A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake Revives His Music for a New Audience
On Saturday and Sunday, Williamsburg's Nitehawk Cinema and Vice/Noisey hosted brunch screenings of the 2002 documentary A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake as part of a week of events celebrating the April 16th release of live tribute album Way to Blue: The Songs of Nick Drake. It was also the first installation of Music Driven, a new monthly music-centric film series presented jointly by Nitehawk and Noisey. Following the screening, Noisey editor Ben Shapiro led a Q&A with producer Joe Boyd, who played a prominent role in discovering Drake's music and producing Way to Blue. He also organized Nick Drake week, which began on April 10th with a performance by Vashti Bunyan at Joe's Pub and will end with Boyd's keynote speech at EMP Pop Music Conference on April 18th.
Boyd had agreed to appear in A Skin Too Few, which is rarely shown in the U.S. (but available in full on YouTube, of course), while filming Lost Boy: In Search of Nick Drake, the BBC documentary released in 2004. Despite his high hopes for the BBC film and reservations about "these crazy Dutch people" that could be difficult to work with, Boyd found Skin superior to Lost Boy, which was never publicly screened again. "If your set problem as a film student is how to make a film with no footage, and you don't want to fall into the cliches of talking heads, etcetera, this is an object lesson," he said.
In Skin Nick Drake's short life is rendered in 35mm through director Jeroen Berkven's tactile lens, which focuses on details like rain sweeping across the trees around the Drakes' house in the English countryside or the creases in his older sister Gabrielle's face as she recalls living with her brother in a London flat. Berkven conveys what little information still exists through interviews with the people that knew Nick Drake best (and a somewhat random sound bite from Paul Weller): Boyd, Gabrielle, his college friend Brian Wells, sound engineers Robert Kirby and John Wood, and his deceased parents.
In fact, one of the most striking parts of the film was Nick Drake's similarity to his mother, Molly Drake, a songwriter herself whose home recordings were played in the film and officially released for the first time this past January. "I was stunned. To me, Molly's music explains a huge amount about Nick. You can hear in Nick's music a little bit of blues, Dylan, Bert Jansch, a little bit of Donovan maybe, but that was all sort of superficial. There was some deep connection between his musical sensibility and his mother's," Boyd said. Had it been up to him, he added, he would have publicized Molly's tapes 10 years ago; but Gabrielle hesitated, perhaps because she was afraid her late mother would be panned by the same critics that once called Nick Drake's music "an uncomfortable mix of folk and cocktail jazz." Hearing her songs alongside some of those that appear on Way to Blue, including a video of Lisa Hannigan covering "Black Eyed Dog" that Boyd played during the Q&A, revives Nick Drake's music for a new audience that only discovered "Pink Moon" from its placement in a 2006 ad for Volkswagen.
"The only way that all the work he put into composing the songs, working on these incredibly complex guitar parts, could be justified, is if people eventually found the music," said Boyd. Following the Volkswagen ad, that sentiment was the impetus behind screening Skin again and releasing Way to Blue (which shares its title with a 1994 compilation of Nick Drake songs). Even though Boyd initially resisted using "Pink Moon" to sell a car, and for a long time the idea of other musicians singing covers of the singer-songwriter, the producer eventually came to the conclusion that "it's very gratifying not only to have so many people get so much out of his music, but to hear other singers singing his songs. The songs come alive in a different way."
When he ran out of time in the theater, Boyd wrapped things up at the Nitehawk bar with a clip of Linda and Richard Thompson's son, Teddy Thompson, singing "River Man"-- fitting, since the bassist from Fairport Convention was the one who introduced Boyd to Nick Drake's music in the first place. Despite an ill-timed question about why Pink Floyd were such incredible live performers and Nick Drake was not, the presentation overall reassured the singer's fans that his legacy would continue to rest in good hands.