Mojo SEPTEMBER 2018 - by Ian Harrison


In 1981, former Fellini muse, Warhol superstar and Velvet Underground voice Nico was washed up and addicted in Manchester. Singing sombre lullabies for the dead, she clawed her way out of the dark until tragedy struck one last time. Thirty years on from her death, friends and collaborators remember her again. "Whatever the context, she was Alpha Female," they say, "but something massive was being suppressed."

David J. Haskins: "In May '81 we were recording at Playground Studio in London, when Nico hit the buzzer and requested that she come in. She was very charismatic and mysterious. I think she was very tuned into parallel dimensions and 'that which lies beyond the veil' as it were. Later, at a club in Manchester called Fagin's [on October 28, 1981], she asked if we'd be into playing a song with her. We suggested I'm Waiting For The Man. We had no time to rehearse it. It was a big kick for us and the crowd were amazed."

Phil Jones: "Me and [manager/promoter] Alan Wise saw Nico at Rafters in Manchester. Everybody had heard of her, but nobody knew what she did. And when she did it, everybody went, 'Bloody hell'. Her singing The End by The Doors was unbelievable, high drama. Then she did the flipping German national anthem, 'Deutschland, Deutschland über alles', alone at that harmonium... we thought, Fucking hell, what's she going to do next?"

James Young: "The Rough Trade agency had got in touch with Alan, saying, 'We've got an interesting cult artist called Nico.' Alan said, 'Who's he?' They packed her off to Manchester and Alan took her under his wing, because she was in such a mess, she had no money, just her harmonium and the clothes she stood up in and a raging habit. Alan was super-intelligent, a bit crazy, and very emotional - he said he intuitively felt a huge affection for Nico because she seemed so forlorn."

Una Baines: "The Blue Orchids came into Nico's orbit via Alan Wise. I was dead excited to work with her because I'd been a massive fan since I was sixteen. We did some great gigs - we played I'm Waiting For The Man and Femme Fatale, and I used to ask her to do I'll Be Your Mirror, but she wouldn't. She was very disciplined, she always did a really professional performance, and it was amazing how well she wrote in English on songs like Janitor Of Lunacy. The clichés about her aren't fair, really. I think because she was a woman and she was so beautiful, the fact she took heroin is the focus, and not her music."

James Young: "I was living in Oxford, and in November '81 Nico and The Blue Orchids were playing a discotheque called Scamps. There was a knock at the door and it was [old schoolmate] Alan and this German lady. I vaguely put things together, though I wasn't a slavish fan of hers. She seemed a little distressed, and was in the bathroom for a long time. Then, in no time, she went from looking quite haggard to suddenly looking quite beautiful and dreamy. Then she wanted to start making soup - which was typical Nico. Whatever the context, she was Alpha Female."

Una Baines: "We had an experience going through customs after a tour of Holland. Nico OD'd and they radio'd ahead and searched everybody, with dogs and everything. All me and Martin [Bramah] had was a bit of grass in a pipe, which we threw in the sea before we got back! But they didn't find anything, and when we got through, we went to the nearest pub and Nico just said (adopts deep Germanic voice), 'Did you see how I hypnotised the dog?' I thought, I can't go through this, I've got a baby at home."

James Young: "When I joined, it was like being recruited by Alan, to what he called The Good Ship Nico. At first it was chaotic. There were some ad hoc dates in England, to sustain Nico's habit. Then we went to Italy, just as the Falklands War was on. The promoters were asking why she wasn't blonde. When I look back on it, when I knew her, Nico was somehow renouncing everything in her past. [Warhol-associated film director] Paul Morrissey said it was a renunciation of everything, of all the glamorous model stuff, so that she could become an artist. That took guts.

We did a six-week tour of America in 1982, that was a bit of a baptism of fire. Didn't get paid, East Coast to West Coast and back again with no air conditioning, squabbling all the way, vile motels with cockroaches, Nico withdrawing... it was just nuts. I was naive enough to think I wasn't naive. What the fuck was I doing, this college boy, wandering around the Tenderloin district of San Francisco trying to score heroin?"

