Wednesday at the Ponderosa

You know — the Cartwright place; not the steakhouse. This could also be called Late Discovery Wednesday.

Last night, one of the local public radio stations broadcast a discussion from a month or so ago about a singer/songwriter named Nick Drake. I had heard something of his story before: a wildly talented and deeply depressed singer/songwriter in the late ’60s and early ’70s; he made just three albums in what I would suppose you’d call the British-type folk-rock style — think Fairport Convention and Richard and Linda Thompson. He died in 1974, in his mid-20s, a possible suicide. His music never went away, though. The albums didn’t find a big audience, but they survived because the fans were devoted and sometimes influential. From listening to the program last night, it sounds like Drake’s big posthumous break was having a marketing guy at Volkswagen happen across one of Drake’s late songs, “Pink Moon,” and decide to use it as the soundtrack for a commercial (you can watch it on YouTube). That was in 2000, and the sudden mass exposure of the song moved 5,000 copies of the “Pink Moon” album in less than three weeks — more than it had sold in the two years between its release and Drake’s death.

Out of curiosity, I went looking for the Volkswagen ad. I remember it, though I wouldn’t have guessed it was on the air seven years ago already. Four young people in a Cabriolet or whatever those little Rabbit-like convertibles are called. They drive along beautiful moonlight roads and arrive at a roadhouse. They pull into the parking lot and are greeted by the yahoo-like carryings-on of their peers. Disgusted, too in touch with the wonders of the night (thanks to the car), they soulfully head back out to the open road. There’s no dialogue; just a minute of the Drake song, which is pleasant enough but not world-shattering. As commercial’s go, it’s a pretty good one (another VW favorte: the couple driving through the New Orleans French Quarter in the rain, where absolutely everything they see on the street — people walking, people unloading a truck, a guy sweeping the sidewalk, another guy dribbling a basketball — happens in time to the car’s windshield wipers. That one would have worked better without dialogue, too; it’s also on YouTube).

There are some Nick Drake videos on YouTube, too (sort of; there’s apparently no extant film footage of him playing, so people have just pieced together moody still images). “Pink Moon,” for one. And one called “River Man,” which is a lovely minor-key ballad that prompted me to see if iTunes has any Drake stuff. They do. I wound up buying a compilation album, “Way to Blue.” If you’re in the market yourself, go to AmazonMP3 — the album is three bucks cheaper than it is on iTunes (also, Amazon’s songs can be played anywhere and come without the digital-rights management limits that Apple imposes on most cuts at the behest of the record companies.

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3 Replies to “Wednesday at the Ponderosa”

  1. One of the girls discovered Nick Drake on Napster. The first Napster. I don’t remember if that was before or after the commercial. There’s something very different about his sound. Thanks for reminding me about him.
    I do like that Amazon MP3 thing – main reason being, there’s a lot more olden rockers and soul singers on there than on iTunes or eMusic. I don’t know how they did it, but they did.

  2. I discovered Nick Drake about 8 years ago. One of the Shoutcast featured streaming audio sites I listened to had his song ‘One Of These Things First’ in their rotation. Great song, archetypal Nick Drake: jazzy, slightly melancholy and delivered in his breathy singing voice.
    ‘Way to Blue’ was the first of his CDs I bought. I’ve given copies to friends my age, surprisingly few were aware of him. Artists as diverse as Duncan Sheik, Brad Mehldau Trio and Christopher O’Riley have all covered his tune ‘River Man.’
    I haven’t actually purchased any MP3s from the Amazon site yet, but I’ve got several artists scoped out, largely because their CDs are unavailable. I think it’s a great deal!

  3. I actually just bought my first song from Amazon — “Stormy Monday,” by the Allman Brothers, which is way, way, way up there among my all-time favorite cuts. It’s surprising to me that I’ve been listening to this for 35 years and I’m still surprised and amazed by how beautifully those guys played together — especially those guitarists.

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