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People never forget where they were when Kennedy was shot. Or John Lennon. Or the first time they saw the Beatles or the Ramones or Nirvana -- on TV. Certain momentous occasions never leave us. For me, I'd add the first time I heard Nick Drake coming out of my television set, accompanying the Volkswagen Cabrio commercial. I was beached on the couch, flipping through a book and awaiting the return of regular programming, when suddenly notes very familiar to me came through loud and clear. (It was perhaps the only time I didn't complain about how the commercials are always louder than the shows they interrupt.) Upon realizing what actually was happening, I let out a genuine “Holy shit!” “Pink Moon,” the title track from a long-dead reclusive singer-songwriter, from an album that sold few copies upon its release in 1972, was being used in a car commercial. Crap, the world is coming to an end.
Next thing you know, Pink Moon the album is showing up on Amazon.com's best-seller list, and the rest of Drake's catalogue (1968's dungeon folk Five Leaves Left, 1969's sprite and jazzy Bryter Layter, and the posthumous demo collection Time of No Reply -- all recently remastered with better sound, lyric sheets, and new photos) is selling alongside it. Drake may never reach the diamond pedigree of the Backstreet Boys, but at least he's got a chance of upping his cult status a few points. Which is much more than he ever expected before dying in 1974 of an antidepressant prescription overdose in obscurity and confusion in his bedroom at his parents' house in Tamworth-in-Arden. Suicide or carelessness? Either way, the 26-year-old guitar-picking prodigy with the smoky, otherworldly voice (never husky, but easily dissipated, like cotton) was finished.
His miraculous rise from the dead, however, has been a long time coming. The past 25 years have seen a small yet steadily increasing cult embrace his metaphysically challenging music. His influence has been integral to the careers of singer-songwriters from American Music Club's Mark Eitzel, Red House Painters' Mark Kozelek, Elliot Smith, and one of the Northwest's finest, Damien Jurado.
Yet the anxiety of influence looms large. Often it is subconsciously felt. While Eitzel and Smith have openly embraced Drake's influence, Kozelek and Jurado have hesitated, citing other singer-songwriters, from Paul Simon to Bob Dylan, as greater influences. Fair enough. However, the pacing and overall trajectory of Drake's career -- the slowly accumulating snowball from hell -- seems most likely to be the way these sensitive singer-songwriters will watch their own careers unfold. The likelihood that a world attuned to louder and harder music will suddenly embrace the quiet, unvarnished realism of modern folk is ... well, I wouldn't go to Vegas with those odds.
Jurado in particular has been riding a winning hand with meager results. Last year's Rehearsals for Departure, his second album, was a mesmerizing collection of story-songs that while lyrically more in the style of, say, Bruce Springsteen (the rare performer that Jurado unequivocally admires) or Phil Ochs, emotionally connects to Drake's core.
“I'm not a huge fan,” admits Jurado. “But I really dig [Drake's] music.” The recording of Jurado's latest release, Ghost of David, another solid, even quieter collection of tunes, was inspired partly by modest records such as Drake's Pink Moon. “I remember hearing records like Nebraska, knowing that it was recorded in a house,” he points out. “That Wilco record Being There was recorded in a house. I figured if you have the equipment, why not? With the last record, I felt there wasn't a lot of me coming through the record. With this record it's really me. It bleeds me.”
Jurado's adherence to simple folk melodies, uncomplicated guitar chords, and stories that approach a fiction writer's intensity is finding an unlikely audience with his label, the infamous Sub Pop, which once brought the world the grunge explosion via Nirvana, Mudhoney, Tad, and Soundgarden. “I went into making the new record with the intention of people not liking it,” says Jurado. “I did not want people, especially the record label, to want it. It was a complete backfire. That's fine. I didn't think people would dig the real me.”
His personal insecurities have, ironically, led him to his greatest work. “Medication,” David's lead cut, is a slow and intense story of a man trying to help his unstable brother and his lover -- the wife of an emotionally withdrawn cop -- while settling the emotional balance in his own life. It was written, like the majority of David, on the fly, the morning of that particular session. “As a songwriter I'm always having these visions or stories in my head,” explains Jurado. “I had an idea, and I thought it would be good if I put it to music. The songs on this record are more to the lyrics than the guitar work or the music.”
Sub Pop has hit upon another perfect vehicle for Jurado, with the release of Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen'sNebraska. A collection on which artists such as Chrissie Hynde, Ani DiFranco, and Johnny Cash interpret Springsteen's legendary 1982 acoustic album, the album also will feature Jurado taking a shot at “Wages of Sin,” a track Springsteen recorded but did not release with the record. Staffers at Sub Pop thought the tune would be perfect for Jurado, since it had all the ingredients he looks for in a song. Jurado agrees: “I took it home and learned it. I loved it. There are only three chords in the entire song. He's the only songwriter I can fully identify with. I respect the guy so much. The guy writes amazing songs, and he does not care what anyone thinks.”