Time Has Told Me | Nick Drake & Me

NDBLMr Woodman’s History lesson was last thing on a Wednesday afternoon. His room – which was entirely suited to its purpose being both grey and dusty – was midway along an oxblood floored corridor at a forgotten end of the school.

Pupils entered the classroom through a battered door, sellotaped to which was a faded poster of Lord Kitchener pointing towards the viewer. ‘Britons,’ it said. ‘Join your country’s army!’ (These days this poster would not escape the creative crossings-out of some schoolboy wag, but this was the past and people did things differently there.)

Wednesday afternoons were unbearable. Mr Woodman was a textbook teacher – meaning he taught the textbook from cover to cover. I had worked my way to the back row where Mr Woodman and I could generally ignore one another. It had nothing to do with the subject. I like history. I’m in love with the past. (I just never seem to learn from it.) But I didn’t like History with Mr Woodman. [1]

In this I thought I had an ally, a new pupil called Dean. He was also an outsider – not in the cool manner of his near-namesake, he just pissed people off and nobody liked him. He had a habit of pronouncing his judgements with deliberate opaqueness, a bit like a young Will Self. He hadn’t so much swallowed a dictionary as was vomiting it back up again. I was a ‘pseudo-intellectual’, to be pitied for my ‘sub-cretinous quasi-individualism’. I think he liked me.

One day, at the back of a typical History lesson, with Mr Woodman droning on about medieval commerce and the rise of a mercentile class (see, I was bloody listening), Dean nudged me and pointed down at an LP in his bag. “I’ve brought this in for you to listen to,” he whispered. “You’ll like it. The guy who made it killed himself.”

I don’t know how I have acquired this reputation for liking doomy, gloomy music by artists not long for this world. [2] I took the record and transferred it into my briefcase (reader, I was that wanker). The cover felt like a piece of wallpaper and showed a rangy figure hunched over his guitar. Beside him, on the floor, was a pair of enormous crepe-souled shoes. The album was Bryter Layter by Nick Drake.

“You only have to listen to the second track on side one to know he was going to commit suicide,” Dean added before the whoosh of a blackboard rubber cut through the air between us and landed in the cupboard behind. “Exemplary accuracy, Sir.” said Dean, applauding politely, as Mr Woodman reached for his cane and beckoned for us both to join him.

*

I could claim that my love for Nick Drake was born that same evening. The truth is I scoffed at what, I thought, were banal musical arrangments and schoolboy-awkward lyrics. At this point in my young life, the names of the musicians involved – Richard Thompson, Dave Mattacks, John Cale amongst them – meant nothing. (I was – as Dean constantly told me I was – an ‘ ignoramus rex.’)

I had an old Dansette mono record player on the floor beside my bed. I played the album a couple of times, alternately flipping between front and back covers as the record turned. On the reverse Drake was pictured marooned and watchful, the world about to spin beyond his grasp.

I gave the record back to Dean a few days later and we never had much to do with each other again. Ours was a one term kinship. [3]

*

I found Nick Drake again on the floor of my future wife’s red Austin Metro. It was late 1991 and we were both in Leicester training to be teachers. Lodged in the sedimentary layer of hobo detritus – which passes for floorspace in any of my wife’s vehicles – was a cassette tape, with the words ‘DRAKE’ and ‘SKETCHES’, etched in Tippex, on opposing sides, . (This, it turned out, was a copy of Nick Drake’s, Bryter Layter and Miles Davis’s, Sketches of Spain which had been purloined from a previous boyfriend and forgotten all about.)

In his liner notes to the Drake boxset Fruit Tree, Arthur Lublow highlights the ‘magical, childlike’ qualities of Bryter Layter, recognising that its ‘sadness is squeezed dry of self pity.’ Listening to the album again in 1991, I was struck by this wistful melancholy. Acknowledging the elegiac tone, Lublow indicates that ‘Drake’s songs are sad even in celebration, for what they celebrate is lost or fading.’ It is a beautiful album. My younger self should be shot for such dismissive posturing. (Just about everything in Nick Drake’s back-catalogue is worthy of your attention – although I’m guessing, if you are reading this, you already know that for truth.)

In this 40th anniversary year – since his tragic death at the age of 26 – I expect that we will get to see and hear much about Nick Drake. I really hope so. Even as I write, there is talk of a newly uncovered recording previously thought to have been lost. It all contributes to what we still owe the memory of Drake for talking when we should have been paying attention.

I leave you with one last story that may or may not be a flight of fancy on my part. A good long while ago, a writer friend of mine was invited to pitch his ideas for the authorised biography of Drake, over dinner, with Drake’s sister, the actress Gabrielle Drake, and legendary producer, Joe Boyd. At one point, the conversation turned to what my writer friend imagined would make a good opening line to the book. Thinking for a moment, he suggested. “Not a lot of people know this, but Nick Drake’s sister used to be in Crossroads…”

The gig went to Patrick Humphries, instead, but I like to imagine that Nick Drake would have laughed!

Notes

[1] About eight months into studying A Level History, I fell out spectacularly with Mr Woodman over my annoying attempts to shoehorn Karl Marx into every single class discussion. Things got so heated that he refused to have me in his classroom ever again and I was asked to leave the course. I probably didn’t help matters by saying that Harpo didn’t count when Mr Woodman tried to appease me by telling me, he too was a Marxist.

[2] I do have a miserable looking face, but I can’t help that. If you had met my dad you would see where I get it from – it’s in the genes. I’m not unhappy or fed up, I just look that way most of the time. It’s a real problem at interviews, or at parties, where you’re supposed to look like you are having a good time.

[3] This is not strictly true. Later that same year, Dave, Dean and I went to see Apocalypse Now at the nearby Cottage Road Cinema. It was our first X certificate film and we were 14 years old. Dave already had a moustache and stubble, I wore my raincoat with the collar up and Dean had on a pair of Cuban heels. Afterwards, Dean tricked us into walking him home: a two miles detour out of our way, through the back streets of Headingley, which meant neither Dave nor I got back home until well past one o’clock in the morning. I asked Dave, a few months back, whether he remembered Dean? ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Total knobhead!’

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