When British singer and songwriter Nick Drake died in his sleep on Nov. 24, 1974, he considered himself a failure.
He’d made three luminously beautiful albums in four short years — “Five Leaves Left,” “Bryter Layter” and “Pink Moon” — but despite the high expectations of producer Joe Boyd and Island Records, they sold poorly.
His passing was a tragedy for his family — and almost unnoticed by the musical world.
Today, Drake shows up on lists of the most influential artists of the 20th century, and his timeless music can still break your heart and lift your soul.
On Tuesday, San Francisco Arts & Lectures and Noise Pop present “Remembering Nick Drake,” at the Herbst Theatre, a conversation with Boyd and Drake’s sister Gabrielle.
Next month, Universal Records will re-release “Fruit Tree,” a long-out-of-print box set that contains all Drake’s albums, a DVD of the biopic “A Skin Too Few” and a book with a song-by-song analysis of his work by Boyd, engineer John Wood, and songwriter, journalist and friend Robin Fredrick.
“This box offers nothing new musically,” states Gabrielle Drake, executor of his musical estate. “It’s been out of print and people have been demanding it, so here it is. What is new is the book that comes with the box, with comprehensive interviews with Boyd, Nick’s producer, John Wood, Nick’s sound engineer and his great friend, Robert Kirby, who arranged his music. They speak about Nick creating in the studio; in-depth, first-hand reports.”
Since his passing, Drake has spawned generations of poetic, introspective singer-songwriters intent on exploring the darker recesses of the human soul, but Drake was more than a melancholy soul.
“He was hard to pin down,” his sister recalls. “He was wickedly funny and amusing, serious about his music and very enthusiastic about all music — classical, jazz, pop, Eastern folk music. He was always searching for new musical experiences. He was a leader and people gravitated to him, but he was reserved and quiet, with an awareness of the absurdity of life and the most infectious laugh I’d ever heard. We heard it less and less, and he plunged into his depression.”
“I was devastated by the reception [Nick’s] albums got,” says Boyd, who signed Drake after hearing one of his demos. “After 15 seconds, I was hooked. I loved the way the music stayed within itself and didn’t reach out to you. It didn’t ask you to notice it, but it was so sensuously pleasurable to hear, with staggering guitar technique and lyrics that let you know these songs were not like other songs.”
Boyd was so sure of Drake’s potential that when he sold his company to Universal Music he included a clause that decreed Drake’s albums would remain in print forever. He was rewarded in the late 1990s when Volkswagen used the title track of “Pink Moon” for a Cabrio ad.
“When I saw the ad I felt it could be more an ad for Nick than for the car,” Boyd says. “There’s no voice or sound except Nick singing and then it fades to black.”
The commercial boosted sales instantly, and started the Drake revival that continues to gather momentum today.
Would Drake be so popular if he had lived?
“It’s always romantic when a poet dies young,” Gabrielle Drake says. “They shall not grow old as we who are left grow old, but the music exists and is the most important thing. The tragedy was for the family and me and others who loved him, but the triumph is that the music lives on.”
Remembering Nick Drake
Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Oct. 2
Contact: (415) 392-4400 or www.cityboxoffice.com