May 15, 2002


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Skin, deep

A Nick Drake documentary leaves behind beguiling questions as it evokes the mystery behind the musician.

By Dennis Harvey

MENTION THE NAME Nick Drake and people tend to respond in two ways: either they draw an inward gasp as prelude to some extended gush, or they say "Who?" English musician Drake pretty much constitutes the prototype for died-young, acquired-taste, didn't-sell-shit-when-alive makers of beautiful/sad art who are now considered a personal totem by every person who falls under their posthumous spell. He's a cult figure not just in the usual underground-following sense but also in that his music is quasi religious in effect, prompting contemplation and a sort of worship.

Actually, there are a fair number of people crowding that particular pew these days, especially since an oddly appealing Volkswagen TV ad (the one where four kids drive through a perfect summer night to a party, then decide at its door to just keep driving) two years ago used the song "Pink Moon" as its soundtrack. According to one industry source, 5,000 copies of the Pink Moon album were purchased in a single week after that advert's airing – more than it sold altogether when first released in 1972. Two years later Drake was dead at 26 from a prescription-drug overdose; like many other things about his life, the nature of this O.D. (accidental? suicidal?) remains an open question no one will ever answer.

Obviously, gifted, tragic personalities have their appeal – would anyone care about Jim Morrison now if he'd just kept bloating into old age? – but I'd like to think Drake's legacy is based on more than glam morbidity. Most of his recorded output is exquisite, curiously timeless, rooted in the late-'60s/early-'70s singer-songwriter folk-pop genre, yet somehow cut loose from its more voguish currents. A hard look at the lyrics betrays less real-world experience than his woodsy sage persona pretends. But the airy, not-quite-fey voice, crystalline acoustic-guitar picking, and hauntingly simple minor-key melodies suggest a depth you'll never quite get to the bottom of. Predictable adjectives can be thrown around – melancholy, spiritual, plaintive, wry, beautiful. Still, the thing about Nick (yes, we're on a first-name basis) is that his greatest virtues are intangible. Like air, they seem encompassing, and can become quite necessary for survival, but you can't put your finger on them.

Dutch filmmaker Jeroen Berkvens's 50-minute A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake (playing at the Roxie Cinema in its U.S. theatrical premiere) is the perfect tribute – part biography, part impressionistic grappling at residual ether. Arguably, no one could have done better. They certainly could have, and have, done worse: rock journo Patrick Humphries's 1997 print effort Nick Drake: The Biography was a badly written, repetitive attempt to expound at length on the saga of a man who spoke little at best, retreated into seclusion, and died without a parting message. That Humphries didn't win cooperation from Drake's surviving sister Gabrielle or producer Joe Boyd didn't help his flailing cause.

Both those intimates are on tap in Skin, along with two studio engineers, photographer Keith Morris, and erstwhile Jam and Style Council leader Paul Weller (the only "fan" here). Each brings limited insights to the table – Drake seems to have been one of those people no one really "knew." Nor does anyone know the precise nature of the mental illness that eventually sparked his complete withdrawal; for all we can guess, not-yet-extant Zoloft might have fixed him up just fine.

There are virtually no moving pictures of Drake after childhood (the early part of which was spent in Burma); his parents are dead (they're heard briefly here in old radio interviews); he left no journals or substantial letters. Given that alarming lack of material to draw on, Berkvens does a very difficult, admirable thing: his documentary often eschews facts and commentary to try evoking mysterious Nickdom. There are long-held, handsome shots of the lush countryside surrounding his impossibly quaint English town of Tanworth-in-Arden, as well as details of the apparently unchanged bedroom at the parents' house he finally couldn't leave. This stuff should be boring, but it's so beautifully measured and crafted that it carries a hypnotic, lyrical gravity instead.

A Skin Too Few assumes – rather like Drake's music – that given its subject, less is more. Rightly so, even if some omissions may distress certain fanatical followers. There's no mention at all of Bryter Layter, the second of just three Drake albums that didn't find their audience until much later. (Just as well, I'd say – its faux-jazz/soul fillips have never worked for me, particularly as held against the earlier Five Leaves Left's ravishing chamber balladry and Pink Moon's stark last gasp.) As for the "Was he gay? Conflicted? Celibate?" debate, nobody here bothers to second-guess. There's nothing stuffy about the film; it just prefers to keep an unresolvable mystery free of gratuitous speculation and too-much-information damage. After all, the Nick you have in your head when listening is as good as any: slightly androgynous of look, confidential in musical manner without ever quite revealing innermost thoughts, the classic imaginary friend who's whatever you want him to be. A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake plays with "In Motion," a short Jeroen Berkvens documentary about jazz cult figure David S. Ware, Wed/15-Tues/21, Roxie Cinema, S.F. See Rep Clock, in Film listings, for show times.