Nick Drake's Almostness

Artwork by Christina O'Brien

As I attempt to forge a sense of finality with my time as an undergraduate at Cambridge, my mind wanders back to my arrival. Nick Drake’s second album Bryter Layter (1971) will always remind me of those first few weeks: I had recently discovered Drake as an artist, and the soothing backdrop of his voice and guitar were a welcome antidote to an unbelievably hectic first term at university. I was discussing my newly-found admiration with my mum one day, when she mentioned that my dad’s brother, who died in his mid-twenties, had also been a Nick Drake fan. The life and death of my uncle are not topics that we discuss often as a family. My dad is a man of few words at the best of times, and I would guess that such profound loss only intensifies the impotency of any language. Yet, for whatever reason, this passing comment stuck with me. It’s difficult to articulate why, but the knowledge of shared admiration with Paul—my uncle—has provided me not only with a hazy sense of intimacy with him, but a focal point for day-dreaming. The equally elusive figure of ‘Nick Drake’ has become a substitute for my uncle in my subconscious.

I’m not sure if you can really be reminded of someone you have never met, but Drake’s voice has become intertwined with the voice of someone permanently in my peripheral version—someone I can’t quite grasp, but feel the presence of. I realise that by letting these two figures overlap, I have blurred the boundaries of fiction and reality in a rather childlike manner; I have let make-believe seep into the everyday. Yet, while I am aware of my self-propagated illusion, I am still somewhat comforted, even excited, by its existence, feeling it bring me impossibly closer to a shadowy figure.

There are two reasons, I suppose, why I’ve let this fiction persist. For a start, so much of Drake’s music explores thresholds of familiarity. Very little is known about him personally: he refrained from giving interviews while he was alive, and actually received little commercial success before his death. However, listening to Drake’s music provides a strange, but undeniable, sense of knowing. In the brief space of three albums, he managed to cultivate a tuning so distinctive that it is referred to by guitar players as the ‘Nick Drake tuning’. (For those interested, it’s CGCFCE). There’s nothing particularly radical about using alternative tunings—in folk-inspired music, it’s relatively common. Yet, to have carved a musical style so deeply into what is actually just a combination of four notes is, I think, a stroke of genius. To me, Nick Drake sounds like coming home, even when you’re not quite sure where home is.

His lyrics toy with the prospect of certainty. In ‘One of These Things First’, Drake proposes myriad versions of himself that he ‘could’ have been; a sailor, a lover, a cook. Echoing the children’s song, ‘tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor’, he leans into archetypes, gesturing towards potential experience just as he allows one idea to dissolve into the next. As the song continues, the ‘things’ he could have been become just that—things. Evoking solidity in the everyday ‘kettle’ or ‘clock’, he persistently renders himself more and more abstract. The same happens when I try to imagine my uncle. There’s a surplus of ‘could have beens’, plenty of moulds into which I might attempt to squeeze him, but each lacks certainty and just as easily slips away. Even Drake’s death is characterized by a sense of ‘almostness’. Dying at 26, his age denies him entry to the infamous ‘27 Club’, the collection of artists who died at 27 (including Amy Winehouse, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain.) This might feel like a macabre or tasteless thing to point out, but I think it encapsulates the essence of his music; the notion of a life that was never quite allowed to be in bloom.

The second reason why I have attempted to substantiate this strange subconscious activity is my unfaltering belief in the power of music to create emotional intimacy. Music has been, and will continue to be, a force for unity in my family, as I’m sure it is for many. I definitely believe that the shared affects produced by music have cemented links that might not otherwise be there at all. My dad and I don’t necessarily laugh at the same jokes or read the same books, but our mutual recognition of music’s capacity to inspire feeling has established a base layer of understanding between us.

My dad is not keen to divulge information about his brother or relay stories of childhood. Perhaps bearing a loss so great is sometimes lightened through a shedding of the past. In fact, I haven’t told him I am writing this piece—and he will probably never read it. Yet, while I don’t want to encroach upon his memories, I think this is my attempt to forge a sense of knowing and understanding of my own. The knowledge of a shared appreciation between myself and my would-be-uncle has provided me with an idea of the man he might have been, finding intimacy in the way in which we have both found—and I continue to find—solace in the musical embrace of Nick Drake.