Nick Drake knew relatively little success during his life and died tragically early, a combination that probably destines him to be remembered as a tragically misunderstood genius, but it was the playfulness of much of his work that first drew me to him. True, that playfulness came to be increasingly tinged with regret, but it remained with him almost till the end. Today I feel that playfulness most in One of These Things First from his Bryter Layter album. Each verse contains a list of people and things the singer could have been (“simple as a kettle, steady as a rock” for instance), and then goes on: “I could be / Here and now / I would be, I should be / But how? I could have been one of these things first …”
The insight that things (including oneself) could have been different is sometimes liberating, but it can also be crushing, as in the aching Fly, in which John Cale’s viola accompanies Drake while he plays a repeated descending guitar line and sings a haunting refrain that starts on a high note that is just within his vocal range. It is a plea for a second chance: “Please give me second grace / Please give me a second face / I’ve fallen far down / The first time around / Now I just sit on the ground in your way …” But it ends on a note of resignation, admitting that “it’s just too hard for to fly.”
Most of the songs on its follow-up Pink Moon, the last album he completed, seem to share this resignation, as in the wonderful Road, in which the lines: “You can take the road that takes you to the stars now / I can take a road that’ll see me through …” are repeated against a background of stark, unadorned guitar. And yet that album ends on a more open-ended note with a song called From the Morning, which describes a day that “once dawned / From the ground.” It goes on: “And now we rise / And we are everywhere / And now we rise from the ground / And see she flies / And she is everywhere / See she flies all around / So look see the sights / The endless summer nights / And go play the game that you learned from the morning.”
Barbara liked the first two lines of this verse so much that she incorporated them into Everywhere, one of her lyrics recorded for our Look For Me album, which was to be dedicated to Drake. The last verse went: “A crow-eyed dog, an old guitar / A song of blue that haunts the sky / And on the wind an almost prayer / Now we rise, and we are everywhere …”
In the end things turned out differently. Wisely or not, we wrote to the company that publishes Drake’s songs and told them we wanted to write a tribute to him using some of his words. They heard the song and wrote back that we could do it provided they owned the rights to it. We didn’t like that idea, so we changed the words, which now go: “We close our eyes, and we are everywhere.”
Most people will probably never find Drake in the song as it stands, although that crow-eyed dog might provide a clue. But there is an open-ended quality to that song that evokes his presence in my mind: partly it is in the lyrics, partly because it is impossible to say whether it is in a major or minor key right up to its last chord. Drake loved such indeterminate chords, just as he loved and always came back to the mixed feelings that are expressed in them.