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XXIII: 1969 Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left

Nick Drake - Five Leaves Left

When relistening to Nick Drake's small precious œuvre in the last couple of days I realised I could never ever choose a favourite album by him (though I've done it here before). From the beginning on I have been exposed to the Fruit Tree box which includes all three studio albums plus the four songs recorded in 1974, a couple of months before his death. It has always been of one piece for me without any disposable song. As I let 1970 (Bryter Later) and 1972 (Pink Moon) slip by now I have to select the last remaining Nick Drake album.

Looking at the contenders it was easy to choose. Though there was also Velvet Underground's stunning double album 1969. Live with Lou Reed. One of the best live albums of all-time. Lou is very funny when introducing the songs and the over-all atmosphere is so relaxed. But Nick Drake engraved himself much more in my heart. One explanation was that I discovered him a long time before the Velvets.

That is not the main reason though. Five Leaves Left didn't change my life. It confirmed it. I had been an introspective and almost suicidal teenager already when I heard him for the first time in the winter of 1979/80. Listening to Nick Drake's soft tender voice singing lines like

So leave your house come into my shed Please stop my world from raining through my head

Man in a Shed

didn't make things better. But they made them feel better. I had found a brother in soul who appropriately had overdosed in his mid-twenties on anti-depressants. There was an aura around him and additionally I seemed to be one of the few people knowing of his music. Outsiders are attracted by outsiders, that must be a psychological truth.

Five Leaves Left was his first studio album. Smokers of roll-ups will decipher the title easily. It alludes to the message printed on Rizla papers when only five papers are left in the box. A nice reminder to help the smoker not to run out of one of the two necessary parts to roll a cigarette. In retrospect I also read the title as Five Years Left as Nick Drake had only five years to live after the recording of the album. And he probably knew that his life was going to be very short.

There are more foreboding signs on this record. In Fruit Tree Nick Drake anticipates the lack of success he would have during his lifetime and suffer from:

Fame is but a fruit tree So very unsound It can never flourish 'til its stock is in the ground So men of fame can never find a way 'til time has flown Far from their dying day

For those who have no idea how this album sounds and who are still with me I can say that FLL is very eclectic and very original at the same time. It is a songwriter album by a guy who was a guitar virtuoso using alternate tunings (like Joni Mitchell and Sonic Youth). I would file FLL under chamber folk jazz. Some arrangements are almost classic with string sections. Danny Thompson's (Pentangle) bass is rather prominent on FLL and provides the jazz vibe. Richard Thompson (Fairport Convention) plays electric guitar on the first song Time Has Told Me and it makes me think of a pedal steel, there definitely is a country tinge to it. There is also congas on two songs (Three Hours and Cello Song) which adds a rhythmic world music ingredient. The most striking components are nevertheless Nick's singing and his perfect fluid play of the acoustic guitar. His voice is innocent and mature at the same time. If it doesn't touch you I can't imagine that you could ever be my friend. On the two subsequent albums he maybe reached higher highs (and lower lows) than here: the iceberg-melting instrumentals on Bryter Later and the heart-breaking personal confessions of someone who was living in his own world on Pink Moon. But on the pastoral FLL everything is there already. The deep, life-inherent melancholy and the ability to put it into song. I think Nick Drake's battery had run out of energy after the three studio albums. He had condensed his life into music, hardly anybody had listened to it and that overdose was a logical consequence. He had completed his life, there was nothing left to say.

Here is Cello Song. It is one of the less emotional and more universal songs on the album. Somewhere in between classical, world and guitar gem.

I like how Gabrielle Drake, Nick's sister, responds to the eternal question if it was suicide or not:

I personally prefer to think Nick committed suicide, in the sense that I'd rather he died because he wanted to end it than it to be the result of of a tragic mistake. That would seem to me to be terrible: for it to be a plea for help that nobody hears.

Further reading:

Here is the overview of the series 40 years, 40 albums of which part XXIII was this post.


yes, a great choice and a lovely exposition of why it effects you. i suppose i'd heard some of his songs during the time and later but, if so, then they really didn't have any effect on me. it wasn't until a big piece in a 90s Mojo mag with excellent writing by a couple of people that i really wanted to hear some. so i borrowed a comp and was caught by the same things you were. ofcourse, i've loved his stuff ever since.

... link  


i can't say how unhappy and unsatisfied i am with what i wrote there. when trying to write about the music i really love i get all speechless and i am unable to write anything consistent that does the music justice. there was so much more i wanted to write but it's so unfocussed, maybe i should just write stream-of-consciousness entries though i am sure they won't be fun to read. whatever. thank you very much for those nice words. if one person in the world likes what i scribble down here it is more i could have ever hoped for. i should stop this self-depreciation thing, it is a spiral going where i don't wanna go. it's just stronger than me. the weird thing is it goes together with hubris. as i have also the tendency to goof on others.

a simple equation i forgot in the review:

nick drake = magic

... link  


i agree writing about music is as difficult as or even more difficult than writing about literature. every time you've cut a path through the jungle the weed immediately grows back behind you. and thus authors BY RULE are forever insecure about their own achievements, and more often than not the resulting lack of self confidence must be counterbalanced by arrogance. in all honesty i haven't read anything here yet which led me to conclude you're the arrogant type. it's all pretty sane.

i just wondered about the "coincidence" of the matching title ("5 years left"). makes one think he planned his own death really. how absolutely weird.

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let's not talk about arrogance. believe me, 3rd parties in real life have told me about it. but you are probably right. it has to do with insecurity. and self-protection.

the prophetic title. i think it is partly by accident. drake did not want to live in this materialistic, soulless world. it could have been 3, 7 or ten years. it happened to be 5. i don't think he seriously set up a plan with deadlines. it was more of an intuition.

... link  


I thought...

it was a well-written piece, and you managed to capture the essence of Drake's music: though it's melancholy, it does make you feel good. In the same way, I guess, that Joy Division's music was grim but uplifting.

Thanks for sharing it, and for linking to the Ian McDonald article - I'd never read it, though I knew McDonald was in college with Drake. (So was John Martyn, I think.) McDonald himself was a fine writer and knew how to get the essentials of an artist or a piece of music. A shame he too took his life last year.

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... comment

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