Late for Nowhere

From life in Southeast Asia to backyard adventures in Kodiak, Alaska

Nick Drake, lost son of Rangoon

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Central Women’s Hospital (Yangon), formerly Dufferin Hospital, birthplace of Nick Drake.

On June 19, 1948, five months after Myanmar gained its hard-won independence from Britain, another noteworthy incident occurred in Yangon, this one escaping the world’s notice at the time but destined years later to have a significant, if underrated, impact on a field far removed from global politics.

The event in question was the birth of Nicholas Rodney Drake at Dufferin Hospital, now the Central Women’s Hospital (Yangon) on Min Ye Kyaw Swar Street in Lanmadaw Township.

Nicholas’ parents Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation employee Rodney Drake, and Mary Lloyd, the daughter of a senior member of the Indian Civil Service – had met in Burma in 1934 and married in 1937.

In 1950 the family moved from Rangoon to Bombay, and the following year they returned to England and settled in a country house in the village of Tanworth-in-Arden in west Warwickshire.

The boy born in Rangoon would grow up to become Nick Drake, a singer-songwriter who released three albums of melancholic, guitar-based music from 1969 to 1972.

His short career ended in 1974, at the age of 26, when he died from an overdose of a prescribed antidepressant. Whether the overdose was intentional or accidental has been a point of debate in the years since.

Nick Drake – who would have been 65 years old this week – was never a popular musician during his lifetime, and his albums Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972) each sold fewer than 5000 copies when initially released.

Part of the blame for this lack of success lay with the musician himself: Suffering from depression and tending toward extreme introversion, he usually refused to perform live or give interviews.

In the years after his death, Drake’s music was forgotten by nearly everyone except a small group of hardcore fans. But in the 1980s some notable musicians began citing him as a major influence, including REM’s Peter Buck and The Cure’s Robert Smith. The Dream Academy also dedicated their hit song “Life in a Northern Town” (1985) to Drake.

His influence continued to grow, if at a glacial pace, through the 1990s. The decade saw the release of a series of documentaries about his life, including Lost Boy: In Search of Nick Drake, narrated by Brad Pitt, who confessed to being a fan of the musician.

Drake’s big posthumous breakthrough finally occurred in 1999 when The Guardian newspaper named Bryter Layter the best alternative album of all time, but more visibly when his song “Pink Moon” was used in a popular Volkswagen Cabrio television commercial.

While some long-time fans were disturbed by the use of Drake’s music to sell cars, the advertisement brought his songs to a whole new generation of listeners, and resulted in a massive increase in sales: More Drake records were sold within 30 days of the ad’s appearance than in the 30 years following the release of his debut album Five Leaves Left (1969).

Other important musicians began citing Drake as an influence including Lucinda Williams, Badly Drawn Boy, Lou Barlow, Kate Bush, Paul Weller and The Black Crowes — and more companies, such as US telecom giant AT&T, based television advertisements around his songs.

Drake’s late-blooming popularity is well deserved. Many musicians claim that their music “comes from the heart”, but few demonstrate an uncompromising willingness to delve deep inside their troubled psyches, and then share with the world the thorny truths they find within.

Drake clearly had no qualms about taking this approach. His lyrics reflect his lifelong battle with depression, as well as his love of inward-looking poets like William Blake and William Butler Yeats who were not afraid to cast themselves adrift in the turbulent seas of emotional ambiguity.

Musically, Drake’s songs have an organic, authentic feel, the antithesis of K-pop boy bands and other pseudo-musicians who have been artificially manufactured by producers with the primary aim not so much to entertain as to make money.

Five Leaves Left and Bryter Layter are characterized by austere instrumentation, including minimalist string, brass and saxophone arrangements, while Pink Moon is even starker: just a man and his guitar carving out a quiet corner amid the cacophony of the world.

The sound of this last album is pure Drake, joyfully somber, a soundtrack for the sweet agony of dark, fathomless nights. The songs seem mysterious at first, and only become increasingly enigmatic with subsequent listens.

Herein lies the real appeal of Drake’s music. While many new albums wear out their welcome after 10, or five, or even fewer listens, the 31 songs that make up these three albums still, four decades on, pack a beautiful and terrifyingly transcendent punch.

Written by latefornowhere

June 19, 2013 at 2:21 am

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