Song of the Week 41: Fly – Nick Drake

Apple-ologies for the delay. I´ve been quite busy of late. I wrote half this post a couple of weeks ago and lost it when my computer turned itself off. Excuses out of the way. Must do better…


This week’s Song of the Week is Nick Drake’s Fly. It’s one of those songs where I don’t pay much attention to the lyrics. I like the lyrics, but the combination of the music and words in this song create something so ineffably light and hopeful that words alone don’t really do it justice. The refrain of “please…” is heartbreakingly beautiful. The descending guitar is like a staircase, and the singer seems to be reaching for something beyond himself. Something transcendent, and transient. But it’s still rooted in the everyday. Well that’s my best shot at explaining the inexplicable. So I don’t intend to expend many more words on the song itself. Some things defy explanation. Words are not enough…

All that’s left to say is that I love it, and it’s probably my favourite Nick Drake song.

There is no video footage of Nick Drake, and only a few photos taken for publicity. He played few gigs, generally refused to give interviews, so didn’t do himself many favours in his quest for recognition. Still, for a unique and very gifted songwriter, it was strange that he never made his mark.

Far Leys Nick´s home

He grew up in a house called Far Leys in the Warwickshire countryside with his parents and an older sister Gabrielle who would find fame as a film and television actress. Both his parents, Rodney and Molly, were musically inclined, and recordings by Molly that have surfaced since her death are remarkably similar in mood and outlook to that of her son’s later work. They both had a fragile vocal delivery and both Gabrielle and biographer Trevor Dann note a similar sense of fatalism and dark foreboding in their music. His mother encouraged him to play piano and write his own music, which he recorded on a reel-to-reel tape recorder she kept in the family drawing room.

Molly Drake … melancholy meditations on the fragility of happiness.

You can hear it very clearly here in a recording of a song called Poor Mom written by Molly. When it came out on Gabrielle´s recent official bootleg collection Family Tree, it was like the missing link in Drake´s musical influences for Nick Drake afficionados. Her influence is part of the reason why his music sounds like nothing else from that time.

For more on Nick’s relationship with his mother and their “melancholy meditations on the fragility of happiness” , you can read a Guardian interview from last month with his sister Gabrielle.

School friends describe a young Nick as aloof but confident and “quietly authoritative” in his manner. His father remembers one of his reports by the headmsater saying that “none of us seemed to know him very well.  All the way throgh with Nick people didn’t know him very much.”

Nick Drake young

He formed a band in school called The Perfumed Gardeners with schoolmates in 1964/65 with Drake on piano, alto sax and vocals. Chris de Burgh asked to join, but was rejected for being “too poppy”. 🙂 Life is funny sometimes. His grades started deteorating as his interest in music increased, but he still did quite well in school achieving seven O-Levels although teachers expected more. He paid £13 for his first acoustic guitar in 1965 and began experimenting with open tuning and finger picking techniques. In 1966 he won a scholarship to study English Literature at Fitzwilliam College, University of Cambridge.  He delayed his attendance to spend 6 months in university Aix-Marseille where he started practising guitar in earnest, and would earn money busking with friends in the town centre. After travelling with friends to Morocco he began to smoke cannabis, and most likely began using LSD while there. Clothes of Sand, written at that time, suggests an interest in hallucinogens.

With the exception of the song Fly, which I never tire of hearing again, I often find his music difficult to listen to over extended periods, because the depression he suffered from gradually seeps through. Although the songwriting is mostly gentle and thoughtful, there’s a heaviness there, so I can only take him in small doses. He sings about nature, beauty, and the passing of time, but it´s usually coloured by his introspective nature. That’s not to downplay the subtlety, originality and depth to his music. It’s undoubtedly great music, but yet it´s often tinged with sadness.

Drake experimented with different guitar tunings to create cluster chords, doing this usually late at night/early morning, when his mother claimed “he wrote his nicest melodies”. Drake often drew attention to the suspended notes (often dissonances) in these tunings with his voice, giving his melodies a unique Nick Drake feel. This one seems to be tuned to DADGDG with a capo on the first fret for all you guitar nerds.

He studied English Literature at Cambridge until dropping out in third year to pursue his music career, and he was particularly drawn to William Blake, William Butler Yeats and Henry Vaughan, and his own lyrics reflect the works of these writers, full of symbols and codes, with images taken from nature, and influenced by his rural upbringing. The moon, stars, sea, rain, trees, sky, and the passing of seasons are common themes.

Bryter Layter has an autumnal feel, a season that generally conveys loss and sorrow. Drake is a detached observer, rather than a direct participant.

Rolling Stone’s Anthony DeCurtis described him “as if he were viewing his life from a great, unbridgeable distance.”

