JULY 31, 2013
THE DAY AFTER Gore Vidal’s death (a year ago, July 31, 2012), I was prepared to go on in a world that was slightly sadder, a tad more lonely, and, as Vidal himself had said about the perfunctoriness of death notices and the fleeting fame of literary figures these days, “that would be that.” Instead, the next morning, I stumbled into a Facebook catfight. One of my FB friends (who I’ll leave nameless) was having a conniption fit about, of all people, Gore Vidal. It was one of those intemperate “I’m glad the bastard’s dead” kind of eruptions.
Along with the unkind posthumous sentiment, there was a string of adjectives ticking off Vidal’s alleged failings. I don’t have the verbatim list at hand (it’s kind of technically difficult to dredge up old Facebook conversation threads, but I’m sure the remarks are safely stored on some Internet “cloud” or deep in the bowels of the National Security Agency’s Prism program computers). As I recall, the litany included most of the standard jibes about Vidal: elitist, patrician snob, conspiracy theorist, racist, and oddly, “judeophobe.”
My friend, who was an actual friend and not just the barbarous FB version of “friend,” which includes total strangers, vague acquaintances, and anyone within six degrees of separation, was apparently having a bad day (in a bad world). It was obvious that this temporarily ill-tempered pal of mine neatly fit within the category Vidal had once sneeringly characterized as a “journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work” who had been more or less randomly assigned to come up with a literary obit. Still, I was struck by the contrast between my friend’s cold-light-of-day animosity and the warmth of the mainstream obituary encomiums of the evening before. My attention was also caught by the unusual usage of the term “judeophobe,” which I’ll get to in a moment.
Vidal (1925-2012) was, as most readers know, America’s pre-eminent literary essayist in the second half of the 20th century (he was also an interesting novelist, playwright, memoirist, screenwriter, and all-round public figure). He died at his home in the Hollywood Hills section of Los Angeles (where he had relocated in 2003, after decades of living in Ravello, Italy) at the appropriately ripe old age of 86 — appropriate, that is, for dagger-tongued curmudgeons.
Vidal had indirectly predicted how his own obituary might be handled a quarter-century before the event in an essay about the death of his friend, the renowned Italian writer Italo Calvino, which had ignited national mourning in that country. Vidal was interested in cultural differences and accepted that “unlike the United States, Italy has both an educational system (good or bad is immaterial) and a common culture, both good and bad.” Vidal then noted that “in recent years Calvino had become the central figure in Italy’s culture,” and couldn’t resist plugging his own role in spreading Calvino’s fame:
Italians were proud that they had produced a world writer whose American reputation began, if I may say so, since no one else has, when I described all of his novels as of May 30, 1974 in The New York Review of Books. By 1985, except for England, Calvino was read wherever books are read.
The acerbity, hyperbole, self-deprecating self-promotion, even the name-dropping all come with the (Vidal) territory — and anyway, when Vidal drops a name, it’s the name of someone he actually knows (and he knows a lot of people).
Vidal ultimately comes to the point and the intimation of un-immortality, as Facebook might say. “For an American,” he says,
the contrast between them and us is striking. When an American writer dies, there will be, if he’s a celebrity (fame is no longer possible for any of us), a picture below the fold on the front page; later a short appreciation on the newspaper’s book page (if there is one), usually the work of a journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work [. . .]; and that would be that.
In fact, when the moment came, Vidal received far more generous treatment than he might have anticipated. The day that Vidal died, his picture promptly popped up on the “front page” of TheNew York Times website, and even though there are no longer paper “folds” in the online world, I’d say it was above rather than below where the fold used to be. The lengthy obituary (which could be accessed not only from the book pages, but from obits and other portals) was written by Charles McGrath, The New York Times Book Review’s long-time senior editor, hardly a mere “journalist or other near-writer who has not actually read any of the dead author’s work.” (See, Charles McGrath, “Gore Vidal Dies at 86; Prolific, Elegant, Acerbic Writer,” TheNew York Times, Aug. 1, 2012.) Nor was that all.
Perhaps surprisingly, on two of the national network evening newscasts that I caught (even though far fewer people watch network news today than in the past), there were prominent obituaries of Vidal, complete with pics, video clips, and sombre voice-overs. I remember thinking to myself that probably a lot of viewers would be puzzled about the fuss being made over the late Vidal or, more likely, asking each other and/or their Google search engine, “Who’s he?” Vidal’s death was also reported on CNN, and there was a tribute on its website by fellow novelist Jay Parini, who’s also the editor of Vidal’s Selected Essays, which I’ve recently been re-re-reading, as I’ll explain shortly.