John Cooper-Clarke: "The world of hustlers and hard narcotic addiction... its's not the sort of club you can just walk in and out of, is it? In '85 I'd been in a drug clinic, and I'd moved into a place in Brixton. Nico had been evicted from her gaff in Manchester, so the upshot was, Can she move in with me for a while? John Cale was also staying - two-fifths of The Velvet Underground under my roof, I was absolutely star-struck. Her and John, it was mainly business. As a housemate she was very tidy. No trouble at all. I remember she had the entire works of Oscar Wilde in one huge leather-bound book. Luckily, she was a big strong girl."

Graham 'Dids' Dowdall: "In March '85 we started recording Camera Obscura in Strongroom Studios in London. [Producer] John Cale was actually worse than Nico, then. He was coming to the end of his period of excess so he was taking reasonable amounts of cocaine, but drinking phenomenal amounts - he was getting bottles of champagne and crates of Grolsch delivered. But he had this production genius, and it was incredibly exciting to work with him. He and Nico were like old mates, and actually it was pretty focused. John believed in her as an artist and he wanted to make sure she got a good album under budget and in time.

She was in a much better place then. She'd say things like, 'This is the best I've felt since the '60s.' I think she felt like it was an opportunity to get back into the game properly."

John Cale (writing in What's Welsh For Zen?, 1999): "She had a lot of depth in her personality that she didn't have before, better lyrics and sensibility. She wasn't as abrasive as she used to be."

John Cooper-Clarke: "I can't remember ever having any kind of searching conversation with her. There's nothing lean relate that would puncture her mythological status. She was the kind of artist that people project a lot of themselves onto, very self-contained. Self-possessed. She moved around in her own microclimate of glamour."

James Young: "Something massive was being suppressed. There was a lot of stuff I like in Nico and Nico's music, but there's also stuff I don't like, because there's a really dark person there. For God's sake, she was born in 1938, in Germany. There was raw feeling deep down inside, and the songs actually became a channel for her to express that."

Graham 'Dids' Dowdall: "She was full of contradictions. We all know horrible stories about Nico, but I never saw that. I knew the Nico that would come to my house and drink tea and be soft and friendly, not the ice queen at all."

James Young: "At the end of 1986 I left. There was frustration. Nico wasn't doing anything new. If I'm really honest, I left in the hope that she'd say, 'Don't go, let's work on new material.' It had got to the point where it was just going round and round revisiting the same venues, playing the same music, and that carried on. A year or so later, she phoned me up and said, 'Will you come back?'"

Lutz 'Lüül' Graf-Ulbrich: "In 1988 I arranged a show at the Berlin Planetarium: Fata Morgana - Desert Sounds At The Planetarium. I knew Nico loved deserts, so she was our first option. I asked her what desert did she want to write music for. She said straight away, the Moon. It was a magical performance - there was a little stage, maybe two hundred and fifty seats, the Planetarium machines were working. The last song she played was You Forgot To Answer, the song she wrote for Jim Morrison."

Graham 'Dids' Dowdall: "It was a glorious experience. She was on methadone by then and she was pretty healthy. She wanted to refocus, to do another bunch of original strong material from a new, clean perspective. We thought it was the beginning of a really exciting new period. We didn't know it was going to be her last gig. Six weeks later I got a call saying she had died in Ibiza."

Lutz 'Lüül' Graf-Ulbrich: "She had been riding a bike in the middle of the day, when it was really hot, to buy some hash. This couple found her lying on the ground, half paralysed. The first doctor they took her to rejected her, the second was having a siesta. It took two hours to get her to hospital. She died in the early morning [of July 18, 1988]. It was a cerebral haemorrhage. Her son Ari said she'd had a headache for three days already. When I went to Ibiza and I read her diary, you could see that she really was tired of touring. I think she wanted to stop and write a book.

She was forty-nine, but it was more a miracle that she survived so long. She outlived her colleagues who died much earlier, because of drugs or whatever. She was so strong, and she'd had such a full and rich life."