25th, 1974, singer-songwriter Nick Drake was discovered dead in
his bedroom at his parents' home in England. He was just 26 years
old. The coroner recorded a verdict of suicide by overdose, but
to this day that conclusion is still questioned by those who believe
the overdose was in fact an accident.
Drake's musical career was at the time fairly unspectacular. His
style wasn't commercially popular, so notwithstanding its obvious
quality, the three albums that were released while Drake was alive
were not given the kind of commercial attention they should have
perhaps enjoyed. At the time of his death Nick Drake was in a state
of near isolation, depressed and embittered by his lack of success.
Of course this tragic story is made yet more sad by the fact that
years after his death there is now much interest in this ill-fated
artist. His music has been featured in films and commercials around
the world. With five posthumous albums to his name, Drake is now
credited as one of his era's most accomplished talents and regarded
by many as one of the most influential figures in modern music.
As I listen to the lyrics of some of Drake's songs, I am left
wondering how many other similar stories are unfolding out there
beyond our view? How many other truly gifted artists are being
overlooked by the huge money making machine that is the music industry?
The fact that I can no longer sit and watch MTV or listen to BBC
Radio One for any prolonged period of time could be considered
a sign of the fact that my years have moved beyond the target audience
of those stations. But I would still contend that the music industry
has become so focused on short term payoffs, that it seems
no longer willing to nurture talented artists who don't have an
immediately apparent commercial appeal.
This style of musical investment has led to the proliferation
of what I call 'McMusic': bands and performers who reach media
saturation within a staggeringly short period of time, before quickly
last year." The relative speed at which names like Ricky
Martin and Christina Aguilera reach the height of their fame is
The media loves them, the buying public adore them, but their relationship
is often superficial and short-lived.
Eventually, if the buying public hasn't already moved on to the
next helping of prepackaged and processed McMusic, the performer
simply burns out under pressure from their record company to constantly
stay in the public eye and therefore not become a forgotten quantity
in an increasingly fickle and notoriously cutthroat business.
In my opinion acts like Eminem and Beyonce are just that, acts
as opposed to artists. I'm not saying that they don't have their
place, but I can't see their star outshining their own existence
in the same way it has for Drake. They will however become fabulously
wealthy and briefly quench the media's thirst for gossip and sensational
stories. Their images will endorse a soft drink or two and their
faces will adorn the covers of magazines drenched in ads preparing
us for what will quickly become yesterday's news.
It is perhaps telling of our corporate and brand driven culture
that I came across the music of Nick Drake not by searching through
back catalogs and dusty record stores but after hearing it featured
on a TV commercial for the VW Jetta. It was only this year when
I learned that Drake has been dead for nearly twenty years
and that the young voice in that song would in fact today be
approaching 50 years old.
On his 1969 release Five Leaves Left, Drake sings the
hauntingly somber "Fruit Tree". Its lyrics tell a melancholy truth. "Fame
is but a fruit tree, So very unsound. It can never flourish, Till
its stalk is in the ground. So men of fame, Can never find a way,
Till time has flown, Far from their dying day."
His chosen title of that album was also chillingly prophetic.
'Five leaves left' was the marking on the inside of a pack of cigarette
papers indicating that only five more remained. Five years after
the release of that record Drake was to take the overdose that
claimed his life.
To further quote the song "Fruit Tree" Drake wrote "Safe
in your place deep in the earth, That's when they'll know what
you were really worth. Forgotten while you're here, Remembered
for a while, A much updated ruin, From a much outdated style."
A singular talent who passed almost unnoticed during his brief
lifetime, Nick Drake finally had his first ever UK top forty success
earlier this year with the single "Made To Love Magic".
Nearly twenty years after his death, Island Records this month
released a second Nick Drake single and a CD of
his now digitally remastered work a much updated ruin,
from a much outdated style.