‘I was horrified by the state he was in’: Nick Drake’s manager on his final days

Nick Drake in 1971 - Keith Morris/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Nick Drake in 1971 - Keith Morris/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

When the debut album of 21-year-old singer-songwriter Nick Drake was released in 1969, only one newspaper reviewed it. The Daily Telegraph’s critic wrote that Five Leaves Left was an “excellent LP” and that “there was no mistaking the quality and promise” of songs such as River Man and The Thoughts of Mary Jane. It would be the best part of 20 years before those songs would be recognised as classics by an audience that continues to grow year by year. At the time, the album sank without trace, and its creator would make only two more before dying from an overdose of antidepressants at the age of 26. Drake rarely played live and gave almost no interviews; he remains one of the most elusive, enigmatic figures in the history of rock’n’roll.

His gentle, introspective music remains mysterious, too, yet when the 14-year-old Richard Morton Jack discovered him in 1992, the “cult artist” tag was already starting to be less and less true. “It wasn’t like I’d found some sort of hidden door in a tree trunk, with a flight of steps going down into the earth from it or anything,” he says. “It was Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Nick Drake… he was part of what was normal to listen to.” Morton Jack is now the author of a remarkable biography, Nick Drake: The Life, which over the course of 500-plus pages maps the guitarist and singer’s life and musical development alongside his descent into mental illness, correcting some grievous misapprehensions along the way.

“Nick, even though his life was fairly short, has been quite ill served by biography,” Morton Jack says. “There’s been quite a lot of mythology and misunderstanding and misconception.” There have been works suggesting he was a heroin addict, that his father Rodney had been an overbearing figure, that he was engaged and sent a suicide note to his fiancée before his death; a PhD was written dissecting Drake’s lyrics to prove he was a closeted gay man; most significantly, as I write this piece, Drake’s Wikipedia page still bears the claim: “Whether his death was an accident or suicide has not been resolved.”

Morton Jack knew Drake’s sister Gabrielle, a well-known actress in the 1970s in dramas such as BBC One’s The Brothers; he had previously released an album of early works by Drake and compositions by his late mother, Molly – Family Tree (2007) – on his own record label. Gabrielle, though, was “hesitant” about agreeing to a biography, “fearing the intrusion and the re-opening of a wound that never heals”, as she writes in the book’s foreword. For his part, Morton Jack knew that without her blessing, “there was too much personal stuff that only Gabrielle knew or had access to”, too many people who wouldn’t talk to him unless she put him in touch with them. He wanted to avoid conjecture, resist treating Drake’s lyrics like they were cryptic crossword clues, and rely on first-person accounts. “I wanted to speak to absolutely everyone still alive, who knew him or encountered him,” he tells me. The book contains about 160 interviews.

The Life tracks Drake from the doted-on son of well-off ex-colonial parents to a music-obsessed public schoolboy at Marlborough College to obsessively dedicated student of the guitar, who would confidently play for The Rolling Stones and their court in Tangier, in the year before he became a reluctant undergraduate studying English at Cambridge University. A portrait emerges of a singular figure, “easy going, and a nice dude to have in the room”, yet charismatic and utterly committed to his chosen path; self-contained to the point that he would sometimes arrive as a guest and leave without ever speaking.

Family ties: Nick with his mother, Molly, and sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake
Family ties: Nick with his mother, Molly, and sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake

Morton Jack captures the concentric but not-touching social circles he moved in, including a posh set that included Lord Harlech’s daughter Victoria Ormsby-Gore. The late Sophia Ryde was one of them; she was the reported “fiancée” who in fact had not said yes to Drake’s marriage proposal, but as Morton Jack learned, had had to cope with fans asking to see his non-existent suicide note for years.

His research demolished the belief that Drake’s death might have been accidental, that he had “taken a couple of pills, and then taken a couple more, because he’d forgotten he had taken the first two”. In the book he notes that the pathologist at the inquest into his death stated that “he had found evidence in Nick’s body of a ‘serious overdose’ – a minimum of 35 pills’ worth from stomach samples and up to a further 50 from blood samples”. The coroner declared that “such a massive overdose could not have been taken accidentally”. “It’s a sad way to end the book, with that certainty,” Morton Jack reflects.

The phone call about his death in November 1974 did not come as a shock to Joe Boyd, Drake’s manager and the producer of Five Leaves Left and its follow-up Bryter Layter. He was working in Hollywood at the time but, he tells me, his own “moment of tragic shock was when Nick came to see me in London in the winter of 1973 – I had rented this flat in Notting Hill – and I was just horrified by the state he was in. He had deteriorated, his hair was dirty, he was sort of shaking almost, and had trouble articulating himself. He was always hesitant and shy, but this was different. Everything that happened after was almost a playing out.”

