MEMOS FROM A MUSIC FIEND
BY ALEJANDRO MAGAÑA
Nick Drake: Five Leaves Left
Island Records, 1969
This morning I awoke with some darkness in my mind. I’ve had some strange and terrifying dreams lately, realistic because they are simply about people I know, loved ones going through horrors, that I’m relieved and grateful to realize are not reality when morning comes. Yet they resonate.
So, the shadows feel longer and the darkness darker as I go through the motions this morning. I’m given some respite from the dark cloud over me as I wake my son, and he makes me laugh regaling me with his debriefing on the previous days’ events while I was at work. I feed him and get him ready for another day of COVID-damned remote school learning. I don’t pour my first cup of coffee until he’s all set up, and head upstairs to the entertainment room where my vinyl records and CDs are. I keep humming a tune to myself and I realize it’s “River Man” by Nick Drake, off this, his debut LP. I leaf through the shelf of vinyl and remember it is the only LP of the three he put out in his cut-too-short life that I don’t have on vinyl still, but I’m certain I have the CD, and I find it with the simple liner notes in one of my giant CD organizing binders. This is actually the first and only copy I’ve ever had of this album, the first music I ever heard of Drake’s so many years ago.
I lived in Watsonville, California, a small farming town, working on a UFW campaign to organize strawberry workers. The town was fairly divided over the union’s efforts, we were carpetbaggers, and so somebody like myself, a young punk “pocho” (a term used pejoratively by Mexicans to describe Chicanos and those who have left Mexico, stereotypically more comfortable speaking English than Spanish) was very clearly an outsider. I was younger than most of the people on staff as well and I spent a lot of my non-work time alone. I still devoured imported rock zines I could procure in nearby Santa Cruz and it was there that I found and bought this album, simply based on Drake’s reputation that continued to grow in mythic proportion since his death by OD of antidepressants in 1974.
“Time Has Told Me” wafted slowly out of the stereo speakers like smoke in a lonely dive bar, and I was hooked. The perfect, complex acoustic guitar phrases, the soft blue voice, the Richard Thompson accompaniment, the lyrics, so wise for a then-20-year-old! This is one of the most arrestingly beautiful melancholy records ever, with perfect sparse accompaniment, whether a string arrangement as in the haunting aforementioned “River Man,” or simply percussion and bass, as in “Three Hours.” By the time Drake is singing, accompanied only by the bucolic ancient folkloric strains of a small string section with absolutely no guitar, “Won’t you come and say/ If you know the way to blue?” (“Way To Blue”) one should be able to decide whether they shall take the journey along the river with this troubadour, for it is often the case that the journey means more than the arrival, and a journey deserves a proper musical procession. It is why we now have this music for eternity. YOU CAN find the ‘way to blue,’ witness without flinching, befriend the ‘black dog’ and come out the other side. I’ve done it. So many times. Thankful for this music, forever.