There are lots of indications that we are heading for another lockdown. A quarter of the population are already in “Tier 3” but there are calls for the whole country (or is it just England?) to have further restrictions imposed. It’s not clear to me what that might involve but it’s not going to affect me very much, whatever happens. The only activity that I engage in that might be at risk is a shift at Samaritans, where I am going every Monday afternoon along with a very early morning shift every six weeks. It would be a real loss if the Samaritans’ service was suspended; the three calls I took on Monday were neither difficult or unpleasant but each caller seemed happier at the end of the call than they were at the start and clearly benefitted from a forty five minute chat, even with a stranger. It would be extremely depressing if the service were to be suspended meaning that any callers who summoned up the courage and energy to call Samaritans received no reply.
In a similar vein, I am relying on regular phone or Zoom calls to maintain a small vestige of sanity. Regular calls with John, Martin, Paddy, Arthur, Kevin, Andy, Rob, Pete and Dave and a weekly visit to Peter’s garden have been essential. The WhatsApp message exchanges with Ben and Paul have been good but we need to speak more frequently.
I was annoyed at myself eight days ago – and it was 100% my fault – because I missed my weekly call with John. We talked yesterday and I really enjoyed it as I always do. As with my imagined Samaritans’ caller phoning without a response, the idea that John phoned and received no reply makes me ashamed. Because John is the sort of guy that he is, it’s not an issue but, thinking about it over the past week, these are not the times when no reply is all right.
The song “Time Of No Reply” was never issued while Nick Drake was alive. It’s utterly beautiful, compelling and relevant to this time in all our lives. Summer has turned into Autumn and Nick Drake thinks someone is nearby but when he turns to speak, nobody is there. The crowds have disappeared and night is drawing in and he is left alone by the side of the road. He feels that there is no escape – he is stuck in this time. Alone, with nobody to speak to. As the years pass, nobody cares that he is isolated in the time of no reply.
I’m no guitarist but even I can understand the genius of Nick Drake’s acoustic guitar playing. Richard Thompson, who is of course exceptional himself is quoted as saying that “He was quite extraordinary. He played immaculately and uniquely and he had his own tunings.” To me, it sounds as precise and flawless as David Rawlings. It strikes me that something that sounds so easy and straightforward is probably a result of hours and hours of practice. A bit like a David Gower cover drive. Effortless and beautiful.
Nick Drake only released three albums in his lifetime before his tragic accidental overdose of anti depressants in 1974. At the time of his death, he was largely overlooked by the public although the musicians that knew him (e.g. John Martyn, Richard Thompson) thought he was a genius. He was not an easy man to converse with and the lyrics to “Time Of No Reply” appears to have been brilliantly self aware. Bridget St. John said that “a lot of life is about making small talk and he was uncomfortable with small talk.” Linda Thompson, who was briefly in a relationship with him said that “people were either awed or annoyed with his perceived standoffishness”. She added that “Nick could sit for five or six hours in my flat saying nothing.” Time of no reply, indeed.
Since his death, Nick Drake’s work has become more popular. In 1999, the title track from his third album, “Pink Moon” was used in a Volkswagen advert.
Retrospective and compilation albums such as “Time Of No Reply”, “Heaven In A Wild Flower”, “I Was Made To Love Magic”, “Way To Blue”, “A Treasury” and “Family Tree” have vastly outsold his original three albums.
His sister, Gabrielle Drake, was a mainstay in “Crossroads” for many years. His mother, Molly, was a fine singer and writer. The Unthanks released an album on which they covered nine of Molly’s songs and they also included Gabrielle reading six of her mother’s poems.
“I Was Made To Love Magic”, was butchered and retitled (“Magic”) for a 2004 single release which got to number 32 in the UK charts. The original is lovely.
“Joey” is perfect. He sings a beautiful melody over some sublime guitar picking.
“Clothes Of Sand” is possibly my favourite Nick Drake song. Its meaning eludes me. He sings a song to someone who is dressed in clothes of sand. This person has been taken from him and these clothes of sand have taken the singer’s place. I interpret this as possibly a song to someone who has died. The guitar playing is immaculate, Nick Drake’s singing is silky, sad and full of sorrow, the lyrics are enigmatic and the melody is memorable. Who could ask for more?
This compilation of outtakes takes some unreleased songs from all phases of Nick Drake’s career. The four songs that I’ve already mentioned are outtakes from sessions for his first album, “Five Leaves Left” and there are two songs which preceded these sessions. There are three home recordings from around the same time and the final four songs are from a session which would have been formed part of his fourth album. These songs are very painful to listen to. Joe Boyd, who signed Nick Drake to Island, remembers the sessions where these four songs were recorded. “He wasn’t always the cleanest guy in the world but he always looked good., so suddenly to see this haggard looking guy, his hair unwashed…and so angry – why wasn’t he famous, why wasn’t he rich – it was just a real shock”. “Black Eyed Dog” in particular is bleak beyond description – his voice sounds more desperate than on other recordings and the lyrics refer to a hellhound on his trail, the black eyed dog that knows him and wants him.
John Martyn wrote “Solid Air” about Nick Drake. “You’ve been getting too deep. You’ve been living on solid air. You’ve been missing your sleep and you’ve been moving through solid air. I know you, I love you. I will be your friend. I will follow you anywhere even through solid air.” Nick Drake seemed to be perpetually living in a time when he could only reply through the power and beauty of his music.