On November 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 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 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, before quickly becoming "so last year." The relative speed at which names like Ricky Martin and Christina Aguilera reach the height of their fame is dizzying. 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 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 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.