Bryter Later by Nick Drake

1971

The longest track on Nick Drake’s second album, “Bryter Later”, is called “Poor Boy”. The chorus is “Poor boy, so worried for himself. Poor boy, so worried for his health”. Nobody really likes to hear someone feeling sorry for themselves so I need to phrase this carefully.

There’s no doubt that having my hip operation on the NHS but in a private hospital was very lucky. There’s also no doubt that being out of action for a couple of months during the spread of the omicron variant of COVID is good timing. And January/February are not my favourite months. Nevertheless, I am feeling a real sense of disconnection at the moment. I’m lucky that I have tolerant, patient friends who are prepared to come to the house or phone and listen to me talking bollocks. The fact of the matter is that not going out and not actually doing anything (playing snooker, watching football, volunteering at Samaritans, drinking delicious Harvey’s etc) is having an effect. I feel I ought to be making better progress than I am and I’m not prepared to be patient. It all makes me feel a bit disconnected. The world is rushing by and I’m out of phase. I’m trying hard not to feel sorry for myself and I’ve got a lot to be thankful for, but I am feeling a bit detached.

In “Fly”, Nick Drake adopts two personae. One is unhappy, sings in a falsetto, wants a second chance because they have “fallen so far”. The other character sings in Nick Drake’s more common beautiful baritone voice and is a beacon of calm and reason. He reassures the worried, younger man that “now is the time for recompense for what’s done”. He suggests that they sit together in the sun and watch the clouds roll by. In a great article on this song in UNCUT, Jon Savage wrote “the original intention (of the song) is almost impossible to establish; the meaning thus has to reside with the listener”. Sometimes I love lyrics which are self explanatory and at other times I love lyrics which are open to personal interpretation. “Fly” requires the latter and this is why the song takes on its own resonance with me, two months into my self imposed semi-retreat. I’ve had the operation. Now is the time for recovery (“recompense for what’s done”) and it’s time to watch the clouds roll by. If I have enough patience.

Musically, “Fly” is astonishing. There are so many wonderful components: as well as Nick Drake’s extraordinary voice and unique guitar playing, John Cale plays viola and harpsichord. “Bryter Later” was recorded at Sound Techniques studios in Chelsea. When John Cale was mixing Nico’s “Desertshore” there, he asked to hear what producer Joe Boyd and engineer (and studio owner) John Wood were working on. Joe Boyd recalled that hearing Nick Drake, John Cale “went bananas. He said ‘I have to meet this guy. Where is he?’”

The other song that John Cale was involved with is, if anything, more wonderful. It’s called “Northern Sky”. Nick Drake had been invited to stay with John and Beverley Martyn in Hastings and wrote a straightforward love song. As with a lot of his songs, the “eternity of nature” and the “sureness of the passing of the seasons” (to quote Jon Savage again), provide the context for his feelings. His love is framed within the moon, the sea breezes and the tops of the trees, reflecting the view from the window of his guest room in Hastings. This makes for an uplifting song but it also evokes a feeling of being isolated from the rest of the human race.

As with Nick Drake’s first album, “Five Leaves Left”, Richard Thompson plays guitar on one track on the album. At the time, Richard Thompson was not particularly talkative but Nick Drake was so shy as to be described as withdrawn. Richard Thompson says that although he spent time with him, “I can’t really remember Nick actually speaking. He would visit me and Linda but he was someone who would knock on the door and then disappear into a corner and stay there. He’d pick up a guitar and not say anything. He was a quiet guy. A loner.” This memory of Nick Drake confirms the impression of him as an outsider, detached from the rest of society and only able to communicate through his music. The picture on the back of his previous album, “Five Leaves Left” shows Nick Drake leaning against a wall while an unknown stranger rushes past.

Nick Drake wanted each side to start and finish with an instrumental. Producer Joe Boyd didn’t like them, feeling that the feeling of the songs was too MOR. A compromise was reached whereby three instrumentals were recorded but the end of Side One is an exception. Personally, I like the three songs and Nick Drake’s friend from Cambridge, Robert Kirby, arranges the orchestrations beautifully. On the other hand, I would prefer him to have included “Things Behind The Sun”, a song he had played as an encore at The Royal Festival Hall in 1969. Joe Boyd had attempted to persuade Nick Drake to include the song on “Bryter Later” but was told that the song wasn’t finished. It would appear on his third (and last) album, “Pink Moon”.

“Poor Boy” is unlike any other Nick Drake song, written in a bossa nova style with Ray Warleigh playing saxophone in the style of Stan Getz throughout the song. Joe Boyd decided to arrange for P.P. Arnold and Doris Troy to mimic Nick Drake’s self pity by singing “Oh poor boy. So sorry for himself”.

The two instrumentals, “Fly”, “Poor Boy” and “Northern Sky” make up Side Two. Side One of the album is equally brilliant. Track Two is called “Hazey Jane II” and Track Five is called “Hazey Jane I”. Both songs are addressed to someone (Jane?) who is struggling with life. “Do you feel like a remnant of something that is past?” He offers solace by reaching out to her, knowing that “you’d do the same for me”. This is similar in style to “Fly”, with one person in trouble, seeking help, guidance and support from another.

The gig at The Royal Festival Hall was as the opening act for Fairport Convention and “Hazey Jane II” features three of its members, Dave Pegg, Dave Mattacks and Richard Thompson with a brass arrangement by Robert Kirby. Despite the breezy tempo and jolly melody, the lyrics ask someone (Jane again, I guess) what is she going to do when everything goes wrong? “And what will happen in the morning when the world it gets so crowded that you can’t look out the window in the morning”. Nick Drake’s inability to communicate effectively, except through song, is perfectly encapsulated in the last line of the song. “If songs were lines in conversation, the situation would be fine”.

“At The Chime Of A City Clock” is another beautiful sounding song, whose sweetness masks a desperate account of Nick Drake putting up “road blocks” to keep everyone else at arm’s length. Victoria Segal wrote this in MOJO about the song: “If the city is traditionally a place of reinvention, here it leaves the narrator as confined as before, scuppered by his own personality”.

“One Of These Things First” is a song of regret. Nick Drake could have been a sailor, a cook, a book, a signpost and many other symbolic objects. He could have been more supportive. He could have been “steady as a rock”. The crunch comes in the question, “but how?” His inability to operate in the real world is a source of immense dissatisfaction and frustration for him.

And that’s where I came in.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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