The singer-songwriter was a brilliant but little-known until Volkswagen put a bug in people's ears.

By David Browne
Updated May 12, 2000 at 04:00 AM EDT

The sign outside the trendy Manhattan nightspot Joe’s Pub reads ”Duncan Sheik,” and the crowd inside is craning room only as Sheik and guitarist Gerry Leonard settle onto the stage. But the musicians aren’t here to play Sheik’s hit, ”Barely Breathing.” As small candles flicker on each table, lending the club an altar-like ambiance, Sheik and Leonard strum away and begin performing in its entirety Pink Moon, the 1972 album by British cult singer-songwriter Nick Drake.

Not only doesn’t the crowd mind, but they hang on to every sylvan chord and lyric. ”I’ve never seen an audience that quiet,” Sheik comments later. ”They’re not that attentive at my own shows.” Sheik, who worships the ”beautiful simplicity” of Drake’s music, is such an admirer that his next project will be credited to Phantom Moon, a band name inspired by Drake.

Sheik’s concert is only one of many signs of Drake’s heightened profile. In recent years he has been the subject of a biography as well as tribute concerts in New York and London. His songs have been covered by Lucinda Williams and Kelly Willis and used in the film Practical Magic. But those nods pale next to that of Volkswagen, which last November debuted a commercial for its zippy Cabrio convertible. During the alluring minute-long spot, collegiate-looking kids take a nighttime drive through a wooded area on their way to a party, to the accompaniment of the wafting chords and whispery voice of ”Pink Moon.”

The response was instantaneous, particularly from twentysomethings who may have never before heard Drake’s timeless goth-folk. Pink Moon, which, according to SoundScan, had been selling between 85 and 108 copies in the weeks before, shot up to as many as 1,858 in a single week—not including the more than 5,000 copies sold on, which is linked to Volkswagen’s website. Drake’s 1994 anthology Way to Blue saw a similar leap. Capitalizing on the interest, Drake’s label, Hannibal, will soon begin pitching ”Pink Moon” to radio, followed this summer by the release of remastered versions of Drake’s three original albums. Later in the year, the label will bring out a previously unreleased demo tape recorded in 1967, which has Drake-ites drooling in anticipation.

Drake himself will not be available for interviews or promotional concerts; he has been dead almost 26 years.

Ironically, Hannibal head Joe Boyd recalls being less than enthused when he first heard Pink Moon. ”I was disappointed,” he says of the stark work, ”because it wasn’t going to make him a star.” When it’s pointed out that it still might, Boyd chuckles, before turning somber. ”It’s terribly sad. But history is full of such figures in a way, like Chatterton and Rimbaud.”

The uninitiated may find such claims exaggerated, but Drake cultists have long regarded him as one of rock’s most tragically romantic figures. Tall, introverted, and given to wearing black, Drake was a 19-year-old student at Cambridge University when he presented Boyd with a tape of his beautifully placid folk-jazz songs in 1968. During their meeting, Drake was ”shy, quiet, and looked at the ground a lot,” recalls Boyd, who wound up producing Drake’s first two albums: his 1969 debut Five Leaves Left and 1970’s Bryter Layter. Both wrapped Drake’s silken voice—and his elliptical ruminations on time passages, missed opportunities, rainy days, and the occasional burst of sun—in baroque strings and jazz piano. The albums sold only a few thousand copies in the U.K., and Drake—who granted only one interview in his lifetime—fell into a prolonged depression over their commercial failure. That angst manifested itself on his third album, the bare-bones Pink Moon. (Legend has it that he left its master tape at his label’s reception desk without telling anyone.) In November 1974, Drake’s mother, Molly, found her 26-year-old son dead in his bedroom at the family home in Tanworth-in-Arden, near Birmingham. The autopsy revealed an overdose of antidepressants; the debate over whether it was suicide still rages.