I have been listening in earnest to Nick Drake’s songs for about nineteen years; what I have noticed has led me to a distinct conclusion. If there is a certain thematic unity inhering in Drake’s lyrics, it has to do, oddly enough, with tropes which Lou Reed also employed; the dialects, street vernaculars, and movements of drug dealers, drug runners, and their minions. Few would think to connect Drake with the Velvet Underground; the difference is that where Lou Reed is direct, Drake is elliptical. It is possible to hear songs like “River Man” from Six Songs on Internet Archive many times and never quite understand what is being insinuated. Indeed, those who do not find this theory germane may choose to hear the Drake lyrics as harmless treacle. Nevertheless, a hinge is there to decoding Drake’s songs as full of drug decoy language, the manner in which dealers and “heads” double-talk to convey their messages.
“River Man” is one of Nick Drake’s most beloved songs. If you listen closely to how the lyrics do or do not cohere, it is clear that open vistas present themselves in many directions: “Betty said she prayed today/ for the sky to blow away/ or maybe stay/ she wasn’t sure/ for when she thought of summer rain/ calling for her mind again/ she lost the pain/ and stayed for more.” It all counts either as baby-talk and gibberish in the manner of Donovan Leitch (Drake’s voice is strikingly similar to Donovan’s) and his “Mellow Yellow,” or extended euphemism and metaphor. If I choose to regard “River Man” as euphemism rather than gibberish, it is because the chorus enhances this impression: “Gonna see the river man/ gonna tell him all I can/ ‘bout the plan/ for lilac time/ if he tells me all he knows/ ‘bout the way his river flows/ and all-night shows/ in summertime.” The chord progression and offbeat time signature of “River Man” are foreboding, but the string arrangement by Robert Kirby elevates to recording into something as sublime as the Cambridge where, we know, Drake wrote it. The River Cam, for
I have written a long piece about similar issues around “At the Chime of a City Clock” from “Bryter Layter.” But it is also the case that the raga-influenced “Three Hours,” also from Six Songs, sticks close to lyrical theme of decoys, decoy points, and drop-offs or hand-offs: “Three hours from sundown/ Jeremy flies/ hoping to keep/ the sun from his eyes/ out from the city/ and down to the cave/ in search of a master/ in search of a slave.” That there is a master-slave dialectic between different characters in the drug-running business is common knowledge; it is a pitch-black mafia world of masters and slaves. The song is in a minor key, and as the tempo changes, and then changes back, there is the sense of lurching through a dark, forest-like space. In a strange way, Drake has more in common with Reed and the Velvets than the Doors do; Jim Morrison’s lyrics are usually wider and more expansive than Drake’s and, more than Drake, Morrison preferred the collage form to the precise vignette. On “Bryter Layter,” and other than “At the Chime,” “Poor Boy” is a wry and unusually candid self-portrait, but it begs a question which does relate more than indirectly to the themes of drugs, drug pushers, and drug running: is this protagonist a poor boy just from following his muse, or has he deteriorated owing to the fast-paced and deleterious lifestyle which follows drugs and drug-running? Where Drake’s final full album, “Pink Moon,” is concerned, I have always wondered if the phrase “pink moon” is a decoy for a specific strain of hash, pot, or acid, which was going around London or Cambridge when Drake wrote the song; as usual, there is a foreboding quality to the reference: the fact that “pink moon” is going to “get you all” could refer to a suddenly vulnerability in regard to the authorities, or if the strain is just too strong for most heads’ nervous systems.
“Parasite” and “Harvest Breed” from “Pink Moon” stride into lyrical territory so elliptical that whatever the decoy is, it isn’t particularly on the surface enough to decode. Yet, the bare-bones, haunted simplicity of the music (“Pink Moon” consists only of acoustic guitar, acoustic piano and voice) decoys in itself a state of total loneliness and vulnerability, a protagonist floating into inner space for all time; and the arc of Drake’s three major albums, to the extent that the major lyrical gist of them has to do with drugs and intoxication, represent an initiation, a climax, and then a steep fall from grace. Drake died in 1974 at the age of twenty-six, without his music having attained significant commercial success. He is now entrenched as a cult icon in rock music. As his best songs age into the new century, the underworld they expose will also be revealed and investigated; an underworld that not only flips the idealism of the Sixties over and inverts it but derails it into cacophonous and incomprehensible darkness. Drake’s best songs do take as a theme the underworld of drugs and decoy-ism; as such, the space around Drake, which lets his lyrics slide into a trough against the strength of his musical acumen, will now be filled, and Drake come into his own as a well-rounded rock artist.