This past Tuesday marked the 40th anniversary of the release of English singer/songwriter/guitarist Nick Drake's first album Five Leaves Left, which hit record stores in Drake's country ("record shops") on September 1, 1969. He would go on to record two more, the lush Bryter Later, which most serious enthusiasts regard as Drake's best, and the stark, brief Pink Moon, which some serious enthusiasts regard as Drake's best. But Five Leaves Left remains my favorite, especially with the favorable data point that I've just produced an entire radio show about the album and haven't grown sick of it.
The show in question is a Marketplace of Ideas special on Five Leaves Left, featuring conversations with Trevor Dann, author of Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake, Patrick Humphries, author of Nick Drake: The Biography and Peter Hogan, author of Nick Drake: The Complete Guide to His Music. In a way, something of a miniature dream has come true for me: I've long thought about making something for the record's 40th in the far-flung year of 2009, but only as the date approached did the relevant ideas coalesce in my mind. I'd hoped to interview Humphries since reading his biography, a vivid tapestry of personal remembrance and historical context, but couldn't think of a reason. Morally opposed to making anything easy on myself, I ultimately asked: why talk to just one biographer when I could talk to everyone who's ever written a Nick Drake book?
In these conversations and my extensive, enormous, exhaustive preparatory reading for them, I saw a certain lesson emerge from Drake's story. Here was a young man who, through a degree of dedication to his craft that reduced everything else in life — especially academics — to dim background noise, developed a musical skill and sensibility that, committed to tape, still awe, captivate and nearly mystify listeners. But he failed to find success: some estimates of his record sales place them as low as 10,000, total, in his lifetime. This didn't align with Drake's high musical ambition and — some would say — his arrogance about the quality of his own material. He seemed to assume his music, by mere virtue of its excellence, deserved to be heard, and, let loose, would spread like a melancholic wildfire.
By the time his music actually did sweep the listening world, Drake had been in the ground for about 25 years. Would that he could have lived to enjoy his modern-day popularity, but it's no mystery why that popularity took until the modern day to arrive: whether by inability, disinclination or both, Drake didn't promote his albums. Absent radio single releases from his label — and it's far from certain that such products, had they materialized, would have achieved heavy-rotation airplay — the need arose to gig and gig and gig. Uncomfortable with solo performance, Drake gave touring a handful of attempts, heart never in it, songs never adapted to a live setting, and eventually just threw in the towel altogether.
From Drake's disheartening experience, I draw the lesson that (quality) * (promotion) = (success). Not to put too fine a point on it, but it seems that if you're not actively selling your work, then it doesn't matter how abstractly "good" it is or how much effort you put into it. When I say "selling," I don't mean literally exchanging for money; I mean "selling" as in "pitching," as in "hardscrabbling some brainshare the old-fashioned way." For example, I've put quite a lot of work into this Five Leaves Left radio special, but if I don't tell potential listeners about it — by writing blog posts, say — then that's all for nought.
On a related note, a television director visited my film production class last night to help us recreate and shoot a scene from The Big Lebowski. After the shoot, I asked him what surprised him most about his career in The Tndustry, and he mentioned meeting all these aspiring actors, directors, writers and the like on his way up. They didn't seem like much, but they talked a big game, declaring that they would — would — become big players, doggedly pushing forward without hesitation. And they're the ones who made it! I asked if, conversely, he'd encountered many aspirants who seemed to have the goods and the skill to spare but got discouraged and fell off the ladder: oh yeah. He found that the separator came pretty clearly down to "tenacity."
In a podcast conversation with semi-regular guests Lynn Warren and Alex Ali, Adam Carolla cites, with equal conviction, the importance of resilience. He argues that, if you're doing anything worthwhile, nine out of ten of your projects die trying to get out of the gate. The trick is not to stare at yourself in the mirror in aftermath, questioning your value as a human being and desperately trying to divine why, exactly, the universe has it out for you — this, apparently, being a condition with which Adam's guests routinely struggle — but just, like a salmon going to spawn, keepin' on facin' in the right direction and keepin' on swimmin', never stoppin'. It's unclear whether Nick Drake ever stared into the mirror and cast his self-worth into question, but his sister Gabrielle did once say that he could handle neither rejection nor criticism, nor, presumably, being ignored — that he was "born with a skin too few."