The inability to connect with people has led many to speculate about Drake’s sexuality.  Boyd said he felt there was a virginal quality to his lyrics and music and he had never seen nor heard of the singer behaving in a sexual way with anyone, male or female. Kirby described his lyrics as a “series of extremely vivid, complete oservations, almost like a series of epigrammatic proverbs”, though he thinks its unlikely Drake saw himself as a poet, and that he crafted his words to “complement and compound a mood that the melody dictates in the first place.”  That´s the way Lennon used to write before he became almost exclusively journalistic, and probably my favourite Dylan song takes the same approach.

Some of my favourite lyrics are colours and textures; images, rather than stories or opinions. Even then, I sometimes don’t pay attention to the lyrics until the second or third time around. And with Fly, it’s a case of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. The lyrics are like the paint, and I don’t really care what paint the artist used, but I love the picture.

The album Bryter Layter was Drake’s big push for success. He had decided to quit college to concentrate fully on a career in music.

His father remembers writing him long letters at this time “pointing out the disadvantages of going away from Cambridge … a degree was a safety net, if you manage to get a degree, at least you have something to fall back on; his reply to that was that a safety net was the one thing he did not want.”

He spent the first few months living with his sister in her Kensington flat, until Boyd organised and paid for a bedsit in Belsize Park, Camden.

He recorded three songs for the BBC’s John Peel show at this time, and opened for Fairport Convention two months later at the prestigious Royal Festival Hall, followed by gigs at folk clubs in Birmingham and Hull.

Folk singer Michael Chapman commented of the appearance in Hull.

“The folkies did not take to him; [they] wanted songs with choruses. They completely missed the point. He didn’t say a word the entire evening. It was actually quite painful to watch. I don’t know what the audience expected, I mean, they must have known they weren’t going to get sea-shanties and sing-alongs at a Nick Drake gig!”

The reaction caused Drake to retreat from the stage, making only sporadic, poorly attended concerts. Because his songs were often in different tunings there were often pauses between songs, and the taciturn Drake rarely addressed the audience.

Various - 1968

Bryter Layter featured the production talents of Island Record’s Joe Boyd, the man who had discovered Fairport Convention and introduced John Martyn and The Incredible String Band to a wider audience.

Fairport Convention’s bass player Ashley Hutchings had seen Drake performing in Camden Town, supporting Country Joe and the Fish, and was impressed by both his guitar playing and “the image. He looked like a star. He looked wonderful, he seemed to be 7 ft.”

Fairport Convention

He introduced him to his producer Boyd, who bonded with Drake (who was studying English Literature) in Cambridge University.

“In those days you didn’t have cassettes—he brought a reel-to-reel tape [to me] that he’d done at home. Half way through the first song, I felt this was pretty special. And I called him up, and he came back in, and we talked, and I just said, “I’d like to make a record.” He stammered, “Oh, well, yeah. Okay.” Nick was a man of few words.”

As with the first album Robert Kirby, who he had also met in university, provided the minimal orchestral arrangements.

The record also features the viola and harpsichord of the Velvet Underground’s John Cale, half of the group Fairport Convention, and part-time Beach Boys, Mike Kowalski (who would replace Dennis Wilson as their full time drummer) & Ed Carter.

Fly just features Drake’s guitar along with Cale’s viola and harpsichord and Dave Pegg’s bass, and that’s all it needs. You can have a listen to Drake on his own playing it here. Without Cale and Pegg’s input it has a slightly more sombre feel, but it´s worth listening to to hear what it might have sounded like without accompaniment. It’s beautiful.

The album clocked in at  39 minutes 9 seconds, and it was  much more hopeful, lush and melodic sounding than his first offering. He put his heart out there. And he probably made compromises in the hope of achieving the success his talent warranted. It was eclectic. He tried different genres, even pop, jazz and blues, a move away from the pastoral sound of Five Leaves Left. He collaborated with musicians from various backgrounds, but in the end, success was not forthcoming. The album sold less than 3,000 copies and reviews were mixed.

The Record Mirror called Drake a “beautiful guitarist—clean and with perfect timing, [and] accompanied by soft, beautiful arrangements”, while Melody Maker described the album as “an awkward mix of folk and cocktail jazz”

Soon after the release, Boyd sold his Witchseason label to Island Records and moved to Los Angeles to work with Warner Brothers on movie soundtracks. With the loss of his mentor and poor sales, Drake retreated further into depression.

His attitude towards London had changed and he was now unhappy living on his own, and visibly nervous and uncomfortable performing. Folk singer Ralph McTell remembered of one of his last live appearances at Ewell Technical College that he “was monosyllabic. At that particular gig he was very shy. He did the first set and something awful must have happened. He was doing his song ‘Fruit Tree’ and walked off halfway through it. Just left the stage.”

