I don’t usually take part in the trend of mythologising mysterious and troubled troubadours who died young. Heroizing chronically depressed introverted songwriters has almost become a cliché; when you ask the shy, misty-eyed girl at school who her favourite artist is, she’ll almost undoubtedly say ‘Elliott Smith’ or ‘Jeff Buckley’ and make some comment about their self-destructive genius.
Nick Drake, then, seems like the total embodiment of this. But there isn’t a hint of self-pity nor any delusions of grandeur disguised under a sheet of sensitive modesty. When you strip back all the myth and enigmatic photos (above), there is music of unfathomable beauty and a voice like pastoral English wind. Howzat for teenage poetry?
As for the albums (the best being ’71’s Bryter Layter), Drake never put a foot wrong. When he died, he left a small but completely perfect musical legacy, though some of his less interesting demos, cover versions and unreleased material has been procured and released later by industry execs scraping the bottom of the barrel.
Bryter Layter is his lushest, most musical album. It counters the underproduced fatalism of ’72’s Pink Moon with elaborate, flowing string sections and somewhat of a ‘pop sensibility’, if such a thing can be measured in someone like Drake. For a singer-songwriter well-read in Romantic poetry, these songs (and their lyrics) gladly lack any Absinthe grandeur. It also contains Northern Sky, arguably his most extraordinary record.
John Fahey’s fingers hold the key to great guitar music. Enlightened at an early age by old 78rpm records of mysterious blues musicians (his turning point was being brought to tears by Blind Willie Johnson’s ‘Praise God I’m Satisfied’), Fahey began to craft his own, minimalist guitar style informed by his musical knowledge and dexterity, as well as the understanding that the key to the blues is that you must be far more informed by emotion, experience and personality as you are by a technical musical understanding. This is why players like Leo Kottke, while extraordinarily gifted in their own way, could never quite match the sheer hypnotized musical mindfulness that one gets the sense both the audience and Fahey feel when he plays in a handful of performances. He shakes his head and lets the sound flow, any ‘hiccup’ simply being an interrupted transmission of his soul.
His brilliant sense for dissonance and economy made his guitar a kind of channel through which America’s natural essence and character could travel in song. As Jimmy Crosthwait (a musician on Fahey’s own early ‘Takoma’ label) put it: ‘Music is a part of the pulse, the heartbeat of this place. Maybe it’s linked to the Mississippi River–if you think about it, there’s a steady, giant volume of matter moving at 9mph… Which almost has some magnetic pull.’ Through the dissonant pluck of a few ringing notes, he held an archive of American music past while envisioning his own characterful pastiche of his country’s myth and legend filled with enigmatic blind bluesmen and talking turtles. Old and weird enough for ya, Greil?
Here’s ‘Song’ from his 1972 record ‘Of Rivers and Religion’. Highly recommended albums include The Yellow Princess (1968), The Great San Bernardino Birthday Party (1966) and the Transfiguration of Blind Joe Death (1965)
‘fahey was a magician.’
– Unkown Youtube commenter