If he’d lived another six months, Nick Drake would have joined the ‘27 Club’, the sad elite of popular musicians who died at twenty-seven, more or less by their own hands: Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and so on. His talent, fragility and reliance on non-prescription props were almost certainly equal to theirs. In every other respect, though, he was their anti-type. His (mainly) blues- or classically-inflected folk songs are polished, tuneful, whimsical or wistful – and their shyly introverted composer was constitutionally unable to perform them before an audience of strangers. This, at a time when live gigs supported the release of an album rather than providing, as now, opportunities for selling ‘merch’, meant that sales of his records were extremely modest, and his music remained, in his lifetime, unknown to all but a very few: a fact that tormented him.
At twenty-one, Drake announced himself with Five Leaves Left. The title came from the warning in the cannabis smoker’s packet of Rizlas, an in-joke for the ‘heads’ who, it was reasonably assumed, might enjoy his songs or who had already heard and admired them: musically minded undergraduates and the smart London set Drake had fallen in with, spending afternoons and evenings in their flats, drinking tea, smoking joints and jamming. Now he dropped out of Cambridge, where he’d passed two years pretending to study Eng Lit, to pursue his musical vocation.
Three years and two albums later he was back at Far Leys, the family home in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth-in-Arden, suffering profound depression, exhibiting symptoms of psychosis and being anxiously cared for by his loving and supportive parents.To one old friend who went to see him, the reserve