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Time of no reply

08/11/2009

A few paragraphs in her enthralling autobiography (Le Désespoir des Singes et autres Bagatelles, Editions Robert Laffont 2008) reveal Françoise Hardy’s admiration for late English singer/songwriter, Nick Drake. Since his first album, she tells us, she’d loved his work. An unusually kind and generous soul, Françoise seized every opportunity to enthuse about Nick’s music to every journalist, promoter or associated decision-former she encountered.

Nick heard of this, and turned up at the London recording studio where Françoise was working on a new record. There he spent hours sitting on the floor watching, listening, without uttering a word.  The language barrier proved Nick Drakeinsuperable so little progress was made in forging a new friendship. At least apparently – for late in 1972 Nick ‘phoned Françoise: he was passing through Paris and would like to see her.  That evening Françoise was due to attend a cabaret presented by a fellow singer, among a noisily cheerful, Champagne-swilling crowd of mutual acquaintances. Hardly Nick Drake’s scene. He maintained an impenetrable – although far from either hostile or sulky – silence throughout. An essentially shy and reserved person herself, Françoise was concerned for Nick. But she felt it best to respect his wish to be left alone –  and also feared that it might be insensitive to break through his mute barrier.

Françoise couldn’t fathom why Nick had visited her. What did he want? It only occurred to her decades later that Nick might have had a more personal interest in her.  But less than two years after his visit to Paris Nick’s mother ‘phoned Françoise: Nick had died, aged 26.  Despite the shock the sudden death of a young person always inflicts, Françoise’s conclusion was that Nick’s growing despondency could only have had one outcome. And, whether his death was a result of accident or suicide,  so it sadly proved.

Françoise wonders whether success might have reversed his progress towards oblivion, while simultaneously entertaining a suspicion that there might have been something within Nick which insisted upon denying him the recognition he so clearly deserved. Briefly, she considers a form of autism as an explanation for Nick’s excessive introversion. Then, perhaps more realistically, opts for a vulnerability based on sensitivity so extreme that even the slightest most casual discourtesy could cause him pain.

None of us will ever know, so it’s pointless to speculate. Perhaps one of Françoise Hardy’s most haunting and poignantly beautiful songs might serve as a tribute to the impulse that compelled Nick to contact her.  Fais moi une place was written for that handsome exponent of passionate intensity, Julien Clerc, for whom it was a deserved success. Yet for me his version – however good – somehow doesn’t sound right.  It doesn’t exactly cloche; but it definitely sonne faux. So I was delighted to discover, thanks to YouTube, that Françoise recorded her own version. The orchestration may be a touch overpowering, but the melody and lyrics really do come into their own. Merci infiniment, Françoise – and here’s to the memory of Nick Drake:

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