Nick Drake, an English songwriter who did not receive recognition or widespread acclaim during his lifetime, died aged just 26 in 1974 from an overdose of antidepressants.
A unique songwriter who only released three records in his short career, Drake was a shy and introverted character from a privileged background who battled with depression throughout his twenties.
Drake read English Literature at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge. While he said in letters to his sister that he felt happy at Cambridge, he was never committed to his studies because his interest in music demanded all his attention. Drake’s friend from Cambridge, Brian Wells, has said “We would get up late, smoke dope and not go to lectures. We felt we were superior.”
In fact Drake dropped out of Cambridge just nine months before graduating in order to pursue his music career full time. The bold choice to drop out and move to London led to his first album in 1969, Five Leaves Left. Yet due to its unique and uncharacteristic sound, with unorthodox tunings and distinctive finger work, as well as Drake’s reticence to do any promotional work, the album only sold around 5,000 copies at the time of release.
Heavy cannabis and suspected heroin use, coupled with further social withdrawal led to various visits to psychiatrists and a prescription for antidepressants. He went for weeks without seeing anyone and released his third and final album in 1972, Pink Moon, arguably his most accomplished work.
His sister has pinpointed this as the time when things started to go badly wrong. Following another commercial failure, Drake moved back to his parents’ home, which he saw as shameful. He believed he had failed, saying “I don’t like it at home, but I can’t bear it anywhere else.”
While Drake’s depression and disillusionment could be put down to his perceived failure in the music industry, there seem to be clear signs of depression before this, including his well-documented trouble with insomnia and shyness around people.
His music has brought solace and support to thousands of young people who have trouble with mental illness. The song Fruit Tree on Five Leaves Left is a haunting prophecy of the belated recognition Drake would achieve: “Safe in your place deep in the earth / That’s when they’ll know what you were really worth.” Was Nick Drake’s condition a product of the music industry, or would Drake have had the same mental afflictions or worse if music had not been a creative outlet for him? Drake once said to a friend: “If everyone thinks I am so great, why am I broke?” In life he was unable to bridge the gap between his vision of himself as an artist and the reality of his commercial success.
At this age, when we are told constantly that we are unique and special and could become famous in five minutes flat, people’s ambitions don’t necessarily match reality. Equally, at a competitive university such as King’s, people feel inadequate or disillusioned when their degree does not necessarily guarantee a job, especially with the state of the economic climate.
One positive thing to take away from Drake’s untimely death is the success he has had posthumously. He once said to his mother, “If only my music had done anything to help one single person.” Today he could have truly said that his music has done so.