He may not be a known prophet of popular culture, but I've often spent time considering my father's wise words on the fanaticism of dead rockstars: anyone who claims to have liked Nick Drake when Nick Drake was alive is lying. Next month will mark the 40th anniversary of Nick Drake's death, who was just 26 when he took his own life, at least ten years before he received widespread critical recognition. When Michael Burdett, at that time a humble employee of Island Records, discovered a collection of discarded cassettes outside the studio in the mid 70s, he claims to have recognized Drake's name amongst the pile, on a tape titled 'Cello Song'. Understandably, like any music junkie would, he took it home for himself. It was another twenty years before Burdett ever played that tape (perhaps due to Drake's rise in popularity after his death), only to discover it was an alternative version of the now famous song.
In the same way Nick Drake was somehow resurrected by the delayed adoration he received in more recent years, with this cassette Burdett had the power to bring to life what might otherwise have remained unheard and forgotten. With it having been luck that he stumbled upon this hidden gem, instead of trying to re-release it, Burdett decided to carry out a project that would continue this theme of chance. The Strange Face Project saw Burdett newly bringing people together through the music of a dead musician. Carrying the tape and his camera everywhere he went, he made it his mission to pick strangers at random, and whilst playing them this version of 'Cello Song', he would snap pictures of them, capturing their reaction to the stripped down variant on the original. To this day, the only people to have ever heard this version (bar presumably those involved its recording) are the strangers Burdett chanced upon whilst holding his camera, half of which had never even heard of Nick Drake. Through a lost recording, they can construct an idea of what Nick Drake was like – the introvert of who not even a motion picture exists. Burdett wanted to share this song in a particular way that could bring people together from all over the country in all different situations – to capture that one moment when they are touched by the sentiment of someone no longer here to appreciate it.
As well as being documented in his book Strange Face, Michael Burdett presents this project in an hour-long talk titled 'Adventures With A Lost Nick Drake Recording', which I attended at this summer's Free Fringe in Edinburgh. Whilst being incredibly moved by his tale, what I found particularly interesting was Burdett's attention given to the concept of chance, which he believes plays such a vital role in controlling our lives. It reminded me how important it is to wait and see what happens, for it will be chance that will lead us to where we want to be. Yet if this is so, and we must accept coincidence as the leader of our fate, then it is all the more tragic that Nick Drake should have intervened with his fate and chosen to end his own life. Just as we have no idea what coincidences lie ahead in the future, waiting to influence our lives somehow, Drake wasn't to know the level of adoration he was to receive in later years. Had he only hung on and overcome the lack of attention he was attracting at the time, he may still be here to witness his own success.
I spoke to Michael Burdett at the end of the talk whilst getting him to sign a copy of his book. I explained to him how I had first got into Nick Drake when I was 14. I had overheard that a particular boy I was attempting to pursue at the time was a massive fan and so I instantly made it my task to scrub up on my knowledge of 70s folk, even if merely to impress. As it so happened, whilst desperately searching my iTunes library for anything that might aid my ensnarement, I finally found a Nick Drake song. To this day I have no idea where this song came from. But as was the plan, the song got stuck in my head and next I was determined to let this poor boy know, with the hope that he would recognize the song and me at the same time. Needless to say, sadly neither of the above happened. Burdett found my story amusing, yet when I revealed what song this had been, he plainly and without even considering a second thought, said, “that's not Nick Drake”. I was mortified.
Never had it occurred to me that 'Suicide Is Painless', the song I had based my pursuit of young love on, might not even be a Nick Drake song, but rather the theme from the 70s sitcom M*A*S*H. How I could have been so fucking misinformed, I'll never know. Not only had I finally understood the basis upon which said boy had flunked my affections, but I had also been shamed and embarrassed in front of a room of die-hard Nick Drake fanatics. I should never have attempted to take my fate into my own hands. I should have waited, let time play its own course, and later discovered that this boy and me were just never going to be. Instead, I had tried to control the course myself, and consequently severely backfired my efforts to appear cool.
Yet as I stood waiting for my cheeks to regain a paler hue, I reconsidered what Burdett's talk had really been about. I began to withdraw from humiliation with the memory that I had just attended a genuinely enthralling talk on Nick Drake, a musician whom I now actually know and love. Michael Burdett had shamed me with my ignorance, but wasn't my mistake just another example of exactly what his project was celebrating? That we are lead to where we want to be by chance. I may have found Drake by accident, and at first his name may have represented a completely different band to me, but I eventually found him. Had Nick Drake's name been wrongly attached onto something else completely awful, not only would I have given up on that boy sooner, but I also might never have found my way to Nick Drake at all.
Words by Cordelia Milward