitar accompanying his voice, save the spare, overdubbed piano riff that appears near the end of the title track.
Listening to the album, I feel that Drake’s songs were truly at home in this format. His masterful fingerpicking style, knowledge of alternate tunings, and folk sensibilities are all given ample room to breathe on “Pink Moon,” and the tracks are all the better for it. The tremble of his voice and the buzzing guitar on “Know” make you feel like Drake is lounging in the room with you, perhaps serenading himself in the afternoon sun. “From the Morning” arrives sparkling in the wind, the exquisite, tender swan song of a tragically misunderstood artist. Looking back through the mists of time, the song makes me ache, as if for a second I could actually touch the elemental parts that made up his world, perhaps say one word to him or watch his fingers gently dance upon the neck of his guitar.
At the time of the release of “Pink Moon,” critics seemed to enjoy the majority of the songs, but most found the album to be somewhat impenetrable, the output of an inaccessible and increasingly esoteric artist. Many cited his distant persona, obscure lyrics, and the fact that he refused to play any concerts as reasons they couldn’t get behind the record. Not many, even in his day, seemed to understand him.
One song that didn’t appear on any of his studio albums, but stands out as a key song in Drake’s mythology, is “Magic,” or “Made to Love Magic,” which appeared on the 2004 compilation also called “Made to Love Magic.” It was originally recorded for “Five Leaves Left” but didn’t make it to the final cut. It then appeared on “Time of No Reply,” a 1986 release of Nick Drake outtakes. For the 2004 version, the song was sped up and recorded with a string arrangement originally written in 1969 by Robert Kirby. The results are startling. Part elegy for the romantic condition and part spiraling affirmation of the poet’s heart, his lyrics have a pristine, prophetic quality to them, as if he knew his own fate even at the hopeful beginnings of his musical career.
“I was born to sail away
Into a land of forever
Not to be tied to an old stone grave
In your land of never
I was made to love magic…”
I like to imagine his internal world was so beautiful, so alive with wonder and magic, that he became completely closed off from the external one. Communication is inherently difficult, and for Drake it would become excruciating to even try. Legend goes that people would see him at parties hunched up against the wall with his head down, then look again to find him gone without a word. Other times he would leave for weeks at a time without telling anyone where he was going. Later on there were the long, isolated drives he would take from his parent’s home and the eventual phone call for help when he ran out of gas, too overwhelmed by anxiety to even buy fuel. At home, though, as his miraculous hands gliding across the guitar, he was a technical wizard and a poetic genius, gifted beyond measure.
That romantic figure, exemplified by Drake, stands out in one’s mind like that solitary figure in the famous painting “Wanderer above the Sea of Fog,” standing poised on a rock and staring into the abyss. Inexorably alone, he is the individual who senses his isolation like the thick mist that surrounds him. Many experience this, though perhaps not as acutely as Drake. The tragedy is that our hero was soon raised into glorious heights long after he left this world, when the real sense of losing a once-in-a-generation talent sets in.
Every person who loves Drake and his music, both symbolically and actually, probably identify with that tragic isolation. They have felt the roar of disenchantment and frustration as the world seems to carelessly cycle around them, and in Drake have found their idol. The sublime beauty of his internal world informs their own, and in his songs they can find solace in knowing someone else felt their pain and expressed it with such charm and enchantment.
Listening to “Pink Moon” and Drake’s other albums, I get the sense that there was always a healthy dose of wonder and magic in his world too, as much or more than the pain and disillusionment. His songs are so vibrant as to make you gasp with delight, chase the moon rising up over the hills and glide towards the distant horizon where your lover is waiting for you. Even the saddest of his songs are gorgeous.
Perhaps he could only bear to live in this cold world so long, leaving us small pieces of magic to listen to. Speaking for Nick Drake’s now millions of fans, we’re all very glad he did.