More thoughts on Nick Drake: the other day I stepped into This Ain’t The Rosedale Library on Church St to check out their giant moving sale as they prepare to change locations. I heard a familiar sounding voice singing a very contemporary sounding tune. It was Nick Drake, of course, though I don’t know which song it was. It struck me that here was a singer-songwriter who has been dead for more than 33 years, yet sounding as contemporary as anybody these days. How is it music stylists are only now producing music similar to what Drake recorded in the late-60s and early-70s? Did his style single-handedly influence so many musicians of today or was he simply ahead of a curve whose time has come? Certainly when I hear bands like Radiohead I hear Drake, but I hear him in other people, too. People like Kate Bush, Jeff Buckley and James Blunt. Since watching the documentary last week, his voice has stayed with me. It’s another aspect of his uniqueness. The closest I can come to defining it is to say it’s like the sound of air blown over the mouth of a pop bottle. Ethereal, haunting, unearthly. Drake’s lyrics I’m even less familiar with, but his album titles—Five Leaves Left, Layter Bryter, and Pink Moon—remind me of the title of some of Sylvia Plath’s poems. Dense, oblique and thoughtful. As though their depression had shaped their literary thought in similar ways.
Today I took a bit of time out from composing the song cycle I’d begun earlier this month, as well as from proof-reading the Cormorant reprint of The P-Town Murders. (Note the title revision from P’Town, which I’m told is not technically correct, though most P’Towners will tell you that’s how they write it.)
The reason for the diversion started last night when I watched a documentary called A Skin Too Few, about the sad, short life of singer-songwriter Nick Drake. When Drake died at the age of 26 in 1974 after recording only three albums, he was still largely unknown. Since then he’s come to be considered one of the most influential English singer-songwriters of the last 50 years. Brad Pitt narrated a BBC radio documentary about him. Volkswagon used a clip of the title track from his last album Pink Moon in one of their commercials. In 2000 his second album, Bryter Layter, was voted number 1 by The Guardian on its list of ‘Alternative top 100 albums ever’.
(The best I can do to describe his sound is to say he’s a cross between Kate Bush and Radiohead, massaged by John Cale, but that only comes close to scratching the surface. He’s haunting, intense and very intimate. You can hear him for yourself on his Official Website: http://www.brytermusic.com/.)
This morning, just before waking, I dreamed I was playing one of Nick’s songs on the piano. (I don’t know any of them, apart from what I heard last night, so I doubt it was really one of his.) His mother showed me a piece of paper with words on it, things she had wanted to say to him before he died. I was overwhelmed by their beauty. When I woke, I had the beginnings of a song in my head. I got up quickly, wrote it down in a daze and spent the rest of the afternoon scratching out an accompaniment.
It’s fairly simple, overtly lyrical, and in strophic style—none of which are my hallmarks. The song’s title, ‘So Many Souls’, is taken from the chorus:
"She said, Don’t you know there are so many souls
just looking for the light? And a little bit of bright
is better than none at all…"
My literary mind wanted to call it ‘A Bit of Bright’, not to be too obvious, but the Muses insist that it’s called So Many Souls, so that is how it will be, though I’ve subtitled it A Bit of Bright in brackets and dedicated the number to Nick and his mother Molly.
Flowers For Ana Calil, my intended song cycle for noted Canadian soprano Lilac Cana, is going apace, as they say. I’ve completed the first of the cycle, The Rose Family, with lyrics by Robert Frost. It’s a short, lyrical piece in a major key to introduce the cycle, though other songs will stray far from the confines of sunny tonalities. The second piece (Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg) is a craggy old work I’m wrestling down to size, trying to find both the inner rhythms and inner rhymes that stay stubbornly hidden on first reading. The piano accompaniment is almost demonic, like Schubert’s Erlkönig or Dukas’s The Sorceror’s Apprentice.
I'm having a lot of fun with these pieces. I used to compose far more, but have had to stop and make time to do this. My ideal sort of song is along the lines of Gabriel Fauré (Les berceaux, Les roses d'Ispahan), Samuel Barber's Hermit Songs and the shorter pieces of Elliott Carter (Three Poems of Robert Frost, including The Rose Family). Once the songs are finished there may well be a recital, which could take place in Toronto or possibly at my recent discovery, UWO's Pride Library (if we get an invitation). The latter would make for a very intimate setting, but then these songs will be intimate for the most part.
Two readings and a name change: I was privileged to appear as a reader at two recent events. The first, Java Knights, is a recurring evening at the nearly-famed Gladstone Hotel (probably the closest Toronto ever came to having a Chelsea Hotel, though as far as I know nobody famous ever OD'd there.) The last Tuesday of every month is a queer-themed night (this one on queer literature.) I was thrilled to see people emerging from the sleet and rain and wind to fill all the seats in the Art Bar and hear five of us read from our books. The other readers included Pat Capponi, David D'Heane, Todd Klinck and Debra Anderson (the latter of whom I was among the first to publish in the Church-Wellesley Review). Check out the link for upcoming events: http://gaywest.905host.net/files/javaknights.php. Hosted by CIUT's Bryen Dunn, it's fun and well-attended, so you never know who you might meet there.
The second evening took place in London at UWO's Pride Library, a dedicated wing in the DB Weldon Library, one of only two queer-themed libraries in the world (the other being in India.) It felt a little like walking into Oscar Wilde's drawing room--plush chaises lounges in exotic coverings, an orchid-covered table and books books books. The only thing missing were the peacock feathers. The library started off a decade ago in the office of James Miller, UWO's professor of medieval literature, and has since grown and been given a room of its own. Although it's getting to be well-stocked, they're always looking for donations: http://www.uwo.ca/pridelib/. Of all the readings I've done, this one was the most enjoyable. The audience (including many women who had come to hear Nairne Holtz read from her literary-thriller, The Skin Beneath) was highly attentive and asked some great questions afterwards. I also noted a couple of writing celebs in the group, including PA Brown (LA Heat) and Emma Donoghue (Landing, Slammerkin, etc.)
And finally, if you're familiar with my Blog you'll note I've changed it's name. Perhaps I'm just getting more realistic (or more Realist), but having taken stock of all that's been in my life, and all I've missed (children, a steady pay cheque, RSP contributions, to name a few) I've decided (in as non-bitter a way as possible) that A Writer's Half-Life is a more apt description of what I and others like me really have. But would I give it up? Not for a second!