Shindig! APRIL 2021 - by Johnnie Johnstone


Jettisoned by The Velvet Underground, Nico soon cast off her image as disposable pop chanteuse and, inspired by drugs and poetry, reinvented herself as arch-priestess of isolationism, going on to produce some of the most fearless records ever made. Johnnie Johnstone takes up the story

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Tucked away on Nico's 1970 masterpiece Desertshore is a rarely referenced song that exposes the singer's fragile persona. "Cease to know or to tell or to see or to be your own. Have someone else's will as your own. You are beautiful and you are alone," she laments on Afraid, an exquisitely solemn slice of chamber-pop. Sung in her inimitable dusky drawl over a melody as luminous and pretty as anything on Chelsea Girl, this interior vignette lays bare the eternal sense of doubt and frustration which haunted her throughout her life. With unselfconscious irony perhaps, the song briefly recaptured the style and timbre of those on her debut solo album, one she had for three years completely disavowed. Nico's rejection of Chelsea Girl marked the end of the first stage of her musical career. By then, she was already peering beyond to a world of possibilities yet unexplored, a world she would soon make her own, and which given her previous form, few could realistically have expected to encounter.

Christa Päffgen had been blessed with an iconic porcelain visage, but since the world saw only a wallflower, this benediction sometimes seemed like a curse. Model, cover girl, film star: a face made to sell magazines, and a dazzling mirage on celluloid. By the early '60s Nico had already appeared in Fellini's arthouse classic La Dolce Vita, before securing the lead role in Jacques Poltrenaud's Strip Tease in '63, while her face peeked out from magazine covers and even cool jazz sleeves such as that of Bill Evans' '62 album Moon Beams. How could one so beautiful be in any way taken seriously as an artist? If she was to sing, then surely she could only be a mannequin, with other more "talented" songwriters clothing her in their own threads. For a time, Nico embraced the charade, but ultimately the need to express herself artistically, to utter her own singular hymn, would wholly consume her.

Nico's first adventures in music-making have been well documented elsewhere. Moving to New York at the beginning of the '60s, by '63 she began by singing standards in The Blue Angel nightclub. By '65 she had become acquainted with both Bob Dylan and Brian Jones, under whose tutelage she recorded her first single for Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label, I'm Not Sayin' (Jimmy Page produced the B-Side). It bombed and her career as the next Marianne Faithfull was abandoned for the time being. More crucially, Jones introduced her to Andy Warhol for whom she appeared in several experimental films, prior to the pop artist extraordinaire's inspired patronage of The Velvet Underground. As a budding Factory starlet, Nico alienated many of her contemporaries. "She had no inner life," said Viva, one of Warhol's superstars in the '95 documentary Nico: Icon. "There was really nothing to talk to her about because she had no interests." However, her sculpted cheekbones and cool indifference made an instant impression upon Warhol, who identified her as an integral part of his new musical hobby horse. While the other band members remained unconvinced, together they still contrived to produce the most influential album in pop history, before Warhol stepped back and Nico was edged out.

It could have been the end of her musical career. Perhaps out of guilt or sympathy, but probably because they were both - at one point or another - her lover, Lou Reed and John Cale penned some of the songs for her debut album, whose title was borrowed from Warhol's '66 film Chelsea Girls. Another love interest at the time was promising eighteen-year-old singer-songwriter Jackson Browne, who contributed three of his own songs to the album, including the gorgeous baroque-folk pairing, The Fairest Of The Seasons and These Days. In addition, both Tim Hardin and Bob Dylan bequeathed to her compositions of their own, the former a stark solemn jewel Eulogy To Lenny Bruce, the latter the gloriously transcendent I'll Keep It With Mine, later given a delightful rendering by Fairport Convention. Meanwhile Reed's lyric on Wrap Your Troubles In Dreams ("Excrement filters through the brain, hatred bends the spine, filth covers the body pores, to be cleansed by dying time") seemed incongruous with the album's ornate assortment of beguiling chamber-folk. Despite its musical sophistication, the fact that it contained exclusively others' compositions, only heightened the critics' assessment of Nico as mere eye candy - a well-connected but talentless groupie. Today, many continue to rate it her crowning artistic achievement but she herself despised it. "I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away," she complained to her biographer Richard Witts. "I asked for drums. They said no. I asked for more guitars. They said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! They added strings. I didn't like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried, and it was all because of the flute."