That night, when I went to bed, I took with me Vidal’s 1981 historical novel, Creation, his very under-rated tale of the classical world told from the point of view of an elderly, blind Persian ambassador to Athens, whose adventures and memories include encounters with Herodotus, Thucydides, Socrates, Zoroaster, Buddha, and Confucius. Vidal was not exactly shy about doing virtuoso turns. I wanted to re-read a chapter or two in memory of its late author, and as on previous occasions I found the story and bravura writing as satisfying as ever. As I nodded off, I put the book not on the bedside table, but on the empty pillow next to mine, indulging in the terribly sentimental conceit that perhaps the book would be a little less lonely tonight, given that from now on it had to make its way in the world without its deceased scribe. As far as I know, that’s the only time I’ve slept with Mr. Vidal.
The next day, though, we were back to the blogosphere (or, in its nightmare mode, the flogosphere). The reason that the term “judeophobe,” which had probably not been included in Vidal’s expectations when he was contemplating his obits, caught my attention was no doubt because I’m also a descendent of the famous “Chosen People,” though admittedly I’m what’s known in the trade as a “bad Jew.” Surely, my however feeble anti-semitic radar should have picked up on, over the many years, Vidal’s alleged loathing of Jews, if it existed.
That’s what led me, a month or so later, to download Vidal’s Selected Essays. I wanted to check for any evidence of judeophobia and, more important, to see whether the essays were as scintillating as I remembered from reading them at the time of publication in various magazines, mainly The New York Review of Books over many years. The charge of judeophobia seemed prima facie unlikely, given that Vidal had lived for some 50 years with a Jewish companion, Howard Auster (now deceased). And, as I quickly re-discovered, there was absolutely nothing in the essays, including one of Vidal’s best-known essays that explicitly discusses Jews and homosexuals, “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” (1981), to substantiate the claim of judeophobia.
As a by the by, I should note that although Vidal’s early novel about homosexuality, The City and the Pillar (1948), wasn’t very good, Vidal’s subsequent writings on homosexuality, of which “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” is a paradigm example, were almost always on the mark (and almost always bitchy and funny). Not bad for a thinker whose starting position is that there is no such thing as “a homosexual,” there are only “homosexualist” acts or “same-sex” sex. Vidal thought “gays” and “straights” were fake constructed categories to divert attention from the remarkable fluidity of sexuality, as reported in Dr. Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behaviour in the Human Male (1948), which claimed that about a third of American males had had at least one same-sex encounter to the point of orgasm. All in all, Vidal probably did as much to advance the argument about homosexuality as any of the better known “gay liberationists.”
It took only a couple of minutes of Internet rummaging-around to get to the source of the judeophobia charge. My Facebook friend, it turned out, had been reading a batch of pro-Zionist blogs that slagged the recently-departed polemicist Vidal for his views on Israel. Since my friend was a fervent anti-Islamicist-terrorist (a perfectly respectable view), he had lately acquired a rather indiscriminate corollary affection for my Jewish compatriots who were citizens of Israel, especially the more militant right-wing members of that category (a not-so-respectable fondness).
The blogs and flogs, which had names like “Harry’s Place” and “The Socialism of Fools” (I’ll spare you the hyperlinks) both quoted from a 2010 Christopher Hitchens essay, written more in sorrow than in anger as they say, about the crankiness of Late Vidal and included the observation that Vidal had
a very, very minor tendency to bring up the Jewish question in contexts where it didn’t quite belong. [. . .] But these tics and eccentricities, which I did criticize in print, seemed more or less under control, and meanwhile he kept on saying things one wished one had said oneself.
The late Hitchens, who was no slouch as an essayist himself, was probably right about many of Late Vidal’s political failings, and no doubt it was true, as Hitchens pointed out, that Vidal got worse after age 75 (i.e., after Sept. 11, 2001).
While many criticisms of Vidal, both personal and political, are justified, the judeophobe charge doesn’t stick. In the end, it was just another complicated dispute about Israel, Zionism, and some American Jewish supporters of Israel, disputes of which there is no end. So, “judeophobe” is just exaggerated code for “anti-Zionist.” Phew! Enough of that. On to something more interesting, namely, how Vidal holds up as a writer.
My initial reaction to reading (or is it re-reading?) the Selected Essays a month or so after Vidal diedwas unexpected. I remembered the tremor of anticipation in picking up a new issue of New York Review and seeing that Vidal had an essay, and was about to say something-bound-to-be-interesting about Calvino, Updike, Mailer, Montaigne, Tennessee Williams, or, say, Frederic Prokosch, to pick a name out of a hat. Reading them now, there was a little ripple of disappointment that the essays on second, third, or umptieth reading weren’t as exciting as the first time around.
Second, I felt a tinge of melancholy about the disappearing world that Vidal limned. Who today cares about what Nathalie Sarraute or Alain Robbe-Grillet thought about the Nouveau Roman (“French Letters: Theories of the New Novel,” 1967)? Or what Vidal thought about their thoughts back in the day, or what he teasingly thought about the serious “Miss Sontag’s” thoughts about their thoughts (at least Vidal credits Susan Sontag with being the only American cultural commentator back then “to make a sustained effort to understand what the French are doing”)?
