It’s become part of Nick Drake’s legend that he was largely unappreciated in his lifetime and sadly didn’t live to see all his success. The truth is, it actually took a good 20 years after his death for Drake’s music to find a wider audience. In fact, it was the 1994 compilation Way To Blue, masterminded by Cally Callomon, during his time at Island Records, that played a big part in Nick Drake’s rediscovery by music fans. (It was certainly my introduction to him in the mid-’90s). Callomon also went on to play an even bigger part in making sure Drake’s legacy endures when he took over running the Nick Drake estate in the late 1990s.
Most recently, he has collaborated with Drake’s sister, the acclaimed actress Gabrielle Drake, on a remarkable and beautiful new book called Nick Drake: Remembered For A While that gathers together rare photos, pages from the Drake family’s personal scrapbooks, letters written by Drake himself, handwritten song lyrics, memories shared by old friends, and, most movingly of all, his father Rodney’s own diary entries detailing the last tragic years of Drake’s short but extraordinary life. I spoke to Cally Callomon about compiling this new book, which he calls “a companion” to Drake’s music, telling me, “I’ve made the book that I want to own.”
How low was Nick Drake’s profile when you first started working at Island Records in the ’90s?
It was very, very low. I mean, it was non-existent really. A couple of people, Ben Watt in particular from Everything But the Girl, would mention Nick Drake in their interviews, and it was a kind of private club of people that if you mentioned Nick Drake, you knew you were into something special if they liked him.
How did you come to run Nick Drake’s estate?
I started working on Nick’s stuff in the mid-’90s when I was at Island. I was also managing artists, outside of the Island remit, who were all living artists. I liked the idea of being able to manage someone who was unknown and dead as if he were living. So, when we put out a compilation of Nick’s music at Island, the first proper big compilation of Nick’s music, most people responded to it as if Nick were still alive. They kept asking if he could come and play concerts and things, and that really intrigued me, that a lot of people didn’t seem to worry or care whether Nick were living or not — they just liked the music. So, I thought I could extend that by really managing him as if he was a live artist. That’s when I met Gabrielle and we got on really well; she’s a very busy actress, and she was being confronted by new phenomena such as sync music for films and advertisers, so I just started to advise her as a friend, and then when I left Island, it was the first thing that I wanted to do, to take it up as a full-time project.
Is it true this book was six years in the making?
Yes. I’d just come away from Gabrielle’s, and we were going through a timeline, and there had been about five biographies on Nick published, and we’ve not really enjoyed or had anything to do any of them. Gabrielle felt that if a book’s to written, it had to be one that wasn’t just a sycophantic music book. A few writers we thought would be right for it weren’t interested in doing it because anyone doing a book like that, it’s at least two years of your life. And then I suggested not doing a biography, but doing a book that sort of serves as a companion. My father had a book on Beethoven that was exactly that, from the 1950s, that if you liked Beethoven, this is all you really needed to know about him and his music. They were quite big in the 1930s, books that were called “a companion to.” So, that’s what we started to do.
I love the way the book is presented as more of an overview of his life told from many points of view rather than filtered through one person’s thoughts.
I’m glad you say that. I hope people don’t see this as an altered work or as someone standing in the way saying, “Here is the truth about Nick Drake.” I hope they see it more as everyone having different impressions, and I’m sure people will pick up on the fact that there are quite a few contradictions in the book. There’s one person saying one thing and then two chapters ahead someone else saying completely the opposite. And we haven’t done anything to try and balance that.
Were you surprised at the wealth of the material available to you, with all the letters, photos, etc.?
It was incredible. That family never threw anything away! [laughs] His father Rodney’s papers are fascinating, all about the situation in Burma and there’s all of [his mother] Molly’s poems and stuff, and then all of Nick’s stuff. I think it was just in their nature because everything was so precious in the ’50s and the ’60s. They ran a very economical house and there was never any of that, “We don’t need that anymore, throw it away.” I think when you lose a child like that, you are probably faced with, “Do I just destroy everything and move on?” and they didn’t; they just lovingly kept everything, and Rodney certainly spent the rest of his life trying to work out what it was that resulted in Nick’s death. I mean, he joined the schizophrenic society and, being an engineer, I think he wanted to just get an understanding of why do people die like this. They were championing Nick for the rest of their lives because they both had this belief that what he was doing was of a great quality, that more people would enjoy it if they only could hear it.