Lester Bangs, writing for Fusion magazine in '71, accepted that Chelsea Girl was "a confused project. The company was apparently undecided whether to try to mould Nico into an act more acceptable to the general public, or simply acquiesce to the strange music that was taking shape from her and the Velvets." The latter part of his quote perhaps referred to It Was A Pleasure Then, by far the strangest track on the album, a Velvets off-cut that turned out to be a droning dark scar in a purse of littering diamonds. "Nico's a classy girl, but they'd sell more Nico if she were naked and not hiding behind a string orchestra in a flower print dress," read the review in the LA Times. Such deficient, unapologetically sexist coverage was fairly standard for the time, and it possibly strengthened Nico's resolve to produce a record unperturbed by commercial concerns, something of true artistic merit, something uniquely her own.

She first tried out some of her own songs, playing in front of a small audience at Steve Paul's Manhattan club The Scene, but shortly after decided to leave New York and move to the West Coast. Inspiration for her artistic reinvention would come from another of her romantic liaisons, this time Jim Morrison, with whom she had a brief t intense relationship between July and August '67. Gorging together on a diet of Coleridge and peyote, The Doors' charismatic frontman encouraged her to try her hand at poetry. Speaking of him to Richard Witts, Nico acknowledged a spiritual and physical communion unlike anything else she had ever experienced. "I like my relations to be both physical and of the psyche. I thought of him as my soul brother, that we would grow together." Imagining that they had transcended the trivialities and compromises which fame tends to birth in the minds of pop stars, the pair wandered out into the desert, symbolically cutting their thumbs together in a show of spiritual union and solidarity, "We exchanged blood. I carry his blood inside of me." It wasn't the only blood they exchanged. After Morrison declined her proposal for marriage, Nico's friend and manager Danny Fields recalled the pair engaging in a furious - if slightly comedic - fight, tearing one another's hair out while simultaneously indulging in a competitive slanging match, endeavouring to outdo one another with the erudition of their insults. Until her meeting with Morrison, Nico had barely used drugs, but after he entered her life that would all change.

Chelsea Girl appeared in late '67, but by then Nico was on a different trip altogether, desperate to distance herself from anything that might reduce her to mere window dressing. By spring of '68 she had acquired an Indian harmonium (according to Fields, Leonard Cohen brokered the deal). The harmonium would become as integral to her sonic reinvention as the dyed hennaed hair, loose-fitting black gowns and military boots would be to her visual makeover. "I felt that at last I was independent and I knew what independence was," she remarked to Witts. John Cale, who had by now also been jettisoned by Reed from the Velvets, would become her musical guru. "She totally changed her image," he recalls in Nico: Icon. "Everything she did was a statement that now she was a different person. Occasional friendships were struck and abandoned. And the transitory nature of all of this was kind of the flotsam, the furniture of her life, with these somewhat derelict emotions. It was so highly personal that it was very powerful." Two wounded disaffected arty Europeans were hanging out in LA and they were hardly in the mood for peace and love.

Fields introduced Nico to Elektra's Jac Holzman, for whom she performed some songs on her newly acquired instrument in his Broadway office. He agreed - despite the lack of any commercial viability - to release the album Nico had in mind, furnishing her with a $10,000 budget and assigning to Frazer Mohawk the role of producer. "I didn't think it was going to sell at all. But I thought it would be worth making. Elektra was doing so well at the time, that we were able to take risks and experiment," Holzman told Tom Pinnock in Uncut in 2015. Nico had already chosen a title for the album, taken from William Wordsworth's poem The Prelude: "With his prism and silent face / The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.

Recording of The Marble Index took place in September '68 and sessions were fraught. According to some accounts, Nico and Cale reputedly spent the whole time feuding whilst strung out on heroin. All too much for in-house producer Mohawk, who could barely bring himself to put the finishing touches to the album, first of all rejecting four of its bleaker compositions and eventually handing over the reins to Cale. Cale himself quickly became frustrated with Nico's harmonium which he assessed to be out of tune with the accompanying instrumentation, but at some point deep in the winter of '68-69, an album would emerge.

In James Young's unflinchingly candid memoir of life on the road with Nico in the '80s, Songs They Never Play On The Radio, written towards the end of her life, he describes Päffgen's music as "so white it was almost translucent". Indeed, The Marble Index is possibly the least funky album ever made, its desperate bleakness resulting from a confluence of factors. Cale was determined to accommodate the European classical influences he loved, while Nico had been feeding off the esoteric ramblings of Jim Morrison. Perhaps too it was around this time too that Nico's painful memories of childhood, repressed for so long, began to resurface and haunt her every thought: her father's death at the hands of the Gestapo during The Second World War; her rape by an American sergeant when she was fifteen years old; the adoption of her only son [to movie icon Alain Delon] who was raised by the French actor's parents, despite his denial of paternal responsibility. In an unpublished interview with Geoffrey Cannon from the following year she reflected, "I suffer from oblivion, that is part of my being able to survive. Because if I were obsessed with all the things that I can remember I would just go insane." The trauma of these experiences would need an outlet. She would seek flight in heroin, but she also sought it in art. "She started to take drugs because of the adoption thing," claimed Ari in Nico: Icon. "That made her very sad. When you start to take heroin, it's great, but it's a killer."