Doesn’t Vidal himself begin the essay on a grim note?: “To say that no one much likes novels is to exaggerate very little. The large public which used to find pleasure in prose fictions prefers movies, television, journalism, and books of ‘fact’.” As in his essay about “Calvino’s Death,” referred to above, wasn’t Vidal always lamenting the decline or absence of culture and education in America? Yes, he was quick to point out that the novel hadn’t disappeared; what had disappeared was the reader of serious novels (a point Philip Roth frequently reiterated in the 1990s). A half-century on, when the “large public” prefers Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, texting, and the rest to reading at all, is there any reason to reverse Vidal’s gloomy verdict?
Maybe I was feeling gloomy myself, or sadder and lonelier to live in a world without Vidal’s presence, or sorrowful over time’s erosion of our old passions and other freshnesses. In any case, I duly read the Selected Essays, not quite as passionate about Vidal as I’d been when his critics were denouncing him for crankiness and judeophobia. Good essayist, certainly, but maybe not as indispensable as I once thought. And would “that be that”?
It seemed like a slightly deflated response to a writer who had had as remarkable a writing life as anyone in the latter half of the 20th century. Vidal, born in 1925 at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where his father Eugene worked as an aviation instructor, and later went on to be an aviation pioneer in the Franklin D. Roosevelt administration, was raised in the heart of the Republic that would be a substantial part of his literary territory. His maternal grandfather was Thomas Gore, a senator from Oklahoma, with whom young Gore spent considerable time in Washington. When his mother remarried, it was to wealthy stockbroker Hugh Auchincloss, who later became the stepfather of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy. Through the latter connection, Vidal’s Washington ties were corresponding deepened, and his political interests were come by honestly (if that notion isn’t an oxymoron).
During World War II, Vidal served in the army, as a first mate on a freight supply ship in the Aleutian Islands. Upon demobilization the young veteran began writing Williwaw, a novel set on a troopship, which was published in 1946, when Vidal was 20. Two years later, in 1948, Vidal’s The City and the Pillar appeared, one of the first serious post-war novels about homosexuality, a subject Vidal would intermittently address for the rest of his writing life. The resultant career-damaging scandal caused by that early gay novel led Vidal to a clever profile-lowering end-around for the next decade or so: a series of detective novels written under a pseudonym, and then a lot of very successful writing for television, stage, and the movies, including Visit to a Small Planet, the hit Broadway play The Best Man, and the screenplay for the movie version of his friend Tennessee Williams’s Suddenly, Last Summer.
In the 1960s, a shrewder and more accomplished Vidal returned to writing novels. Julian (1964), Washington, D.C. (1967), and the best-selling Myra Breckinridge (1968) relaunched his fiction career and indicated his range. Julian signalled Vidal’s interest in the classical world, and perhaps came to fruition in the previously mentioned Creation (1981); Washington, D.C. was the beginning of a several volume American history cycle known as “Narratives of Empire” that included Burr (1973) and Lincoln (1984); and Myra Breckinridge began a line of satiric post-modernish confections, among them Duluth (1983), and Live from Golgotha: The Gospel According to Gore Vidal (1992).
Equally important, Vidal simultaneously began writing literary and political essays on a regular basis. The essays became volumes, a dozen or so books, and garnered such prizes as the National Book Critics Circle Award for The Second American Revolution (1982) and the National Book Award for United States (1993). Finally, but not to be forgotten, is Vidal’s own memoir, Palimpsest (1995), in which he recounts the tale of his teenaged, same-sex, one “true love” affair and all the rest that became history. Even with all of the above duly catalogued, there was much more; for those requiring the details of Vidal’s public life, his quarrels with Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, William Buckley et al., his film and cartoon appearances (on The Simpsons, where else?), as well as his political interventions and private life, Fred Kaplan’s biography, Gore Vidal (1999) will do.
Still, despite that nonpareil C.V., re-reading Vidal shortly after his death, I wondered what had happened to the magic.
Last month, as the first anniversary of Vidal’s passing approached, TheNew York Review, celebrating its 50th anniversary in print, reprinted a brief excerpt from one of Vidal’s essays that had first appeared in its pages, “The Ashes of Hollywood” (NewYork Review of Books, May 17 and May 31, 1973). I had completely forgotten that Vidal’s hilarious excoriation of the ten best sellers of one week’s listing many yesteryears ago didn’t begin with a discussion of the books at hand, but opened with a slightly garrulous reminiscence of Vidal’s days as a Hollywood screenwriter back in the mid-20th century:
“Shit has its own integrity.” The Wise Hack at the Writers’ Table in the MGM commissary used regularly to affirm this axiom for the benefit of us alien integers from the world of Quality Lit. It was plain to him (if not to the front office) that since we had come to Hollywood only to make money, our pictures would lack the one homely basic ingredient that spells boffo world-wide grosses. The Wise Hack was not far wrong. He knew that the sort of exuberant badness which so often achieves perfect popularity cannot be faked even though, as he was quick to admit, no one ever lost a penny underestimating the intelligence of the American public. He was cynical (so were we); yet he also truly believed that children in jeopardy always hooked an audience, that Lana Turner was convincing when she rejected the advances of Edmund Purdom in The Prodigal ‘because I’m a priestess of Baal,’ and he thought that Irving Thalberg was a genius of Leonardo proportion because he made such tasteful ‘products’ as The Barretts of Wimpole Street and Marie Antoinette.
