Somewhere between the western outskirts of Birmingham and the places collectively known as the Black Country lies Bearwood.
I've lived in Bearwood for over twenty years, it's a place that I am genuinely rather fond of, and often when describing the area to those not familiar with it, I'll inevitably namedrop some of the famous musicians, actors, comedians, broadcasters, and writers that have lived here or even that Dexys Midnight Runners once referenced a cafe on the High Street in one of their songs. It's also likely that I'll mention that, sometime in the early 1960s, when the local swimming pool also doubled as a ballroom, Bearwood played host to early gigs by The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, and The Beatles.
However, there was one live performance that took place in Bearwood that does not fill me with any joy or any local pride to discuss. One that I'm less keen to reel off in my list of great things that have happened here. An evening that one of the artists involved, found to be quite terrifying.
In his magnificently researched 'Nick Drake -The Life', author Richard Morton Jack reflects on the night in December 1969 when the quiet and introspective singer-songwriter was booked as the support act at an end-of-year 'dance' for a local Rugby Club that was held at the GKN Social Club on Thimblemill Road (now Thimblemill REC). What was it about Drake's delicate acoustic numbers and his hushed vocals that made the promoter think that he would be suitable for a working men's club? Which tracks on his debut album of reflective acoustic numbers were thought would go down best at a Christmas show? In Smethwick?
Drake had just released the aforementioned debut ('Five Leaves Left'), and this was one of his earliest bookings. But whereas he'd been comfortable playing his music to friends this was a completely different experience. As with all of his subsequent live performances, Drake sat alone on stage with just his acoustic guitar, he didn't speak between numbers and appeared unable to make eye contact with the audience. For whatever reason, he only managed to complete five or six songs before abandoning his set and departing the stage. Maybe it was audience indifference that undermined him, maybe it was nerves. We can only speculate, we can only imagine how awful it must have been.
The main act for the evening were equally new to live work and also trying to promote their debut album. They were, like Drake, from a public school background but there seemed little rapport between them. They were called Genesis. After Drake's set, the club was opened to the general public and rowdy skinheads arrived. In order to try and appease the crowd, Genesis switched from their Bee Gees-inspired self-compositions and played familiar party numbers like 'The Hokey Cokey' instead.
Although Drake would play live to far more suitable audiences, at more appropriate venues, and also alongside more like-minded acts (usually from manager Joe Boyd's roster of acts on his Witchseason label), his on-stage discomfort would not improve. His apparent horror at facing audiences would only grow until he finally withdrew from live work entirely. In an environment where fellow artists developed tough exteriors to cope with the nightly brickbats, Drake had, in the words of an earlier documentary about him, 'A Skin Too Few'.
Drake's genius, and that is not a term I use lightly, was evident to those who worked with him on the three albums that he made (as well as 'Five Leaves Left' there was enchanting 'Byter Later' in 1970 and the fragile and rather extraordinary 'Pink Moon' in 1972). But it never translated into commercial recognition during his brief lifetime. The cruel dilemma is that music was the means by which Drake expressed himself, he once admitted that it was "the only thing that I can do well", but everything that accompanied it (see his monosyllabic responses in press interviews or his withdrawal from appearing on 'The Old Grey Whistle Test' for instance), was an immense struggle.
It is important to note that after so much that has been written about Drake, a great deal of which, in his sister Gabrielle's words, has been either been inaccurate or has romanticised aspects of his life, Morton Jack is the first author to have the blessing and involvement of his Estate. As we are all far too aware, the work of artists who die young and, in particular, those who take their own lives have their art ransacked for clues to their condition. This is not the business of Morton Jack. As well as interviews with his family, friends, and musical collaborators, Morton Jack has been given access to the family's personal archive. He has treated the material with the utmost respect and 'The Life' is as realistic an account of Drake as it is possible to have. The very complex character who made those records was a real person. Often we can lose sight of that, but not here.
Thanks to Morton Jack, it is possible to trace the narrative arc of Drake's work from the gentle melancholy of his debut through to the desolation of his four final songs (1974) and to observe, but never to theorise or judge, the person who made those records. It is a relief that finally, there is a book that does justice to the genius (that word again!), of Nick Drake.