Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s sparkling new book You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone: A Biography of Nico, fully captures the complex, talented and tormented person that Danny Fields knew and loved. Danny met Jen in 2017 and struck up a friendship. Already a fan of her books on Ian Curtis/Joy Division, Britney Spears, and rock fandom, Danny was overjoyed by the new Nico biography. He talked with Jen about the book and about his friend Nico for PKM.
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, author of You Are Beautiful And You Are Alone: A Biography of Nico, is a celebrated rock and roll historian, author, and a celebrity herself, as a go-to authority on such subjects as fandom, the cult of idols who died young, post-punk pop culture and all things bizarre relating to the music industry in these times.
As 2021 ends, Jennifer has TWO very hot biographies in recent release, one about Britney Spears titled Being Britney: Pieces Of A Modern Icon, and the other—and the subject of this interview—about Nico.
Raised in Santa Cruz, California, Jennifer got her BA at UC Davis, and worked in the West Coast music business before moving to the United Kingdom where she studied for her PhD at Goldsmith’s University of London, the city where she now lives. Among her first published books were Why Vinyl Matters: A Manifesto from Musicians and Fans; Joy Devotion: The Importance of Ian Curtis and Fan Culture; and The Secular Religion of Fandom.
Jen and I met in 2017 at the Liverpool Sound City Festival, where John Cale performed the entire 1967 “Banana Album” by The Velvet Underground and Nico. The day after the performance, Jen was to interview me about my memories of Nico and the Velvets, in a tent on the Festival grounds on the banks of the River Mersey. We said hello to each other for the very first time in my hotel room, one-half hour before facing our audience. We’ve been friends since that moment.
I was delighted to be able to help Jen with her research as she began to write her biography of Nico, whom I’d known since she crashed a party in my New York loft on Thanksgiving weekend in 1963, which I gave as an antidote to the overwhelming gloom that had engulfed us all in the wake of JFK’s assassination a week earlier. I became a fan and a friend of Nico’s and helped instigate her deal with Elektra Records in 1968, and the first recording of her own songs, in collaboration with John Cale, which became Nico’s amazing album The Marble Index.
When Jen completed her biography of Nico, she sent me the publisher’s galleys, and via trans-Atlantic telephone we had the following conversation.
Danny: Why did you decide to write a book about Nico?
Jen: I always thought I knew so much about popular music, especially women in popular music. But Nico was an enigma; there was nothing floating around in popular culture about her the way there were about other women musicians like Janis or Cher. I started researching and saw that she was included on all these rock and roll accolades as one of the most important women in rock, but there wasn’t much material about why she was important. She’d be in those lists with people like Joan Jett and Cyndi Lauper, people who I could sing a medley of their hits off the top my head. Even if I didn’t know everything about them, I still had a working knowledge that if you asked me about them, I can say like three facts about them pretty easily. But with Nico, I really could only say that she had been in the Velvet Underground and had the Chelsea Girl album. It did not add up as to why she was impactful.
I think if she’d just done The Velvet Underground’s “banana album” and that was it, then she would have just been a very beautiful woman who sang in that band for a minute. And if she would have just done Chelsea Girl, she would have been a hot woman with a really sad and unique voice covering other people’s songs. But because she made that leap and made The Marble Index, she comes back with that haunting cover photo by Guy Webster and that set of songs produced by John Cale– it’s just a completely otherworldly experience. It’s not the same person. What connects me on a deeply emotional level with Nico is she was making music because she had to. It wasn’t about being commercial. She wrote because it was art for art’s sake and I can’t think of many things in life–especially now–that are just that.
Danny: Yes, I’m so proud of having Nico perform for my boss Jac Holzman [founder and president of Elektra Records] in his office. He heard her sing a few songs and immediately asked his secretary to get John Cale on the phone. The creation of The Marble Index album started then. So, what tipped you into making this huge commitment to spend four years writing and researching this person?
Jen: Whenever I think about starting a new project, I try to read everything or at least a good smattering of what has already been written about the person. The first book I was lucky enough to read was the amazing memoir by our dear friend James Young, Songs They Never Play on The Radio [or Nico: The End.] I absolutely loved it. It was hilarious and sad. His book is about being on the road with someone during the last part of their life. I thought Nico sounded intriguing. I wanted to know what this person was like. There were so many different myths about her. Where did they come from? What was true? Was anything true?