I was quite surprised to see that Nick had written down a track listing for what would have been his fourth album.
And beyond — there are quite a few lyrics that are beyond a fourth album. Songs like “Paid Brain” are not mentioned in Nick’s listing for a fourth album. But there are fragments and bits of poems that he would keep in his notebooks and his school books and his college and university books, which I think are interesting. He was quite methodical about his approach, methodical about many things in his life. It’s typical of Nick that he would have written out side one and side two of an album, and then gone in and recorded them in that order and tick them when they were recorded. Whereas some artists just go into the studio and say, “Well, I’ve got 15 songs, and let’s just put them down, and then we’ll work out where they go.” It’s a deliberation that comes out of a confidence in what you’re doing.
Yet Nick had such self-doubt about himself.
The two things sit quite comfortably together. You can have tremendous self-doubt in what you’re doing but utter deliberation in what it is that you’re doing. One of the interesting things that turned up, because Nick was shy and quiet, it’s easy to guess that he lived off the favors and powers of other people. It was nice to find that, although Nick appreciated and benefited from Joe [Boyd, producer] in that respect, he didn’t rely on it. He had gone and met Chris Blackwell [head of Island Records] already. He knew he wanted a record deal already, he had had meetings, he had signed a publishing contract — well, hadn’t signed it, but had got that far with a publishing contract, so that when Ashley Hutchings saw him and introduced him to Joe, Nick was already quite well advanced in knowing what he wanted to do. But because he’s shy and quiet, that doesn’t really come across in any of the other stories because people wouldn’t attribute that with Nick’s character, that he was going to go out and do what he was going to do any way.
I think the most moving and revealing parts of the book are the letters between Nick and his parents, and then, of course, Rodney’s diary entries. Did Gabrielle ever have any qualms about including something so personal?
I think at the beginning of the passage, she would have said, “Absolutely no way.” We wrote a lot, and there’s a ton of stuff that isn’t in the book because we kept thinking, “This is better said by Nick himself.” Or the discourse between Nick and his father illustrates this much better than we can ever say, and the final three years of the diaries that Rodney kept, to me, is a much greater and touching and human description of Nick’s illness than anything. I had done this thing with Brian Wells before we put the diary extracts into the book, and Brian is brilliant and has done a fantastic diagnosis, being a psychiatrist now and having known Nick then, he’s done a fantastic job of saying, “We wouldn’t treat people like that nowadays, that’s all we knew in 1968 and that’s why Nick went through that process.” But, all the time we kept thinking Rodney says this much better.
Each day, he was writing a page in his diary about Nick’s condition and mood and where he was and where he was going and so, you know, I cannot describe how painful this would have been for Gabrielle to have to go through, but she did. I think the turning point for her was when she realized that there was quite a lot of stuff that was left out of Rodney’s diaries as well. She felt Rodney was writing the diaries for somebody else to read and probably for someone else not to go through what Molly and Rodney were going through. Being an engineer, that whole world of engineering is based on somebody building something and experiencing its downfall and its benefits, and somebody else coming along and improving it, and that happens within mental health, too. It’s not fair that every parent that has an ill child has to start from scratch each time; there has to be an accumulative knowledge. I think Rodney’s diaries are valuable even from that point of view. Other parents may have just destroyed it with the death, you know, say, “Well, that’s something we’re not going to keep,” but then nobody had read them since Nick had died. I went through all the years of all his diaries, and I found it incredibly moving.
I also found the pieces written by the people who knew him to be fascinating. Was it easy to persuade his friends to contribute?