Island Records was keen to promote Bryter Layer though press interviews, radio sessions and live gigs, but Drake was now isolating himself further. Kirby described him as smoking “unbelievable amounts” of marijuana and exhibiting “the first signs of psychosis”. His thoughts turned inward, and he would only play a gig to buy drugs. It’s possible that he may have tried heroin at this time, as Cale was definitely using while helping out on the album.

His sister, Gabrielle Drake, recalled it as “a very bad time… 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 an album by this time, Drake approached producer John Wood in October 1971 to record what would be his last album. The sessions took place over two nights with almost all of the accompaniment stripped away save for a piano overdub on the title track. The songs were short, the entire album of 11 songs lasts only 28 minutes, which Wood described as “just about right. You really wouldn’t want it to be any longer.” Small doses.

There are moments of great beauty, like the title track. Although he was retreating into himself, his musical prowess and expression were still as sharp as ever. He wasn’t happy with the brass, string and saxophone arrangements, the “too full, too elaborate” sound of Bryter Layter, and was determined to make, as Wood attests, “this very stark, bare record,” He wanted to be more honest sounding, and it “is probably more like Nick is than the other two records.”

“Nick Drake is an artist who never fakes. The album makes no concession to the theory that music should be escapist. It’s simply one musician’s view of life at the time, and you can’t ask for more than that.”

But for better or worse, escape he would…

The mood had returned to the sometimes bleak outlook of his first album, which had contained these prophetic lyrics.

Fame is but a fruit tree

So very unsound

It can never flourish

Till its stock is in the ground

Drake didn’t sell many records while he was alive. And Pink Moon sold the fewest yet. After the completion of  his last album, he withdrew from both live performance and recording, and retreated to his parents’ home in the Warwickshire countryside.

On their bidding, he decided to visit a psychiatrist who put him on a course of anti-depressant tablets. He was embarrassed about taking them and tried to hide the fact from friends. He was also concerned about how they would react to his heavy marijuana use.

During his last two years his family mostly took care of him. He didn’t like being at home, but couldn’t bear to be anywhere else. His sister Gabrielle said “good days in my parents’ home were good days for Nick, and bad days were bad days for Nick. And that was what their life revolved around, really.”

He received a £20-a-week retainer from Island Records, which was his only source of income.

He’d turn up unannounced at friends’ houses reticent and withdrawn. His friend Robert Kirby described a typical visit: “He would arrive and not talk, sit down, listen to music, have a smoke, have a drink, sleep there the night, and two or three days later he wasn’t there, he’d be gone. And three months later he’d be back.”

He would often take the family car and disappear for days, calling his parents to collect him once he ran out of petrol.

In 1972 he was hospitalised after suffering a nervous breakdown.

He died in 1974 at the age of 26, tragically, from an overdose of the anti-depressants he had been prescribed. It’s still not known whether it was accidental or suicide. No note was left. However a letter to his best friend, Sophia Ryde, a girl he was very close to, but with whom the relationship was never consummated, as was the case with his previous relationship with fellow folk musician Linda Thompson. Ryde had looked to end the relationship the last time they had met:

“I couldn’t cope with it. I asked him for some time. And I never saw him again.”

The coroner’s verdict was self-administered suicide, though Drake often took the anti-depressants to help him sleep as he tended to stay up late playing music.

His parents and many of his friends didn’t believe he had yet given up on life.

Earlier that same year he had contacted Wood again to begin work on a fourth album. Boyd attended the sessions and was shocked at his anger and bitterness:

“[He said that] I had told him he was a genius, and others had concurred. Why wasn’t he famous and rich? This rage must have festered beneath that inexpressive exterior for years.”

His performance had deteriorated, and unlike before, he now needed to overdub his voice separately over the guitar. However, the sessions raised Drake’s spirits and his mother said of the return to the studio that:

“We were so absolutely thrilled to think that Nick was happy because there hadn’t been any happiness in Nick’s life for years.”

After hearing of his death Boyd was of the opinion that the overdose was accidental. His parents had described his mood as being very positive in the preceding weeks, and Boyd believed that this levity was followed by a “crash back into despair”, which he reasoned cause Drake to take the higher dosage of antidepressants to recapture that sense of optimism, “making a desperate lunge for life rather than a calculated surrender to death”.

Meanwhile, his sister, Gabrielle, prefers to think of his death as 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.”

Nick Drake Fruit Tree

“Fame is but a fruit tree…”

For the next two decades his influence began to grow. A 1979 box set Fruit Tree caused his back catalogue to be reconsidered. By the late 80’s he was being cited as an influence by artists like Peter Buck of REM, Robert Smith of The Cure and David Sylian of Japan. By the early 90’s he represented the doomed romantic musician in UK music magazines, and musicians such as Kate Bush, Beck, Paul Weller and The Black Crowes were crediting him as an influence.

