River Man, by Nick Drake

On September 24 1969, Fairport Convention played a live show that gave the world a preview of their album Liege and Lief, released a few months later and now considered a staple album in the emerging British folk rock revival of the late 60. The circumstances surrounding the recording of the album, following the tragic death of drummer Martin Lamble in a car accident, induced a respectful and quiet ambiance at Royal Festival Hall that evening. This was a perfect setting for the artist who closed the first part of the program, a relatively unknown singer who released his debut album a few months earlier. He was introduced by Joe Boyd, the producer who booked that night to showcase the artists on his record label Witchseason. Nick Drake took the stage, sang a few tunes from the album, and when he finished his set, the silent audience erupted with applause. Things looked very promising for the new singer on the scene. A few months later he went on a small tour of clubs and bars. The audiences in these establishments were worlds apart from the one that greeted him in London. They ordered beers while he was performing, talked loudly and had zero tolerance to the lengthy pauses he took to tune his guitar. His reluctance to utter even a single word between songs did not improve things. After a couple of months he left the stage, canceled the tour and never performed live again. But that debut album he released in 1969 endured long after his sadly short career, the classic Five Leaves Left.

Five Leaves Left front

One of the first songs Joe Boyd heard in the demo tapes Nick Drake gave him when they first met was Time Has Told Me. The minimal voice and guitar combination was great, but Boyd suggested adding additional instruments, and his deep involvement with the psychedelic-rock-folk scene in London gave him access to the best of the crop. He asked Richard Thompson, the 20-year old talented guitar player from Fairport Convention, and Danny Thompson (no relation) who played acoustic bass with Pentangle, to play on some of the tunes. Richard Thompson added a folkish electric guitar on Time Has Told Me, but Danny Thompson had a much more profound impact on the sound of the record. He plays on five out of the ten songs on the album and you can hear a great example of his dynamic bass accompaniment on Three Hours.
Another musician to join the recording sessions through a connection with Joe Boyd was American pianist Paul Harris, who worked on John and Beverley Martin’s album Stormbringer. Harris went on to have a rich career working with musicians from all corners of the music spectrum, including B.B King, Crosby, Stills & Nash, Aerosmith and even ABBA. Versatile he was, and you can hear his beautiful jazzy piano accompaniment on the album’s closer Saturday Sun.

Danny Thompson

Danny Thompson

One of Nick Drake’s best qualities as a musician is his not-often discussed guitar playing. He used to spend many of his secluded hours practicing the guitar, and his perfectionism kept him going for hours on a single scale or riff until he mastered it. He had big strong hands that allowed him to reach chord positions on the guitar neck that others would give up on. In his memoir White Bicycles,  a highly recommended read, Joe Boyd remembers: “One evening Nick played me all his songs. Up close, the power of his fingers was astonishing, with each note ringing out loud and clear in the small room. I had listened closely to Robin Williamson, John Martyn, Bert Jansch and John Renbourn. Half-struck strings and blurred hammerings-on were an accepted part of their sound. None could match Nick’s mastery of the instrument. After finishing one song he would detune the guitar and proceed to play something equally complex in a totally different chord shape.” A few examples of that mastery: ‘Cello Song, also featuring Clare Lowther on Cello (she played on early Fairport Concention albums) and African congas player Rocki Dzidzornu (remember the congas on Sympathy for the Devil?), and Man In A Shed.
J163819410

For me the most captivating aspect of the album is the use of string arrangements. When Boyd heard the demos he was thinking of Leonard Cohen’s debut, released in 1967. Although very different from Drake’s songs, there is something in the mantra-like quality of the songs on Leonard Cohen’s album that may have made a connection in Boyd’s mind. Songs like Suzanne feature a delicate string arrangement that inspired Boyd to seek an arranger. His first choice was Richard Hewson, who worked with the Beatles on The Long And Winding Road, but after listening to the sessions he recorded with Hewson’s arrangements, they were found too middle-of-the-road for the songs. Drake, the epitome of a shy, reserved and soft-spoken personality, quietly suggested his Cambridge friend Robert Kirby. The two were good friends and collaborated in Cambridge where they played concerts together with a student orchestra. Kirby had a different sensibility about what type of arrangements to write for Nick Drake’s songs. Instead of using a full orchestra, he wrote the arrangements for a string sextet, resulting in a more intimate sound. Given that the vocals and the sextet were recorded together, it is amazing how clearly you can hear each of the instruments and the quality of their tone. Day is Done is a great example of how the vocals, guitar and strings work together. My favorite of the Kirby arrangements on the album is Way To Blue, featuring only Drake and the string sextet. A masterpiece and a great showcase of how a classical arrangement can add mood and character to a song.

