Places To Be – Nick Drake in London – 1

Battersea Church Road – National Rail: Clapham Junction

“… Saddle up, kick your feet
Ride the range of a London street
Travel to a local plane
Turn around and come back again …”

(“At the Chime of a City Clock” – Bryter Layter, 1970)

I met Nick Drake when I was 19.

He came by post one day in the form of a cassette tape, that plastic object that now belongs to prehistory but still remains a glorious icon for the people of my generation. Played in the stereo at home or inserted in the Walkman and brought everywhere, the cassette tape was much cushier than vinyl and had a great advantage compared to the first compact disks that were already circulating: you could make all the copies you wished and create your playlists. Basically it was a rough, analogue ancestor of Spotify. Almost all of the cassettes that used to fill my room were given to me by friends who received them, in turn, from who knows who.

And so, one day, the young Nicholas Rodney Drake, aka Nick, got into my house coming from Florence, from the stereo of my friend Martina. I had met her a few months before, strangely enough in London.

Since then, Nick Drake has never left my house, he’s been a constant presence and the soundtrack to many moments of my life. When I feel the need for authentic Beauty, the kind of Beauty which will save the world according to Dostoevskij, very often I choose to play one of the three albums he released while he was alive: Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter and Pink Moon.

I’m not a music critic and now more than ever words would sound unnecessary. A good read to retrace the life and career of Nick Drake is an article published on the New Musical Express on February 8, 1975, more or less two months after his death at the age of 26.

Instead, I want to start describing my quest for the places in London where Nick Drake was photographed and I will carry on this subject in a future post.

A curious detail reveals how his life was distant from celebrity: despite investigations by many people in the archives of record companies and TV stations, it seems that there are no film clips of Nick (there’s a short video on YouTube showing a man filmed from behind, among the crowd of a festival, but it doesn’t appear trustworthy). On the contrary there are many photographs: the most precious ones are those taken by Keith Morris in three sessions (April 1969, June 1970 and November/December 1971), in three different moments of Nick Drake’s personal and artistic life.

The first album, Five Leaves Left, published in 1969, shows two pictures taken by Morris on the same day. The previous night his flat had been burgled and, instead of his trusty Nikon, he had to use an unfamiliar borrowed Pentax camera.

The photograph that was chosen for the cover of the album shows Nick standing by a window, inside a derelict house near Wimbledon Common. In the interviews granted before his death in 2005, the photographer couldn’t remember the exact location of the house, that was presumably demolished a few years later.

Anyway the photograph I prefer is the one on the back cover. We see Nick peacefully leaning against a brick wall, gazing on the right while a running man crosses the scene, out of focus. It’s an effective image, because it illustrates more than words Nick Drake’s spirit: an acute observer, detached from a world that is too fast for him. A similar picture will be taken the following year for the back cover of Bryter Layter: Nick seen from behind at the side of a motorway, with a car speeding in the night, out of focus as the man on the Five Leaves Left cover.

I wanted to know more, about the photograph of the brick wall and the running man, above all I wanted to know where it had been taken, in order to visit the place afterwards. I must admit that this desire to be in the same place visited by a musician you admire might seem a form of fetishism, especially in the case of Nick Drake, whose myth was born in the nineties and it often gives a misrepresented image of the artist (damned poet, singer of melancholy, victim of depression). Nick Drake, especially in April 1969, was a 21-year-old musician, definitely shy but full of enthusiasm and hopes.

“My abiding memory of Nick is him coming to visit me once a week in Notting Hill. We’d drink tea, and he’d play his songs. A beautiful boy.”

This is Nick Drake’s memory which was given to me by Linda Thompson, the folk singer who was a close friend of him during the years he spent in London.

Going back to my assumed fetishism, I want to excuse myself by saying that I avoid visiting the mainstream locations (for example the worn out Beatles zebra crossing in Abbey Road) but I prefer the ones that implicate some research and preparation. This is what happened with this photograph. Searching on the Internet and consulting the two Nick Drake’s biographies in my bookcase, I found the following information: in that session many more photographs were taken; the brick wall belonged to Morgan Crucible Works in Battersea Church Road; the factory was closed and then demolished in the seventies. This last information was a sad one. I wouldn’t be able to see the famous brick wall…

Anyway this quest bore fruit. First of all, we have the photographs taken during that afternoon in April 1969: they are as significant as the one that was chosen for the back cover of the album.

They reaffirm what I said before: Nick observes other people’s lives in front of him but somehow he remains distant, because London’s chaos isn’t meant for him. There’s a witty reconstruction of the exact date of these pictures, it will surely entertain the reader.

By chance I found a movie from 1951 starring Alec Guinness, “The Man in the White Suit“, during which it’s possible to spot the entrance of Morgan Crucible Works (at 0:50 of the trailer):

As I accepted the fact that the factory was no more there, searching on the Internet for further information, I managed to reap the last reward of my efforts: I stumbled on a fascinating story, whose protagonist is an artist, Brian Barnes. In the years between the closure of the factory and its demolition, Barnes involved some locals and created a wonderful mural called “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” on Morgan’s boundary wall (not the same portion featured on Five Leaves Left, though).

Unfortunately, the mural was demolished one night without notice when contractors decided to raze to the ground everything and build a premium residential zone. In the following clips you can learn more about the Battersea mural:

Brian Barnes is still committed to protect the cultural heritage and the memory of the area where he lives and works. In 1983 he founded the Battersea Power Station Community Group, with the purpose of protecting from property speculation the famous power station designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott. Through Facebook he sent me some precious images of Morgan Crucible Works before and after its demolition and there’s a Facebook group (Battersea Memories) which aims at maintaining the collective memory of those who live or used to reside in this part of London.

It’s amazing how many different stories arose from a simple black and white photograph on the back cover of an album. This is the LondoNerD’s philosophy: visit places you won’t find in guidebooks that can tell unexpected stories, if you’re patient enough to find them.

And it’s unusual that in this post, unlike all the others, there are no pictures taken by me: I actually went to Battersea Church Road but, once I was in front of the featureless houses that replaced Morgan Crucible Works, I used my imagination and picked up the pace to the following destination.

“… but at the chime of a city clock
Put up your road block
Hang on to your crown
For a stone in a tin can
Is wealth to the city man
Who leaves his armour
Down”

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