We were 16 year old schoolmates in the fifth form at a grammar school in Hillingdon, outer west London. We both had similar tastes in music, and apart from other interests in bands like Cream (both of us) and singer-songwriters like David Ackles (mainly Herman), we were particularly interested in the music beginning to emanate from the Island Records stable. We both bought the first Island sampler ‘You Can All Join In’ soon after it was released in May 1969, and that, followed by the later sampler records, started our life-long following for, among others, John Martyn and the earlier incarnations of Fairport Convention.
By mid-1969 Herman and his girlfriend Hazel had also started going to local folk clubs. The nearest to them was the Hayes Folk Club, which met in a back room at the Angel pub on the Uxbridge Road in Hayes End, where they first saw among others: Ralph McTell, Al Stewart, The Strawbs (with Claire Deniz on cello) and Tudor Lodge . They also travelled some 10 miles away to see The Strawbs a few times play at the White Bear in Hounslow, in the club run by the band’s Dave Cousins.
Then, in November 1969, we both bought ‘Nice Enough To Eat’, the second Island sampler, the day it was released. On that album was the track ‘Time Has Told Me’ by Nick Drake, who was then unknown to us. We were equally blown away by that song, regarding it as the album’s standout track, but had both somehow overlooked the earlier release of his first album ‘Five Leaves Left’ in July (or September 1969 – sources differ), from where the track originated. Our interest in this new breed of English singer-songwriters deepened, and we started to buy more albums. Herman was particularly interested in the music of John Martyn – which started from him first hearing the track ‘Dusty’ on ‘You Can All Join In’ – and from there he went on to buy both of John’s first two albums – ‘London Conversation’ and ‘The Tumbler’. In the Autumn of 1969 Herman was on what passed for the Committee running the Hayes Folk Club, and when the members were asked which acts they would like to invite in the next few months, Herman suggested John Martyn – whom he had never seen live at that point. John Martyn was then duly booked to play at Hayes on Tuesday 2 December 1969.
In addition to having musical interests and albums in common, we were also avid weekly readers of Melody Maker, which ran a regular Folk Forum page – a largely London-oriented extensive gig list for the forthcoming week. In what must have been the Saturday 8 November 1969 issue we noticed for the first time an advert for Nick Drake playing at Cousins Folk Club at 49 Greek Street, Soho, on Saturday 15 November. We both agreed that we’d love to be there – both because it was to see Nick Drake, and also because it would be our first foray to a folk club in central London. So we decided to go, and rather than risk not being able to get public transport home, Herman got permission from his father to borrow his Honda 50cc moped.
We got to Greek Street at about 7 pm on the Saturday, and found the ground floor door at the side of a restaurant at number 49 with a chalk board outside. As we approached the door were met by a stocky, curly-haired man in a dark grey overcoat (who we were later to realise was Andy Matheou/Matthews – ‘Andy The Greek’ – the son of the restaurant owners and the man who ran Cousins). We paid whatever the entrance fee was (which we can’t remember) to get in, and followed Andy down the steep stairs just behind the door into the basement, not quite knowing what to expect of this rather unusual, slightly shady-looking, venue. At the bottom of the stairs was a wall-hung corded telephone next to a door on the left which led into an empty low lit room about 25 foot square. The room was bare except for chairs and church pews against both the far and the left-side wall, and at the near end beside the door to the stairs was a primary school-like raised wooden stage area about 6 x 4 foot and about 18 inches high, on which stood a single microphone stand.
Beyond this austere performance room was a wide opening into another, slightly smaller, room. On the left side of this room was a rudimentary coffee/refreshment counter with a glass sandwich display case at one end and a large stainless steel urn for boiling water at the other. There was a sink on the back wall, and a record player on one of the high shelves against the side wall. We were the only two people there, as Andy had now left us and gone back up the stairs. But within a few moments we were joined by a young woman who just said, “hello’, and went straight to the coffee counter, lifted up the flap, started to fill jugs with water to pour into the urn, switched it on, and placed a vinyl LP on the turntable. As soon as enough water had boiled we paid for two cups of coffee and stood together rather aimlessly listening to the music and drinking our coffee, as the waitress then disappeared, leaving us alone.
