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Darker Than The Deepest Sea: The Search For Nick Drake by Trevor Dann (2007)


Review This second biography of the musician Nick Drake (1948-1974) uncovers new turf by conducting the first interview with Sophia Ryde (to whom, it is revealed, Drake wrote a letter left by his bedside when he died) and drawing upon a 2004 Belgian radio interview with Drake’s sister and friends. Trevor Dann went up to Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, four years after Drake and thus has the advantage of being able to draw upon his near-contemporary recollections.

Dann’s narration of Drake’s childhood and early adult experiences is evenly paced and open-minded. With both of Drake’s parents having died, Dann speculates openly on the atmosphere at home in Tanworth-in-Arden, concluding that “childhood in a posh family in a quiet, isolated village could indeed be a torment”. Nick is painted as an aloof, somewhat supercilious figure, “the apple of his mother’s eye”, who was tall, articulate, academically unmotivated and, as he got older, near-schizophrenic as a result of excessive cannabis consumption. Stories of sex are conspicuous by their absence: Nick seemed to “float above the carnal world of student sex”, Dann states. Both Linda Thompson and Robin Frederick deny that their relationships with him were consummated. Rumours that Drake’s bulging jeans on the front cover of his first album betray an erection brought on by the male photographer are humorously handled by Dann, who states that this might rather be “…well, bollocks”.

His handling of Drake’s three albums – Five Leaves Left (1970), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972) – is hampered by scant analysis of his lyrics, and is rather too influenced by Joe Boyd’s and Robert Kirby’s recollections. He does suggest that the proliferation of the word “ride” in later songs (e.g. Free Ride, Rider on the wheel) was a play on Sophia Ryde’s name and that the “ban on feeling free” in River Man and “Do you curse where you come from?” in Hazey Jane I indicate a stifling and depression-inducing family atmosphere. Dann comments that Nick’s sister Gabrielle did not seem to know him well and that all those who met him seemed to have the impression of a spectral, but nevertheless unmistakable presence. Luckily, Dann doesn’t make the mistake of assuming he has access to Drake’s ‘inner truth’, himself admitting that Nick seems “always elusive, never predictable; capable of warmth and affection, but never quite reliable enough to form a staunch friendship or be a dependable workmate”. The person who understood Drake best would appear to be John Martyn, who wrote the track ‘Solid Air’ about him.

In spite of the bubbling adoration to be found within the Drake cult, Trevor Dann is not afraid of quoting unflattering opinions (one recalls his job was to “get [Nick] out of his stinky bed in his grotty flat in Notting Hill…He was a complete pain in the arse”). Nevertheless, there are two key flaws to this well-written and otherwise delightful biography: Why does Dann not discuss what exactly was in the letter found by Nick’s bed? Even if Ryde refused to show it to him (presuming she still has it in her possession), it seems remarkable that Dann doesn’t flesh out his scoop more. Secondly, he closes his book with speculations that Drake’s depression and overdose of antidepressants at 26 point to child abuse, claiming that eight of Nick’s songs “fit the child abuse template”. Having meticulously presented his account of Drake’s life up to now, it does seem a shame that Dann chooses to leave the reader at the close in a wilderness of unsubstantiated speculation.

Review Dann’s book is a fine book in that it provides additional information to what is already known and is not simply a rehash of everything else already said – with the detail of Sophia Ryde’s letter thrown in. Dann tells us that ‘Sophia’ rhymes with ‘higher’ and it is this type of helpful ‘anorak’-style information that gives the book its page-turning hook. Dann lists every address that Nick ever lived at – complete with house number – in Burma, Tanworth-in-Arden and London; there is even a potted history of his father’s career in Burma and a brief summary of the career of Rodney’s father.

There are reproductions of old school and Cambridge college reports – complete with lists of exams passed and at what grade – interviews with his masters and room mates and reproductions of furious exchanges of letters – when Nick dropped out – between father Rodney and Fitzwilliam. There are new interviews with Linda Thompson, Chris Blackwell, Jeremy Mason, Richard Charkin, et al. There is no direct interview with Sophia apart from a mention of the track, Free Ride, and her reaction to it + plus a reference to the alleged ‘suicide note’ addressed to her. The extra details are commendable and the writing original. Not an easy achievement on a topic that has been worked to death with little scope for new material.

On the reservations side, there are unsubtantiated claims that Nick was a rather heavy heroin user, suffered from schizophrenia and also, various ‘digs’ at his character. The source of the heroin user claim is not revealed, so presumably, it could come from either of three sources: John Cale, keyboardist, ex-Velvet Underground who provided the backing music to ‘Northern Sky’, obliquely refers to it, the late Scott Appel – who gets a mention in the book – but as far as can be seen, Scott in his attempt to ‘reveal the truth’ is possibly blurring Nick with himself, e.g., the ‘speedballs’ and ‘demerol’, etc., these sound very ‘American’ in description.

If the source is his actress sister, Gabrielle Drake, and this is possible, because the letter she read out in the film ‘A Skin Too Few’ is reproduced here, there is clearly approval by Nick Drake’s Estate for at least some of the content Dann’s. Many details possibly could only have come from Gabrielle, in which case, the claims are probably more substantial than if they were merely speculation based on hearsay. Dann’s view that Nick Drake had schizophrenia caused by too much cannabis use is, he says, based on recent research, however even more recent research suggests that there is actually no link between cannabis use and mental illness, after all.

The latter part of the book has a brief track by track analysis of Nick’s work.

All in all, the book is in easy to read print, which makes it a rather short book, but is better than expected, over all. It has lilac end papers and a cover which is a photgraph taken by the late Keith Morris. It supplements Patrick Humprhies in-depth biography well, although the title ‘in search of’, with rock writer Peter Guralnick’s leit motif of a ‘quest’ to ‘find’ a mysterious long-gone figure, probably sits better with Humphries’ book. A good analogy would be that Dann’s book is the equivalent of the sensationalist Life & Death of Sylvia Plath by Ronald Hayman to Jacqueline Rose’s learned The Haunting of Sylvia Plath in that you get a better sense of Nick Drake’s true character from the cautious Humphries’ biography, but the ‘squalid facts’ from Dann with no punches pulled nor pussyfooting around the family’s possible sensibilties.

In addition, there are some new and interesting photographs included.

April 20, 2013 Posted by | Book Darker Than The Deepest Sea: The Search For Nick Drake by Trevor Dann | , | Leave a comment