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Uncut MARCH 2002 - by Simon Goddard
Her life was a tragedy of abuse and addiction, but her musical legacy is extraordinary. Fellow Velvet Underground luminary John Cale and subsequent collaborators Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera recall the troubled genius of Nico, a genuine femme fatale.
It's the Weimar melancholy of her German accent, unmistakable even as she tries to disguise it on All Tomorrow's Parties. The tenderness she brings to I'll Be Your Mirror. The way she pronounces "clown" in Femme Fatale. It's a sound that can swell the heart one moment only to freeze it hard the next.
Listening to Nico is to be confronted with one of the most distinctive female voices ever committed to vinyl. Yet as John Cale casts his mind back to the chaos that surrounded the making of 1967's The Velvet Underground & Nico, he reiterates a small detail which goes a long way towards explaining her inimitable style - which was equal parts quivering wonderment and aggrieved, sonorous howl.
"We didn't realise until later on," says Cale, that she was deaf in one ear. I think it was tough for her. Everybody was kind of wincing, until somebody realised that there was something more going on here, that it was more the image that we were propelling. It made everything just that bit more interesting." Cale pauses for a moment. "And awkward," he adds.
Fourteen years after her death and over three decades since the recording of that groundbreaking first Velvets LP, Nico is as much a biographical enigma as she is a timeless icon of decadent mid-'60s Warholia. She was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany on October 16, 1938 ('Nico' was a nickname later given to her by a gay fashion photographer in memory of his ex-boyfriend). Her father was a Nazi conscript who was brain damaged in active duty then sent to a concentration camp where he was 'terminated' when she was only four years old. Her mother, too, would eventually die in similarly tragic circumstances, sectioned to a mental asylum, riddled with cancer. More distressing still, after the war, while arriving with her grandfather in Berlin, Nico was raped by a US Air Force sergeant who was subsequently tried and executed (future lover and tormentor Lou Reed would controversially dramatise this event in The Kids on 1973's Berlin).
At fifteen, she escaped Germany and an exceptionally traumatic past by embarking on a successful career as an international fashion model, turning up in Fellini's La Dolce Vita and briefly entertaining ambitions as a professional actress.
Instead, thanks to The Rolling Stones' Brian Jones, one of several famous suitors (who also included Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison and Alain Delon, with whom she had a son), Nico was brought to the attention of Stones impressario Andrew Loog Oldham, cutting an unsuccessful single for his Immediate label in 1965 (I'm Not Sayin', produced by and featuring a young Jimmy Page). Further engagement came from Bob Dylan, whom she met after moving to New York. Providing her with the song I'll Keep It With Mine (later featured on 1967's Chelsea Girl), Dylan also made a point of introducing her to the city's bohemian social elite, among them pop artist Andy Warhol. The rest, as they say, is history.
"I didn't quite understand the position she was in vis-à-vis Andy until a little bit later on," says Cale, "when I realised that everything is 'copy' with Andy. Everything has a PR side to it and that seemed to matter more. It took everybody's mind off the problems that we had ourselves and put the focus on some other problems that generally came from her direction."
The hostility with which Cale and the other members of Warhol's recently discovered rock'n'roll protégés, The Velvet Underground, greeted Nico has been well documented. After much initial protestation, both Cale and principal singer/songwriter Lou Reed were finally convinced that her raw Dietrich-esque vocals and icy Aryan beauty would be an asset to the band both musically and visually.
Reed showed willingness by composing a handful of tailor-made songs such as Femme Fatale before he and Nico became embroiled in a brief yet doomed affair marked by cruelty, both physical and psychological, on his part. It's said that when recording I'll Be Your Mirror for The Velvets' legendary first album, Reed bullied Nico to tears in the studio prior to taping her finished vocal.
Cale also had a short and torrid fling with her - though, unlike Reed, his and Nico's working relationship would outlast The Velvets' brief life span to produce some of the most extreme and experimental albums ever to be classified as 'rock music' - records as far out as anything you've ever heard.
"She was much more ready to adopt new ideas," opines Cale by way of explanation. "She had a thirst for it. I don't think particularly that she and I got along better than anybody else in the band got along. They all thought that she was a little bit of a fly in the ointment."
