On November 25, 1974, a voice went silent. Few noticed – it had always been such a quiet voice.
English singer-songwriter Nick Drake was 26 years old when he died from an overdose of antidepressants. Whether he intended to commit suicide has never been determined; he was a fragile person, suffering from clinical depression and possibly associated disorders. His use of marijuana is well-documented, and there is speculation that he may have turned to harder drugs as his world darkened. Whether this is true and to what extent it may have contributed to his death will never be known.
Not much about Nick Drake is knowable, not to his growing legions of fans now, not to his family and friends during his lifetime. His father once remarked, after getting a report from an obviously perplexed schoolmaster, “All the way through with Nick – no one knew him very much.”
Nick knew Nick, though, and his small body of work reveals insight into his own mental and emotional brokenness that is breathtakingly honest and deceptively simple. His music is as fragile as his psyche, his voice breathy and ethereal. His lyrics, accompanied by his exquisite guitar picking, explore themes of loneliness, lost opportunity, the passage of time. The music stirs listeners to melancholy without pulling them into depression. Nick’s gift was introspection without indulgence, anguish without angst, honest emotion without a whiff of “emo.”
Nick was beloved by those who knew him; a cherished son and brother and a loyal friend who embodied the descriptor used over and over by those closest to him: kind. He felt deeply – perhaps too deeply for this world – and he hated taking the medications that stripped those feelings from him. He took them anyway, apparently reaching out for help from any available avenue. A study in contradictions, he sought recognition but shied from publicity. He sang gently evocative songs but could also wail an authentic blues. He was a star athlete who turned sickly, a drug enthusiast with a distaste for his prescriptions, a child of privilege who favored shabby, ill-fitting clothes. On the subject of obtaining his college degree, he told his father that a safety net was “the one thing [he didn’t] want,” yet he was ultimately, tragically unable to survive on his own.
Nick recorded three albums in his short career: 1969’s Five Leaves Left was followed by Bryter Layter in 1970, and in 1972 came Pink Moon, the stark, stripped-bare acoustic album considered by fans and critics alike to be his masterwork. Those three albums were supplemented posthumously by bootleg recordings and compilations, but even so, the sum total of his life’s work hovers at around 100 songs.
One hundred songs, and each one a jewel. One hundred little windows into a beautiful, bedeviled soul; one hundred attempts by Nick to connect with something larger than himself, to impart a message to someone, to anyone who might have been listening. Unfortunately, few were listening in 1974.
Sometime after midnight on November 25, after wandering downstairs to have a snack, Nick took more of his medicine than he was supposed to, collapsed across his narrow bed and never arose. His death was ruled a suicide, but this ruling has been disputed. Gabrielle Drake, however, has said that she prefers to think her younger brother 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….”
However you left us, Nick, thank you for the beauty you left behind, and I hope you’ve found peace. The prophecy in “Fruit Tree” has come to pass.
Fruit tree, fruit tree, no one knows you but the rain and the air
Don’t you worry, they’ll stand and stare when you’re gone