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Nick Drake at Cambridge

‘I don’t know what’s going on in your mind 
But I know you don’t like what you find 
When you’re moving through solid air, solid air’ 

…So sung the British singer-songwriter, John Martyn, in reference to his close friend and labelmate, Nick Drake. The words ‘solid air’ served as a metaphor for Drake’s depression, which plagued him throughout his life. Despite being prescribed the antidepressant amitriptyline to try to deal with his ‘Black Eyed Dog’ of depression, an overdose of the same drug would eventually lead to his death in 1974. He was just 26 years old.

I first discovered Nick Drake on a ‘Discover Weekly’ Spotify playlist in Autumn 2018, having binged myself on folk music over the summer. How had I not heard this guy before? He had everything I wanted in a folk singer-songwriter: crisp finger-picking, expansive orchestral accompaniments, a folk style that wasn’t afraid to incorporate elements of jazz and blues, and that fragile baritone voice. His music sounded at once ancient and modern; conjuring an image of someone huddled over a campfire, reciting songs passed down from time since past. No matter how many times I try to learn a song of Drake’s on my acoustic guitar, I can never quite capture that quintessential sound of his; in fact, I don’t think anyone can.

Drake was born in Rangoon, Burma, in 1948, to parents Rodney Drake and Molly Lloyd, and grew up in Tanworth-in-Arden, in Warwickshire. At first, Drake didn’t seem destined to become the solitary, 6ft 3 recluse that has come to be his defining image; at Marlborough College, he took part in rugby and sprinting (and was a House Captain as well). Coming from an upper middle-class background, Drake was expected to get a degree from Cambridge and continue in his fathers’ footsteps. Yet, when he discovered an acoustic guitar and Bob Dylan in 1965, everything else paled into insignificance.

Drake arrived in Cambridge in 1967 with a scholarship to study English at Fitzwilliam College. Yet, as his friend Victoria Lloyd later related: ‘he was profoundly disappointed by it. He had this wonderful vision of going to Cambridge […] and he was in this grim, redbrick building, sitting in this tiny motel-like bedroom’. Housed in a square 6m cell with a view onto a car park (surely some of us can relate to this in the present day), Drake did what most freshers would do and tried to freshen the place up with flower-power posters. Despite this, he still felt trapped.


Rather than knuckle down with his studies, Drake would spend hours obsessively practising and experimenting with finger-picking and open tuning. His English tutors at the time saw him as a promising student who failed to apply himself (most likely because he was getting stoned most of the time with his university friend Brian Wells). He ended up getting a third in his first set of prelims.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom for Drake at Cambridge, however. His study of English poets such as Blake, Tennyson and Wordsworth provided him with the inspiration for some of his most affecting lyrics. His daily walks over the River Cam helped inspire one of his best songs, ‘River Man’, with the central character ‘Betty’ potentially referencing a poem (‘The Idiot Boy’) by another past Cambridge student, William Wordsworth. Drake could be just as prophetic as Blake was, even predicting his own early death and posthumous fame in ‘Fruit Tree’:

‘Fame is but a fruit tree
So very unsound
It can never flourish
‘til its stock is in the ground’


In a letter home to his parents, Drake told them that he was ‘extraordinarily happy with life’ and that he didn’t have ‘a clue why’. He went on: ‘[i]t seems that Cambridge can in fact do rather nice things to one if one lets it, and I’m not sure that I did let it before’. In this period of happiness, Drake was refining the songs that would eventually form his first album, Five Leaves Left.


Fans may not be able to find a blue plaque commemorating his time at Cambridge, yet his time there served as an important catalyst for his musical career. He left Cambridge nine months before graduation to move to London to finish producing his first album. His father pleaded with him to secure his degree as a ‘safety net’, but in reply, he answered: ‘a safety net [is] the one thing [I do] not want’. Over the next three years, Drake would release two more highly acclaimed albums, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon. In hindsight, perhaps some form of ‘safety net’ could’ve helped prevent his tragic early death.


Nick Drake’s brief life stands as a testament to someone who was quietly assured of his own greatness – the rest of us just needed to realise it too.

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