In l967 with tension in The Velvet Underground camp increasing, Nico took up a solo residency downstairs at New York's Dom Club. She asked Lou if he'd back her at the gigs, but he refused, cruelly suggesting she sing along to a cassette of him playing guitar. After struggling with this humiliating pre-karaoke set-up for the first few nights, eventually she sought help from the likes of fellow Velvets Cale and Sterling Morrison, the young Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne, three of whose songs appeared on Chelsea Girl.
"It was all recorded while she was still officially in The Velvet Underground, which didn't help matters," says Cale who, along with Reed and Morrison, co-wrote half of the album's songs and created merry sonic hell on its epic, improvised centrepiece, It Was A Pleasure Then.
"Everybody in the band was really involved in contributing to it, but MGM didn't really want The Velvet Underground. They wanted Nico. They thought they had a better chance of selling records with Nico as a blonde bombshell than they did with four irascible individuals trying to make noisy, cacophonous music."
MGM thought they had a major new solo star in the making, but Chelsea Girl - unimaginatively produced by Tom Wilson, who'd worked with Dylan and The Velvets - barely hinted at the great music she would subsequently produce. It sold poorly, and the label dropped her. To compound her misery, she suffered the further ignominy of being permanently ostracised from the group after Reed refused to let her on stage when she turned up late for a gig. Now without a band or a label, her career was nevertheless about to spin off on a noticeably Teutonic but spectacular new, tangent. All thanks to the chance discovery of an obscure Indian nineteenth-century foot-powered organ.
"That little 'shrootey box'" is how Brian Eno today affectionately describes the harmonium, an instrument whose evocative if overwhelmingly sorrowful drones would form the backbone of Nico's music for the last two decades of her life. Its trademark pumping misery offered the perfect underscore of stark, atonal murmurs on which to peg her own disturbingly profound poetry. This, the essence of Nico's own songwriting, was never more succinct and dramatic than on 1969's The Marble Index.
Anybody who considers Radiohead's Amnesiac a mite grim or finds Bjork's vocal arrangement unnecessarily avant-garde should be locked in the nearest padded cell and forced to endure The Marble Index in all its melancholic splendour. Although it's virtually impossible to describe in words alone, famed rock hack Lester Bangs came pretty damn close in a typically self-referential appraisal from 1983: "It stares into the heart of darkness, eyes wide open, unflinching, and gives its own heart to what it finds there, and then tells you how that feels."
"There was an A&R person at the office across the street from the studio where we recorded The Marble Index," remembers Cale, "who was told to come over and see what was going on and make sure we weren't throwing the money away. He didn't show up until after we'd finished, so we played him the album with the lights turned off. He was sitting there, thinking he was going through some psychological change. When it finished he heaved a sigh of relief and said, 'I had no idea THIS was going on over here!'"
Though the genius of the album was all Nico's, the presence of Cale as arranger and uncredited co-producer was critical. Having also recently left The Velvets following a protracted spat with Reed, Cale shared with Nico a common bond, despite fighting with each other at every opportunity.
"On every record we did, you could count on that happening," he laments. "But you've got to remember that on those solo albums she was really in pain. Then afterwards she'd burst into tears of gratitude. It's that whole thing of self-loathing and the discovery of your personality."
In spite of their clashing egos (not so much a love/hate as an adore/despise relationship), Nico and Cale would reunite for the equally superb Desertshore (1971) and arguably her blackest album, The End (1974), which featured inspired cameo performances from both Brian Eno and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera.
"When I first arrived at the studio," Manzanera tells Uncut, "John was this madman upstairs in the control room and Nico was downstairs in the recording area. It was a very weird atmosphere, but she was incredibly sweet. She looked up at the control room, pointing to John, and whispered, 'Do not do anything that man says.' I never fully understood their relationship."
The album's closing track, the jingoistic German anthem Das Lied Der Deutschen (a favourite of Hitler's, no less), would later provoke a near riot when Nico, Cale and Eno were invited to perform at a special arts festival in Berlin.
"There was a verse about triumphing over your allies that had been taken out," explains Cale, "so it was the fact that she sang it at all on the border with East Germany in this glass-framed building. Eno was making bomb noises on the synthesizer and I was smashing champagne glasses with a little hammer, and it just drove everybody up the wall. It was worrisome because the walls of this museum were made out of glass and we thought they were going to cave in and everybody n as going to get hurt. It wasn't a pleasant experience at all."
"They had those plastic cushions that you sit on," Eno reminisces with mild amusement, "and people were throwing them at us. It was a very weird concert actually. It just felt like people were really angry about it. I didn't feel in danger though. Perhaps I should have."