He describes his feeling of helplessness, a very different emotion to the one he had felt at their first meeting. After moving to London, the Boston-born Boyd had become one of the key movers and shakers of the 1960s scene. He was co-founder of the underground psychedelia club UFO, where Syd Barrett fronted house band Pink Floyd and Yoko Ono staged art performances. He produced Floyd’s debut single Arnold Layne, managed Fairport Convention and produced influential albums by them, such as Liege and Lief. When their bassist heard Drake playing at a fund-raising gig in north London, he told Boyd to check him out.

In January 1968, Boyd rang Drake at his parents’ home, three hours from London in the Warwickshire village of Tanworth in Arden, and the 19 year-old turned up the next day in an overcoat with a demo tape. Boyd knew within 10 seconds of hearing the first track, Magic, he tells me, that the young singer-songwriter was special: “There was a whole different harmonic sensibility.”

Nick Drake in 1967, two years before he released his debut album Five Leaves Left - Julian Lloyd
Nick Drake in 1967, two years before he released his debut album Five Leaves Left - Julian Lloyd

It soon became clear that Drake was a gifted guitar player. On the records of his acoustic contemporaries, Boyd says, “you hear blurred notes, you hear slightly fudged chords, you hear tiny approximations. Not that they’re not great, but Nick is a different level. It’s so clean. It’s so precise, and so complex.” In the studio, Boyd and sound engineer John Wood got into the habit, when recording Drake with other musicians, of turning down his mic in the control room so they could concentrate on the other instruments. They knew that Drake’s playing would be note perfect.

It has often been suggested that Nick may have been gay. Boyd did not have that impression. “I saw him as very blocked sexually,” he says, noting that this was unusual in the late 1960s, although he adds that if he had been gay, he would likely have been good at hiding it. “I do think he was very conscious of the way he was perceived and worried about it,” he judges from Drake’s anxiety about people knowing that he was seeing a psychiatrist, “but it would be easier for Nick to come out in his social world than if he’d been on the junior team of Scunthorpe United, because of that class thing.”

Morton Jack, though, asked the question. “My view is entirely led by what other people have said to me,” he stresses. “No one, not a single person who knew him said that in word or deed or body language that they thought Nick was gay. I’m sure he was certainly interested in girls sexually, whether he was bisexual becomes the question at that point. I mean, I know he had sexual relationships [with women], very few, but they were there.”

No one recalls him taking heroin, either, and his father Rodney comes across as unfailingly concerned about his welfare. "I think Nick's father was a wise and understanding and thoughtful person," says Morton Jack. "I think anyone on planet Earth would be lucky to have had Rodney Drake as their father."

The book strikingly captures the trajectory of Drake’s illness, and his ever-deeper withdrawal into himself as his attempts to forge a musical career foundered. Does either man think that it may have been triggered by excessive smoking of cannabis, in the light of recent studies linking its use in adolescents to depression and suicidal ideation? “There wasn’t the sort of super “skunk” type stuff which causes problems now,” Morton Jack says. “I think it’s glib to say that Nick’s illness had any cause. I think it was just very bad luck on him that it happened, but I think it just came on.”

Boyd does express concern, though. “I think that his isolation in London was really unfortunate and really contributed to his decline,” he says. (Drake left Cambridge without finishing his degree after his first album was released, moving to a bedsit in a large subdivided house in Camden, north London.) “I think it was a fateful turn for Nick leaving Cambridge. Given Nick’s personality, he didn’t meet people. He just sat there. And I think when you’re isolated and you smoke a lot of dope… It’s one thing to smoke a lot of dope, and go out for a laugh with the guys to the pub or sit and play music with friends, but it’s another thing to sit on your own and do it.”

Ultimately, Drake would retreat to his parents’ home, where he would be briefly hospitalised for depression and feelings of being unable to “cope”, and begin taking antidepressants, but not before he had had one last try at making a record that represented what he thought he was capable of. Bryter Layter had flopped, despite Boyd’s attempts to surround Drake with great musicians, resulting in enduring songs such as One of These Things First and Northern Sky, the latter wreathed in celeste, piano and organ played by The Velvet Underground’s John Cale.

In October 1971, with Boyd in California, Drake arranged with John Wood to record some new songs, stipulating that it just be him and his guitar, unadorned. The resulting album, Pink Moon, would become his bestseller, many years too late. “It does feel like a full stop,” Morton Jack says, “I almost feel that he knew Pink Moon was it, I think he had to wring that album out of himself. And I think it cost him dearly to do so.” He was 23 years old. For Boyd, the fact that later generations discovered his unique gift was inevitable.

“I didn’t feel surprised,” he tells me. “I was like, f---ing hell… took you long enough.”

Nick Drake: The Life by Richard Morton Jack is published on June 8 (Hodder)