I could have heard one of these songs first

Dear Stuart Maconie,

Thank you.

I’d heard about Nick Drake before, but to be honest I wouldn’t have been able to tell him and Neil Young apart. I mean, I’d never heard any of his music, but I’d heard a bit of Young; their names are sort of similar in shape and middle-England normalness; and I happen to know the harvest moon is the orangey-pink moon of late summer: it’s my moon fact.

Such ignorance, seasoned with a little irrelevant trivia, is fertile ground for such confusion, and as slightly quiet picky-picky guitars were hinted at by friends then I didn’t think it was worth spending my time working out which was which. In some ways I’m not at all musically conservative—Queen, Aberfeldy, Busdriver, Fleetwood Mac, Leftfield, Clinic and Joeyfat all happily sit side by side on my shelves—but I still have some prejudices that one day I may have time to deal with: fiddly folk; most reggae; all R&B. At the time when people I knew were mentioning Nick I was busy throwing off the shackles of my easy-listening youth and comparing everything to Therapy?: I probably don’t need to explain any further.

Recently, you and Mark Radcliffe discussed Nick on your show, in the context of the compilation his family have just released. At that point his story, and the few snatches of his music that you played, flicked a switch inside me. I can’t explain any better than that: it was just the right time, place and setting for me to hear.

You mentioned in the show that you’d done a special programme about Nick: I was too late to listen to that—much of my aural life is conducted through Listen Again so I’m always catching up—but friends lent me the Way to Blue compilation and a ropey bootleg. I devoured the compilation, and realised you were right about the quality of the bootlegs that float around, and that Nick’s family were right to finally release it all properly. So the next time I was in town I bought Bryter Layter, and ordered Five Leaves Left, without any hesitation. The paths of this music are where I was meant to walk, if only passing through.

Part of me is indignant: how could everyone have kept this from me, I wondered: how dare they? Then I remembered how I’ve always rolled my eyes at folk, and that Nick is considered very much folk. Why, in fact, would anyone bother to tell me? Anyway, I shouldn’t be angry. I can enjoy it now, and whereas my student self might have picked it up and discarded it, a later discovery means that I can enjoy it with more depth, maybe, perversely, for longer. It’s not as though I’ve missed any; it’s not as though it will take me long to catch up; because—so sad that it’s impossible to say how sad—it’s not as though Nick’s making any more.

Ever feel like you’ve turned up late to a party? You talk to a few people and it turns out that the person you would have wanted to speak to has already left, and isn’t coming back, and now you’ll never get the chance to see him. You didn’t know he was even going to be there, or you’d have tried to turn up on time. But there’s a stack of wine that he left on the table, there to drink for anyone who wants it; almost as though he knew you’d be coming along, some time layter.

Thanks again, Stuart. And thanks, Nick.

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4 Responses to I could have heard one of these songs first

  1. Tez Burke says:

    Nick was a class act all right, but I wonder if he’d have become such a cult figure among a certain type of indie kid had he not died young and left a beautiful corpse (see also Buckley fils, and to a lesser extent, Buckley père). I don’t see too many of them buying, say, John Martyn’s albums from the same era, which are similar in style and which I prefer (indeed, Solid Air was dedicated to Nick, who was a friend of JM’s).

  2. Keith Willoughby says:

    The Radcliffe and Maconie show has turned out to be excellent. There’s some fantastic music being played on there, and it’s nice to have DJs that genuinely love the music they play.

  3. sbalb says:

    I was going to write an acerbic reply to this, but then I re-read it at home and found what you’d said more considered than I did at work. I hate it when that happens.

    You’re right, of course. Robert Kirby (who arranged much of Nick’s music) said that Nick became the patron saint of the depressed. I think he argues that, if people had shared Nick more, he would have had the success he craved: given that the cult has mostly grown up around him since his death then that’s questionable. It was the structure of the industry rather than fans who squandered him.

    I can’t comment on the purity of my admiration of Nick, and its freedom from the taint of celebrity, either way. I’ve not bought the NME in anger for years and so haven’t had the practice in that particular branch of rhetorics during that time. For what it’s worth I present the chronology of my past few weeks’ musical interest: I heard Fruit Tree and a couple of tracks off Family Tree on the radio, noting offhandedly that Nick had died youngish; I listened to Way to Blue and devoured it; I then borrowed that compilation, and while listening it learnt from the sleeve notes about the manner of his death; I’ve since read more about it on the web. And yes, it’s heartrending to read about such a pointless loss; but the music came first.

    I just love his angular, draped phrase, hung off the struts of his guitar like beautiful rich fabrics off a washing-line, with a Billie Holliday rhythm that you can never quite predict. I love his pronunciation of “rock”: it’s bitten off and backal in a way that I’ve never heard before. I can’t get enough and it makes me want to find my guitar capo, which nothing else has managed for perhaps eight years.

  4. sbalb says:

    I did wonder whether it would work as a pairing: they’re both rather curmudgeonly and can be quite defensive about music which they consider to be in their territory. But it’s worked out terribly well. Either of them on their own seem comparatively a bit flat doing that slot now, which suggests they’ve really started sparking off each other.

    I’d like to say that we’ve abandoned the “idiot lantern” (actually, we call it the glass teat) in favour of their show of an evening, but we don’t actually have an idiot lantern in the house. I don’t know what we used to do before R&M, though.

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