I wanted to get to the bottom of who this woman was. By that time, I’d met you and talked to you a little bit about it. I knew that because you two were close, you could tell me if I were veering off into Fantasyland. With all the different people you’ve been friends with and loved and cared about over the years, why has Nico been someone who has remained special to you through all this time?
Danny: Well, for a Jewish faggot from Queens, being a friend of a great Teutonic beauty who was the mother of Alain Delon’s child and in La Dolce Vita and a former girlfriend of Brian Jones–was very glamorous. She was so fabulous, and I loved her so much. And she had been underrated at the one thing she wanted to be recognized for, which was as a songwriter. She was so smart and so funny. Her presence was so amazing. Did I tell you about the Judy Collins buffet story?
Danny: Early on in my rock’n’roll career, Jac Holzman and his then wife, Nina, had a party at their magnificent apartment in Greenwich Village. Nico was my date. We were at the buffet table, waiting to get some food. Standing next to us was Judy Collins, who was and is very famous. She stopped and turned sideways and looked at Nico and said, “Oh! WHO ARE YOU?!?!” Now, Judy had a remarkable ability to spot great stars early on, like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell. Nico was not just another pretty face. She had extra-human qualities that I’ve never been able to describe.
Jen: Why do you think people discredit her as not being intelligent?
Danny: Because, as Sadie Thompson said, all men are pigs. If you’re a beautiful woman, they think that your priority is supposed to be wanting to sleep with men. If you want to do anything else, they want to think you’re wrong. Often her English was more poetic than direct. She spoke four languages and English was not her first. But the way she arrived at what she wanted to convey– just check out the song titles!
Jen: She’s taking the English language and rearranging it in a really cool and unique way that you never would have even thought of.
I love your archive stuff that you shared with me. There’s this great conversation that you and Nico have in there. You’re talking about how you are possibly going manage her career and it ends with you guys talking about Southern Comfort. There’s this easiness there; you can hear her laughing. It’s obvious from the recording that you two genuinely loved and cared about each other.
Danny: People know when you like them for the right reasons.
Jen: What made you stick by Nico?
Danny: She was a friend. She could be high maintenance, with those phone calls, “Oh Danny, I must get heroin.” You don’t want a junkie in your pocket. I probably already had a few. But I loved her. I would do anything I could for her– except get her heroin.
So, I didn’t stick by her forever and at all times, to answer your question. I didn’t; I couldn’t. I don’t regret it. I don’t know what I could have done. I wasn’t about to lecture her. I was not eager to give her $10 to get a bag, though.
Jen: How close did I get to portraying the woman you knew in my book?
Danny: Oh, closer; better than I knew her.
Jen: No way! When you got the book, I was so nervous, because Nico was someone who was so special to you and someone whom you’ve loved for all this time. I wanted to make sure you recognized the person I was writing about.
Danny: Oh, I did indeed. So, what did you learn that surprised you when you were working on the story?
Jen: One of the most important things for me was to take someone who’s been portrayed two dimensionally and create a three-dimensional, well-rounded vision of this person. I wanted to provide a different way of seeing her. And at one point, I had these huge post-it notes hanging on my wall to remind me of specific things. I had to let go of knowing every single detail of every single minute of her 47 years. I had to go for the essence and aura and overall vibe of who she was. At one point, I was trying to figure out exact dates and exact people for every minute of her entire life. it was quite frustrating because she was always on the move. There were rarely records of where she went and there were often a lot of drugs.
What surprised me–actually it made me sad—is that a lot of men said that she hated other women. She does say mean things about other women; but then again, who doesn’t? Some of the best interviews and most interesting people I interviewed for the book were women who had relationships with Nico. It was frustrating because, like you and I’ve talked about, she was misunderstood. Like when her friend Jane Goldstraw surprises Nico with a pair of boots. Nico is thrilled, as it’s the first present anyone gave her in a very long time. At that moment, the protective shell of Nico is pulled back and you see the person underneath, a glimpse of the person born as Christa Päffgen. It’s heart-wrenching. Those things surprised me and made me quite sad, to be honest. Also, how she was in the throes of this drug addiction, but she kept on writing and she kept on putting out music.
