by David Schwittek
Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake
I don’t usually recommend compilations or retrospectives. At best they contain some stilted agenda, and are difficult to follow; at worst, no agenda at all: a musical hodgepodge where the only organizing principle is decade, or theme, or…I guess units shifted? Case in point, like some artless mix-tapes made by an anonymous, Orwellian machine, the Now That’s What I Call Music series of compilations is up to a bananas 49. 49! How is that fucking possible?
That said, in regards to sixties and seventies British singer-songwriter Nick Drake, there are actual albums out there in the wild, meticulously curated by the musician himself. Here they are, in order of release: Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970), and Pink Moon (1972). The end.
Therefore, you will forgive me if, rather than chose any one of these sort of aight albums, I opt for a round-up of his most amazing, heartfelt, and lustful creations in Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake – the only thing with Nick Drake’s name on it that ever went gold, selling over 100,000 copies by 1999 (long after his death in 1974). I’m proud to say that I was one of those 100,000 purchases: I was turned onto Drake as a freshman in college, after I was given a mixtape by an upperclassmen in 1996. That year I went abruptly to the record shop in town and bought Way to Blue.
It would be my hope that you were turned onto Nick Drake in a similar manner. More than likely, however, you’ve heard of Nick Drake because corporate America decided he was not only digestible, but highly marketable. Consider this self-satisfied Volkswagen commercial ( ← Nazi sympathizers ):
Or this overreaching AT&T commercial ( ← right wing lobbyists )
Or, fuck me, this clip from Serendipity ( ← chick flick, natch…):
These insipid exploitations of his creative brilliance never occurred in Drake’s lifetime, though I’m sure he would have welcomed the royalties. They likewise would not have occurred in your lifetime had it not been for Way to Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake, the unfortunate byproduct of which is Nick Drake’s utter devourment by the millennial Cronus that is the film, television, and music industrial complex. His elegant songs presaged the singer-songwriter movement of the seventies, the mope rock of the eighties, and the mellowed-out folk revival of the nineties and two thousands. Now these songs appear on more ipods and playlists than Drake would have ever thought possible. (To wit: I’ve heard him played in The Gap)
Consider that, during this man’s sad life, he saw each subsequent album release sell less units than the previous. He died poor, and it would be almost two decades before music execs, Volkswagen, AT&T and others sods would get rich off of him.
Yet, consider Cello Song, possibly Drake’s most famous track, second only to Pink Moon:So forget this cruel world Where I belong I’ll just sit and wait And sing my song And if one day you should see me in the crowd Lend a hand and lift me To your place in the cloud
The efficient Nick Drake delivery mechanism that is Way To Blue is reason enough to recommend it to the doomed. But lest I neglect the quality of these songs, and the man who created them, I should also mention that this collection is a wonderfully beautiful cautionary tale about life’s brevity, its preciousness, its fragility. An important album, Way to Blue represents the pinnacle of one man’s brilliant career, cut short by illness and poverty, much like the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam. Unlike the majority of retrospective compilations, Way To Blue’s talmudic approach to Drake’s repertoire, and its essential curation, could position in on just about every kind of top ten list imaginable.
My hope is that the listener would wonder, as do I, whether there were other Nick Drake’s out there, lost in the brume of post-sixties ennui. What precisely were the machinations that prevented us from hearing these talented young musicians? What can I do to prevent such loss in the future. How might I preempt the subduction of my own creative output into a crevasse of obscurity and regret? And so on…
Regarding his own future, Drake was as stoic as he was prescient. Consider River Man:Gonna to see the river man Gonna to tell him all I can About the ban On feeling free If he tells me all he knows About the way his river flows I don’t suppose It’s meant for me
Would it were that all of us could be so poetic in the face of our own failure. This is, perhaps, the most valuable lesson to be found in Way To Blue: An Introduction to Nick Drake.