No more than a few minutes later, the first other person to come into the room was a very tall, imposing, long-haired young man, who said nothing as he entered, but just looked around, and seemed initially as perplexed as we were about what the set-up was. (Paul in 2020 described him as tall and imposing, with a magnificent shock of long wavy hair, and wearing a light/white shirt, a dark blue or black velvet jacket, flared jeans or trousers, and black boots – “the coolest thing I’d seen”). The waitress quickly re-appeared and asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee. Herman then whispered to Paul, as the man took a few paces forward in front of us towards the coffee counter – “That’s him!” “That’s Nick Drake!” Summoning up something, anything, to ask, Herman then had the following stilted conversational exchange – “excuse me, are you Nick Drake?” “Yes”. “I love Five Leaves Left”. “Thank you”. “Do you have any other records out?” “No – just that one”. Lost for anything further to say, to a guy who appeared polite and respectful, but obviously not the talkative or self-promoting type, Herman was left quietly star-struck, but embarrassed to ask anything more about him and his music. And Nick Drake just stood there between us, although was obviously not going to initiate any further chat.
Paul was particularly impressed by the tracks we were listening to on the record player, but which weren’t familiar to us. (We are not entirely sure whether this next question was addressed to Nick Drake or actually Andy, but …) To cut the ice, Paul then asked Nick if he knew who was playing on the LP, and he just replied ‘the band”, and then slowly walked off. We were both rather bemused by his comment – was it a question or a statement? – and Paul then went up to the coffee counter to ask the same question of the waitress. At that point Andy returned, and overheard Paul asking “who’s that playing?” Andy immediately replied “the band”, before the waitress could say anything – and the brief conversation then went as follows: “Yes, who’s the band?” “the band” “Yes, which band?” “the band” “yes, but …” “THE BAND! (starting to get exasperated)” “Yes, but which band?” “(blowing his top) The FUCKING Band!” Neither of us had heard of The Band, and were duly humbled when Andy went to pick up, and then stuff in our hands, the brown cover of the eponymous recording that was the now-famous second album by The Band. Herman was quoted in Trevor Dann (2006:150) as saying2: Herman Gilligan saw Nick at the bar one night and introduced himself. ‘Excuse me are you Nick Drake? You’re brilliant.’ Nick was uncommunicative even with a fervent fan. ‘He didn’t know what to say. He had no small talk,’ recalls Gilligan. ‘So I asked him if he knew who was on the record player, and he just said “The Band” and walked off.’
Within an hour or so, the coffee counter area and the performance room were beginning to get busy. So we bagged the prime audience position and sat cross-legged on the floor right in front of the microphone stand in the middle of the stage. Apart from the chairs and church pews against the walls on two sides of the room, everyone just sat on the floor. Neither of us can remember whether any floor-spot acts or other performers played that night (although John James was actually also billed in the Melody Maker advert), or whether Nick played one or two sets. We therefore cannot say at what point in the evening during a break in the music, and with a full crowd sat on the floor, someone was heard rushing down the stairs, came bounding into the room, and pushed his way through to get to the stage, to say something like: “Hi, I’m John Martyn. I’m actually playing a gig around the corner, but just wanted to come down here and introduce you to my friend Nick Drake.” “Well, well” said Herman, “John Martyn – that’s who we’ve booked for Hayes at the next Tuesday folk club event”. Finally, Nick Drake came to the stage. In 2020, Paul said “When he eventually arrived I am happy to admit to being instantly over-awed. I apologise if this sounds like teen fan hysteria but he was everything I wanted to be and plainly could never be. To begin with, he was tall and imposing, sitting on a stool on the stage with his guitar and looming over us. He was a huge, enigmatic presence, helped, not hindered, by the fact that he didn’t say a single word. No “hello”, no “thank you” and no “goodbye”. “Less chatty than Dylan.”
