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Shedding light on the dark mystery of a folk-rock cult figure

Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake
By Trevor Dann
Da Capo, 288 pp., $16.95

Who, you may ask, is Nick Drake? He is one of rock music's most mysterious cult idols. He died of an apparent suicide in the '70s, but his heartwrenching songs have undergone a serious and welcome revival in recent years.

A new biography, "Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake, " tracks the arc of Drake's doomed life from his spoiled, upper-middle-class British roots to his later folk-rock brilliance and drug-induced fog from lack of success at the time. Author Trevor Dann , former head of BBC Music Entertainment, negotiates the obstacle course of Drake's short-lived career (he died at age 26 ) with remarkable insight and care.

Drake's posthumous renaissance is stunning. His songs have been featured in the soundtracks to "Garden State, " "The Royal Tenenbaums, " and "Fever Pitch ." Norah Jones and Lucinda Williams have covered his tunes. And he has been the subject of two TV documentaries, two compilation CDs, and a BBC radio profile narrated by Brad Pitt, who also reportedly used Drake's music in his Malibu wedding to Jennifer Aniston.

Yet Drake sold precious few albums in his era. Before he was 21, he predicted he would go unrecognized during his life, and later wrote this lugubrious song lyric: "Safe in . . . the earth, that's when they'll know what you were really worth."

Drake remains a vivid example of someone who couldn't cope with the pressures of the music business. This biography applies a Winston Churchill quote to Drake: His life was "a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. " Or, as fellow singer Robyn Hitchcock says, "There's a resignation at the bottom of it all. His songs are like butterflies attached to anchors."

In truth, Drake was his own worst enemy. He eventually refused to perform concerts (his sensitivity led to stage fright) or even do interviews to promote his records. Indeed, the first press release for a Drake album on Island Records said that "Nick Drake lives somewhere in Cambridge, somewhere close to the university. . . . He does not have a phone and tends to disappear for three or four days at a time."

Born into wealth, Drake spent his early years in Burma, where his father helped run an English timber business that employed 1,500 elephants. The family then moved back to England, where Drake, an only son, displayed a gift for music. At age 16, he was a multi-instrumentalist who could play the first movement of Grieg's piano concerto. As a friend says, "He was one of those nauseating guys who can pick up your instrument and play it better than you."

Drake was soon guided by famed producer Joe Boyd , an American who had been the production manager at the Newport Folk Festival when Bob Dylan went electric, and also founded the Underground Freak Out Club (called UFO) in Britain, where Pink Floyd got its start. But Boyd returned to America at a critical point in Drake's career. Drake became rudderless and smoked "industrial quantities of cannabis," the author writes. Finally, Drake became a ghost to his friends and was drained by his obscurity. He spent his last night reading "The Myth of Sisyphus " by Albert Camus, and listening to Bach's Brandenburg Concerto while taking an estimated 30 Tryptizol capsules.

It's a harrowing story. Drake had escaped the rigors of the world in his music: His songs "dealt with the sun, the moon, the sea, the sky, the seasons, caves, sand, and mountains, rather than flesh-and-blood humanity," the author writes. Drake could escape no longer, leaving us to ponder what might have happened had he found the attentive fans that he has today.

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