By the turn the decade, the heroin habit that had snowballed since the late '60s had become the be-all and end-all of Nico's increasingly pitiful existence. After a disappointing fifth album, Drama Of Exile (her only without Cale), Nico relocated to Manchester, living a squalid junkie lifestyle in the city's Whalley Range district, an unsavoury 1ocale later immortalised in The Smith's Miserable Lie (it's no coincidence that Morrissey remains one of her most ardent admirers, frequently including her songs on his pre-gig tapes).
Nico's final years, and the mayhem that constituted the recording of her last album, 1985's Camera Obscura, are relayed with squeamish gusto by her one-time keyboard playerJames Young in his compulsive first-hand account, Songs They Never Play On The Radio. Neither Nico nor Cale emerges with much credit from its pages, as the latter admits.
"That story is pretty telling, of her rubbing her fingers together behind my back in the car in Japan because I'd cleaned my act up. From her point of view, I'd let the side down and gone for money, which wasn't the case at all. I went for sanity."
Even today, memories of the period are evidently painful for Cale. "Wherever she went on that tour her medical needs were attended. It wasn't quite as much of a risk as the Michigan gig we did, which was very hairy. That time you just saw somebody who was unable to handle the pain of withdrawal."
Nico didn't actually die of a drugs overdose but of a brain haemorrhage, suffered when cycling to score some hashish. In the last twelve months of her life , she'd more or less weaned herself off heroin and was living in Ibiza with Ari, her son by Alain De]on, where she passed away on July 18,1988, at the age of just forty-nine.
"It just came as a shock," mourns Cale. "It was kind of dying with her boots on - but actually dying at the hands of the Spanish medical authorities was really outrageous."
Her last recording was a duet with Marc Almond, Your Kisses Burn, posthumously released on the Soft Cell singer's 1988 The Stars We Are album. "Like all enigmatic stars caught in the web of addiction, Nico was a paradox," Almond reminisces to Uncut, "infuriating, fascinating, frustrating, compelling, difficult, alluring and talented. Thankfully, she was all these things when we worked together. I'll always think of her with wary affection."
Nobody from The Velvet Underground attended her funeral in Berlin that August, where her ashes were buried with those of her mother. For John Cale, it took another ten years before he could finally confront her ghost and celebrate her extraordinary life by providing the score for a ballet called Nico, staged by the Rotterdam Ballet in 1998.
"As part of the score, I managed to digitalise one of the records where she was talking," he says. "There was this floppy interview disc that came out in Aspen magazine and I pulled her voice out of that and made a poem out of it. Her voice sounded so young on this tape," Cale stresses with genuine fondness "That's kind of how I like to remember her."
THERE SHE GOES AGAIN: JOHN CALE ON THE ESSENTIAL NICO
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND & NICO (1967) - The greatest debut album of all time needs no introduction. For many, Warhol included, Nico's vocals stole the show.
"Nobody really knew what to do with that first album. Everybody had an opinion. Nico didn't like it, but that was characteristic of everything she went through. She hated lt at first then grew to like it. "
CHELSEA GIRL (1967) - Nico's illusory first footing into wispy Greenwich Village folk-pop, save the VU-accompanied freeform psych-out It Was A Pleasure Then.
"We'd agreed to have one improvised song on every album so that was the one for her. None of us had any patience so it was very sloppy. We didn't have anybody telling us how to do things."
THE MARBLE INDEX (1969) - The Wagnerian vocals and Cale's cracked arrangements make this Nico's masterpiece. Famously "scared the shit" out of critic Lester Bangs.
"We only had four days to make it, but luckily Jac Holzman at Elektra really understood that there was a very powerful sense of style involved here. It wasn't just throwing notes around."
DESERTSHORE (1971) - More diverse in style than The Marble Index but just as intense, the serene Afraid stands out as Nico's most beautiful vocal performance ever.
"We were able to do more on Desertshore, getting a greater variety of sounds but, ach, I don't know. I think The Marble Index has still got more balls to it."
THE END (1974) - Joined by Phi Manzanera and Eno, her fourth solo album, as typified by the bloodcurdling Innocent And Vain, is also Nico's most disparaging.
"There was something uncanny about her sense of timing. I really noticed it when we did The End. I just didn't understand why the hell we were devoting so much track space to Jim Morrison."
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