top of page
  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Is an everyman a "Parasite"?

Nick Drake presents the difficulty of looking past the negativity that lies on the world's surface.

Sometimes you wake up with a song (or part of one) in your head. That was the case for me yesterday with "Sweetness."

Other times a song may come to you casually over the course of the day, as it was when I wrote about "All Things Must Pass."

Still other times you may be assigned a reading with, quite literally, twenty examples of popular songs to support its theoretical tenets. Indeed, that is what happened to me today... though the reading was actually assigned Thursday. I waited until this evening to read it because of a combination of factors: I had a whole lot to do both Friday and Saturday; I was burned out from Friday and Saturday on Sunday; and I wanted to make sure the reading was fresh in my mind for tomorrow's class.

In retrospect, the decision wasn't the wisest, but it did help me narrow down the list for today's potential soundtrack inclusion. While I knew many of the songs that were referenced, it was one with which I was previously unfamiliar that resonated with me the most. It's a depressing tale of... well, just a person, someone quite nondescript, and a snippet of the life they lead. Nick Drake's "Parasite" fascinated me from my first listen both lyrically and harmonically, and it's a song that I find likely to stick with me for a while.

As I have recently learned, Nick Drake was a short-lived English singer-songwriter whose acoustic guitar-based songs only received significant critical acclaim decades after his 1974 death, at age 26. "Parasite" comes from Drake's third and final album, 1972's Pink Moon. Two attributes define Pink Moon: firstly, it was written amid his battle with depression, which is evident in Drake's lyrics; secondly, the album features no backing musicians. Pink Moon is Drake and Drake alone, singing and playing his guitar, plus playing a short piano overdub on the opening title track. The one-man recording — done over just two nights and with many tracks receiving just one take — immediately elicits a sense of intimacy, but Drake's vocals somewhat contradict that feeling. He sings as if he is looking at his life from some sort of distance, whether it be from above or simply from afar on the horizon. "Parasite" fits right in with the album's first-person narrative, though its lyrical musings can be applied to innumerable lives.

In "Parasite," Drake sings of downtrodden escapades in London, throughout which he never gains any semblance of satisfaction with his life. Rather, he sympathizes with a clown, the ultimate artistic symbol of ridicule, "feeling down like him." It's clear from the outset that Drake sees himself as an outcast in the same way as the clown, and it seems to be this feeling that lies at the core of the song's depressed state. This sullen mood is further manifested lyrically through heavy drinking ("Seeing the light in a station bar / And traveling far in sin") and general misanthropy ("Hearing the trials of the people there / Who's to care if they lose?"), and instrumentally through the piece's constant downward motion. I find this motion oddly compelling, because I'd never heard a song that exclusively follows such a trajectory before. In the verses, the tonic E Major leads into a line cliché, in which the top note descends chromatically from D to B, shifting through various forms of the E chord as it does so. Another form of downward movement occurs in the chorus: after the harmony finally changes to an F Major 7 chord, it shifts back to E Major just a couple short bars later. The chorus movement is reminiscent of a tritone substitution, a jazz-based technique, but it differs in how the key center (in this case, E) is held during the chord change. As much as I'd like to not be boxed into this interpretation, I can't help but hear "Parasite"'s harmonic motion as another reinforcement of Drake's mental state as he wrote and recorded Pink Moon.

Following a verse which displays his actions, Drake's short chorus gets right to how he feels about himself: "Take a look, you may see me on the ground / For I am the parasite of this town." It's a harsh viewpoint, to say the least. Drake wants to lie low and not attract any attention as he goes about his life in the city... something very much easier said than done. Sure, one can try and get lost in the crowd, but a city of any size, let alone London, is nonetheless such a public place that it is impossible to truly hide. Drake then adds onto his talk of wanting to be hidden by calling himself a "parasite" on London, taking from the host city at its expense. While he tries to make his case that he is truly a parasite in the opening of the second verse as he "[dances] a jig in a church with chimes," it doesn't seem like a very compelling one. More than anything, the rest of the verse details Drake's disillusionment with the rest of the city and society.

I have to say, in his lyrics Drake sounds... profoundly normal. It's tiring, life-sucking even, to try and fit into the outside world's expectations regarding how we carry out our lives. Even when a critical mass wants to fight against the established system, the ways in which we live and work are so entrenched in societal norms that change is nearly impossible. I feel down about those same things too, and I'd imagine nearly all the world feels that way at some point. This is exactly what I meant when I said earlier that "Parasite" and its lyrics could apply to innumerable lives.

Nick Drake — or at least the musical character he inhabits in "Parasite" — is much more of an everyman than a quick listen would let on. He feels the weight of living and being visible within a system he resents. While that viewpoint rang true in 1972, it seems to ring even truer now. In a world whose entropy is exponentially increasing by its inhabitants' own hand, nobody ever feels like they really fit in. They express themselves as best they can, but they still feel down about it all. The thing is, these ordinary people aren't "parasites" by any means. In not falling right in line with the establishment's requests, they diversify and thus enrich their world. The difficulty, of course, is seeing this positive impact when we as a species are so self-critical. "Parasite" is a foremost example of this difficulty in action, and it's a shame that Drake — just like so many people today — was unable to see the positive impact through his life, which most glowingly manifests to this day in his exquisite musical output.


bottom of page