Gone to See the River Man

Nick Drake has a skin too few

Time has told meEnglish folk icon Nick Drake didn't always enjoy the level of popularity he does now. Back in 1981, the Village Voice's Robert Christgau wouldn't even review Drake's records in his compendium Rock Albums of the '70s. Instead, Christgau consigned him to a back section titled "Subjects for Further Research," where Drake wallowed among such talents as the Fatback Band, Rory Gallagher, and Candi Staton. (No, I don't know who they are, either.)

If you go further back, to 1974, when Drake passed away at 26 due to an overdose of anti-depressants, you'd see that the singer was even less popular then. In the last two years of his life, he sold only 5,000 copies of Pink Moon, his stunning final album.

But great music always finds a way to be heard, and over time Drake's intensely melancholic voice and gorgeous playing made their way into hip hands. Soon, everyone from altcountry star Lucinda Williams to blissed-out rockers Buddah on the Moon to British punks the Times was covering Drake.

Then came that damned Volkswagen Cabrio commercial in 2000, with "Pink Moon" playing in the background as a bunch of yuppies tool around the countryside in their nicely pressed slacks. Suddenly, everyone rushed to his local retailer, clamoring for that sad song the beautiful people drive to. Pink Moon sold another 5,000 copies -- in three weeks.

So it makes sense that there should be a documentary about Drake, given his recent fame, his obvious talent, and his tragic end. Thus, A Skin Too Few: The Days of Nick Drake arrives from Holland this week, for its U.S. theatrical premiere at the Roxie Cinema. Unfortunately, the production tells us little about the depressed artist's life, except that it wasn't all that exciting (and he smoked a lot of pot). Still, considering that both Drake and his parents have died, his family house has been sold, and his friends barely knew him, the film's director, Jeroen Berkvens, does a decent job of holding the viewer's attention. From Nick's sister, Gabrielle Drake, Berkvens secured Super 8 footage of the singer's early years in Burma, audiotapes of his parents, and photos of his room, which Berkvens re-created. The filmmaker also traveled to Drake's hometown of Tamworth-in-Arden and to his Oxford campus, and spoke with his producer, his engineer, and his arranger.

Casual viewers looking for hard facts about Drake's death or juicy tidbits about his Parisian rendezvous with '60s pop star Françoise Hardy will be disappointed with A Skin Too Few. But hard-core fans will be fascinated by the images and the tape Gabrielle uncovers, in which her mom performs one of her own piano compositions. The fragment sounds strikingly like Nick's "Fruit Tree," the lyrics of which seem spookily prescient in hindsight: "Fame is but a fruit tree/ So very unsung/ It can never flourish/ Till its stalk is in the ground."

A Skin Too Few plays Wednesday through Wednesday, May 15-22, at the Roxie (3117 16th St. at Valencia). Preceding the film will be In Motion, a 20-minute short that follows acclaimed avant-garde saxophonist David S. Ware as he drives his taxi around New York City. Call 863-1087 or visit www.roxie.com for information.

And your flicks for, well, almost freeThe "Pink Moon" Cabrio commercial also gets discussed in Money for Nothing, a film playing at this week's second annual S.F. Documentary Festival. Unfortunately, Money for Nothing's attempt to delve into the business of pop music never rises above the intellectual level of a sixth-grader, even with words of wisdom from Chuck D, Kathleen Hanna, and Michael Franti. Another film at the festival -- Gigantic, A Tale of Two Johns, the story of pop surrealists They Might Be Giants -- is better told, with cute if uninsightful asides by such twentysomething icons as author Dave Eggers, This American Life commentators Sarah Vowell and Ira Glass, and altrock legend Frank Black. Two other music-related docs are frustratingly short: Carlos Guitarlos' autobiographical tale Another True Story of My Fucked Up Life and the Wesley Willis showcase The Daddy of Rock 'n' Roll bring up more questions than they answer. On the other hand, maybe the best thing you can say about a film is that it makes you want to know more about its subject. For details on S.F. DocFest, which takes place May 16-21 at Studio Z (314 11th St. at Folsom), call 820-3907 or go to www.sfindie.com.

 
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