In my day at the Writers’ Table (mid-fifties) television had shaken the industry and the shit-dispensers could now, well, flush their products into every home without having to worry about booking a theater. In desperation, the front office started hiring alien integers whose lack of reverence for the industry distressed the Wise Hack who daily lectured us as we sat at our long table eating the specialty of the studio, top-billed as the Louis B. Mayer Chicken Soup with Matzoh Balls (yes, invariably, the dumb starlet would ask, What do they do with the rest of the matzoh?). Christopher Isherwood and I sat on one side of the table; John O’Hara on the other. Aldous Huxley worked at home. Dorothy Parker drank at home.
On and on it goes, until Vidal is good and ready to explain what this preface about the movies has to do with the top ten best sellers. Not to keep us in suspense:
[. . .] since most of these books reflect to some degree the films each author saw in his formative years, while at least seven of the novels apear to me to be deliberate attempts not so much to re-create new film product as to suggest old movies that will make the reader (and publisher and reprinter and, to come full circle, film-maker) recall past success and respond accordingly [. . .]
And now, without further ado, we’re on to Number Ten on the best seller list, Two from Galilee by Marjorie Holmes, a novel about the biblical Mary and Joseph.
This is what it sounds like when the sashimi-master is flipping his knives: “Since Miss Holmes is not an experienced writer, it is difficult to know what, if anything, she had in mind when she decided to tell the Age-Old Story with nothing new to add.” Well, there’s some fun, Vidal allows, in reading an account of “a Jewish mother as observed by a gentile housewife in McLean, Virginia, who has seen some recent movies on the subject and heard all the jokes on television.” You can imagine the rest of the savaging.
Which is to say, I suddenly remembered what the Vidal magic was all about. Since TheNYRB had only published an anniversary snippet, when I climbed into bed that evening, I took my Kindle along and went straight to the rest of Vidal’s “Top Ten Best Sellers” essay. And soon I was re-re-reading Gore Vidal.
There’s a temptation here to go on and on and on, which is the way the elderly Vidal once described himself to Christopher Hitchens. But as we know from the obituaries, that’s just not possible. So I’ll refrain from quoting each and every juicy passage, echoing all the quotable quotes, citing the famous quips (well, I may allow myself a quip). I’ll leave aside the crankiness of Late Vidal, and I won’t attempt to justify the tendentious political ramblings, other than to note they often start from more than a grain of truth, and that the critique of empire that motivates them has a genuine historical basis. I’ll try to remember that this is just a little requiem, not a night at the opera. The main thing at a requiem or a literary re-appraisal is to stick with remembering.
For instance, I also remembered that I, after all, was indeed interested in what Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet thought of “the novel,” and of what “Miss Sontag” thought, and especially of what Gore Vidal skeptically, mockingly, but seriously thought about the whole thing, and I didn’t really care if no one else cared. And ditto for his thoughts about Calvino; his portrait of the Glorious Bird, Tennessee Williams; his musings on Updike; and his perfectly sensible suggestion in “Pink Triangle and Yellow Star” that gays, Jews, blacks, and any other would-be outcasts make common cause, as well as his parallel detestation of particular homophobic neo-conservative Jews; and I was perfectly willing to peruse whatever else his editor, Jay Parini, had selected for the re-read. The particular homophobic neo-conservatives Vidal names and rails against, by the way, are Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Dector, prominent American Jewish supporters of Israel (which is probably how the whole “judeophobe” slur got started in the first place).
Most of all, I remembered that I cared about the state of the culture, and the relationship between that culture and the possibility of democracy, which is ultimately Vidal’s subject. Or as Vidal once quipped (I paraphrase): Fifty per cent of Americans don’t read newspapers; fifty per cent don’t vote — let’s hope they’re the same fifty per cent. And finally, I remembered to put the Kindle with Vidal’s Selected Essays in it on the bedside table, rather than on the pillow next to mine.
Stan Persky’s most recent piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books is on Tao Lin and Alt Lit.
I guess I must have become, for want of a better expletive, an aficionado of Nick Drake’s music when I found myself ensconced for a time at university.
In retrospect, it all seems pretty logical now: straddled at the tail-end of a self-indulgent bout of thoroughly earnest teenage introspection, which had manifested itself through long solitary gambols over village greens; vague, confused affairs with willowy, callous girls; occasionally picking away tardily at cheap open-tuned guitars in an effort to “express myself”; studious, worshipful dialectics over the hidden gem-like enunciations on Blonde on Blonde – above all, that arch-affectation of the world-weary Misunderstood Youth.
