Week 234: “River Man” by Nick Drake


For someone who’s interested in music, I feel like I’ve overlooked Nick Drake. I was vaguely aware of his existence, thanks to the “Garden State” soundtrack, but vague awareness was about as far as it went. People would rave about his music, and I would put it on my mental to-do list, along with that restaurant I should try, and that TV show I should watch. Just never got around to it. Mental to-do lists have a way of being overlooked.

But I don’t feel bad about it, because being overlooked is one of the themes of Nick Drake’s life.

His music barely registered in the public consciousness during his life. His three records didn’t sell, and he didn’t gain any kind of popularity until a generation after he died. He hated performing live, and as a result, no video footage exists of any of his concerts. Or interviews. Or studio sessions. In fact, there is no known video footage of his adult life at all.

Apart from his music, the only available insights into his life come from the recollections of family and friends in various documentaries about him. And even in those documentaries, one gets the impression that none of the people interviewed really knew him that well. In the aptly-titled “A Stranger Among Us”, his sister comments that Drake “very much compartmentalized his life…one group of friends never got to know another group of friends.” Another person recalls that he was difficult to get to know because “he wasn’t really there. He was the most spectral person I ever met.”

It’s as if he floated unseen between the different people in his life, but never anchored himself to any of them. As if he only existed in audio format, a ghost who managed to sneak into the recording studio and leave us with a few lovely songs before disappearing again.

He died 40 years ago this month. So if, like me, you’ve been overlooking Nick Drake, now might be the perfect time for you to get acquainted with one of the most ethereal figures in modern music.

What makes this a beautiful song:

1. The chord progression is wonderful. That first chord change is especially yummy.

2. The string arrangement is gorgeous. It’s the work of Harry Robertson, another forgotten composer, who spent most of his career writing music and scripts for movies.

3. Like Drake’s own life, the song fades out abruptly and unceremoniously. He leaves us with the enigmatic line, “Oh, how they come and go…”

Recommended listening activity:

Finding forgotten items in the pockets of clothing you haven’t worn in a while.

Buy it here.