In the summer of 1970, a young American musician named Brian Cullman was invited to play at Les Cousins, a legendary folk club in London’s Soho district. His own performance was forgettable, he later admitted. But he never forgot the strange set Nick Drake played just after him:
His shyness and awkwardness were almost transcendent. A tall man, his clothes—black corduroy jacket and pants, frayed white shirt—hung around him like bedclothes after a particularly bad night’s sleep. He sat on a small stool, hunched tight over a tiny Guild guitar, beginning songs and, halfway through, forgetting where he was and stumbling back to the start of that song, or beginning an entirely different song which he would then abandon mid-way through if he remembered the remainder of the first. He sang away from the microphone, mumbled and whispered, all with a sense of precariousness and doom. It was like being at the bedside of a dying man who wants to tell you a secret, but who keeps changing his mind at the last minute.
It’s been 40 years since Drake died on November 25, 1974, after overdosing on antidepressants in his childhood bedroom. He was 26 years old and he’d already stopped playing live shows. Cullman’s account hints at why: Drake was a brilliant musician, but he never had enough confidence or charisma to hold an audience’s attention.
Even the people who knew him the best haven’t been able to offer much insight into who he really was. When Live Aid producer Trevor Dunn set out to write the biography Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake, he interviewed just about everyone who had any meaningful relationship with the singer. Drake’s childhood friends remembered him as a well-behaved boy from a good family. His Cambridge advisor described him as an underachiever who smoked too much weed. He never had a real girlfriend (or a boyfriend, for that matter), and the friends who spent a year living with him in France looked back on him as a fairly unremarkable guy. They liked hearing him play guitar at night, but it never occurred to them that he might be a star someday.