Herman was interviewed for the c2005 Rob Johnson film ‘Fruit Tree: A Tribute to Nick Drake’ about that night, and said: “There was an advert for Nick Drake playing at Cousins in Greek Street in London. He got a crowd of about perhaps 40, 50 – and that was pretty full with 40 or 50. Chairs around the outside, a lot of people though actually just sitting on the floor. We decided to sit on the floor to get closer to the stage, which was just like a school wooden boarded stage about two foot high. Nick comes on, leaning over, very tall, apologetically sort of walked his way through the crowd to get to the stage. I don’t recall him saying anything other than just “good evening” or something, head down, and he just started to play.” (12.06 minutes into the film) “He would sort of mumble “thank you” between songs, retune, and play another one. And maybe some people in the audience thought this was rather odd – a rather distant kind of character – but my friend and I were both enthralled by it really. And to be effectively 10 feet away from his playing was in retrospect really something very special.” (13.15 minutes into the film) However, when in 2020 we discussed again how far away we must actually have been sitting from him, we thought it was probably closer to 6 feet. “You could just about reach out and touch him”, Paul said. Upon reflection, as we were sitting on the floor close to the edge of the stage, looking up at about 45 degrees towards Nick’s bowed head as he was bent forward to share the single mic between his guitar and his voice, about only 6 foot away seems more accurate. Again, in Herman’s interview for the film ‘Fruit Tree: A Tribute to Nick Drake’: “His singing was wonderful; his guitar playing I just found intriguing.” (1.08 minutes into the film) Herman is quoted by Trevor Dann (2006; p150) as describing how ‘Nick lumbered on’, according to Gilligan, ‘head down, sang each song, there was a polite “thank you”, but he didn’t introduce the songs, there was no eye contact.
People like Al Stewart, John Martyn, Roy Harper, contextualised their music – Nick didn’t bother.’ However this clearly suited the confined and reverential space of Cousins better than the theatres and sports halls he’d been playing to promote his record…Paul in 2020: “The thing is, if you can play the guitar and sing like Nick Drake, what’s the point in small talk? His guitar playing was superb, with everything intricately finger-picked and never simply strummed. To be honest, it sounded to me like two guitars were playing at once. And his voice? Personally I don’t think enough has been made of how good his voice was. For me, it was mellow, pitch perfect, and confidently projected, yet he only ever appeared to be whispering. Completely unique.”
“He played most of the beautiful songs from Five Leaves Left and probably a few more. And then he stood up with his guitar and was gone.” Herman, again in Trevor Dann (2006): Gilligan described the gig[s] as ‘ethereal and soothing. His guitar technique was extraordinary, I just couldn’t understand how he did it. My mate and I were quite stunned afterwards riding home to Hayes on my Honda 50.’ And on the long-standing impact of that night, in Rob Johnson’s film, Herman reflected: “As we left at the end of the night, just thinking – really, this is the London scene. This is very special.” (14.28 minutes into the film) “It felt very personal, and it still does in a weird way.” (21.31 minutes into the film) So, in just one night, we had heard Nick Drake for the first time, saw (but only just seeing and not hearing play) John Martyn, and then been introduced to the music of The Band. We laughed about our ignorance in not knowing about The Band, and being informed about them in no uncertain fashion – all the more so when I stopped the moped at the traffic lights where Oxford Street crossed Tottenham Court Road on the way home, and in front of us we saw the expansive window display of the large HMV music store on the corner plastered with multiple copies of the ‘brown album’.
Less than 3 weeks later John Martyn played at the next monthly meeting of the Hayes Folk Club on Tuesday 2 December 1969. Herman spoke to him at the bar early in the evening before his set, and explained how he was instrumental in getting him booked there, having not seen him play before – and then only to have seen him bounce on stage at Cousins to introduce Nick Drake a couple of weeks before. John waxed lyrical about his admiration of Nick’s music and asked Herman if he enjoyed the gig. “Loved it”, he replied, to which John smiled and said, “good lad”. Individually, and together, we saw John Martyn again a few times after that, at among other venues, Cousins again, and The Crypt – in a church in Richmond (also known as ‘The Hanging Lamp’). Then, on 21 February 1970, we both went to the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, concert which was the showcase for the John and Beverley Martyn ‘Stormbringer’ album. And Nick Drake was the support act. This, of course, was a totally different venue at the other end of the gig spectrum for both audiences and performers who had come up through the folk clubs. Trevor Dann (2006: 148) on Nick Drake’s performance that night: His set included two then unreleased songs, Hazey Jane I and Things Behind The Sun, and at least one member of the audience was impressed. Herman Gilligan, a young folk fan from west London recalls that Nick ‘shambled on and said, “This is a song about Mayfair”; he was great, lovely songs, John Martyn was disappointing by comparison.’ But most of the audience of 1,500 was unmoved’.
