Nick Drake: A Belated Eulogy

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By Kyle Keymaram ‘14

June 19th marked what would have been Nick Drake’s sixtieth birthday. The enigmatic and influential musician recorded three studio albums – Five Leaves Left (’69), Bryter Layter (’70), and Pink Moon (’72) – and left behind a slew of home recordings. Although Nick Drake received little public notoriety during his life, his music has found a wide and devoted audience decades after his death at the age of twenty-six.

Last year John Wood, Nick Drake’s engineer and producer, re-cut all three of Nick’s studio albums. Island Records began to release these remastered recordings on vinyl last year. As a follow up to Pink Moon, whose reissue came out last November, Island recently released a beautiful edition of Bryter Layter. Five Leaves Left, the last record to complete Island’s ReDISCovered box set, is scheduled to arrive on July 29th.  

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Two years ago I was asked to speak at my grandfather’s funeral. Despite my intense fear of public speech I recognized that this was, for various reasons, unavoidable. Though I intuitively knew what I wanted to say in my speech, I struggled for three days to write an appropriate eulogy. On the day of the funeral I had prepared three separate speeches. None of them seemed sufficient. I might add that all of these speeches were dreadful variations on Walt Whitman’s O Captain! My Captain! I began to panic and racked my brains for other famous eulogies that I could completely butcher when, at last, Bingo! I recalled the opening lines of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish: Strange now to think of you, gone without corsets & eyes, while I walk on the sunny pavement of Greenwich Village. Downtown Manhattan, clear winter noon, and I’ve been up all night, talking, talking, reading the Kaddish aloud, listening to Ray Charles blues blind on the phonograph.  The poem was an inspiration. I got to work immediately and composed a highly unoriginal and sentimental eulogy. What else would you expect from a young mourning dilettante? I finished it just as my mother and I had to walk out of the door.

At this point, dear reader, you might wonder what any of this has to do with Nick Drake. My mother read my cursed eulogy aloud as we drove to the funeral. I could not help feeling that something crucial was missing: a line or a phrase that could wrap the thing up, nothing too conclusive, something that would satisfy both the believers and non-believers. I turned my iPod on and Nick Drake’s autumnal voice flooded the car: But while the earth sinks to its grave, you sail to the sky on the crest of a wave. Never in my life had I experienced such a strange moment of cosmic intervention. The line was perfect; it begged to be readapted as the chilling final phrase of my eulogy. I had already relinquished any possibility of originality, so what was another slight plagiarism? You must understand… of course I felt guilty, but how could I refute this moment of magic?

I spent this past Field Work Term living in Brooklyn. At the time, I was going through a breakup with my first girlfriend whom I had dated intermittently for three years. In order to stifle my mounting melancholy, I would take long walks in Prospect Park and listen to Bryter Layter on repeat. I became particularly attached to a line in the song “Hazy Jane I.” The song, which I had always dismissed as one of Nick’s lesser works, began to take on new dimensions. Can you tell if you’re moving with no mirror to see, or if you’re just riding a new man that looks a little like me. Is it all so confusing, is it hard to believe? When the winter is coming can you sign up and leave?  I began to recall these lines wherever I went, but after a while I fell into a rather dangerous trap. Simply put, I had managed to convince myself that I was living in the world of Nick’s song. I genuinely began to believe that, like Nick, my lover had left me for a man who bore an uncanny resemblance to me. I continued to live in this crazed state for about a week, but it all came to a rather screeching halt when I blamed her for the break up in an actual conversation with a friend. I had clearly crossed a line. But looking back on that rather dark week of my life, I cannot help but wonder where I would be if I hadn’t crossed that line, if I hadn’t taken a strong dose of Nick’s opium and been burnt in the process.

The reading of my eulogy didn’t go so well. Half way through I broke down in tears. I finished reading my piece and stepped down from the podium. Later that night, a few people gathered at my grandfather’s house. I had put my eulogy behind me and was ready to move on. Just when everyone was leaving, one of my grandfather’s friends, a rather distinguished poet, came up to talk to me. “Do you want to know what I thought of your eulogy?” she asked. I told her I did. I told her not to hold back any of her criticisms and to be as honest as possible. “Well, the majority of it was just a rehashing of that old beatnik sensibility that we’ve all grown quite bored of. All they do is pick their own boogers, those beatniks. But that last line… that last line was truly great. Did you steal that line too?”