33 1/3 is a series of pocket-sized books, each volume focusing on a single album. This is the seventeenth installment of our attempt to read all 57 (and counting) of these things, and to scribble some impressions of each. As always, please keep in mind that it’s always just one writer’s opinion, often skewed, and somewhat ill-informed. Accuracy is ensured as time permits. For the full introduction, check out the first installment and read the others here. On to the demi-tomes!
Part 18: Pink Moon by Amanda Petrusich
reviewed by Chris Estey
“In 2007, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Pink Moon would be released by a corporate record label,” author Amanda Petrusich asserts about a third of the way through the 33 1/3 volume about the album by Nick Drake. But somehow, it’s also impossible to imagine the dysphoric masterpiece not being part of a mainstream wide enough for it to sink into so many valleys of creation. I grew up in an era of the Fruit Tree reissue (1979), a luxurious box set of his three officially released records that was like a burning blue coal on the wailing tongues of the post-punk generation. If you doubt this, see where long-time bellwether artist/producer John Cale was heading, from psychotic hard rock to the morbidly tristful Music For A New Society (1982). Years before, Cale had worked with Drake under the direction of the masterful producer Joy Boyd. He had created the blueprint for punk with the Velvet Underground and by recording The Stooges and Patti Smith; when it came time for something new after the deaths of Sid Vicious and Ian Curtis, the sound of a withering spirit may have seemed like the only true pop voice left. And yet when The Wire magazine interviewed Cale a couple of years ago they played him a Drake song and he said, “I don’t know who that is.”
That is an unsurprising reaction to encountering Drake’s work for the first time after so many years; Cale thought he was a genius (his guitar playing seeming like a full orchestra to him), but a lot of us put Drake away the way the artist himself put himself away with a load of anti-depressants in 1974. Petrusich describes the usual fan’s and fellow musician’s relationship with Drake’s 1972 album as introductorily obsessive, and then waning sharply. His near-silent, shattered, little boy lost blues would inspire Duncan Sheik to cover Pink Moon in its entirety live at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in a serious devotion to the greatness of the album, but Petrusich then quotes Sheik as saying, “I don’t put it on in the house a lot.” Instead, he prefers hearing it the way most of us do — overheard at a friend’s house, or a restaurant, or somewhere life is happening where ghosts like the terminally-depressed Nick Drake aren’t included.
It would be wonderful to have the tossed Nick Kent liners for Fruit Tree, but unless they ever surface (maybe the world is ready for the real punk’s eye view), this 33 1/3 book will be my favorite writing on Drake. Petrusich majestically weaves the sensual details of her main character in with the terrors of his time, as well as her own. As part of the series, it is one of the most balanced, well-written, deeply researched, and historically satisfying interpretations of a landmark album. Petrusich’s own haunting by the record in apocalyptically-shaken, turn of the century New York City is an appropriately effective way to begin a story that includes terribly intimate assessments from those close to Drake (“And I tried to explain there are no guarantees, that you can make a great record and sometimes it doesn’t sell,” Boyd explains to the frail lad) and a wickedly detailed account of Pink Moon being the flagship of hipster viral marketing. The quotes sprinkled throughout the narrative by artists and bloggers, DJs and rack jobbers are more or less revelatory (Robyn Hitchcock is my favorite inclusion) but it’s the way Petrusich tells the terrible tale of a falling soul that makes you want to read more about it that really shines. In fact, her prose is so vibrant I will probably be playing the album more than ever, and pulling her book out again and again to savor the dark flavors behind its creation.