Nick Drake died thirty years ago, and, unlike many other late musicians, he has remained unprolific in death. Now, eighteen years after the release of the “four last songs” — “Rider on the Wheel,” “Black Eyed Dog,” “Voice From the Mountain,” and “Hanging on a Star” — on the 1986 box set Fruit Tree, comes the very last song: “Tow the Line,” to be released June 22nd on the Drake rarities collection Made to Love Magic.
Producer Robert Kirby, who attended school with Drake and arranged the strings on all three albums the folk songwriter released during his lifetime, oversaw the new collection and contributed two other lost gems, the earliest recording of “Mayfair” and the only version of “River Man” sans orchestration.
“I made those tracks on an old reel-to-reel tape back in 1968,” Kirby says. “I was never going to exploit those. They were basically going to die with me because they were stuff that Nick came around to my room and played when we were first getting to know each other. But over the years I’ve kept in very close contact with Gabrielle, his sister. We put our heads together and said, ‘What can we come up with that Nick would have been proud for the public to hear?'”
Also involved in the process was John Wood, Drake’s old producer/engineer, and it was he who discovered “Tow the Line.” “John did the sessions that people call the ‘four last songs,'” Kirby says. “There was a vast long bit at the end of the tape after the last song, and no one had ever run it on. John was in the studio listening to hear what could be remixed on the original first four last songs, and — blow me down — out comes this song.”
The track was recorded in the middle or the latter part of 1974 (Drake died in November of that year), and it displays a harder edge than Drake’s typically melancholic material. Kirby thinks that the song’s aggressive approach may have been the start of a new direction. “It’s almost the first of a whole new set rather than the last of the four,” he says. “I think Nick is saying, ‘OK, have it your own way. I’ve tried it my own way and I’ve not gotten anywhere [commercially], so I’ll do it your way. I’ll go on the road.’ Whenever he sings ‘Tow the Line’ he sticks in this incredible discord.”
As for the possibility of more lost Drake songs surfacing, Kirby is not optimistic. “Never say never,” he says, “but there’s nothing else studio-wise to find, I’m pretty certain.”
Fans should not abandon all hope, however, as there are traces of other songs. “Gabrielle has got certain titles and lyrics that nobody’s ever found anything to,” he says, “except a list of titles and lyrics.”
The plans for the lyrics are still being discussed, but if Gabrielle were to plan a beyond-the-grave collaboration like the Woody Guthrie meets Billy Bragg and Wilco Mermaid Avenue albums, Kirby nominates Elvis Costello and Beth Orton. But he has a more unusual idea: “Nick’s stuff could lend itself very well to Nashville-type acts. It’d be very interesting to hear it taken over to the other side of the Atlantic.”