Nick Drake: The life
Hachette, $34.99 pb, 576 pp
Nick Drake’s ‘Fruit Tree’, one of his best-known songs, addresses the idea that even if an artist is ignored in their lifetime, their legacy can be secured, and their work imortalised, with an early death. The song, as we learn from Richard Morton Jack’s exhaustive biography of the English singer-songwriter, was partly inspired by the precocious English boy poet Thomas Chatterton, who committed suicide at the age of seventeen, in 1770.
Drake did not have himself in mind when writing the song (it was among his earliest compositions), yet its foreshadowing of his own life, death, and impact have given heightened resonance to the track since his death at the age of twenty-six in 1974. Drake died in relative obscurity after creating three exquisite albums of baroque folk-pop, amid the colourful milieu that was the English folk revival of the late 1960s and early 1970s. A mainstream re-appraisal of his music gathered momentum in the 1990s; interest in him intensified with the arrival of the internet; and now it is fair to describe him as a major name in music.
A biography as thorough, sensitive, and sober as Nick Drake: The life is therefore overdue. Other notable books to tell Drake’s story include those by Patrick Humphries and Trevor Dann, but these were limited in various ways. For one, they did not have the approval of Drake’s sister, the actor Gabrielle Drake. She allowed Morton Jack free rein here, giving him access to family records, diaries, photos, letters, and other documents, most of which have not been published before. Her brother’s childhood diary entries, and letters to Drake from his father, are particularly illuminating (and moving) among this trove. The result is that this is undoubtedly the definitive chronicle of Drake’s life, and likely to be the final word on an artist who has been the subject of fervent speculation and intrigue.