“Strange face with your eyes so pale and sincere” the opening line of “Cello Song” from Nick Drake‘s debut album, “Five Leaves Left”. “Strange Face” is also the title of a recently published book which I had put on my Christmas List with little hope of anyone actually buying it for me. So it turned out and so it was that I treated myself to it last week.
The book is written by Michael Burdett who explains that in the late 1970s he worked for Island Records. It was in this capacity that he found a discarded quarter inch tape in a skip which appeared to contain a recording by Nick Drake. It was only decades later that Michael got around to actually playing the tape and discovering that what it contained was not the version of “Cello Song” as it appears on “Five Leaves Left” but a very different version that he hadn’t heard before. And neither it seemed had anyone else.
Michael couldn’t release the newly discovered track due to copyright law so he decided to put it to use in a completely different way. Travelling all over Britain clutching a portable CD player, a pair of headphones and a camera he would stop people and ask them whether they would like to listen to a lost Nick Drake recording. In exchange for this privilege the listener would have to agree to Michael taking photos of them as they listened. This book is the result of that project, the “Strange Face Project”.
Sadly I was not lucky enough to be one of the two hundred people who Michael offered this fantastic opportunity to. I would have bitten his hand off for such an experience but being both a keen photographer and a Nick Drake fan I was really looking forward to reading this book. 130 people agreed to listen and their photographs and stories grace the glossy pages.
There is a brief introduction in which Michael describes the circumstances of the discovery of the tape and the eventual realisation that he had in his possession something really quite special, followed by a short (1.5 page) introduction to Nick Drake. The rest of the book (266 pages in total) is filled with the photos of Michael’s “victims” and the story behind each photograph.
The subjects of the photographs range from quite literally the everyday man or woman on the street to the really quite famous (Billy Bragg, Jeremy Clarkson, Martin Freeman). At several points in the text Michael disparages his own skills as a photographer but I found myself really admiring this collection of very intimate studies. The “Strange Face” of the title is very apt in that it is the opening lyric from the song and it could also well describe the “strange” far away look that enters the subjects’ eyes as they stand on a busy street (or on the top of a mountain, or in a shop, or by the sea) and drift into the mellow world of the music of Nick Drake.
I ended up reading the book from cover to cover during the evening of the day on which it was delivered. I just couldn’t put it down. The stories and photos offer a brief but really quite intimate glimpse into the lives of the subjects. You can see a small selection as an example on the Strange Face website. Whatever else was going on in the lives of these people, they took a few minutes of their day to stop and listen and let the music wash over them.
At several points in the book it is mentioned that people find it hard to recall Nick’s lyrics, even if they’ve heard the songs hundreds of times. I find that to be the case myself. It’s almost as if the words merge with the music and have a subconscious, almost mesmeric effect on the listener. It is also a common observation by the subjects in this book that the recording would be “good to sit and listen to with a glass of something”, which is often what I do with Nick Drake myself. And that’s how I enjoyed this book : a few glasses of red wine and some Nick Drake playing in the background (what else?). Having read it all at one sitting I know I’ll keep dipping back in from time to time to revisit those brief insights into other people’s lives.
I can only live in hope that at some point we’ll all get the chance to hear what these very few people have had the great fortune to hear, the lost alternative arrangement of a Nick Drake classic.
“Strange Face” can be purchased direct from the web site for £19.99 plus p&p. I have also seen it on Amazon, but I can recommend buying direct. A wonderful read for the Nick Drake fan or the photographer who might enjoy looking at some splendid candid portraiture.