Here’s to 50 years of Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, the masterpiece that’s always waiting to be discovered. Even back then, no one quite knew what to do with those introspective, nakedly elegiac songs — or the man who created them. “Nick Drake: Out of Obscurity,” read the headline in Salt Lake City’s Deseret News in 1972. “It is true that no one knows where Nick Drake lives …Drake is unreachable, does no tours … It is as though he interacts only with nature, yet is ever studying man’s existence.”
At first, that existential studying wasn’t exactly praised. “I expected a lot more than the bland bunch of trash here,” wrote the Green Bay Press-Gazette. “He’s like an incredibly amateur cross between Cat Stevens and Donovan. Yecchh.” But decades later, thanks to a steadfast cult following and a 1999 Volkswagen commercial, it finally began to pay off. Today, Nick Drake sits on the throne of the tragically beloved musicians gone before their time — right next to Jeff Buckley, Judee Sill, Buddy Holly, Tammi Terrell, Selena, and Elliott Smith — but he remains the most mysterious, the most ethereal.
The reason why is simple: There isn’t a lot of physical evidence left that Drake was a real person. You can go to England and visit his hometown village, Tanworth-in-Arden, pay respects at his grave and stand for a picture in front of his home. But you won’t find a museum there with the laced-up shoes from the cover of Bryter Layter, or his striped poncho in a climate-controlled case. You can read his sister Gabrielle’s 2014 biography Remembered for a While, but only a handful of known photos of Nick Drake exist on the internet. There’s also not a single video of him performing live, or any footage to demonstrate his existence at all — except for one clip. Maybe.
The YouTube video, titled “Nick Drake 70’s festival,” has nearly 300,000 views, about half of which I’m responsible for. It’s impossible to count the number of times I’ve shown it to someone, or just spent a few minutes during an afternoon replaying it constantly, sipping coffee and staring at the screen, my mouth hanging open. The awful quality of the clip only adds to the mystique, as a blurry man walks with his back towards the camera at an outdoor festival. That’s it. It’s only 12 seconds long, and there’s no proof it’s actually him. But it’s so eerie that it’s hard to look away.
For years, fans have speculated that it’s definitely the gangly songwriter, drifting through the crowd, alone. There’s even a Reddit investigation, expertly breaking down the video and pointing out why it could be him: He indeed owned the red velvet blazer the figure is wearing in the video, and Gabrielle’s biography mentions that he played the Krumlin Festival in Yorkshire in August of 1970. “This may be the venue where a tall man, not unlike Nick Drake, walked past a camera and was captured on film for all to see on YouTube many years later,” she writes.
The argument against this? His hair was slightly longer than the man in the video, as far as we know, and his name isn’t featured on the lineup of the festival. For all we know, we could just be watching an English bloke who’s really pumped to see Mungo Jerry. But the video is the Bigfoot sighting of rock, and until something better comes along, we’ll keep replaying this, especially on the anniversary of Pink Moon — his greatest album, which he didn’t live long enough to watch the world embrace.
Pink Moon ebbs and flows with each line Drake delicately places behind acoustic chords. It’s impossible to play just one song: Whether it’s the inquisitive “Which Will” or the burning “Parasite,” Pink Moon deserves to be listened to from start to finish, the ancient art form of an album. Neil Young made Harvest Moon 18 years after Drake died, but there’s a similarity between both records. I’d like to imagine the two of them in conversation, bonding over their loneliness and songwriting.
If I had to choose a single highlight on Pink Moon, it would be “From the Morning,” the final track on the album that acts as a respite from the darkness and depression that plagued Drake, leading to his death in 1974 from an overdose of antidepressants. The lines “And now we rise/And we are everywhere,” are inscribed on his tombstone, the promise of dawn that keeps us listening and rediscovering his music — red velvet blazer or not.