Robert Kirby and John Wood

Robert Kirby and John Wood

When Five Leaves Left was released in July 1969, it sold poorly and got almost no radio play. Spare blessed souls like John Peel, the airwaves were silent with this album and magazines did not do it justice. Melody Maker is known for its ability to trash great music, but it outdid itself calling the album “An awkward mixture of folk and cocktail jazz”. With no singles and no ads placed by Island Records who distributed the album, it went nowhere. Time however did it justice and the album is revered today by many.

Five Leaves Left back

I always found the original back cover photo interesting. Nick Drake is leaning on a brick wall, hands clasped on his belt, somewhat bemused watching a leaping Englishman passing by. Turns out that photographer Keith Morris took more photos that day of Nick watching busy Londoners going about their daily business.

Five Leaves Left street photo alt1

A piece of useless information on that incredible album: Five Leaves Left is what your Rizla rolling paper would tell you as you were desperately grabbing for paper near the bottom, preparing your next hand rolled cigarette with tobacco or other substance of your fancy.

Rizla five leaves left

In the documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake Nick’s sister Gabrielle Drake talks about how he was unconsciously influenced by their mother’s music and chord structures. She then plays Molly Drake’s How Wild The Wind Blows and you can definitely hear the resemblance. When I was listening to the Unthanks’ album Diversions Vol. 4: The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake, I came across the same song and the band’s darker take on the song drove the point home. It could have been the son’s song as much as the mother’s.
At the end of the documentary, as the magnificent Northern Sky from Bryter Layter plays in the background, Gabrielle says: “A lot of young people have found his music such a help, and that I think would have pleased him so very very much. He once said to my mother ‘if only I could feel that my music could ever done anything to help one single person it would have made it worth it’.” I’m sure that getting goose bumps while listening to his songs would have pleased him as well, and that is the reaction I have when listening to River Man.

Molly and Nick Drake

Molly Drake with son Nick

River Man was the one song on the album that Robert Kirby could not come up with a deserving arrangement for. Drake wrote a mysterious guitar line in the odd meter of 5/4, played in grouping of 3-2. Danny Thompson had no trouble accompanying the song, but Kirby could not work around that odd meter. In an interview to Mojo magazine in June 2009 he said: “Dave Brubeck’s Take Five aside, that was the only time in my life I’d heard a piece of music consistently in 5/4. I could not for the life of me work out how to write a piece of music that didn’t stagger along like a spider missing a leg, how you crossed over and missed the bar lines”.

Nick Drake 1969

In need of a quick alternative, John Wood, sound engineer on all three of Nick Drake’s studio albums, suggested that the string orchestration assignment be handed to Harry Robinson, a composer who’s specialty was film scores for various horror and vampire movies. Wood told Joe Boyd and Nick Drake that Harrison is a great mimic and all you had to do was name a composer you like and Harrison will provide an orchestration in that style. Drake was taken by the music of English composer Frederick Delius, who is known for writing strings parts with long, sustained chords and quiet endings to many of his compositions. Joe Boyd recalls in his book: “Nick and I went to visit Robinson at his house hidden in the middle of Barnes Commons, just below the tree that was to kill Marc Bolan ten years later. Having heard a tape, Harrison was already intrigued when we arrived. Nick played the song through, then strummed chords as the tape played, showing Harry the textures he wanted for the string parts. I had never heard him so articulate or so demanding. Harry made notes and nodded. The result was a track which – next to the Volkswagen ad’s ‘Pink Moon’ – is the most often played and discussed of all Nick’s songs. Whenever I saw Harry in later years, he would talk about the day we recorded it, with Nick surrounded by the orchestra, playing and singing while Harry conducted – just like Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra.”

If you enjoyed reading this article, you may also like these:

Me and My Woman, by Roy Harper

Al Bowlly’s in Heaven, by Richard Thompson


Betty came by on her way

Said she had a word to say

About things today

And fallen leaves.

 

Said she hadn’t heard the news

Hadn’t had the time to choose

A way to lose

But she believes.

 

Going to see the river man

Going to tell him all I can

About the plan

For lilac time.

 

If he tells me all he knows

About the way his river flows

And all night shows

In summertime.

 

Betty said she prayed today

For the sky to blow away

Or maybe stay

She wasn’t sure.

 

For when she thought of summer rain

Calling for her mind again

She lost the pain

And stayed for more.

 

Going to see the river man

Going to tell him all I can

About the ban

On feeling free.

 

If he tells me all he knows

About the way his river flows

I don’t suppose

It’s meant for me.

 

Oh, how they come and go

Oh, how they come and go.

 

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