Nick Drake’s ‘At the Chime of a City Clock’ and Urban Melancholia

I discovered Nick Drake late, very late. Back in 2007, Scott Dexter and I were busy dealing with the release of our book Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software; mainly, this involved engaging in some spirited discussions online with other folks interested in free software, the creative commons, free culture, and all of the rest. One of our interlocutors was a young man from–I think–Reading, UK. His name was–I think–Tom Chance. As is an internet voyeur’s wont, I moseyed on over to his webpage and spent some time poking around through his various links. One link led to a last.fm playlist. One track on that playlist was Nick Drake’s At the Chime of a City Clock.

I’m not sure why I played the track. But once I did,  and as the opening picks on the strings of Drake’s guitar floated out, accompanied by ‘A city freeze/Get on your knees/Pray for warmth and green paper/A city drought/You’re down and out/,’ I was hooked. Not as in ‘I played that track incessantly.’ ATCOACC isn’t really the kind of song that can be played again and again, at least, not at the same sitting. Rather I was hooked as in ‘it got under my skin,’ ‘spooked me out,’ ‘induced melancholia,’ ‘conjured up a rich panoply of images,’ ‘stirred up long-forgotten memories,’ ‘was strangely calming,’ ‘intrigued me with its orchestration,’ ‘haunted me,’ and so on. It was, and is, that kind of song, simultaneously simple and complex, one that almost immediately provokes in its listeners a curiosity about its provenance and meaning.

ATCOACC’s lyrics are alternately straightforward and cryptic, but they never stop being suggestive, leaving themselves open to the varied interpretations that its listeners might bring to it. (It has been suggested  that Drake’s lyrics in general show the influence of William BlakeWilliam Butler Yeats and Henry Vaughan, poets that he studied, and expressed an affinity for, during his days at Cambridge.) When I first listened to ATCOACC, New York was in the grip of a unseasonably cool summer day, gray and overcast, with faint leftover smatterings of the morning’s rain beating against my apartment windows; I felt I had discovered the perfect soundtrack to a day that is all-too familiar on the East Coast. And strangely enough, even though none of the lines in the song are explicitly about urban blight, I somehow felt that images of torn-down city blocks, sidewalks with grass poking up through them, deserted parking lots, and old grimy theaters were easily evoked by it. That was because of my particular history on the US East Coast and it spoke volumes of ATCOACC’s ability to reach into me.

If there is a miniscule weakness in ATCOACC’s lyrics it is that Drake mentions London in one line (Saddle up/Kick your feet/Ride the range of a London street/); they might have worked better without explicit mention of any particular city. And that is precisely because Drake’s melancholia should be familiar to anyone that has ever found themselves confronted with that particular irony of the modern life: to be frighteningly, devastatingly alone, in the middle of humanity’s most crowded spaces.