You're Nicked 16 Jun 2006

Originally Published in the Independent. Sunday, 16 July 2006


It's not very rock'n'roll when the rock star you share your name with is dead. Poet Nick Drake has written a specially commissioned poem about life as 'the other one'.

If you go to the Amazon website to see what people think of your work, be prepared. I found this review of my first book of poems under the title "Not what was expected" from "A reader from UK"; "I made the unfortunate mistake of thinking this was some newly found material from the 70s singer-songwriter Nick Drake. Needless to say I was dissapointed [sic]." There was then a question, "Was this review helpful to you?" followed by two boxes, YES and NO.

Well, yes and no. Since a song of Nick Drake's was used in a car commercial a few years ago, his music has become popular, and his is now a name to conjure with. I found myself sitting at dinner next to a charismatic woman. We introduced ourselves. She looked at me strangely, and sadly. "I knew Nick Drake well... he was so beautiful." She was Linda Thompson, the singer. One way or another, I've met a lot of people who know people who knew Nick Drake. And often, now, when I say my name, people ask, "Oh, are you the Nick Drake?" But I'm not. I have become the "other" Nick Drake.

In fact, I've known about Nick Drake for a long time. In the late Seventies, when I was in my teens, my brother bought Fruit Tree, a posthumous box set of his three LPs. I loved them. There was something about the high sensitivity of his voice almost whispering to itself, the oblique lyrics and the sense of some heart-breaking mystery of loss behind each strange song that caught my adolescent, angsty attention. He sounded like no one else. And at a point where I was just starting to try to decide how I wanted to sound as writer, hanging uncertainly around the A-level high table of Eliot and Yeats and Lawrence and Woolf, Nick Drake showed me the way.

To start with, I guess I made him up. I needed to believe we both lived our teenage years in the same middle-class middle England of crazy paving, shag-pile carpets and three-piece suites. In my story of his life, he escaped this banality at Cambridge, where he fascinated his friends with his enigmatic presence, wrote the songs he recorded on his first album, Five Leaves Left, and played one concert at a Caius College May ball, where, I later learned, he was booed off because he wasn't loud enough. I also learned he had recently died in November 1974, from an over-dose of Triptizol - accidental or suicidal, no one was sure - prescribed for his intense depression, perhaps caused in part by the critical and commercial failure of his albums. He was 26 years old. Young as I was, this tragedy only made him seem more romantic; the pure artist who was too good for this world of braying toffs.

Later, at college, I changed my mind. Suddenly I was embarrassed by him. I kept hearing the slight lisp in the too-quiet voice; the songs sounded fey and repressed; Television, Patti Smith and Talking Heads displaced him from the turn-table. So I hid the LPs away.

It was only years later, when people started to ask, "Are you the Nick Drake?" that I began to take an interest again in this doppelganger-by-name. I bought the albums re-mastered and re-packaged on CD, and this time heard the originality of the writing and performance; the harmonic juxtapositions of his unusual chords which he found by experimenting with different tunings; the way like many great singers he sang each line late behind the beat, creating a beautiful little dramatic tension between the voice, the words and the music. I realised how pitch-perfect the songs were in form and content; minimalist mysterious masterpieces where words and music were honed to some elusive mutual essence. It was clear to me he'd never even considered working within the restrictive assumptions of the popular song. Like those other poet-songwriters, Cole Porter and Joni Mitchell, he was an absolute original.

But he died far too young. And now he began to haunt me, everywhere. I thought of him as my shadow, the dead name-twin I would never meet; who never made his fourth, or tenth album, whose hair never went grey, who possibly never lived through the far side of a big relationship catastrophe; but who still exerted his presence on me from his place in shadowland. Then one glorious summer day, I wandered into the dismal, dusty catacomb of one of the Notting Hill record exchange shops, and had another of my "not Nick Drake" encounters; but this one was a special gift, and I knew I had found the clue to the poem about him and me I'd be thinking about for a few years.

So I wrote a draft, playing with the ideas I thought were interesting and important; our doppelganger relationship, the strange adjacency of our middle-England lives, the possible existence of still other Nick Drakes - the Concorde pilot, the tennis pro, the Czech porn baron, the poet Nick Drake who was published by Faber and was best friends with Bjork...

And it was rubbish. Nothing integrated the disparate parts but wishful thinking. I tinkered with it endlessly, trying to find the true centre which would magnetise all the necessary elements to itself, allow the dross to fall away, and reveal the poem. Nothing worked. I showed the draft to a friend, a fine poet, and it came back annotated with too many of his precise question marks. Perhaps there was something too elusive about Nick, and too tenuous about our shadow-relationship. Perhaps there was nothing to it after all, but wishful thinking.

So I listened again to Nick's own writing. He would never have come up with anything so unrefined. He would have found something simpler and purer. I went back to the beginning, to the brief encounter that started the poem and at last I began to feel the thread of something that felt right - but now I am beginning to tell the story of how I did finally meet the shade of Nick Drake. I'll leave that to the poem.