It was fun for a while, and Nick Drake with his fragile quasi-bossa-nova inflected voice and almost overwhelmingly gentle hypnotic music fitted into the landscape perfectly for that time. Drake, mind you, had probably risen from roughly similar circumstances. Born while his parents were stationed in Burma, he was brought to his homeland when aged six and, through a long illustrious sojourn within England’s educational network, later landed himself a place in Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.
Once in Cambridge, Drake had become a part of both that whole cerebrally obsessive elitist capriciousness that the likes of Cambridge and Oxford seem fond of cultivating, and the activity on the outer periphery of the town itself. Cambridge was at that time (early ’68) starting to simmer with a certain well-honed enthusiastic self-enveloping energy: the Pink Floyd had probably set the ball rolling the previous year, their appearance providing a spotlight for the area which carried on through to such cultural events as the staging of a Cambridge Free Festival, John and Yoko doing one of their dynamic displays of “bag-ism” at the Lady Margaret Hall – a four-hour avant-garde extravaganza which also featured John Tchicai (a black saxophonist who had once worked with Archie Shepp), and the whole of the Cadentia Nova Danica.
Drake had won his scholarship to study English Literature but, according to friends and fellow pupils, seldom attended lectures, preferring instead to get further into music – and his guitar playing and songwriting in particular. (A previous article about Nick Drake has claimed that he went through an almost permanent depression while at Cambridge, which couldn’t be further from the truth, according to Brian Wells, one of Drake’s best friends at Cambridge and one of the quite a few “frustrated” musicians resident there at that time.)
Cambridge, according to those who have resided there, has harboured a number of such figures in its time. Drake, however, easily shone forth from this company in most every respect: a prolific songwriter, a dauntingly-fine-to-the-point-of-innovative guitarist and – a moot point this – the possessor of a more than fair vocal style; a charming, almost-breathy sound that fitted in somewhere between the incredibly diverse likes of Kevin Ayers and a male Astrud Gilberto. According to Wells, Drake was also always the first on his block to pick up on a new sound.
Randy Newman and Tim Buckley albums were to be found among Nick’s collection before other music devotees had got the message; Astral Weeks was another Drake Cambridge listening innovation; Blonde on Blonde was never far from the stereo, neither was Donovan or Jim Webb’s work with the 5th Dimension.
Friends are, in fact only too eager to point out Drake’s undying enthusiasm for most things, principally music, during his two years at Cambridge, his own musical progress being most spirited. It was later brought to the attention of, among others, one Robert Kirby, a music student from another college in the university complex who became most eager to work on arrangements for Drake’s songs. One number for example, Way To Blue, Kirby saw in terms of endowing with a quasi-Handel string ambience; another, River Man, with a hypnotic set of string charts to embellish the already all-pervasive dreamy quality. Thus was consummated a firm, totally fruitful relationship that was to last (professionally) through two out of three albums and (personally) up to the closing months of Nick’s life.
Drake, by this time, had reached the stage where private performances in friends’ lodgings (Wells mentions that certain facets of Nick Drake’s talents have never been brought to public attention, not the least being, for example, an adeptness at 12-bar blues improvisations) were turning to public performances in Cambridge itself. It was at one of these that he was “discovered” – by Ashley “Tyger” Hutchings, then bassist for Fairport Convention (later founder member of Steeleye Span and all-round die-hard ethnic English folk music pioneer), at that particular time very much the apple of Witchseason’s eye. Witchseason was, of course, the company that managed numerous high-quality, low-profile “underground” acts motivated – and more or less run single-handedly – by the incomparable Joe Boyd.
Boyd’s credentials were, and still are for that matter, quite peerless. Absolutely the vital organising body for London’s whole underground movement – the UFO and Middle Earth – production credits on the Floyd’s first single Arnold Layne, Incredible String Band svengali, the Fairports, of course … the list is endless and positively oozing with a kind of dead-eye sense of good taste and (a hackneyed word, sure, but most relevant here, I’d say) integrity easing up even to contemporary projects like that marvellous Hendrix movie and production credits for Maria (and currently ex-hubby Paul Butterfield’s Better Days luminary, Geoff) Muldaur.
Boyd was informed of Drake’s talents by Hutchings, went down to see for himself and at once became the third figure of the Drake-Kirby-Joe Boyd triumvirate which created … well first, of course, there was Five Leaves Left. The title refers to the dilemma of roll-yer-own smokers when the cigarette papers are running out, and was of no particular relevance to anything much really except that it sounded like it might be a good album title.
