Every year I get older. That’s not true, really, not anymore. Now IÂ see something on the satellite or on the web that makes me feel older every day. There have been a couple of documentaries recently that made my tooth longer. Both are about dead musicians, but not the usual famous, indulgent, overdose tales of woe. Sad none the less, and not simply because I recalled their epochs as much more recent to my memory then they actually were.
The first was A Skin Too Few, chronicling the brief career and death of Nick Drake, a British singer/songwriter of the early 1970s. He only record three albums. None of them were successful. His music did not fit into the acoustic folk tradition of that time, and his lack of audience exacerbated his history of depression. In November of 1974 he died of an overdose of antidepressants. It was ruled a suicide. He was 26 years old. A familiar story in many respects, but the music in the documentary made me pay attention.
I purchased all three of his records â€“ Five Leaves Left (1969), Bryter Layter (1970) and Pink Moon (1972). There is a depth to the words and music of these recordings, and a powerful virtuosity to the acoustic guitar.Â It is easy to see why Drake was difficult to categorize and promote in the early ’70s. It is hard to categorize him today, a Cat Stevens with a much more complex imagery, perhaps. I was certainly never aware of him during his lifetime. In 2000, a renewed interest in his music was sparked with the use of Pink Moon in a Volkswagen commercial. That song is often the first sited when mentioning Drake’s music, and it is a beautifully melodic bit of song, but it was his second album, Bryter Layter, that hooked me. I had heard the song Fly from this record before, from the the soundtrack of The Royal Tenenbaums. And like that song, this album features a much fuller instrumentation with Drake’s voice floating high above and his intricate guitar anchoring every song.
I have since acquired posthumous releases like Made to Love Magic and Family Tree. They are uneven, but still contain glimpses of brilliance. The somber home recordings found on Family Tree are particularly haunting in their often desperate lyrics, considering the nature of Drake’s death.
The Drake documentary attuned me to other such fare, and it was not long after that I saw The Future is Unwritten. It is the story of Joe Strummer, founder of The Clash. I was not drawn to this because of Strummer’s association with The Clash. I was never drawn to the punk bands of the late ’70s and early ’80s. The music seemed too one dimensional, almost without subtlety and always angry. Many of my peers raved about London Calling, but my interest in The Clash ended with Should I Stay or Should I Go and Train in Vain.
No, what drew me in was the music Strummer made after The Clash, particularly with The Mescaleros. This oeuvre includes only four albums, the last released posthumously, following his death from an undiagnosed congenital heart defect in December of 2002 at the age of 50. I was also very interested by the songs Strummer identified as influences in the documentary. Songs like Crawfish by Elvis Presley and Corrina, Corrina by Bob Dylan.
Following the demise of The Clash, Strummer recorded Earthquake Weather in 1989. It was a precursor of his later solo work, but it was not what the public or critics expected and led to his release from Sony Records. Strummer didn’t record again for a decade until the release of his first record with The Mescaleros in 1999. Strummer and The Mescaleros recorded three albums from 1999 to 2002.Â The jewel of these recordings is Streetcore, a stylized rock album in the tradition of David Bowie or Peter Gabriel. The sampling and world music instrumentation and subtle, sharp guitars are mesmerizing. It not only induced me to investigate all of Strummer’s solos efforts, but to take another look at his work with The Clash. What I found was the seeds of his solo work and a reggae aesthetic apparent, most notably, on Sandanista!.
And, ultimately, this brought to mind the dichotomy in many of my favorite bands. Are you a Lennon person or a McCartney person? Is it Page or Plant? Roger Waters or David Gilmour? The Clash offers this choice as well â€“ two strong musical presences forming the core of a seminal band. When these presences are separated, one of the artists will tend to embody in their subsequent work what you liked most about the original band. Mick Jones was Strummer’s counterpart in The Clash. Jones had great success immediately following the break-up of The Clash with his band Big Audio Dynamite. But I found the music of Big Audio Dynamite encompassed all the things i didn’t like about The Clash. I didn’t realize until I saw The Future is Unwritten that Strummer’s influence was a part of The Clash that appealed to me forcibly.
To demonstrate the legacy of both these artists, Nick Drake and Joe Strummer, and to highlight what I like about them both, I have also posted playlists under the My Playlists tab on this site. I hope they don’t make you feel older, as they did me, but rejuvenated by the music.