Danny: She wasn’t trying to get high; she was on opiate maintenance. Forestalling withdrawal was her priority. The first thing she would say is, “Where’s my fuel? Then I can go on.” She wasn’t doing it to get high; she was doing to not get sick.
Jen: Danny, I cannot tell you how important that point is. A lot of people have said she was in a constant heroin fog. It wasn’t as if she were stoned all day long and just listlessly lying around––she had to have it to function.
Danny: I think she would not want to be nodding, she wanted to be doing things.
Jen: Danny, another question for you about Nico’s appearance. Some people have said that she loved the addict aesthetic of the bad teeth, the bad skin. But a couple of her ex-boyfriends told me that she hated it, hated people judging her for how she looked. So, I think the reality lies probably somewhere in between those two; I think Nico had a lot of issues with her appearance. She knew it was her tool to get out of Germany. It was something that had been so valuable, but I think she also resented that at the same time.
Danny: No one is without vanity. The corruption of time is something everybody has to deal with. Especially if you’re famously beautiful. Nothing can survive the years. No one is pretty when they’re 70. They may be beautiful, but they’re not pretty. The reason Andy and Paul Morrissey put her on the stage with the Velvet Underground was because of her looks. And because she had such a unique voice. Andy and Paul were desperate to have something or someone on the stage other than the Velvet Underground, which they considered a visual failure. I never agreed with that, I thought they were remarkable to look at. Andy was a visual artist. And Paul was into movies. So, they thought, “We’ve got to do something. Let’s put this beautiful model in the band.” She’d started as a movie actress and a fashion model, her beauty got her foot in the door. And it certainly was true; for example, there is no greater moment in all of movies in the world than Nico cutting her bangs in Chelsea Girls. It’s breath-taking. She’s a great movie star. You can’t deny that. So yes, it’s a conflicting thing to be beautiful.
Who were your favorite people to interview for the book?
Jen: Well, of course, you’re one of my favorites. And thanks to you, I got in touch with Iggy Pop. That was brilliant. At the beginning of the interview he said, “I’ve written down everything I remember about Nico, and I wanted to tell one person everything and you’re that person.” I was blown away. He had taken the time to actually think through the person she was when he knew her but then also the person she became and the mythology that’s grown up around her. That really impressed me about him. I will always love him for how generous he has been through this process.
Danny: He is the best interview. What he says is fabulous, plus he dances out his answers for you. Then, of course, you have to put that in words. It’s a fraction as rich as his response.
Jen: I also really love some of the people that are not big household names but were so kind and generous with their time and memories. I adore Phil Rainford from The Duruitti Column. He was Nico’s tour manager. He was brilliant. Babs Wilkin, she was a tour manager later on, and she is just a beautiful soul. She asked me over to her house to do the interview– I’d never met this woman. She was just so hospitable and nice. During the COVID-19 lockdown, she was doing zoom yoga. She said to me several times, “If you ever feeling stressed, just come and join my class.” I love James Young [Nico musical collaborator and author of Nico: The End] to bits, as we already talked about.
Danny: James is a gift that Nico gave me from beyond.
Jen: One part that has been so great about this project is the amazing community of people that I’ve gotten to meet, all through Nico. Nico’s the pebble and then all these cool individuals, I would have no reason to talk to otherwise, are the beautiful waves that came from it. I got closer to you because of Nico. My relationship with you is really special and important to me. I’m very grateful to Nico for that.
Danny: What would you like a reviewer to say about the book?
Jen: I would like a reviewer to say that they learned things about Nico they’d never had known before, that it’s put her in a different context and that it has reframed her as a three-dimensional person, not a mythologized two-dimensional caricature. Also, that it was well-researched, because I researched my ass off. I still have allergies from the dusty archives.
Danny: What you would like readers to take away from the book?
Jen: The message of the book is to create art. Don’t be scared of making something weird and wacky and don’t let anything stand in your way. I hope that people will discover her as a poet and artist, and not just be hung up on her appearance. I want the reader to learn what she achieved and how she did it, because it’s a very remarkable story.
Danny: Definitely. And remarkable is an understatement.
[Thanks to Louis Jordan for transcribing the taped interview.]