Josh Rutner

saxophonist, editor, indexer, etc.

Episode 16: Five Leaves Left (Nick Drake, 1969)

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Nick Drake was 26 years old when, in 1974, after having suffered for years with depression, his mother found him dead in his room—a self-administered overdose of the antidepressant he had been taking being the cause. His mother would later heartbreakingly comment that the first thing she saw was “his long, long legs." I can’t imagine. Such helpless legfullness. Her young son had sadly found, in the end, a truly troubled cure for his troubled mind. 

By that time, Drake had released only three albums, none of which was a commercial success, each selling in the low thousands. He was apprehensive, to say the least, about performing live—a lack of stage presence coupled with minutes-long breaks between songs to re-tune his guitar into one of the many non-traditional tunings he used to produce the chords he produced, didn't help matters. He much preferred the solitude of the studio. Or the home.

It would take nearly 20 more years of gentle, organic growth for his legacy to firmly take root and his talents to be affirmed by the wider public.  

1969's Five Leaves Left, his first album, is an intimate studio affair, full (perhaps overfull at times) with orchestral arrangements to complement Drake's deft and laser-accurate, finger-style guitar playing. He had had Randy Newman on the brain, imagining the lush orchestrations. After an initial failed attempt with Richard Hewson—the then House Arranger for Apple Records, who had, among other things, done the string arrangements for the first James Taylor record—Drake recommended his Cambridge chum, Robert Kirby, whose work would eventually turn around the at-first skeptical producer, Joe Boyd. 

Drake's singing style is direct, cello-like in its resonance. When a vibrato appears, it is subtle, perhaps not even there. In many ways, his voice and style strike me as reminiscent of the great bossa nova singer Joao Gilberto. Reserved, but filled with potential energy. On re-listening this past week, I noticed for the first time a tendency Drake has to close off the “M”s and “N”s at the ends of words quickly, so that rather than holding out a long vowel at the end of a phrase, he is able to hold out a closed-mouthed hum whenever possible. This habit both helps to draw out the string-like instrumental quality of his voice, and, perhaps, illustrates his symptomatic unconscious preference to keep his mouth closed. 

When an artist kills himself so young, producing so precious few albums, it's tempting and convenient to read deeply into all his lyrics and see all his performance tics through the blue-colored glasses of his depression, seeking clues and confirmation. In Drake's case, however, one doesn't have to dig as deeply as unconscious humming: he wore his world-weariness on the sleeves of his records. The head of A&R for Drake’s label remembers, “we saw it coming, we just shrugged our shoulders and thought well, that wasn’t unexpected.” 

Eschewing for the most part songs about love or other people generally, he was besotted with poetic images of nature: oceans, shores, rivers, skies, and sun; flying birds, flying people, flying light, and flying time. 

As a reader in English literature at Cambridge for a spell—including the time of the Five Leaves Left sessions—it makes sense that references to some of those readings would have make appearances. 

While Melody Maker's review in posited that "All smokers will recognize the meaning of the title” as referring to the "five paper left" warning near the end of a packet of Rizla cigarette papers, it seems likelier to me—or rather, I’d like more to believe and it seems reasonable—that the reference was at least in part to O'Henry’s short story "The Last Leaf," about a young artist, dying of pneumonia, watching the ivy leaves fall off the vine: "They're falling faster now,” she says to her best friend watching over her. “Three days ago there were almost a hundred. It made my head ache to count them. But now it's easy. There goes another one. There are only five left now." Then she tells her friend, "when the last one falls I must go too." 

Falling leaves also appear in the album’s second tune, “River Man,” in which Drake sings of a “Betty” who “Said she had a word to say / 'bout things today / And fallen leaves.”

On the album cover of Five Leaves Left, Drake, like the artist in "The Last Leaf," looks out a window of a walk-up onto green leaves, but the knowing half-smile in his eyes might tell us that perhaps all isn’t yet lost—that he’s leafed through to the O’Henrian twist at end of the story.

Perhaps the most potent potential literary reference is the song "Fruit Tree," a meditation on fame. Drake’s song begins, “Fame is but a fruit tree / so very unsound / it can never flourish / 'til its stock is in the ground”—a crashingly stunning metaphor, and one which I have to imagine he borrowed and expanded from Jonathan Swift in his first major prose work, A Tale of A Tub, sarcastically subtitled, “written for the universal improvement of mankind, long desired.” Here’s what Swift wrote:

“I have a strong inclination, before I leave the world, to taste a blessing which we mysterious writers can seldom reach, till we have gotten into our graves: whether it is, that fame, being a fruit grafted on the body, can hardly grown, and much less ripen, till the stock is in the earth: or, whether she be a bird of prey, and is lured, among the rest, to pursue after the scent of a carcass: or whether she conceives her trumpet sounds best and farthest, when she stands on a tomb, by the advantage of a rising ground, and the echo of a hollow vault.”

Swift’s book was a parody; Drake’s song, in light of what would happen just a few years later, was most serious. His fame, as he and Swift both darkly predicted, did eventually flourish, and ripen, years after his death.

Go and check him out. 

I’m Josh Rutner, and that’s your album of the week.