The cover said more: Drake the silent observer staring out of a window, dressed in an utterly nondescript functional style, the comers of his mouth curling ever so slightly on a face that screams with a kind of low-profile sensitivity. On the back a stranger is caught by the camera paralysed in mid-sprint, while Drake leans against a wall quite motionless, his face betraying no semblance of an expression. The gatefold shot is unfortunate only in that it portrays Drake the Artist – head and shoulders cloaked in pitch-black darkness, prone like some earnest John Donne student of metaphysical introspection.
It’s that word “introspection” which constantly springs to mind when Drake’s name is mentioned, which is a large part of “the image”, sure, but really Robert Kirby says it when he views Nick Drake the artist as remarkable for “his ability to observe, mainly. I see his work above all as a series of extremely vivid, complete observations and not mere exercises in introspection as some might. They’re almost like little epigrammatic proverbs. The music and the words are welded together in such a way as to make the atmosphere in all his songs the most important facet. I know that that was Nick’s primary purpose – I don’t think for example that he was hung up about his lyrics being ‘great poetry’ or anything. They’re there to complement … to compound a mood that the melody dictates in the first place”.
The latter point seems to be one that meets with general agreement among acquaintances and admirers (only one person I spoke to made any statement about “Nick being primarily a poet”). Whatever, its omnipresence on all Drake’s albums carves out a whole lustrous landscape that has seldom been touched and certainly never bettered by his singer-songwriter peers. Five Leaves Left is one of those albums that seem tied to exhorting and then playing on a particular mood in the listener – like Astral Weeks and Forever Changes certainly and arguably stationed on that particular echelon of creativity (though I wouldn’t personally like to enter into that particular argument).
The album’s qualities are variable, of course, even if smoothed over by an utterly seductive continuity of mood (a Time Outreview of Pink Moon, the third album, made mention of “Nick Drake’s exquisite 3am introspections”, which is one way of putting it, I suppose).
River Man is easily the album’s finest track: an utterly hypnotic guitar coda played with a kind of deceptively ambling sensuousness, almost throwaway lyrics edged with an oblique mysticism that acts in exactly the way that Kirby states, and then Kirby’s stunning string arrangement that suddenly swells up and levitates spiralling upwards and out, it is Drake at his most supremely spine-tingling effective.
The rest of the album is charming, fragile, observant … the adjectives roll off as easily as the melodies.
Island Records (the company Drake was signed with through Boyd’s Witchseason connection) loved it, critics drooled, everybody who made it their business to know exactly what was happening in music nodded in their arch pseudo-sage-like pose and predicted great things and Drake immediately became the object of the “But, my dear, have you heard?” conversations. The public largely ignored the album of course, but it had sold “encouragingly” if nothing else and who could blame a highly elated Nick Drake, whose academic leanings had long become quite dormant anyway, for leaving Cambridge to pursue his musical bent?
The company he was keeping in that sphere was perfect anyway: Boyd produced and was a source of constant encouragement, illustrious folk like Richard Thompson were helping out, Chris Blackwell was a modest but admiring benefactor. And then there was John Martyn and wife Beverley, another pair of Witchseason hopefuls with whom Drake struck up a strong friendship and mutual appreciation society.
Drake was a great admirer of the Martyn acoustic guitar technique and this state of affairs was undeniably reversed to a point where John, according to friends, picked up much of the former’s instrumental style.
Robert Kirby again: “Nick was an absolutely phenomenal guitarist … that’s a fact which is all too often merely glossed over. He was very adept at highly complex double-pick rhythms with the thumb on the bass string and the other fingers working on as many as four tunes at a time. He was a master of counterpoint to that extent. I know for a fact that John Martyn was very influenced by Nick’s work in that respect.”
Drake’s guitar playing revolved around several complex open tunings, principally certain mutations of the open-ended D and G chords. The instrumentals on Bryter Layter give one potent example of the personal technique which was to reach full fruition on Pink Moon. Bryter Layter is Nick Drake’s most outward-going and consequently commercial album. It is also the biggest seller, notching up something in the region of a humble 15,000 sales.
The personal positivism inherent in Drake’s psyche at the time cannot be overstated (if only to act as a contrast for the depressing bleak states that were to follow). Not that Nick was ever exactly one to be motivated by a sense of “drive” or ego – there is the story of the time Françoise Hardy, who, as a winsome breathy chanteuse must have obviously been drawn to Drake’s similar, superiority-wrought style, phoned Island Records, more or less ordering Drake over to France to write songs for her.
After much goading, Drake, ticket in hand, doggedly set off to the Hardy chateau and after a long journey arrived at the door which was answered by the maid. When asked who he was, Drake muttered, “Um … I’m Nick … Nick”, prompting the maid to become suspicious. Upon questioning the guests present (Ms Hardy was unfortunately not there at that particular moment) as to whether they knew who “zis Neek is”, and getting blank looks for replies, she more or less shut the door in his face.
Drake wandered back to England straight afterwards, a touch bemused by the whole incident. He and Hardy did record together eventually, though nothing appeared from the sessions. There is talk of some emotional attachment between the two, though little is known as to the exact nature of their relationship or even how long it lasted.
