What makes Drake's story a recurring fascination for fans -- and creates a minefield for the would-be biographer -- is how little it yields in solid facts, how much of romantic embroidering and speculation.
Darker Than the Deepest SeaPublisher: Da Capo
Subtitle: The Search for Nick Drake
Author: Trevor Dann
US publication date: 2006-10
UK publication date: 2006-02
It seems there shouldn't be a whole lot to say about the life of Nick Drake. A English folksinger who died of an anti-depressant overdose in his mid-20s -- maybe an accident but probably not -- he released three albums in his lifetime (most notable for their quiet intimacy and fluency with difficult tunings), didn't seem to get out much or live especially fast even for a folkie in an era of pot-fuelled solipsism, and lived with his parents at the time of his death in 1974. But in the last several years, a steady trickle of documentaries and biographies has given him a lively presence in the public imagination. What makes Drake's story a recurring fascination for fans -- and creates a minefield for the would-be biographer -- is how little it yields in solid facts, how much of romantic embroidering and speculation. He was a happy, spoiled rich kid who turned sullen and bitter when life didn't hand over everything he'd expected. He was a melancholy poet no one ever really knew. He was a schizophrenic who never got proper treatment. He was a sensitive artist destroyed by a mental health system that medicates all dissidents. He was a heroin addict whose final overdose was covered up by family friends in the coroner's office. He was a Byronic ladies' man whose conquests finally caught up with him in the form of a broken-off engagement and a broken heart. He was a lifelong celibate with an ingrained-from-childhood disgust for the body. He was gay.
Trevor Dann's new biography, Darker Than the Deepest Sea, navigates between the extremes and winds up with a compelling narrative whose most important asset may be that it acknowledges its own gaps. Exhaustively reported, despite serious obstacles (the only two people who seem to have known Drake in any depth -- his parents, Rodney and Molly -- have been dead for several years), Dann's book says as much as it can, and leaves the rest up to the imagination. Except for a mercifully brief passage where Dann finds Drake suffering from schizophrenia (all the symptoms he gives to substantiate his diagnosis happen to be symptoms of depression also), there is little of the waxing lyrical and 10-page asides about the Titanic and the "doomed young man" archetype that one finds in the previous Drake biography by Patrick Humphries. Instead, Dann focuses his attention evoking Drake's time and place -- the South-Asian colony where he was born, the estate in the England midlands where he grew up, the boarding schools and colleges where he spent his formative years. Dann taps newspaper ads from the 1930s, financial statements from Rodney Drake's early business ventures, and school records in order to get at every nook and cranny of the context. Darker Than the Deepest Sea may not offer any real revelations about Drake as a person, but it tells us more than any other Drake biography or documentary thus far about the milieu that went into making that person.
At times, perhaps, this exhaustive knowledge of context leads Dann to assume too simple a relation between Drake's social circumstances and his ultimate fate. He handles the childhood and young adulthood periods with barely concealed disgust at their markers of financial privilege and often ridiculous pretensions to intellectual election, and attributes Drake's isolation later in life to his upbringing in an upper-class environment that "encouraged children to believe that they were really superior". Dann's Drake is, strangely, more likeable the sicker he gets. The spectral Drake of later years, unable to rouse himself to wash his hair or form a sentence is far more palatable in Dann's hands than the trust fund baby who peppers his speech with phrases like "one has enjoyed oneself" and ditches his friends to hang out with debutantes in London. Yet even as he mocks certain of the singer's unexamined presumptions about class and entitlement, Dann seems to accept Drake's, other, literary pretensions at face value. "It surely won't be long before Nick's work starts appearing in exam syllabuses alongside his own heroes like Blake, Tennyson, and Wilfred Owen" he says of the lyricist who wrote about "armies of emotion go[ing] out to fight" and "truth hanging from the door", and whose best word-work comes about on tracks like "The Road", in the simple, stripped prose that leaves emotional colours and complications to the guitar part.
But it may be Dann has a secret penchant for high rhetoric. Most of Darker Than the Deepest Sea sticks to a detached, reportorial tone that spares this book from the morass of vicarious feeling and romantic exaggeration that the story tends to inspire. But here and there, as if to make up for the strangely equivocal tone of his interviewees (an A&R rep at Island Records says of Drake's suicide, "we saw it coming, we just shrugged our shoulders and thought well, that wasn't unexpected"), Dann inserts a bit of hyperbole that rings false to the rest of his story. "From the depths of his own tortured soul, his fractured voice cried out 'I'm growin' old and I wanna go home'" Dann says of a man whose death was, by all accounts, more the end of a long petering-out than a sudden cri de couer.
Despite a few awkward moments, Darker Than the Deepest Sea is probably the best telling of the Drake story out there, if only for its refusal to engage in the usual maudlin mythologizing and wildly unoriginal speculation. Yet perhaps the most concise summing-up of Drake's life comes not from Dann's book, but from the 1998 bio by Patrick Humphries. Drake's friend Danny Thompson told Humphries that he was fed up with the myths and investigations going into what he saw as just a sad, not very uncommon story: "He was a guy who wanted to top himself, and he topped himself". That's the common thread that these bios and documentaries seem to more or less avoid in their thirst for meaning and explication -- the deep uninteresting-ness of depression and suicide, the arbitrary ending of a life that didn't go very far or very long. The music, though -- that's another story.