Friday, January 02, 2015

River Man

I was given a handsome new book for Christmas, Nick Drake: Remembered for a While.  It is made up of miscellaneous writings, interviews, letters, diary excerpts and photographs from the Nick Drake archive. For me, the most charming essay is by Danish poet Gorm Henrik Rasmussen, who came over to England to interview Nick Drake's parents in 1979 and left with a tape of early unreleased recordings and an overriding impression of their kindness.  Rodney Drake went to the trouble of picking him up and driving him through the Warwickshire countryside under a cloudless November sky to the family house at Tanworth-in-Arden.  The first thing they did was to look round the garden that had been a source of solace to Rodney during Nick's depression, but which had also been the scene of happier childhood days.  Rasmussen describes the way this garden 'opens onto a hilly landscape, cut across with creeks; stubble fields, moss-grown stone fences, little copses and meadows as far as the eye can see.  I try to imagine what it must have been like to grow up here.  Boys need a lot of space to romp about in.  If I were a songwriter and my point of origin was this spot, the likelihood would be that words such as 'sky', 'sun', 'rivers', 'leaves', 'wind' and 'grass' would slip into my vocabulary with the same ease as moving one's feet or drawing a breath.'
'Black days of winter all were through
The blossoms came and they brought you' 
These simple lyrics are from the opening of 'Blossom Friend', one of the Nick Drake songs that Rasmussen had not heard before that day.  Leafing now through the handwritten lyrics reproduced in this book I see that the cycle of the seasons featured in three other early compositions, 'Rain', 'Blue Season' and 'Time Of No Reply.'  In his long essay 'Exiled from Heaven', the late Ian McDonald wrote of Nick Drake's literary influences and one of his speculations leapt out at me, as it mentions two of my favourite books.  'Drake may have derived this haiku-like simplicity from books on the shelves of every hopeful young writer in the mid-Sixties: The Penguin Book of Japanese Verse and Basho's The Narrow Road to the Deep North.'  It would be fascinating to know more about what Nick Drake had been reading when he composed his songs.  In another of the book's essays, Will Stone wonders whether he might have encountered in translation the visionary German poets H√∂lderlin and Trakl.  What we do know is that he was influenced by William Blake, a writer he studied at Cambridge and apparently came to regard as 'the only good English poet'.

As Ian McDonald says, 'it's crucial to recognise that Drake was not a poet and that it's misleading to treat his lyrics as verse.'  But the teenage Nick Drake did try his hand at poetry and there are a couple of examples reproduced from his days at Marlborough College.  The book also has a photograph of a school notebook in which he has written out Robert Southey's onomatopaeic waterfall poem 'The Cataract of Lodore' (1820).  I wrote about this poem here a couple of years ago and said 'if you converted the rhythms and rhymes of this poem to music, you might hear echoes of the way water sounds change as they cascade down the rocks'. Perhaps similar thoughts occurred to Nick Drake?  One of the most admired songs, on his first album, 'River Man', seems to evoke the flow of water.  Folk singer Robin Frederick puts it this way her contribution to the book.
'By writing a song about a river that is based on groups of five beats (5/4), Nick subtly conveys the feeling that there's an extra beat, one that spills over into the next group of beats, pulling you forward, like the momentum of a river current ... Everything is in wave-like motion, everything is flowing with a rhythmical, swaying feel that literally picks you up and carries you down the river.'

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I read your post back in January on Nick Drake. I was unfamiliar with him and his music but was intrigued by what you wrote about him and landscapes. This morning I had the chance to learn more about this young man, his life and his music. In the blog Landscapism there is an excellent documentary on Nick Drake entitled A Skin Too Few - The Days of Nick Drake.After watching it I returned to some Landscapes to reread RIver Man. My second reading was even more enjoyable after knowing a bit more about Nick Drake. Just wanted to say thanks. Kathryn Fabrizio Eszeki