Lester Bangs, writing about the album in a '78 essay entitled Your Shadow Is Scared Of You: An Attempt Not to Be Frightened By Nico, suggested that Nico would "sooner eat the shards of a smashed cathedral than risk one more possibility of the physical, psychic, and emotional annihilations that love between two humans can cause." As a result. The Marble Index is an album which became a kind of blueprint for "Isolationism". And so, any lightness on the album - such as its incredibly beautiful opening instrumental Prelude - is soon catheterised by unbearable grief. From there on it's all icy plateaux and barren wastelands, the darkness first descending upon Lawns Of Dawns, whose sonic refractions - like mirrors on the ocean, now glistening on the surface, now submerged beneath - stretch out into the abyss. As Ben Edmonds remarked in Fusion magazine in June '70, "She stands aloof and doesn't even invite you in." The droning pump organ wheezes like an unbeatable illness, shards of martial piano eat at the brain, with Nico's voice occasionally - as on Facing The Wind - distorted through a Leslie amplifier to heighten the disorientating eeriness. Even Ari's Song, written for her son was reckoned by Rolling Stone to be "the least comforting lullaby ever recorded". With the insistent and unfluctuating drone of Cale's viola for accompaniment, it is bleak and loveless, the work of a drowning soul. And as for the finale, the sinister spiralling Evening Of Light is a near apocalyptic nightmare of confusion. "Midnight winds are landing at the end of time / The children are jumping in the evening of light / A thousand sins are heavy in the evening of light." The song provided the soundtrack for an astonishingly macabre promo film made by Francois de Menil for Elektra, which featured Nico wandering around a field of mutilated dolls and burning crosses, accompanied by Iggy & The Stooges, presumably all of them tripping on acid. Brutal and beautiful, the album's remorseless monochromatic litanies were hardly welcomed with open arms. But after Cale played bock his mix of the album to her, Nico reputedly wept with joy. Nevertheless, it didn't sell and Elektra bailed out.

By summer '69, Nico had met French cinematographer Philippe Garrel, with whom she began filming scenes for his '72 feature La Cicatrice Interieure ('The Inner Scar'). Garrel used one of her new songs, The Falconer, for his '69 feature The Virgin's Bed. The pair soon moved in to Garrel's apartment in Rome, while Nico was given a fresh start by Reprise and began work on her next album Desertshore. She chatted to Melody Maker's Richard Williams about the film in March '70. "This new one is very important to me. It's so powerful. We did part of it in the American desert and part of it in the Egyptian desert... I don't know when we'll finish it. It doesn't matter, there's no hurry because it's a very timeless thing." By then, she most certainly had one eye on a permanent return to Europe. "In New York all the young people know me... I have a lot of friends... but I hate New York." As the conversation continued, her next comment was jarringly prophetic. "I can't stand the thought of going to New York, so I'm flying to Ibiza. It's my favourite place, and I think I'll die there."

Desertshore was made immediately following the death of Nico's mother, who had lived out her final years in a psychiatric institution. It stands as arguably her greatest achievement. There is greater variation than on The Marble Index: the shading is subtler and everything seems to flow with a unity of purpose. The bulk of the album was recorded at London's Sound Techniques studio (the location for contemporaneous recordings by Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan and The Incredible String Band) and was co-produced by Joe Boyd, although the extent of his involvement is unclear. "Nico was opaque but I really enjoyed working with her via John Cale," Boyd told Danil Volohov in Peek-A-Boo in 2020. It remains a desolate, challenging listen, the themes typically morbid, but somehow possesses an inner glow and - besides its fair share of scraping and squawking - contains moments of startling beauty, such as Afraid, and the dreamlike nursery rhyme Le Petit Chevalier, sung by seven-year-old Ari, accompanied by Cale on harpsichord, which was recorded during a session at Studios Davout in Paris.

Cale provided all the instrumentation on the album bar harmonium and trumpet: the screeching viola on Abschied ('Farewell'), the clanging piano in the grip of death that builds suspensefully on Mutterlein ('Mother') alongside its scattered aching trumpet and ghostly harmonies courtesy Annagn Wood and Adam Miller. A droning rippling electronic current underpins Janitor Of Lunacy, believed to be the singer's tribute to the recently deceased Brian Jones. Then there is the triumphant finale All That Is My Own - like Venus In Furs turned inside out, its jagged mechanical rhythms conjure up images of Nico astride a white stallion marching over the horizon towards the sun, to drain from it any last remaining rays of light. On Desertshore we hear Nico truly finding her own voice, purifying her visions with same vigour as she was poisoning her bloodstream.