The only other person Drake ever wrote a song for was, bizarrely enough, Millie, of My Boy Lollipop, who recorded a reggae song of his called May Fair, one of those “quaint” pieces of observation – a rich lady getting in a chauffeured limousine while a tramp ambles past at the exact same moment. That was released as a single (Robert Kirby was arranging for Millie and got the song from Drake, utilising it thus, on mere impulse). It did absolutely nothing.
Back to Bryter Layter, though. The cover wasn’t as good this time. The front, for example, is a twee, unnecessary Nigel Waymouth photo of Drake the Homely Folkie sitting moon-faced and dozy-eyed pouring over a Spanish guitar and fronted by a pair of “bumper”-styled brothel-creepers.
The music though … well for a start there was more variety. The melodies were more fluid and easy. Hazy Jane II was as close to rock as Drake was ever to get – with a freewheeling swing-style that you could dance to, plus horns, no less, and great Richard Thompson guitar work. The personnel were stronger and more varied than before, still using Fairport members plus Danny Thompson (with whom Drake talked about forming some sort of band, without anything ever coming of it) but excursions into a kind of atmospheric cool jazz like Poor Boy and At the Chime Of the City Clock utilised Ray Warleigh on alto sax and Chris McGregor of Brotherhood of Breath on piano – even back-up singers Pat Arnold and Doris Troy. And then there was John Cale – at that point somewhere between his A&R gigs, first for Elektra and then Warner Bros, who was living with Joe Boyd at the time and played keyboards and viola on Fly and Northern Sky – both, interestingly enough, very much precursors to Cale’s own sound and style on Paris 1919 and even some of the new songs from his superb forthcoming album.
The cover again – the back-shot gets closer to the truth of the time. It’s a follow-up to the running/standing-still ambience number from the first album sleeve, except this time Drake’s on a highway watching a car speed by. He has his back to the camera.
Actually, Nick Drake never really felt comfortable in front of a camera, though strangely enough photographs of him (principally those of Keith Morris, who was the only photographer to ever get anywhere near him) are all too depressing statements of his personal decline through introspection, depression and, above all – and this is the word that friends choose with great care – confusion.
From 1970, which marked the release date of Bryter Layter, Drake’s final “up” period of any real length and consistency, up to and throughout 1973, Nick Drake’s life reached a bleak unhappy state of affairs that it’s perhaps unwise to dwell on in too much detail.
I earlier mentioned Bryter Layter’s commercial potential. It was released at the same time as Cat Stevens’ Mona Bone Jakon. Both were artists striving for public acclaim: Stevens received just that but Drake was pitifully ignored.
Not that even that has much to do with the depression. Drake was always the archetypal loner. He had his friends – Kirby, Wells, Keith Morris, John Wood, his engineer – but as often found himself in strange surroundings. He would occasionally consort with debutantes and the whole triple-barrel moniker brigade, even though he found their chosen lifestyles utterly facile.
He didn’t have many girlfriends, though many girls found him an incredibly romantic figure for fairly obvious reasons.
His confusion was something wrought via his destiny – though friends say there was no choice in the matter: no posing, no poetic gestures of the misunderstood troubadour. It was all a matter of course.
Drake slowly became more introspective, less easy to communicate with and everyone became concerned, worried and anxious for his well-being. He eked out a remarkably frugal existence living in Hampstead on £20 a week, and became so poor at one point he couldn’t even afford a new pair of shoes. It never crossed his mind to ask a friend to give him a pair. It was just accepted as a fact of life.
Positive moments were few and far between and often conversations, when there were indeed conversations at all, might well dwell on topics like madness or schizophrenia. And occasionally suicide.
Island Records, by now, had given up even thinkingin terms of Drake as some financial investment, though they still admired his talent and were only too willing to finance albums. It was Island Records, indeed, that paid his way to Spain for a short stay there just prior to the making of Pink Moon. This album was in fact recorded in two sessions over at Sound Techniques with just Drake and John Woods in attendance. Joe Boyd was busy in the States at the time – but, strangely, even he wasn’t missed.
Moon is, I suppose, what you might call the Artist’s Key Work. Brian Wells returned from abroad to find it already in the shops and marvelled at the fact that Nick, though quite lost in confusion and personal depression, could produce a work that captured him in the complete creative ascendant. His guitar playing, for example, is quite remarkable here – easily the best he ever allowed onto a record.
Pink Moon, though, is a strange, somewhat disturbing album. Wells likens it to a kind of Van Gogh statement (which is one way of looking at it); some of the songs do have obliquely sinister overtones to them; Know is a kind of paean to schizophrenia, that Syd Barrett would’ve loved to have written – “Know that I love you/ know that I don’t care/ know that I see you/ know I’m not there” – while even supposedly placid songs like Harvest Bread bear painful, oblique images of death in them: “Falling fast you kiss the flowers that bend/ And you’re ready now for the harvest bread”.
