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On The Road To Nick Drake

Written by Brian Wolfe

July 8, 2020

It was a long time ago and therefore a bit murky. As best I remember, the first time I became aware of Nick Drake was seeing a copy of his album Bryter Layter in the import section of Rhymes Records in New Haven, Connecticut. I wondered why anyone would choose to pose with an inexpensive mahogany Guild M-20 and passed on buying the record. I had never heard Nick’s music, and import records were pretty expensive.

Not long after, the printing company I worked for printed a New Times Magazine feature on Nick, written by Arthur Lubow. To my knowledge, this was the first feature written on Nick in the USA, though a few reviews of his records had appeared in other publications. Arthur’s piece captured my attention and boosted my curiosity. I drove back to New Haven and bought the LP. I was an instant believer. To this day, the song “Fly” gives me the chills. Its haunting beauty was like no other song I had ever heard.

The next Nick Drake LP I found was Five Leaves Left. It appeared in a Greenwich Village record shop. Five Leaves Left affected me even more deeply than Bryter Layter. “Time Has Told Me” and “Riverman” held me in a trance. How could these two amazing records not be major hits? Nick’s third LP Pink Moon proved to be very hard to find. Luckily, after a few trips back to NYC, I scored a copy in another record shop in the Village. There was a bit of a cult demand and some original gatefolds of Pink Moon were actually fetching over $100, but I was determined to own it, so I didn’t flinch. Soon I was back home in Connecticut dropping the needle on the first track of the LP, Pink Moon. To say I was not ready for what I heard was an understatement of biblical proportions. It opened a door to another world. I played it start to finish more times than I can recall. It became the only LP I played for quite some time.

Many years later, I was playing a gig and someone in the audience bought one of my cassettes after my set. He said to me, “You should know that the only other cassette I own is Nick Drake’s Pink Moon. Pink Moon had become and is, to this day, deeply rooted in my DNA. Anyway, once I owned all three of Nick’s LPs, two things became apparent to me: First, Nick was not using the same alternate tunings everyone else was using and in the case of the Pink Moon, a lot of songs were in their own unique tunings. Secondly, the Lubow article quoted a line from a song that was not on any of the three LPs.

I had to know more, so I called his publisher and asked to speak to him about the story. I was told that he did not speak to people he did not know. I left a message, stating that I had read the piece, tracked down and bought all three LPs and I had a few questions and would love to talk to him. He returned my call about a half-hour later, appreciative that his article had inspired me to search out all of Nick’s music. After speaking with Arthur for some time, he decided to give me Nick’s parents’ phone number in the UK and suggested they would very much enjoy talking to me.

I mustered the courage and made the first, of what was to be many trans-Atlantic phone calls. Nick’s mother, Molly, answered the phone. She projected a beautiful spirit and an amazing amount of generosity to me. After a while, she put Rodney, Nick’s father, on the phone and he shared the same qualities. They were amazed that I had found all three LPs (By that time, I had also acquired a copy of the very rare USA compilation LP of the first two LPs). I mentioned that I had learned to play all of the songs on the Pink Moon LP and various songs from Nick’s other LPs. I said I would send them a cassette.

A short time later, I received a very long letter from Molly thanking me for the cassette of me playing Nick’s music. She also sent me a cassette of Nick’s demos and “bedroom” recordings. From then on, we shared many letters, cards, and phone conversations. Molly also shared many of her observations regarding my own music. Years later, I learned that she was also a songwriter.

During the course of one of our conversations, Molly suggested I contact TJ McGrath, another fan of Nick’s music, who also lived in Connecticut. At that time, TJ was the editor of the music fanzine Fairport Fanatics which went on to become the magazine Dirty Linen. TJ and I met for a night of playing Nick’s music and sharing information we had discovered about Nick and the music associated with his, such as John Martyn, Richard Thompson, Fairport Convention and earlier influences, Davy Graham, Jackson C Frank and Bert Jansch. Each new door that opened led to another and after some time, there was a network of people connected by their love of Nick’s music. At a certain point, it felt like we were part a secret society and that was going to pretty much be the way it would be.

Then in 1999, one Thursday at 8pm, before an episode of Friends, the haunting chord that opens Pink Moon was heard across the USA. The song “Pink Moon” was the soundtrack to a VW commercial. Within a few days, everything was different. Pink Moon became one of the top selling CDs on Amazon. After that, Nick’s music also started showing up in movie soundtracks. I’ve been continually struck by the great care exercised by Nick’s estate in determining who is suitable to be licensed to use his songs.

By this time, I was working at AcousticMusic.Org, which is a Martin guitar dealer. It has become known that Nick only posed with the Guild M-20 on the album cover. The guitar actually belonged to the photographer. While we could talk about my theories regarding what guitars Nick owned and didn’t own, we know Nick’s last steel string guitar was a Martin 000-28. We know by its serial number that it was imported into the UK after Nick had recorded all three of his LPs, so the only recordings he could have used this Martin on were the last five songs: “Rider on the Wheel,” “Black Eyed Dog,” “Hanging on a Star,” “Voice from the Mountain” and “Tow the Line” (found many years after the other four songs).

Around 2004, I contacted both CF Martin Guitar Company and Nick’s estate to propose the idea of a limited-edition Martin Custom Shop guitar, based on Nick’s 000-28. It would take until 2019 with the support of Nick Drake’s estate, Leonard Wyeth (owner of AcousticMusic.Org), and the CF Martin Custom Shop to make a limited edition run of ten guitars possible. These ten guitars will be available exclusively through AcousticMusic.Org. We arrived at a guitar that is sonically perfect for the style of music that Nick composed. We chose understated design elements that will appeal to fans of Nick’s music, as well as to other musicians, for whom this guitar may be the door that leads them to the music of Nick Drake.

©2020, AcousticMusic.Org

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