Just as the train leaves Victoria Station, I put in my earphones, choosing Nick Drake’s first album on Spotify. Third song, “Three hours from London” – that’s exactly the time the train needs to get to our destination: the small town of Warminster in Wiltshire. Drake’s songs are one of these that seem ideal for travelling: they move in the constant, slow rhythm of the train wheels rolling along the rails, leaving enough space for the trees and flowers that pass by to blend in and form a visual-acoustic wallpaper.
Nick Drake certainly knew rural England very well: growing up in a small village in Warwickshire, he left at an early age to attend a prestigious boarding school in Marlborough, a just marginally bigger town in rural Wiltshire – two places steeped in history and myth: there are tales of ghosts throughout Warwickshire, whereas Marlborough is said to harbour the burial place of Merlin. In addition, the ancient Avebury Stone Circle is only a few miles away – with Silbury Hill, Europe’s biggest prehistoric artificial mound (also stated to be a pyramid by some) and Kennet Long Barrow, a prehistoric burial place. Places that connect (back) to a past, to a time when it was common belief that there was something greater, more important than mankind – same as Nick Drake’s music does: “Drake’s music seems to suggest a moment of stillness that is linked to rural bliss and a suspension between the mundane nature of reality and the potentiality of something far greater and unknowable… something that seems both timeless and deeply rooted in the past.” (from: “Nick Drake – Dreaming England”).
This becomes clear if one looks at the “vocabulary” of his lyrics: abstract concepts like time (“Three Hours”, “Time has told me”, “Day Is Done”), the planets (“Things Behind The Sun”, “Pink Moon”, “Saturday Sun”) and nature (“River Man”, “Fruit Tree”, “Harvest Breed”), often intertwined with each other, seem prevalent. You can easily imagine him as a medieval bard, roaming through the woods with his lute, stopping in awe in front of two trees which embrace each other. And indeed, Drake is sometimes compared to the Renaissance composer John Dowland, the great melancholic of the 16th century.
Immersing oneself in nature can be like a cure, as philosopher Alain de Botton states in his book “The Art of Travel” – following Wordsworth: We forget about the “vulgar” emotions that the dense gathering of people in cities awake in us (envy, pride, desire) and pigeonhole ourselves into a bigger context. All the more so if the nature in front of us seems rather overwhelming: “Sublime places repeat in grand terms a lesson that ordinary life typically teaches viciously: that the universe is mightier than we are, that we are frail and temporary and have no alternative but to accept limitations on our will […]” And really, as the days are passing by – filled with “simple” activities like rising with the sun, taking long walks in nature, smelling the peculiar combination of light, pollen and sweat on my skin, looking out of the windows of our Bed & Breakfast up to a perfectly well-rounded and healthy moon – the more I forget about the novel project I still have to finish, about my on-going translation, about the 500 or so words I still have to learn for my next Chinese test. It seems that the whole of rural Wiltshire was a big “Pain Relief Clinic”, the sort which I have seen along the road the other day and which doesn’t exist in Germany.
No wonder that Nick Drake’s psychological state began to deteriorate as soon as he moved to the city in 1969. He moved into a flat in Hampstead Heath, only 15 minutes from the Georgian villa where John Keats had lived one century ago (and which we would also visit) – another great melancholic. Of course, Hampstead Heath had still been a village back then, whereas by the 1960s, it was already crowded with people and automobiles on some corners. It was here that Nick Drake wrote most of his second album, including some of his most “elevator music”-like pieces (“Introduction”, “Bryter Layter”). Yet, this does not discredit these songs in my eyes; they are perfect for a drive through British suburbs or small towns, past dainty brick houses with neat front porches – parts of the English “landscape” that are easy-going and cosy. They are what lets this country “breathe”, in the same way the elevator music-like pieces leave you breathing space between the denser, darker songs.
Perhaps they also let Nick Drake take a mental breath – yet not for long, as he didn’t feel at home in London. On the cover and in the booklet of his second album, he is portrayed standing on London pavements, in no hurry to go anywhere, while other people are passing by him, seemingly with distinct destinations. He is the anti-flaneur, deriving no pleasure from his walks, just strolling the city to escape the loneliness of his room. The complexity of the city, the mass of things maybe showed him the arbitrariness of life (see his song “One of these things first”: “I could have been a signpost, could have been a clock…”). And the more he was confronted with the mass of people, the more he might have felt the pressure of “envy, pride and desire” upon him; his records sold worse than he had thought, during his performances, the voices of people often drowned his subtle guitar picking. At some point, his frustration turned into depression, and he decided to move back to his parents’ house.
It seems very likely that he wanted to reconnect himself to nature there – the place where he had been sufficiently content most of his early life. During these last years of his life, he often took his parents’ car and drove around the vicinity of his hometown for hours. But his mood didn’t improve; he seemed even more aimless than in the city. Having “failed” as a flaneur in the city, he now failed as a wanderer in nature, always being separated from it by a few inches of sheet and glass. Did he put that barrier between him and nature deliberately? Or had nature somehow closed a door on him, and with it, time? Had the past, the constant presence of Arcadian England in his mind – which was of such a vital importance to him – closed the gate and all that was left for him now was a disturbing present and a bleak future?
No wonder that it was during this time that Drake created his last – and most famous – album Pink Moon, presenting us with the darker sides of nature: fading colours, looming planets, lonely paths. The many choices the city once presented to him now get narrowed down to only one choice: “You can take the road that leads you to the stars/I can take the road that will see me through”. And then, of course, the famous, weirdly comforting swan song to mental health, to life, to earth, reminding us of Kirsten Dunst lying on a stone next to the river, bathing in the shine of the planet Melancholia: “Pink moon is on its way… Pink moon gonna get ye all”. And suddenly, you realise that this dark side had been there all along, that, in Drake’s songs, nature had always cruel and uplifting at the same time: “But while the Earth sinks to its grave/You sail to the sky on the crest of a wave”.
Nick Drake died on November 25th in his home village from an overdose of antidepressant pills. He is buried beneath an old, sturdy tree, presumably just the way he would have wanted to.