The release of the compilation album Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake in May 1994 was the first step of his reputation being converted into popularity. It was the first Nick Drake record I bought, although it doesn’t contain my favourite song Fly. It had sold 100,000 copies in the UK by 1999.

Nick Drake The Biography Humphries

Nick Drake, The Biography, by Patrick Humphries, was published in 1998

And a 40 minute documentary was shown on BBC the following year, A Stranger Among Us – In Search of Nick Drake. The Guardian placed Bryter Layter at number 1 in its Alternative Top 100 Albums Ever list. You can check out that documentary here. It’s great…

Probably the greatest boost to his popularity was the inclusion of his Pink Moon on an advertisment for the Volkswagen Cabrio. I’m not sure if that’s what he had in mind when he wrote it. From the Morning was then used on a AT&T commercial in 2010 in North America and then his song One of These Things First was featured on the soundtrack to Garden State, which won the grammy for Best Compilation Soundtrack. He’s now more popular than ever.

John Martyn Solid Air

His friend and Island Records label-mate John Martyn, the great Scottish singer-songerwriter, decribed Drake towards the end of  his life as the most withdrawn person he’d ever met . He wrote the song Solid Air for his 1973 album of the same name, and it’s a fitting epitaph for Nick.

“You’ve been getting too deep, you’ve been living on solid air

You’ve been missing your sleep, you’ve been moving through solid air

I don’t know what’s going on in your mind

But I know you don’t like what you find

When you’re moving through solid air

Here’s what Martyn had to say about the song

“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.”

I have an idea John…

“I know you, I love you

And I can be your friend, I can follow you anywhere

Even through solid air”

I didn’t mean to get so deep into his life story. It’s not the happiest, but it’s a story worth telling. If anyone feels like Nick Drake did in his life, there are always people to talk to, and if you’re as sensitive a soul as he was, then smoking that much marijuana probably won’t help you very much either. But I’m not here to judge or to preach. In the meantime, he’s left us his wonderful music to enjoy. For me, I have to listen to it in moderation. And this one will always be my favourite. One of the lighter ones. That’s all for today…

Nick Drake

17 thoughts on “Song of the Week 41: Fly – Nick Drake

  1. That was an interesting post. I don’t know anything about Nick Drake, but I couldn’t help but wonder, as I read it, if maybe he didn’t have some autistic tendancies (?), or some illness along that spectrum, aside from the depression and drug use… just a thought. 🙂

    1. Thanks, yep, it´s possible. I thought about that too. He was definitely painfully shy in any case. There´s also a thing called cannabis psychosis, where a tendency towards schizophrenia can be triggered early in a person where it was lying dormant. I´m not a doctor either though!

  2. I was wondering where ya been! Excellent post on Nick Drake and this song! I like and agree with what you say about just experiencing “the magic swirling ship” although you know I tend to get to interested in the “meaning” of songs. I know that can diminish them. I’ve been listening to Nick Drake since about 1978 and was thrilled when he eventually became much more known. I have also found it difficult to listen to him very regularly although I have done that a few times, but his music can be depressive. For that reason I can remember listening to him on dismal winter days! I like the way you ended the post with your words of encouragement which is very thoughtful and wise of you! I am going to post this on facebook since I have at least one friend who will see it and appreciate it. Thanks for an excellent post. I learned some things I hadn’t known before and will undoubtedly pay more attention to “fly” now.

    1. Hi Bryan, thanks. Yep, I haven´t had many free evenings lately, and was a bit tired a couple of times when I sat down to write it. Losing the previous attempt didn´t help much, as it took a while to muster up the enthusiasm again. Sorry, I haven´t replied to your other post, but I reckon we´re not going to shift from our respective positions on that issue, so let´s just agree to disagree. 🙂 Yep, I´m a big fan of words too, but sometimes the best words don´t draw attention to themselves. You can always come back to them later, and if the lyrics suck, I generally don´t pay much attention to the music. Dylan is an exception when it comes to paying attention to the music though. He´s so clever with wordplay, and always has something worthwhile to say, so you can´t really avoid listening to his lyrics. Still Blood on the Tracks has some great combinations of music and lyric. Simple Twist of Fate for example. Same with Cohen, but he´s as close to poetry as it gets, his lyrics grab you by the scruff of your neck and call your attention. And as for Lennon. Words can do this: Imagine… Thanks for dropping by again!

      1. I might rather say let’s just agree to co-exist and continue to share things that edify. By the way I watched the full Nick Drake Documentary the other night and the whole 7 part one on the Byrds to the Eagles that you had linked to on your post on Mr. Tambourine Man. I also really enjoy your writing and thoughts about music. Thanks much since I didn’t know these existed! Nice to co=exist with you Padraig!

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