Drake’s lyrics occasionally ring with a certain positivity, but mostly they are filled with a kind of dark sadness, and bitter, resignedly cold observations. Photographs taken by Morris of Drake for the Pink Moon cover capture him staring into dull air, his face bearing that horribly doomed dough-like pallor of the terminal depressant – the one that ends up on the gatefold sleeve is inverted into a kind of mysterioso, doomed negative, while a shot of Drake shuffling away from the camera with a dog running by his legs was used in advertisements for the album.
Media coverage was, not surprisingly, sparse – one interview for Melody Makeris vague to the point of rendering itself totally “nada”, while an Island press release is something of a bad joke.
After Pink Moon, Drake spent some time in various mental hospitals. He’d left London in despair and returned to his parents’ house in Tamworth, and it was there that he sought help.
Mostly, though, it wasn’t followed up. Nick would check himself in and leave the same day. Everything from the taking of all manner of pills, to electric shock treatment was advised but seldom heeded. Friends became resigned to the imminent news that Nick Drake had taken his own life. It seemed all too inevitable.
And then something happened. The first thing anyone knew about it? The news came that Joe Boyd had driven to Island Record’s Hammersmith offices and promptly entered to inform said company that Nick Drake was ready to record again. Drake stayed in the back of the car.
Sessions were laid on at Sound Techniques and in a couple of sessions during the Summer of 1974, Drake, with Joe Boyd and John Wood, got to lay down four new tracks. To all intents and purposes Drake was back on something approaching the right track.
That’s only half the story, though.
What had occurred appears to have been something approaching a total psychic rebirth for Nick: he looked and sounded happier than in literally years. He was writing songs again and he even had a steady girlfriend. He was also smiling again. His parents, who had also lived with that daunting imminence of suddenly finding their son dead were, not unnaturally, elated. Everyone was.
Up until the night of 25 October, the situation had been brightening even further. Drake, always something of a perfectionist where his music was concerned, had scrapped the four tracks (though Wood and Boyd considered them quite beautiful), and was determined to return to the studios again and record better songs.
While anticipating Boyd’s return from the US, he’d gone over to Paris for some two weeks to live with a commune on a barge. He returned more contented than ever.
On the night of 24 November, in his bedroom at Tamworth where he was still living, Nick Drake had been playing some new riffs and songs in his pyjamas and recording them on a cassette player. Obviously nobody knows exactly what happened during those hours up to his death at approximately 6am the following morning, but the subsequent suicide verdict seems ludicrous – if only because of the fact that were Drake to have actually wanted to kill himself, there were bottles full of aspirins and barbiturates on hand for such a task.
Anti-depressants are the last thing to take in these circumstances, particularly by someone like Drake who, like most of us probably, was fairly ignorant of the potency of such tablets. The Tryptizol he was prescribed is so potent that, were even one to be taken over the prescribed limit, death could easily follow in purely accidental circumstances.
All of Drake’s friends and acquaintances – including, as it happens, a student doctor I spoke to – are quite adamant: there was no suicide note, no grand flourish which so often tends to typify the self-imposed taking of one’s life.
All things being considered – and particularly given the circumstances and nature of Nick Drake’s death – the coroner’s verdict [of suicide] deserves, at the very least, to be questioned.
Obituaries are probably the hardest of all pieces to write, particularly when you’ve never actually met the person whose death you’re mourning. I always wondered what it would be like to write my first obituary, and decided ultimately that I’d never let myself be placed in a situation where I’d have to do just that.
All I can say when all is said and done is that I liked Nick Drake. His music was the proverbial good companion at a time when I appreciated such a commodity. It was strange really: after turning my back on that whole particular era of my life some two and a half years ago, I only recently rediscovered how fine his music was some few weeks before his death was reported (and it must have been the most pitifully under-publicized death in the whole ugly, depressing tradition of the whole “death” in rock thing.)
Island Records have not decided anything yet concerning any kind of recorded memorial (for example a “Best of” which could utilize the four recently recorded tracks) and, sure, it might be cited as a tasteless gesture – butNick Drake’s music should be heard by more people. Its own tastefulness speaks for itself.
And finally, of course, one could make a lavish play on the incredible irony of Nick’s death coming at a time when he had regained a certain personal balance, but that gesture would ultimately merely compound the grotesque tragedy of it all.
When Drake died, Brian Wells took upon himself the task of informing various friends and acquaintances of the fact. Among those he phoned was Nick’s sister Gabriella Drake, a young, currently very successful actress who was at that time acting in a Bristol rep company, performing some Noel Coward plays. She also is currently playing in the successful BBC TV series The Brothers, though she’s yearning for greener pastures, so to speak. The scriptwriters are, right now, planning her characterisation’s “death” via some car-crash or other.
© Nick Kent, 1975
•Read more from our Rock’s Backpages series