In the same manner as with his earlier Cousins’ gig, Nick Drake just ambled on, played his songs, then went off. The Queen Elizabeth Hall lights went down, and unannounced, without any introduction from the PA system or any human presenter or host, Nick just appeared from the side curtains and walked on to the stage with his one guitar. He looked the same, and indeed seemed to be wearing the same kind of (if not the exact same!) clothes as when he played at Cousins. And without a word, he perched himself on a similar stool that he had sat on at Cousins, looked down at the mic in front of him, and started playing his first song. If he said “thank you” at the end of a song, it was very mumbled, and the only words Herman recalls him saying were those as quoted above by Trevor Dann – as an introduction to the song ‘Mayfair’, which he had then yet to record. Neither of us can remember the setlist, but most of the songs sounded familiar to us, and must therefore have come mainly from ‘Five Leaves Left’. We remember him taking some time to retune without addressing the audience at all between many of the songs, but he didn’t appear nervous, embarrassed, or to be hesitant in any way. His retuning seemed precise and confident – it just took a while, every time – and meanwhile the audience were just sat in silence. I’m sure that many there who were unaware of him would have been just bemused by his lack of stagecraft and absence of engagement with the audience, and might well have switched off while waiting between songs. But we ignored that – and were simply once again transfixed by his playing and his voice. Indeed, the size and grandeur of the QE Hall added an additional, almost cathedral scale, resonance to the purity of his performance – which was graceful and note perfect. But, as the notes faded from the end of what was unknown to us to be his last song, he just got up and walked back to the wings. We were both very impressed by all the songs in his set (which maybe lasted 30 minutes), and would have loved to have heard more.
And we were equally full of anticipation to see the headliners – John and Beverley Martyn. Neither of us had seen them play together at that time, yet alone with a band, and we were hopeful that they would create some of the fuller ambience of the ‘Stormbringer’ sound. As it was, JM appeared quite uncharacteristically uncomfortable and niggled – not at all displaying the easy-going, fun, rather cheeky-chappy persona of his previous solo folk club gigs that we had seen. Both he and Beverley seemed a bit nervous and under rehearsed, over-focused on checking the amps and cables and looking over their shoulders at the band members. They were not as engaged with the audience as we had hoped, and appeared not quite in sync with their band – which we think comprised just a drummer and bass player (and maybe an electric guitar player?; but not a keyboardist?). The ‘Big Muff: The John Martyn Pages’ website includes the following comments on the gig: [John Martyn] together with Beverley and a full band, to launch Stormbringer … About 1,500 people showed up. “Nick Drake opened the show, staring at his feet, playing extraordinary finger-style guitar and disappearing as quickly as possible as though to deny he’d ever been there at all. That night John smacked a guitar while the lovely Beverley sang the extended, muscular funk of Sweet Honesty.” (Mark Cooper) John’s anger was caused by unsympathetic band musicians. In 1973, he called this “the most humiliating musical experience of my career”.
We never saw Nick Drake live again. But we remained avid fans, and both bought Bryter Layter and Pink Moon the day they were released, as well as all the subsequent compilation albums. We were both in our gap year before going off to different universities when Pink Moon was released in February 1972. We have remained close friends since then, have often reminisced about that night at Cousins, and continued to play and love Nick’s music, as well as proselytising about it to whomever we came across later in life – converting many who were unaware of him on our path through studenthood and beyond. We were both shocked when he died on 25 November 1974 – the first of our real musical heroes to pass away. Herman was taken aback when he first read about his death while casually flicking through a music paper in a newsagents in Newquay – stunned, upset, and feeling a strange and surprisingly deep and personal loss. Nick’s legacy lives on with us both.
