Saturday, March 22, 2014

Song of the day

"Black Eyed Dog", by Nick Drake.

I can never listen to Nick Drake without feeling a nagging, non-specific sense of guilt. This is crazy, of course: there wasn't anything I could have done to change the course of his short life. Heck, I was ten years old when he died, had never heard of him, and anyway at that time his music hadn't even travelled very far beyond the few people who had a hand in it being recorded and released; it certainly wouldn't have reached the ears of a child in South Gippsland. (And even if it had, what would that child have made of its quiet, non-demonstrative, haunting tones?)

(In fact, my first exposure to the name "Nick Drake" came in about 1977 (or so), when I read a review of "Bryter Later" in the Australian fortnightly music paper RAM; it must have been either a reissue or, perhaps, the first Australian release. I don't remember getting any sense from the review of it being anything other than a new record. For whatever reason, lost to time now, the review stayed with me. (Thanks for that and much else besides, Anthony O'Grady.))

Nevertheless, his story permeates his music, even forty years later. Who, after all, was Nick Drake? Aside from the records, other recorded fragments, photographs, and reminiscences (and as much as I worship at the feet of Joe Boyd, I can't help suspecting that his own memories might, intentionally or otherwise, have been  twisted by decades of external hagiography), we only really have mythology.

My best guess is that, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, Nick Drake not only wasn't made for his times, he wasn't really made for any times. Living in the world, at least the world outside of his family home, seems to have been too much for him. So, if he had had during his lifetime the success that his music obviously deserved (and has posthumously attained), what then? The evidence suggests that he wouldn't have handled it. His story was destined not to have a happy ending. Perhaps the best he (we?) could have hoped for would have been three albums released to moderate acclaim and sales, followed by more of the same, to similar or reduced sales, a common enough career arc for a musician (think Ron Sexsmith; or Aimee Mann; or, maybe even, Elvis Costello). Maybe there would have been a latter-day hipster-driven revival, a la Johnny Cash or John Fahey.

But that's not what happened. Those three albums remain, they have always been with us, they have never been diluted by whatever may have happened next because nothing happened next.

Well, nothing except the Four Last Songs. They first surfaced, at least officially, on the vinyl box set "Fruit Tree", which was released in 1979 and then released again, in slightly different form, in 1986. I spent many afternoons gazing wistfully at the latter, perched, as it was, on a high shelf beside the counter at Discurio Records in the city, but, as a poor university student, I had no hope of ever being able to buy it. By then Nick Drake was a name that you saw around, but, in that pre-internet age, it wasn't easy to actually hear the music. That didn't happen for me until some time later, when I picked up a copy of the 1986 "Time of No Reply" CD compilation. So to my ears "Black Eyed Dog" sits (un)naturally as a part of the Nick Drake discography. It wasn't until later again that I learnt the real story of it, and of the other three stark, desolate, desperate pieces of music that were recorded at the same time. They are all the sound of a door closing.

"Black Eyed Dog", I think, hits hardest of all of them, harder than any other piece of music I can think of. I cannot listen to it without involuntarily shuddering. And yet I cannot not listen to it. Look, here I am doing it again. Like a rabbit in the headlights, waiting to be struck down but unable to move; mesmerised.