Singer sought silence
By Stephen Taylor / Daily Yomiuri Staff Writer
Darker Than the Deepest Sea:
The Search for Nick Drake
By Trevor Dann
Da Capo Press, 288 pp, 16.95 dollars
Nick Drake recorded only 31 songs in his short
life, but since his death 32 years ago he has gained almost legendary status in
the world of rock music.
In Darker than the Deepest Sea: The Search for
Nick Drake, Trevor Dann, former Head of BBC Music Entertainment and producer of
Live Aid, takes the reader through the life and death of the singer-songwriter
in a biography that will appeal not only to diehard fans of the enigmatic
Englishman but also to anyone with an interest in the human story behind
Drake's melancholic state of mind.
Drake's story is not a tale of working-class hero
makes good. Born into an affluent, British colonial household in Rangoon (now
Yangon), he grew up in a village near England's second biggest city,
Birmingham, that Dann describes as having "a landscape for dreamers and
Educated at the prestigious Marlborough College,
followed by Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, Drake was a classic product of the
English upper middle class.
Dann guides the reader through Drake's life and
music in a manner that sustains your attention, making the book accessible yet
thoughtful. He avoids the temptation to get too analytical, but does not gloss
over important details.
His chapters on Drake's music are very well
written, particularly on his debut album, Five Leaves Left. Dann's interviews
with people involved in the recording of the record, both in London and
Cambridge (where he was still a student), provide the reader with an insight
into the moneyed social scene that Drake frequented, as well as the burgeoning
English folk scene at a time when Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull were just
Dann's descriptions of the songs on Drake's albums
and the stories behind their inception are so evocative that I was inspired to
rummage around for my old copy of Five Leaves Left, while anyone without a copy
will surely be tempted to find out what they've been missing.
A lot of space is devoted to Drake's mental
condition. Dann suggests that heavy cannabis use contributed to his poor mental
health, backing up his claim with a quote from a British Medical Journal
editorial in 2002 that "the link between cannabis and psychosis was 'well
There has been much speculation over whether Nick
Drake's death from an overdose of antidepressant drugs was suicide, a cry for
help or an accident.
Any premature death is tragic, but suicide is
particularly difficult for a family to bear, and Dann relates the circumstances
of the night of Drake's death in fine detail and with sensitivity.
He tells us the last record he listened to was
Bach's Brandenburg Concertos, but doesn't forget smaller points, such as
"at about six in the morning he got up and went to the kitchen where he
ate a bowl of cornflakes in cold milk."
He also tells of a letter addressed to an old
female friend and a book full of the hand-written lyrics of all his songs that
were found in his room.
Based on his early lyrics, the "live fast,
die young" attitude of rock music at that time and romantic notions of
early death, Dann concludes that Drake committed suicide, comparing him to an
earlier man of words and describing Drake as: "A latter-day Thomas
Chatterton, England's first romantic poet, who took his own life in 1770, aged
just 17. Like Chatterton, Nick couldn't cope with failure.
"If it hadn't have happened on November 25,
1974, it would probably have happened soon afterwards."
Based on the evidence put forth, I would have to agree. Drake's history of
mental illness and the letter written to a loved one the night before his death
both suggest suicidal behavior. And according to Dann's book, Drake reportedly
had tried to hang himself at home the previous year.
Dann speculates that if Drake were starting out
today, "He would probably have made his music on his own and e-mailed it
to a record company or even distributed it himself via the Internet. That sense
of mystery would have appealed to him."
Mystery is an apt word when talking about Drake. In Darker than the Deepest
Sea, Dann successfully tackles a good deal of the conundrums that peppered the
life of one of rock music's great enigmas.