I want to complicate the Nick Drake story
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It’s 40 years since Nick Drake died, aged 26. His music brought posthumous fame and a legion of fans still keen to speculate about the details of his life and work. Now his sister, Gabrielle, has written a revealing book about the singer-songwriter.
One evening in the late 1960s, Gabrielle Drake was walking down Haymarket in London with her younger brother, Nick. She was taking him for a birthday treat to see Topol in Fiddler on the Roof. “I’ll never forget that moment. It was about 6pm. He had the most wonderful figure – broad shoulders and a small bottom, nice waist. He was wearing a beautiful tweed jacket, which had a slightly high waistband and he looked so beautiful. I was so proud to be with him.”
Across the decades, that image of those glamorous strolling siblings remains poignant. It was late in the summer of love, 1967: Nick had just returned from Aix-en-Provence where he had been spending a gap year between Marlborough College and Cambridge University playing and singing in bars.
It was before everything happened: before Gabrielle became a celebrated actor, perhaps best known for her TV roles in The Brothers, UFO and Crossroads; before Nick recorded the three romantic, desolate albums that brought him only posthumous fame. It was before the years of Nick’s struggle with depression, which ended on the morning of 25 November 1974, when Molly and Rodney Drake found their 26-year-old son dead after overdosing on antidepressants in his room at their home, Far Leys, in Tanworth-in-Arden, Warwickshire.
It was before Nick became fetishised, the depressives’ pin-up, a posthumous industry. Today, Gabrielle is the guardian of the flame. Rodney died in 1988, Molly five years later. Now it falls to Gabrielle to tend her brother’s grave under the beech tree in the churchyard of St Mary Magdalene in Tanworth. “We’ve just had the gravestone removed because it’s been rather badly defaced one way and another with people chipping away at it.”
I tell Gabrielle that I once interviewed Oscar Wilde’s grandson, who was pleading with admirers not to cover his grandfather’s tomb in Père Lachaise, Paris, with lipstick kisses because it was damaging the stone. She smiles: “Somebody once said they saw someone taking a piece away from Nick’s grave and being thrilled. This person who said they saw that, said they tore them off a strip.”
Sometimes dead artists need to be protected from their admirers.
We’re meeting because Gabrielle is publicising a new book, Nick Drake: Remembered for a While. It’s a sumptuous coffee-table volume comprising family photographs, musical analysis of his songs, essays by Gabrielle about her family’s history in colonial Burma, where Nick was born in 1948, and tributes from friends and kindred spirits (“When the world seemed too remote, too difficult to negotiate,” writes gardening writer and broadcaster Monty Don, “I recognised in him a spirit brave and brilliant enough to articulate in music what was an incoherent fog within me”).
It’s a beautiful book, certainly, but hard to read because it includes so much hitherto private pain – not just family letters, but Rodney’s diary of his son’s struggle with depression. “The worst day of our lives …” it concludes. “So ends in tragedy our three-year struggle.”
Didn’t she have compunctions about publishing this intimate material? “I always vowed I’d never write a book about Nick and I would hate to have been seen as jumping on any kind of bandwagon,” says Gabrielle. “I did have compunctions until various publications and articles appeared that have got the story so wrong that I felt that before I pop my clogs I had better get the story straight.”
Gabrielle was distressed, for instance, that she was quoted in one report saying her brother died a virgin. “I never said any such thing because I don’t know! I have no idea. And I don’t mind what he was.” Her brother’s romantic life, like much else to do with Nick Drake, remains an enigma and a prompt for speculation.
But Gabrielle says she wanted to do more than set the record straight. “I also wanted to slightly complicate rather than clarify the Nick situation because it’s so easy to come up with trite answers – that he came from a stuffy, upper-middle-class background, nobody understood him. That kind of thing. Well, everybody did understand him and still it happened. It doesn’t matter how much you love someone, you can’t ultimately take the responsibility for them. You can do everything in your power but you might still fail.”
That’s what makes the book unbearable. For all the parental fondness evident in the letters to their son (one letter from Rodney to Nick when the latter was chucking in Cambridge to pursue music, you suspect, is all that a child could have wanted from a parent in such circumstances – loving and supportive, despite disagreeing with his decision) and for all that Far Leys was a place of refuge for their son in his depression years that led to his death, they could not save him.
“Far Leys was not only a refuge – it was a prison too,” says Gabrielle. “My father knew this and Nick said it too – that Nick found his home a prison. As well as the only place he could be.” The diaries chronicle the years of Nick’s depression at Far Leys, often uncommunicative, often disappearing without saying a word. “He led them a merry dance!” says Gabrielle. “But they never hung on to him at home. They couldn’t – they had to respect that he was a grown man. He was quite an impediment to their lives too while he was at home, though.”
In the early 1970s, Gabrielle would visit Far Leys in between recording The Brothers at Pebble Mill studios and painfully witness her evidently tortured brother. “Mostly Nick was uncommunicative and occasionally he’d become talkative and you hung on his every word even though, very often, one didn’t know what they meant because he’d talk in riddles. One wanted so much to do something to help, but just didn’t know what to do.”
Does she think Rodney and Molly would mind her publishing their letters and diaries? “If they’re up there looking down, I hope they’re not too cross.”
The remaining years of Molly and Rodney’s lives were dominated by their son’s death, she says: “They talked, I know, to parents in similar situations, trying to help them.” Viewed thus, the book is a continuation of their work. “I thought that it might just be of use to people going through similar problems. My brother once said to my mother, ‘If only I could feel that my music had helped anyone at all …’ and I just wish he would have known how many people have said to us over the years how his music had helped them.”
Gabrielle also discloses that her mother struggled with depression when she was young. Molly and Rodney had met in Rangoon before the war. He was an engineer with the Bombay Burmah Trading Corporation, she the daughter of an officer in the Indian civil service. “Shortly after they were married, she had pneumonia and went through a depressive illness. But my father was a great stay and support. I think he helped her through it.”
Later, that was what Rodney tried to do for Nick.