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Nick Drake The Biography by Patrick Humphries (1998)


I was very disappointed in this book – and while some of that disappointment is with the style of writing Mr. Humphries employs here, there’s more to it than that.

Writing a biography is a tricky proposition at best. In the case of an artist like Nick Drake – reclusive and withdrawn, with only one interview given during his brief lifetime – it’s a task even more daunting than one would usually expect. Humphries has written bios of other musicians – Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Richard Thompson, Tom Waits, &c – and has evidently built a career and reputation in this area. I’m sure that he felt drawn to the music of Nick Drake in some ways, rather than simply choosing an artist about whom to write in the hope of selling tons of books – there are innumerable choices that would have garnered him greater sales – but without the cooperation of two critical people in Nick’s life (his sister Gabrielle and his manager/producer Joe Boyd), given the nature of his subject, the project was more or less doomed from the start.

Humphries mentions in his forward that Joe and Gabrielle `had decided not to cooperate’ – and since Joe’s Warlock Music is the publisher of all of Nick’s songs, this also meant that Humphries would be unable to quote from Nick’s lyrics. He was thus reduced to quoting Gabrielle and Joe from previously available sources. Molly and Rodney Drake, Nick’s parents, were deceased, so no direct conversations between them and the author were possible either.

The only other sources left for him upon which to draw were the remembrances of various friends of Nick and written articles about the man and his music. What emerges from all of this is inevitably a choppy picture of the man – not unsympathetic, but jarring and incomplete. Many parts of the book are simply strings of quotes strung together – and too many of the gaps have been filled in by well-meaning but ultimately tedious anecdotes about the music scene of the 60s and 70s in general.

Referring to the musicians and bands emerging from the public school scene in the UK of the time, Humphries mentions Genesis coming out of Charterhouse to begin their `windy, wuthering road’ to success – a reference to their `Wind and wuthering’ album of the late 70s. He’s trying a little too hard here for my tastes, I’m afraid.

Another irritating practice of Humphries is that he contradicts himself in too many places to mention. He can’t seem to settle on his own opinion. On p. 93, he says `Five Leaves Left is an astonishingly assured and mature debut’ – on p. 94, he says `Lyrically the songs on Five Leaves Left are largely unremarkable’. Huh? On p. 89, he speaks warmly of how well Robert Kirby (Nick’s school chum and string arranger on his first two albums) worked with Nick’s songs: `…his arrangements remain an integral part of the distinctive sound of Nick’s debut album’ – then, again from p. 94: `…perhaps the arrangements are a tad lush’. This sort of `playing both sides’ persists throughout the book. These are not instances of Humphries quoting the opinions of others (at least they are not presented in that way) – these are his own words.

The publisher, Bloomsbury, must also be taken to task, for their (lack of) editing – there are several errors in the book that have nothing to do with writing style, but everything (apparently) to do with allowing one’s computer spell-check program to act as an editor. This point may seem to be a bit picky, but in context of my other problems with the book, it merely added to my inability to appreciate it.

There’s another review below that wisely suggests that those interested in Nick allow his music to speak for him – and this is of course the closest we can come to him, for his music came from his heart and soul. Over the years since his death, it has become much more widely appreciated than it was in his lifetime – sadly this is the case in too many who die before their time. There is beauty in that music. Humphries speaks in several places of the darkness of Nick’s lyrics (but, being unable to quote from them, gives no examples), that his depression was a result of an adolescent never coming into maturity, unable to cope with the world – and many of the songs were dark, without a doubt.

There were, however, many moments of light and beauty. One only has to listen to the first track on his debut album (`Time has told me’ from Five Leaves Left) – to me, the song is one that speaks of hope and patience, of learning and recognizing the important things that are worth waiting for. That sounds like maturity and good judgment to me. Nick may well have been a troubled soul – but he was not without happiness, and he obviously understood and appreciated things that a person stuck in adolescence would not.

Near the end of the book, when Humphries is writing of the release of Nick’s final four songs, and some additional material – early home recordings and alternate takes – he quotes both Nick’s parents and Joe Boyd as saying that they were trying to make sure that anything they released reflected only well on Nick, that they were concerned with how he was represented, that he deserved that consideration. I think that he deserves better than this bio – that might seem harsh, but there’s simply too much contradiction and padding here. Rather than a 270+page book, this could have been edited down to a decent magazine article. There are a lot of facts here, but very little understanding. If you have the opportunity to view it, check out the fine documentary A Skin Too Few – it’s a much more satisfying portrait of this gentle man.

May 10, 2013 Posted by | Book Nick Drake The Biography by Patrick Humphries | , | Leave a comment