Nick Drake was an English singer/song writer whose talent passed almost unnoticed during his lifetime. Born in 1948 in Rangoon, Burma, Nick Drake grew up in England and began playing the guitar at the age of 16. He released his first album ‘Five Leaves Left’ in 1969 when he was just 21. He did not receive commercial success or widespread recognition at the time, though now the album regularly features in ‘The Best Albums of All Time’ lists and compilations. Tragically, in 1974, at the age of 26, Nick Drake died from an overdose of an antidepressant medication.
The local coroner concluded Nick’s death was not suicide but many others, including his sister Gabrielle, have rejected this assessment. Many of Nick’s friends, however, weren’t surprised by the coroner’s words and, as a listener, if you examine the lyrics of some of Nick’s songs, such as ‘River man’, ‘Fruit Tree’ and ‘I Was Made To Love Magic’, you can find the artist expressing either severe depression or a view that he didn’t quite belong in this world. Let’s take River Man first – ‘If he tells me all he knows, about the way his river flows, I don’t suppose it’s meant for me.’ Now let’s take Fruit Tree – ‘Don’t you worry, they’ll stop and stare when you’re gone.’ Now ‘I Was Made To Love Magic’ – ‘I was born to love no-one, no-one to love me.’
Patrick Humphries’ 1998 biography of Nick Drake contains numerous oral and written testimonies that throw light upon the events leading up to his death. Most of the information was obtained from his parents Rodney and Molly. According to Molly Drake her son had gone to bed particularly early on the night he died (in addition to depression, Nick also suffered insomnia, so an early night because of exhaustion may not have seemed out of the ordinary.) After retiring to his room and sleeping for a while, he got up in the night and went down to the kitchen. He ate some cornflakes (the bowl was found) and took some more anti-depressants (the packet was found). He then went back to his room and immediately, or very shortly thereafter, collapsed on his bed. Nick Drake most probably suffered a seizure or an initial fainting spell. He then fell into a coma, suffered a cardiac arrest and was dead by 6am. He was found by Molly around midday.
We now know that the pills Nick was taking were extremely toxic and vulnerable to overdose, even in small quantities. As I wrote earlier, some of the people close to Nick felt that he had deliberately exceeded the recommended dose, but there were other friends and acquaintances who said they had seen an improvement in his mood prior to his death and so questioned this act of self-destruction.
The question of Nick Drake’s death is, like many famous unanswered questions, perhaps unanswerable. We could make a leap of faith here, or a leap of faith there, but ultimately no-one knows for sure how Nick died because there is a lack of concrete evidence on both sides of the explanation. My own gut theory is that Nick took his own life. I base this purely on his very dark lyrics, for lyrics are, when sincere, a good indicator of someone’s inner life, and on his sister’s opinion. All we have left of Nick is his music, which is all we know for sure.