Brighten my northern sky.
I guess I got tired of it never hurrying up and happening already, though, because my mental state slipped a couple months ago and hasn't come back. If anything, it's gotten a bit worse (as I detailed in last week's entry). At first, the way this expressed itself in my relationship with music was by my gravitating towards the heavy, brutal, metallic hardcore that I loved so much as a younger person. I was listening to more blastbeats, mosh parts, and raw screams than I had anytime in the last few years, and it felt good. It was something I needed. And I'll probably write about that stuff soon, because I don't think my focus on it is over just yet. But right now I want to write about something completely different.
You see, I just got cable, and more importantly a DVR, last week. I've never been one to watch much TV, but given a greatly increased channel menu and the option to record things and play them back at my leisure, I've found that I'll end up watching a decent amount of it. This is mostly because I'll scan through the movies airing in the next week or so and queue up any random dozen or so of them. I'm particularly a big fan of documentaries, so when I noticed one coming up called "A Skin Too Few: The Days Of Nick Drake", I set it to record without hesitation. At this point, I've had almost everything Nick Drake ever recorded (including some of the bootleg home demos) for over five years. When I first got it, I played all of it to a ridiculous extent, and by now I've got pretty much every note the man ever recorded memorized, so I don't listen to his music very much anymore. But that doesn't change the fact that I love it, and consider him one of my favorite artists of all time. So of course, I was eager to see the movie. And I did enjoy it quite a bit when I watched it last night.
That said, it's not something I would recommend to just anyone. If you only like Nick Drake as much as the next guy, it may very well bore you to death. You see, there's just not that much information to be told about him. I had hoped going in that the movie would include performance footage, but I found out almost immediately that there isn't any. Since I've read Patrick Humphries' biography, I also knew all of the details of his life--which don't amount to much, since he really spent most of it hiding away from the outside world in his parents' house. He died when he was only 27, having made only three albums, and by the time he died, his career was basically over--it had already been over three years since he'd released anything. Therefore, there wasn't much for me to learn from "A Skin Too Few". It was interesting to see the interviews with his sister, the Drake family footage of Nick as a child, and to hear archival audio interviews with his since-deceased parents--but that may only be because I am such a big fan. Of more general interest were the conversations with his producers and engineers, Joe Boyd, John Wood, and Robert Kirby. In fact, Kirby provided the only new and enlightening piece of information that the film imparted to me. Apparently, it was he who wrote or helped write a lot of the backing music that was played behind Nick's songs on his first two albums (his final album, "Pink Moon", is a notoriously stark affair, featuring only Nick's acoustic guitar and vocals). I'd always wondered if the people who worked with Nick on his music had any clue of just how lonely and closed off he appeared to feel. The interviews with Robert Kirby and Joe Boyd made it clear that they absolutely did--Kirby in particular seemed very tuned into just how sad and despairing Nick was, and that this was the place from which he wrote his music. In discussing the song "At The Chime Of A City Clock", from "Bryter Layter", Kirby mentioned that the feel they were going for with the song was that of an alienating cityscape; lonely, dreary, and wet. To that end, he explains that rather than ever backing up Drake's single-note guitar riffs with rhythmic chord patterns, he wrote counter-melodies for the strings and other instruments to play, so as to deliberately isolate Nick's riffing and make him sound like he's being ignored and drowned out by the activity occurring all around him. This snippet of interview was immediately followed by a long section of "At The Chime Of A City Clock", which was played over footage of London streets on an overcast afternoon. It really brought home just how effective Kirby's portions of the song had been at achieving the effect he was going for.
Sections like this actually make up a decent percentage of the film's running time; the interviews take up somewhere between 20 and 30 minutes of its length, but the other 20 to 30 minutes are more like Nick Drake music videos, setting various songs of his over appopriate backdrops--"Day Is Done" over a rainstorm in the English forest, "Northern Sky" over empty fields at dawn, "River Man" over people walking around the campus of Cambridge University. Interestingly, these ethereal, atmospheric sections of the film are most evocative when set to songs from "Bryter Layter", which has traditionally been my least favorite of Nick Drake's albums. I've always felt like it was a bit too produced, that the saxophones and string sections that appear on it do too much to overshadow the naked emotion that is much more dramatic on "Pink Moon" or even the few tracks he recorded between his final album and his death. Those later songs still have a real effect on me, and remain my favorite examples of Nick's work, but I think I'm starting to see why many people most prefer "Bryter Layter", with its elaborate layers of jazzy backing music. "At The Chime Of A City Clock" always sounded to me like its intention was to be relatively upbeat, but after hearing Kirby's thoughts on the matter, I see that what I was hearing before were the background musicians and not what Nick himself was singing and playing. The lyrics are not actually upbeat, but instead express the alienated loneliness Kirby mentioned in the interview. However, Nick sings the lyrics in such a calm, almost detached manner that it's hard to pick up on the fact that there's still real feeling there.
The truth is that Nick Drake's music never expresses emotion in an overt, obvious way. The only reason "Pink Moon" sounds more raw and exposed is because of its lack of backing music. He's still singing in a calm, detached manner, but without strings and drumming to distract from it, it's impossible to miss the import of his lyrics. However, on "Bryter Layter", it's all too easy, which is probably the reason that only the song "Fly" has ever really impressed its desperation and sadness upon me in the past. And honestly, I don't know if I'd ever have picked up on even that if I hadn't first fallen in love with the solo demo from the posthumous collection "Time Of No Reply". Now, after seeing "A Skin Too Few", I find myself playing "Bryter Layter" obsessively, trying to see through to the core of all of these songs, and not just that of "At The Chime Of A City Clock". One other song that's moved me to an equal extent is "Northern Sky". The vocal melody Nick sings on the bridge of the song is one of the few places on the album (and perhaps in his entire career) where he disturbs his typical placid vocal tone and reaches for something. Certainly what he was saying must have been important, and upon closer listening, it becomes clear that it was. "Been a long time that I've wandered through the people I've known," he says, before making a solemn request: "If you would and you could, straighten my new mind's eye." By the time he's reached the request, though, his vocal has dropped from the heights it reaches earlier in the bridge. He's making the request in a tone that indicates that he doesn't expect to get what he wants from this exchange. This in the end is how pretty much every Nick Drake song sounds to me: he pleads for help, for some sort of acknowledgement and understanding, maybe even companionship and love, but he doesn't expect to get it, and probably doesn't think he deserves it anyway. On "Fly", he follows up the request to "please give me second grace" with the statement "I've fallen far down on the first time around, and now I just sit on the ground in your way."
I think I'm losing the thread of what I was trying to say with this entry, so I'll just finish with this. At the very end of "A Skin Too Few", Nick's sister Gabrielle tells a story that her parents told her before they passed away, about Nick sitting with them towards the end of his life and complaining that he'd been a failure at everything he'd done. They'd try to point out his accomplishments, but he'd just brush them off--his record sales had been lackluster, he'd performed live very few times, and although he was only in his mid-20s, he was already a has-been. According to Gabrielle, he told them that he'd feel like maybe it was all worth it if his music had ever touched one person, had ever helped anyone, he could feel like it was all worth it. She finished by saying that she wished he had made it to see just how much his music had been embraced by the current generation of young people, that he'd have been pleased to no end to see just how many people he was helping now, long after he was gone.
As one of the people that his music has helped, and is still helping, I can only say that I wish he'd made it, too.
Nick Drake - At The Chime Of A City Clock
Nick Drake - Northern Sky