Visiting Nick Drake
he visits made Gabrielle Drake apprehensive. Strangers in off-putting attire from places like America or Australia, arriving unannounced at her parents’ brick, Queen Anne home. They climbed out of vans in groups, or sauntered up individually on foot, never put off by Far Leys’ rather uninviting characteristics: the dark Georgian windows, the large, wooden gates at the foot of the driveway, its location at the end of a hushed, leafy Bates Lane.
After raps on the portico-covered front door, Gabrielle’s parents always ushered the strangers inside, where they clinked teacups and toured the grounds. And that’s usually when the concerned daughter’s fears were assuaged. Though brimming with an unusual ardor, the visitors were always as quiet, introspective, and elegiac as the very artist they arrived in Tanworth to memorialize: Gabrielle’s younger brother, Nick Drake.
“I am so often struck by how respectful and kind Nick’s fans are,” says Martin “Cally” Calliman, manager of the music side of Drake’s estate, which released this summer’s acclaimed compilation Family Tree. “One never quite knows what is below the surface, but I sense a relief in them, a sense that Nick articulates a good deal of emotion they share together. So each fan seems to build a unique personal relationship with Nick’s songs.”
Drake’s career commenced at the tail end of the ‘60s (Five Leaves Left was released in 1969), a period when pop music was at its most communal: bedroom LP delight with allies, a music-charged subculture, and television serving as the unifier of the pop masses (i.e., the Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show”). Akin with the work of England’s Romantic poets, Drake’s music demanded a more singular experience: a listener detaching oneself from the outside world in order to become fully immersed in the idyllic, undulating melodies and fragile candor. And, naturally, such independent experiences forge a granite-strong bond with the artist, listeners reflecting on their emotive responses and drawing their own conclusions without the sting of others.
One of the great ironies of the entire Nick Drake story is the very machine that helped orchestrate his rebirth (the Internet) is an integral part of the world fans seek to fade out from when indulging in his catalogue. In a brilliant piece for a 2000 issue of Mojo, Ian McDonald wrote, “Day by day, reality thins further into physical matter as that obsolete spirit-stuff evaporates. Nowadays ‘spirit’ is being squeezed out of our materialist society.” For many, Drake’s music duly returns that sapped spirit—an artist deemed inept at caring for himself, now taking care of others with his music.
“Nick’s records give you the rare opportunity to step sideways away from the world for 30 minutes, and come back to it renewed and refreshed and somehow uplifted,” says Matt Hutchinson, who heads up NickDrake.com. “His music still speaks with a voice that connects directly. Put on Pink Moon with headphones late at night and you’re almost in the room with Nick when he sings.”
“In this world that keeps changing faster and faster,” says Denise Offringa, “where everything is going faster and faster, those who journey more on the inside than on the outside seek something that says it understands. And in Nick’s music many find just that.”
Over the last four years, Offringa has done considerable work in moving the Drake experience beyond its soloist culture. She helps organize the annual Nick Drake Gathering, a summer event held in Drake’s hometown of Tanworth-in-Arden that draws hundreds of fans from across the world. Offringa became involved with the event because of a “sense of injustice” regarding Drake’s frequently overlooked oeuvre.
This year’s gathering took place Aug. 3 and 4, and featured free concerts at Tanworth’s village hall and church, as well as workshops where Drake’s songcraft and life were discussed. “We exist by the sole grace of donations on the days themselves,” explains Offringa. “That makes it an event for the fans by the fans—or Drakeaholics, as some prefer to be called.”
Aside from the annual gathering, the Drakeaholics still flock to Tanworth. The visits to Far Leys (pronounced Lees) have long since ceased, Molly and Rodney Drake’s generosity dying with them many years ago. (The Drakes would allow fans to snap photos of their son’s still kempt room—his black sportcoat still hanging in the closet; his writing desk still carrying a coffee stain—or hand out copies of his Beocord-taped, home compositions.) Other village spots have become popular: the Church of St. Mary Magdalene, featuring a pipe organ that carries a brass plaque dedicated to Drake and a guest book Drake’s mother urged visitors to sign; and the adjoining cemetery, where Drake’s ashes are interred underneath an oak tree very much like the one pictured in the artwork to Bryter Layter.
“I used to think it strange when people visited Gracelands,” says Jayne Westwood, a devoted fan who’s been to Drake’s grave, “but I understand a bit more why people make the journey and go there. I can’t really put into words how I felt. It was just so quiet and peaceful, and felt good paying my respects and giving thanks for the music and lyrics he left us with.”
Fan are stuffed with an infinity of Drake minutia, but that’s just for debunking myths—like the much-told yarn where Drake dropped off the quarter-inch stereo mix of Pink Moon at Island without saying a word to anyone (this is false; he chatted with Chris Blackwell). Drakeaholics are known for being keenly self-aware of any behavior that drifts towards idolization, perhaps in part because their hallowed artist was never seen in such a light during his lifetime.
“In the past, some fans scraped little bits of the grave to take home, which is of course a disrespectful thing to do,” says Offringa. “There are always some who go a bit over the top and do idolize, but most don’t. Most just sit there and touch it, and have a quiet moment to thank Nick. It remains first and foremost someone’s family grave. The lettering has faded quite a bit through the years, as people touch it and move their hand over it. It’s the closest thing they can think of to ‘meeting’ Nick and saying thank you.”
Despite the elbow grease of individuals like Offringa, the release of the aforementioned Family Tree, and occasional jaunts into the mainstream consciousness (see VW’s shilling of its Cabrio with the jeremiad “Pink Moon”), Drake is still tagged with the label “obscure genius.” Which means his phylum of fans, despite the ardent passion and purpose, remains relatively small and grassroots.
Offringa talks of folks like Philip and Annabel Littleford, Tanworth locals who have opened their home to Drake fans much like Molly and Rodney once did decades earlier. Or the efforts to not only maintain Drake’s grave (removing dead flowers, planting bulbs, sending the more elaborate memorial items to Gabrielle), but that of the Drake family nanny, Rosie, whose ashes are interred at the graveyard.
It’s a legacy maintained through simple, informal gestures. Drake would certainly be humbled by such doting and fussing.
“He once said to his mother that if only his music would have really touched one person, it would have been worth it,” says Offringa. “I think this shows it was worth it. Because he has touched so many and in such a deep way, as well."