Inevitably, Desertshore proved to be another commercial failure and Nico retreated with Garrel into a domestic quandary of self-doubt and spiralling opiate use. Public appearances were sparse and when she did perform she had become an object of morbid curiosity. Where had the sculpted blonde Goddess gone? Look at her now, what a mess. She played two dates at Londons Roundhouse in March '70 with Cale and Mike Heron, but then disappeared again. In London, speaking to Ratting Stones Robert Greenfield in February '71, she was uncharacteristically nostalgic, lamenting the lack of a back-up group to bolster a rendition of All Tomorrow's Parties. "I don't think I would do Femme Fatale. I haven't that much of a sense of humour. Back then it was all right. It was a part I was playing. My hair was blonde and I... [She turns and looks at the wall] has changed. Now, I don't know what part I'm playing." During this visit she - and her wheezing harmonium - recorded a session for the BBC featuring three of the tracks which had appeared on her two most recent albums, alongside a fourth, Secret Side which would eventually appear on her fourth solo album The End in 74.

In January '72, there was a surprise reunion in Paris of The Velvet Underground (Lou Reed, John Cale and Nico), who agreed to perform together for the first time in over five years, recording sixteen tracks for the French TV programme Pop 2 at The Bataclan in Paris. Nico contributed some of her own songs including a demented Janitor Of Lunacy after which she struggled to control a heavy bout of coughing. Despite her frailties, Reed was reputedly so enchanted by the rediscovered alchemy, that he suggested a permanent reunification. Nico and Cale immediately declined. Before summer was through, The Velvet Underground's stock was on the rise, largely due to the unprecedented success of David Bowie, whose enthusiastic patronage would help launch the solo career of Lou Reed. In the meantime. Cale and Nico began to creep out of the shadows, their own solo work attracting more attention, although sales for both were comparatively poor next to the resounding success of Reed's Transformer.

In any case, Nico's mind was elsewhere. After La Cicatrice Interieure, she maintained a low profile. The film, which also featured her son Ari, possesses a decadent end of the '60s wasteland feel, wreaked with existential crises and bitter arid landscapes. Art as pain. Segments of the film containing Nico weeping in the desert double as primal therapy session, the singer exorcising those old ghosts (Garrel had recently undergone BCT sessions of his own). She would go on to make other films with Garrel such as Anathor ('72) and the silent Jean Seberg feature Les Hautes Solitudes, released in '74.

In an attempt to resurrect Päffgen's musical career, Cale managed to convince Chris Blackwell to sign her to Island. Before her return to the recording studio, she agreed to perform alongside Cale, Brian Eno and Kevin Ayers at The Rainbow Theatre on June 1, '74. The performance, which also featured contributions from Robert Wyatt and Mike Oldfield, would be captured for posterity on a live album released only four weeks later. Nico's contribution was confined to one track: her interpretation of The Doors' The End, a gruelling performance she would replicate at The Hyde Park Free Festival the day after the album's release. The whole thing seemed an awkward collaboration, particularly following Cale's alleged discovery that Ayers had enjoyed extra-marital relations with his wife, but Nico's introduction to Eno would be of crucial significance to her.

An interview with Nick Kent for NME in August '74 was saturated in melancholy, and functioned almost as a counselling session, as Nico reflected. "So much time has been wasted. So many times I've just wanted to sleep and sleep... all the time spent sleeping. I was hooked on Mandrax for so long. Every two months I have these attacks... this illness. All the blood leaves my head and I collapse. It is unspeakably horrible. It has happened here - when I was staying at The Portobello Hotel. And I can't sleep anymore. I get drunk and I need sleeping tablets. Heroin can help, but..." she tapered off. Kent concluded Nico had "too many memories worn down by drugs and inertia."

In August she entered the studio for the first time in four years, creating the third instalment of what has come to be acknowledged as her "isolationist triptych". During sessions for the album, she enlisted the assistance of Cale, Eno and Phil Manzanera. Cale held the reins and filled out the sound with a typically extensive range of instrumental accompaniment, but it was Eno's contribution that propelled her into virgin sonic territory. Matthew Lindsay in The Quietus notes that "The End sees the osmosis of [Joe] Boyd's warmth dispensed with altogether. This is a turf war between Nico's atavistic dirges and the futurism of Eno's VCS3 manipulations." These were utilised to stunning effect on Innocent And Vain - almost a freeform rehearsal for future Eno experiments (also predating Allen Ravenstine's pioneering synth work with Pere Ubu) - as well as on the perfectly formed but darkly elegiac You Forgot To Answer, her tribute to Jim Morrison, which would become the last song she would ever perform on stage before her death in '88.