Some of them have never talked about Nick because it’s too raw for them. They were of an age where you felt eternal, you know, immortal, and then suddenly one of your group dies. And for a lot of Nick’s friends, his non-musical friends, it was a real shock, and they tend to be the ones who say, “Well, we never knew him. He was there all the time, and none of us really knew who he was,” so they’ve resisted talking to journalists up to this point, partly because they’ve all gone off to be successful in whatever it is that they’re doing, and they don’t have any ego to say, “I knew Nick and he was like this.” As Gabrielle has always said, anyone who says, “I knew Nick” has probably never met him, and it’s incredible how true that turns out to be. But it was because Gabrielle was at the helm that we were able to get people who have never talked about Nick before on purpose to come forward and just give their accounts.
There’s also a list of all the known shows Nick ever played. I was quite shocked at how few there were — only about 27 or so in all.
Yes, I think what I hadn’t read before about Nick and what seemed so obvious to me was that, although he was a solo artist, his music was not of a solo artist’s nature: there are eight strings on tracks, there are augmentations and orchestrations that he was incredibly involved with, and so to then go out and play as a solo artist is a bit of a tall order. I think Nick sang in the way that he sang because he found his voice quite early on; he didn’t have a strong voice and his pitching wasn’t great, but if you’re thrown into a folk club and you’ve got to sing loudly, it reveals weaknesses. I think Nick didn’t have that kind of singing voice that John Martyn did or Roy Harper did where you could just go out and belt out your songs and tell everyone to shut up when they’re talking. It was just not in Nick’s vocabulary to do that, so again, the deliberation that Nick had to say, “I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to go out and play that game or play that kind of show.” By doing that, of course, you’re now cutting off a tremendous amount of tools that you need to get people to hear what you’re about. It’s a big risk. But, I think by the time he had made Pink Moon he wasn’t really able to go and play anyway, because his mental illness had started to take over and that would have been the time to do it. He had an album there of just voice, guitar, and a little bit of piano that maybe if he hadn’t fallen ill, he maybe would have gone out and played.
Speaking of live performances, there’s a special limited edition version of the book that comes with a record of a John Peel radio session that Nick did in 1969. I thought that session was lost; how did it come to light?
The BBC had lost the tape. It’s probably there misfiled — because there’s nothing more lost than something misfiled — so there’s probably a reel of Pentangle radio sessions that suddenly has Nick’s session and, unless you go through millions of tapes, you’ll never find it. But, there was somebody who had it because they used to syndicate the John Peel session all around the world, so the John Peel radio sessions would get called something else like the Top Gear Session, and would be broadcast, say, in Australia. So I always think, it may be lost but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s been destroyed. That came up about four years ago, that somebody had the tape. So, we bought it straight away.
It must have been incredible to hear it all for the first time. What are your impressions of it?
There are parts of it I don’t like and parts of it I like. I don’t really have this blind adherence to anything that Nick did being genius. But, Nick obviously liked it because it was broadcast. There was a very bad version of extracts of the Peel Sessions floating about, somebody had just recorded them on cassette, and that’s what’s on the internet. They’re just half of two or three songs poorly recorded. So, it was just nice to find something that was of a decent quality of the whole session, and that was when we found he had done five tracks and not four. He also did a TV show in Manchester, and one day I’m sure that will turn up, too.
What do you think Nick would make of all the fascination there is with him today?
I have no idea. People who were close to Nick often say that he would probably be sitting there with a wry smile but getting on with whatever it was he was doing. I agree when people say that music wasn’t the be-all and end-all for someone like him and, much like Fred Neil, who wrote fantastic songs, and had a fairly successful recording career, he just stopped making music to go and work with dolphins in Miami. I admire anyone who does that, who says, “Well, I’ve done that now, now I’m off to do something different.” It cuts against the careerist mentality of music. Nick may have got involved in something completely different, and if his music then took off, he may have just thought, “Well, that’s quite nice.”
Nick Drake: Remembered For A While is out November 6 from John Murray Press. Find out more information here.
(Cover photo via Bryter Music.)