I think I sort of enjoy doing book reviews, although I’m almost entirely positive that I’m doing them wrong. I can’t do them in the same manner that I do with records (put record on, type, stop typing when record ends, put the kettle on) as I’d be here all week, so I rather worryingly have to rely on memory. Fortunately, this particular tome is rather short (which probably tells its own sad story) and full of very memorable and poignant passages and pages.
I was immediately drawn to this book upon reading a press review last month. Not only is the artist a particular favourite of mine and his Pink Moon album one of my favourite ever albums (and a strange comfort at times, if a little frightening at others), but the way that the author begins this story is something that has a bit of a resonance with the reasons for me doing all this in the first place.
Gorm Henrik Rasmussen is a Danish author and poet who first had this book written in his native language back in 1980-1981 and published in 1986, an 80-page labour of love that stemmed from a series of events that began with a friend playing him Nick’s final album in 1978, and is reignited in 2007 when he is contacted by someone with a view to finally translating this unique view on Drake’s life into English, rewriting and appending his original text to double its original size and remaining largely precise and revealing.
These dates are a lot more telling than they first seem: nowadays, the name and music of Nick Drake is everywhere thanks partly to the devotion of family and colleagues who knew how good his music was when absolutely nobody was buying it (hats off especially to Joe Boyd and Chris Blackwell who contractually agreed that his records would never go out of print), largely to a couple of high-profile adverts pushing his work into the mainstream (a car manufacturer in the US and a brand of cough medicine in the UK), but most importantly from those who did get the chance to listen to him back in the day and plugged away incessantly and devotedly until the rest of us finally got the hint. When Gorm Henrik heard Pink Moon for the first time, he was doing so at a time when almost nobody else was. When this book was published, this was still the case – the famous fame-catapulting VW ad was still thirteen years away. So it must have come as a huge surprise to Nick’s parents at home in Tanworth-in-Arden five years after their son’s death from an overdose of antidepressants when this young Dane called them from a phonebox in their village to ask for an interview. The initial response of Rodney, Nick’s father (“I really don’t know if we have got anything interesting to tell you”) and the mostly inaudible conversation with Molly, his mother (“Ask him if he’ll read some of his poems!”) that seems to have been the single event that made this book possible, is the real beginning of this tale that is heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure.
The first half of the book is disarming and almost idyllic in its telling of Rasmussen’s initial encounters with Nick’s mum & dad and a reasonably-sized list of friends describing Nick’s formative years as a promising athlete and naturally-gifted student. ”None of us really knows him” on an otherwise exemplary report card providing the foreshadowing in the telling of an early life that comes across as happy and carefree as most could wish for as told by others: with no words available from Nick himself, Rasmussen does a good job of filling in the odd missing scene (buying his first guitar, for example) by using his own understanding of the young man to good effect, it’s easy to forget in these instances where Nick is put in the third person such is the seamlessness between the character in his family and friends’ recollections and Rasmussen’s own prose.
So when things start to go wrong for Nick just after the book’s halfway point, it’s hard not to feel emotionally involved. It’s really odd from this modern-day perspective to initially get to grips with the fact that things started to fall apart for Nick at the same moment when the world should have opened up for him. Instead of the world becoming Nick’s oyster after the release of debut Five Leaves Left and a well-received support slot at the Royal Festival Hall, his record didn’t sell and he began to withdraw almost immediately. This seemed to accelerate throughout the book, as the idyll of the early chapters is replaced by a rapidly-increasing darkness typified by the book’s cover – the Pink Moon of his last record’s fame depicted at the bottom of an abyss.
As s slight aside, page 139 of this book reduced me to tears. Without the use of an interviewee as reference I suspect that this short piece is written with some educated guesswork by the author as to the state of mind of his subject, but it’s such a stark reminder of my own experiences of depression and failed attempts to control it that the two paragraphs here absolutely break my heart.
The main initial draw of the book (and of Nick Drake in general) is the telling of the music and of the obviously tortured soul behind it. What this book achieves is to humanise the myth, and it does so through his parents, who it has to be said come across as absolutely wonderful and Molly & (especially) Rodney make a beautiful narrative and emotional foundation to this whole tale. They were obviously completely devoted parents just as they were to each other – Rodney’s ‘Black Book’ that he left to Molly when he died is as wonderful a gesture of longlasting love as you could ever wish to read.
It probably helps the internal narrative if you’ve already seen A Skin Too Few, a film on Nick’s life made some years later in similar circumstances to this book. The subject matter is undoubtedly sad, but there is little to no sadness in the voices of his family, friends and collaborators: just a wistful fondness from people who wished nothing but the best for him. And even when the story is at its blackest, there is a glimmer of humour to be found – the idea of getting John Martyn round to cheer Nick up sounds like the strangest thing to do given that the two artists were polar opposites as far as their personalities went, and the incredulity of this situation is stretched further when, after Nick went to bed early, this noted hellraiser spent the rest of the night and part of the following morning chatting to the upper-middle class Rodney and Molly. This whimsical episode is brought crashing back down to Earth however when John (who wrote Solid Air for Nick after his death) notes that “Whenever you leave Nick, you always feel that you let him down”.
The thing that the reader will take away from this book is the love that seemingly everyone who had anything to do with Nick Drake had for him, even if many of them only met each other for the first time at his funeral. It successfully tells the too-short story of Nick’s life and musical legacy from a host of perspectives, not least from Rasmussen’s own as a fan who had been so touched by what he heard his friend play to him one evening that he cold-called the artist’s mum and dad – two people who took him into their lives for a long time. Pink Moon is an incredibly moving and affirming read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to fans old and new alike.
Pink Moon: A Story About Nick Drake is published by Rocket 88 Books, read more about it here.