I Saw Nick Drake

Robyn Hitchcock's ‘I Saw Nick Drake’ is a melancholy song for a sad day, for I am writing this having just come back from the funeral of Bettina Jonic - singer/writer//teacher/campaigner and most importantly to me, mother of my beloved Stas. Writing Bettina's obituary, I was reminded how it is impossible to capture even a fraction of the life of someone who’s gone, because as Dylan sagely sings, we contain multitudes.

This year has been one of great loss for my family with the passing of not only Bettina but also that of my father, James Searle Page, and our faithful hound of nearly seventeen years, Guinness. Theirs were all long lives and not foreshortened by Covid unlike the lives of so many during this devastating pandemic. When those you love die, holes are torn in the fabric of your life and one way or another, you have to learn to live with the absences. Death always comes too soon, however, there is some solace to be found when thinking about those, like Bettina, James and indeed Guinness, who were lucky to have enjoyed long lives, well lived.

Robyn Hitchcock’s melodic time and motion study I Saw Nick Drake’ reflects on the brevity of this life by reminding us of the shooting star arc of the late singer-songwriter named in the title. For those few people reading this who are not familiar with Nick Drake and his music, he was a brilliant folk-influenced singer-songwriter and guitarist who recorded three essential albums, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Later and Pink Moon for Island Records between 1969 and 1972. For a short while Nick’s star sone brightly but was gone before more than a small number of people were given a chance to take it in and marvel at its beauty. Tragically, on 25th November 1974, Nick Drake died from an overdose of the prescribed antidepressant amitriptyline: he was only 26 years old.

Nick Drake’s songs weren’t widely known in his lifetime but over the years, through word of mouth and reverential references in the music press, people like Robyn and I would ‘discover’ them and be immediately smitten.  I bought Nick Drake’s first two records on the same day I first saw the Go-Betweens (please visit floor 2 of the Tower to find out more) – an auspicious day for me musically and I wonder where and when Robyn first became aware of Nick Drake’s music. Thanks to the internet and the artistically inappropriate (but commercially savvy) use of Pink Moon in an advertisement to flog Volkswagens, Nick Drake’s songs are now widely known and he is now rightly lauded as one of the greats. In fact, these songs are ubiquitous due to their frequent deployment in bland coffee chain shops to create ‘atmosphere’ but thankfully, the songs are so perfect, their beauty remains undiminished.

Nick Drake does not have a dedicated floor in the Tower of Song as there is no known footage of him performing but his music drifts through the Tower. Echoes of his work can be heard shimmering in the songs of other artists and it is directly referenced here in the chords of Robyn’s lovely meditation I Saw Nick Drake.

‘I think I must have first heard ‘I Saw Nick Drake’ at one of the several of Robyn’s performances I attended at the much missed 12 Bar Club some time around the millennium. Located just off Denmark St - London’s Tin Pan Alley’ - the 12 Bar Club, was built in 1635, first serving as a stable, then as a forge which was in operation right up until the First World War. The 12 Bar was a wonderfully atmospheric if somewhat cramped venue. Hearing Robyn, cast free of a band, and clearly having been working at his acoustic guitar playing, sing this song one summer evening cast that magic spell where time just slips away. Watching the motes of centuries old brick dust picked up in a slant of sunlight, it almost seemed that if I turned round, I might catch the tall figure of Nick Drake, slightly hunched in a corner at the back, looking on.

Musically, I Saw Nick Drake has the lazy flow of an English river, bringing to my mind summer days spent by the Lugg or the Nene, the kind of summer days that as a child stretch out forever and that are for those of us who are undoubtedly past the halfway mark, never last long enough. The song’s lyrics are more direct than those of much of Robyn’s earlier work, a large proportion of which delight in absurdist wordplay just because he can. I Saw Nick Drake reminds us of the transience of our existence in the endless ocean of deep time, that we are ‘in bloom’ only for a short period like ‘the strawberries of English weather’. It’s a song that pulls no punches as to the inevitable -

The habits of a lifetime

Will lay you low

Into your grave

And when you're gone

You take your whole world with you

I Saw Nick Drake was one of many highlights of the ‘Songs of Sex, Death, Tomatoes and Squid’ setlist when Robyn performed a Wild Hare Club show on 31st of May 2008 at the Black Lion. It was a beautiful evening and we’d decorated the tables with blue bottles filled with meadow buttercups. Everyone was there, including a tall figure silhouetted in the doorframe at the far end of the room listening in – someone passing through who I recognised but couldn’t quite place.

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