After The End, little would be heard from Nico until she returned ravaged and bruised as "The Godmother Of Goth" in the early '80s. But the music she made between '68 and '74 had absolutely no precedent in rock music. James Young in Songs They Never Play On The Radio, declared that, "Nico's music was indifferent to such untermenxh basics as rhythm and expression." Forget all those Teutonic ice maiden cliches, and consider instead how her fearless experiments paved the way for Lou Reed's Berlin , the work of Patti Smith, Siouxsie and Joy Division, as well as Bowie's "Berlin trilogy". Today, one can find echoes of her influence in the avant-folk missives of The Left Outsides and the cool electro-cabaret of St Vincent. Nico was often criticised for her monotonous baritone (Richard Williams likened her strident sound to that of a church pipe-organ) but she had a unique vision. "My mother was an artist," declared her son Ari in Nico: Icon. By the end, art had become all that mattered, even during her darkest days in the '80s when heroin held her in its iron grip. By then, every facade had been shattered: the mirror had not only cracked but was smashed to smithereens. She could be a difficult companion, seeking refuge in exposing others' hypocrisy, at times behaving as if her addiction was some kind of triumph of purifying asceticism. As she lay in her Manchester bedroom watching documentaries about war and architecture and listening to Wagner on her transistor radio, she regarded herself as artist and aesthete without equal. But the inner scars still haunted her, leading her further down the rabbit hole of depression and addiction. At every opportunity she sought escape, from people, from this world. Wrapped in a black headscarf in thirty degree heat, she was cycling in Ibiza in July '88 when she collapsed and died, eerily fulfilling her earlier prophecy.

"It was the sun that killed her," affirmed Ari. Like that event, her music itself is an extraordinary solar eclipse.

You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone: The Biography Of Nico by Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is published in June by Faber


Kris Needs recalls a memorable evening with Nico in London in 1978

We met at Bizarre Records owner Larry Debay's Highgate House. When I arrived, Nico was at the pub, so Larry scooted off to get her. Waiting felt weird after spending the week in a state of feverish anticipation, tinged with some apprehension. Larry returned with Nico, sporting black cape, rust-coloured Cossack-style trousers and her trusty boots ("I like boots to be strong, in case I am dropped in the middle of nowhere and have to walk"). She wanted to talk alone so we went to her room, where she plonked herself on the bed and patted it with a smile. "Come and sit down" boomed that voice. She smiled and laughed a lot, though still retaining this detached charisma. This is beyond surreal, but we get along like a house on fire.

At one point a dramatic hand gesture sends the shade flying off the small standard lamp by her bed, revealing a little tin inscribed "HEROIN", when she moves the bedspread with her foot "See what I do?" she asks plaintively. "These things happen to me all the time. What is the matter with me?" The voice alternates between little girl amusement and strident statement. There are long periods of silence. She talks about leaving Island Records and her next album Drama Of Exile. I wonder what made her write.

"Events. Like when I meet someone that strikes me as a personality. Like The Sphinx, right? The Sphinx. I can actually meet the Sphinx, because there's The Sphinx in many persons I've met. Then also of course, the one in Egypt, made out of stone, and I see real similarities. Things like that make me write songs: similarities. And Genghis Khan. I met a young English boy who looked... He was very much a Mongol. His name is David Brown (laughs). He lives in Spain. And I wrote this song Genghis Khan, thinking that he was really Genghis Khan because he looked so very much like the way I imagined Genghis Khan to be. That's how I write songs."

Suddenly, Nico's harmonium filters through the door; one of her French friends is attempting Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood. She leaps up crying, "I won't let them play my organ!" On returning, she tells me it was a gift from Patti Smith. "The last one has been stolen from me just a month ago and Patti Smith bought me this one here. I was down and out in Paris and thought, well what was I going to do without my organ? And then a musician friend of mine had just seen the same organ as I had before in a small place; the only one in the whole of Paris."

Chaos now reigns as Nico has to keep ducking out for refills and hauling zonked Frenchmen off her organ. The tape is turned off, we take some Polaroids and leave, pinching myself I've just hung out with Nico. It will be three years before Drama Of Exile appears, fraught with tales of stolen tapes, re-recordings and drug-fuelled skullduggery.