Recorded Versions: At least two: The studio version on Pink Moon (1972) and one unreleased home recording (1968/69)
Tuning: CGCFGE, but playable in CGCFCE
Capo: 4th Fret (the record will still sound a little sharp)
Tempo: 84 BPM
Difficulty Rating: ●●●●●●
Now I’m darker than the deepest sea
Just hand me down, give me a place to be
Place To Be fades in like a companion piece to Pink Moon’s title track. The sequencing of the album seems to encourage this feeling of connection, where one track follows the other, highlighting the similarities in their chord progressions and brisk strumming patterns. Even the smooth volume swell between the songs helps tie them together, like two parts of an overture within a greater work. On first listen it would be hard to assuage the concerns of fans keen to hear more of the fingerstyle guitar playing that Nick Drake was known for. Instead of dynamic fingerpicking, the album Pink Moon introduces itself with two technically straightforward tracks. Those listening out for a sense of resignation in this recording will notice the sonic sparseness, where this opening is not just void of any fellow musicians, but stripped of the idiosyncratic plucking that caught the ears of Nick’s early listeners.
Closer scrutiny of the lyrics doesn’t help matters, tinged with a doomish quality. Each of the three verses is split into two, where the first half (in the past tense) describes happier or more naive times, while the second half (in the present tense) moves towards a gloomy but calm moment of recognition:
1. And now I’m older see it face to face…
2. Now I’m darker than the deepest sea…
3. Now I’m weaker than the palest blue…
Marked by its clarity, Place To Be develops Pink Moon’s comfort in its sense of an ending. The absence of intricate guitar work gives the record its distinct frankness. How better to confide feeling older, darker, weaker?
But as with last week’s Parasite, I’m falling into the trap of listening to Pink Moon retrospectively and biographically. Once again, we have a track that survives in an earlier recorded version, indeed from the same tape as those Parasite demos from the start of Nick’s professional career. The fact that the lyrics have been repurposed for the title of a Nick Drake biography makes it even more urgent that we explore it outside of this historical spotlight.
The lyrics contain a motif of surpassing the superlative ‘est’ with the comparative ‘er’. The song draws up similes, in this case touchstone images of loneliness and sadness, only to acknowledge their inadequacy at expressing the extreme emotions at stake. Feeling ‘Darker than the deepest sea’, Nick’s speaker succinctly establishes himself beyond the boundaries of a regular emotional state, yet he does so with such calm resignation. Focusing on biographical tragedy obscures the emotional subtlety at play, particularly in the songs composed long before Nick was prescribed with antidepressants. The imagery isn’t volatile or exasperating, it’s just enough now, ‘just hand me down, give me a place to be’.
Unlike with Parasite, where the differences between the older and studio versions were fairly subtle and most apparent in the lyrics, with Place To Be the difference is immediately apparent. Unlike the Pink Moon version, this older Place To Be is entirely fingerpicked with sweeping arpeggios. You can hear that the same fingerings are there, but it’s all a lot more elaborate, and dare I say, distracting. A biographer might well observe this shift as part of Nick’s diminishing dexterity owing to his illness, as had been noted by John Wood (who had engineered all three of Nick’s albums). Nick Drake’s Road, which was recorded in the same sessions as this later Place To Be, goes some way of refuting such an interpretation, as it stands as one of his most difficult tracks to imitate. Comparing the two recordings of Place To Be, and acknowledging the lyrical subtlety and frankness available in the composition, the strummed version is the superior as it lets these qualities delicately rise to the surface.
* * *
For the first time, it’s time to retune my guitar away from CGCFCE, Nick Drake’s unique take on Open-C (i.e. a tuning that creates a C chord when the strings are strummed without any fretting required). Fortunately, it’s not a big effort as only the 2nd string is affected, but it does need to drop all the way down from a C to a G (3 tones!). The result (CGCFGE) is a more unresolved sound, as the basic chord shape is shifted towards C minor. Within the song, the difference is subtle, but noticeable. It’s hard to explain, and likely was not a decision made based on deliberate music theory, but driven by feel. It’s not that this retuning modifies the entire nature of the song, but it’s ear-catching, unsettling and there.
So I practised and practised and all was going fine, until I decided to return the guitar back up to CGCFCE (as used by the four previous songs on this blog). As I dialled the tension back into the instrument, I snapped the adjacent 3rd string. The guitar was biting back – Nick must’ve been using really knackered strings in order to retune like this so frequently! After all, he was renowned for using a single instrument for his live sets, agonisingly retuning between each song without any concern for a showman’s patter. I whinged under my breath as I restrung the 3rd string, this time keeping it as CGCFCE. It’s a heavier, wound string, and had lashed out rather violently once at breaking point.
After playing Introduction, Pink Moon, Which Will and Parasite, I absent-mindedly ran through Place To Be once more, despite not detuning as detailed above. And surprisingly enough, it sounds absolutely fine. Place To Be is absolutely playable in CGCFCE, rather than CGCFGE, you’ll just lose that certain something. Once again it falls down to your personal placement on the purist/pragmatist spectrum. As I wimpishly nursed my fingertip back to health, I took the easy route. N