In the late 90s Herman moved to Banbury, and took the opportunity to drive the 30 or so miles to visit Nick’s grave, and sign the visitors’ book, in the churchyard in Tanworth-in-Arden, on 19 June 1998 – Nick’s 50th birthday. His impromptu interview that day by Tim Clements as part of the filming for his BBC film, ‘A Stranger Among Us: Searching for Nick Drake’, released on 1 February 1999, was not included in the final cut. But he was also interviewed that afternoon by the Birmingham Post newspaper, whose article ‘Memories of a cult figure from beyond grave’ (from the 20 June 1998 edition?) is reproduced below. Herman was described as: Management consultant Mr Herman Gilligan, aged 45, from Banbury, is one of those who arrived in Tanworth yesterday to pay his respects to the hero of his youth. and quoted as saying: It does feel strange being my age and doing this. I bumped into a couple of lads who are visiting his grave as well and they are young enough to be my children…I suppose it is a bit like taking your old flares out of the wardrobe, but Nick Drake was a very important part of my adolescence and it was something I wanted to do. It sounds very cliched, but there was something very personal and intimate about his music, there was a kind of romance about it all. I went over to his grave earlier and sat on a bench nearby and just thought. I think Nick Drake fans are generally quite respectful.
Herman also returned to Nick’s grave on his 60th and 65th birthdays, in 2008 and 2013. On Friday 15 November 2019 we both met up for lunch on the 50th anniversary to the day that we first saw Nick Drake at Cousins. 49 Greek Street now appears to be a rather sleazy nightclub, and the door to the right of the property which was the entrance to Cousins is tiled over as part of an attempt at a more supposedly glamourous frontage to this blingy venue. So, the next best thing was that we arranged to eat at L’Escargot restaurant next door, at 48 Greek Street – and we toasted Nick Drake, and our long-time friendship.
It’s a common cliché that people refer to ‘so-and-so’ as providing the soundtrack to their lives. But for us both, sod it, Nick Drake did represent that. As Paul said in 2020: “It was the first concert I’ve ever been to and remains, to this day, far and away the best.” And that’s saying something – as since then we have seen The Band at the Albert Hall in 1971; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young along with Joni Mitchell, and The Band at Wembley Stadium in 1974; Dylan at Earls Court in 1978, etc; and we were both in the audience for the live recorded albums ‘Just a Collection of Antiques and Curios’ by the Strawbs, and the Keef Hartley Big Band’s ‘Big Band Live’ among others.
1. We believe that the date of 15 November 1969 is factually correct, although not because we have been able to confirm it by referring back to personal diaries or other contemporary records. Herman knew that the year in question was 1969, and worked back from the John Martyn gig list for 1969 supplied by the authoritative and comprehensive website ‘Big Muff: The John Martyn pages’ run by Hans van den Berk from Tilburg in the Netherlands. He lists the only other John Martyn Hayes Folk Club gig prior to 12 January 1971 (which Herman didn’t attend as he was travelling through Europe at the time) as being on Tuesday 2 December 1969. Herman knew that when he saw John Martyn appear at Cousins before this to introduce Nick Drake, this must have been on a date within the month prior to the Hayes’ next monthly gig in December. Having searched multiple sites, the only apparent Melody Maker advertised Nick Drake gig uncovered was on 15 November 1969.
2. The complete section in Trevor Dann (2006:150) where he quotes Herman is: ‘Herman Gilligan saw Nick at the bar one night and introduced himself. ‘Excuse me are you Nick Drake? You’re brilliant.’ Nick was uncommunicative even with a fervent fan. ‘He didn’t know what to say. He had no small talk,’ recalls Gilligan. ‘so I asked him if he knew who was on the record player, and he just said “The Band” and walked off.’ Another night, John Martyn rushed into Cousins and pushed his way on stage so he could introduce his friend. ‘Nick lumbered on’, according to Gilligan, ‘head down, sang each song, there was a polite “thank you”, but he didn’t introduce the songs, there was no eye contact. People like Al Stewart, John Martyn, Roy Harper, contextualised their music – Nick didn’t bother.’ However this clearly suited the confined and reverential space of Cousins better than the theatres and sports halls he’d been playing to promote his record. Gilligan described the gigs as ‘ethereal and soothing. His guitar technique was extraordinary, I just couldn’t understand how he did it. My mate and I were quite stunned afterwards riding home to Hayes on my Honda 50.’ However, Trevor Dann has confused these quotes – as they both refer to the same Cousins gig, and not separate nights.
‘Darker Than the Deepest Sea: The Search for Nick Drake’ by Trevor Dann. Published in 2006 by Da Capo.