Nico (Christa Paffgen) was many things to many different people, including Andy Warhol, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, Alain Delon and numerous other collaborators. But to performance artist Billy Hough, Nico was “the most underrated/overexposed tornado in the Holy Scriptures of Rock & Roll.” He explains why.
The singer, songwriter, actress, model, Ur-Goth, certified harmonium genius, muse, junkie, and constant source of fascination, Nico (Christa Paffgen), haunts the present in much the same way as she haunted the 1960’s—if you search hard enough, she appears everywhere you look. She alone is the connective tissue between many otherwise disparate worlds: Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, Lou Reed and Jim Morrison, Fellini and Warhol, Pink Floyd and Brian Eno.
And though Nico—as a musician, her primary and most desired role—never had the kind of breakthrough into the “mainstream” that many of her peers, collaborators and lovers did—she has also never ‘vanished’ from the culture either (like many of those ‘more successful’ friends have). Nico has never been out of the conversation, does not go far from the table. Her name (and she is one of a small handful of artists to ever get away with ‘single-name’ notoriety) and her stunning, angular face are immediately familiar, recognizable to many who couldn’t quite place her. So how does her impact seem both so specific, even rarefied, and yet so pervasive? I cannot honestly think of another case quite like hers.
We take these icons for granted because we can, only to explode in despair minutes after they’re gone—as if it is only at that moment we realize what we have collectively lost.
Nico shows up in nearly every important artist’s bio of the 1960’s and beyond, as a lover, a collaborator, or a muse to everyone from Alain Delon and Jeanne Moreau, to John Cale and Siouxie, and even after her death to artists like Bjork and Elliot Smith. Her albums are considered ‘masterpieces’ by many of the most respected songwriters and musicians of the last 40 years, and yet she remains more ‘cypher’ than solid figure. This is likely due to her intentional blurring of her age and personal history, her perpetual self-reinvention. She was a model who intentionally grew ‘heavy and wan’—to escape “the tyranny of beauty.” She could be outspoken and cruel in both public and private conversation, yet she was beloved by many of the most discriminating men and women in the world. She spent 25 years on heroin, lived for a time in the basement of NYC’s Danceteria night club, and when she died in 1988 at the age of 49, she seemed to pass unnoticed. Maybe even forgotten. But only for a moment.
I’LL BE LEAVING IN THE FAIREST OF THE SEASONS; or A SEEMINGLY RANDOM FOOTNOTE ON ROCK STAR DEATHS
It’s reasonable here to point this out—often artists will fade from the conversation in their later years. This is less a reflection of their work, I think, and mostly because we still have them around, and are used to them. That most people stop listening to new music after age 30 doesn’t only refer to new bands, but to new albums by favorite artists. We take these icons for granted because we can, only to explode in despair minutes after they’re gone—as if it is only at that moment we realize what we have collectively lost. In the last decades of his life, Lou Reed continued making great records that nobody bought, and his final album LuLu made a splash only for being near unanimously despised.
Even as every wannabe Emo/Punker of the era name-checked the Velvet Underground, records like Berlin and Street Hassle were long out of print. The day Lou Reed died, he made every major network newscast, and was the lead story on every NPR show, as if he had always been everyone’s favorite. I’m sure Lou was aware of his impact before he died, but he didn’t know he was THAT important.
Joni Mitchell, who is still with us, is beginning to get the kind of “royal treatment” she should have always gotten. But honestly, except for Blue showing up perpetually on everyone’s Most Influential lists, we have taken her more for granted than not. Even Dylan, who has made some great records lately, and who is still out there on the road, is not a “must-see” for everyone—because we all assume we can still go see him if we want to. I hope Joni and Bob are with us as long as they can, and want to, be. But I’m telling you now, the way we will speak of them in the future will make us all look back in shock at how they are spoken of now.
After Jim Morrison suggested she write her own songs, Nico began to write the kind of beautiful and strange songs that would, credibly, invent Goth music.
Bowie—whose new records hadn’t caused a sensation in decades—surely benefitted from the stage-managed Blackstar release/birthday/death of his final 48 hours—but the kind of love that came after his passing, and still continues today (at least on a level of constant reference he hadn’t enjoyed in 40 years)—would have likely surprised him, and that is sad.
THESE DAYS (2019) Or NICO NOW
In 1995, a mere seven years after her death, and the height of grunge, a documentary Nico Icon by Susanne Ofteringer, examined the many facets of Nico’s life with contributions from those who knew and worked with her. In the roughly 20 years since, there have been three Nico biographies (atop an endless pile of Lou/Velvets books), a concert film and numerous reissues of her albums. In 2018 the film Nico ‘88 followed the small-pay gigs, touring demands, heroin requirements, and personality crises of the singer late in her life. New York City’s current “Chanteuse” (and full disclosure—friend of mine) Tammy Faye Starlite (who works with Barry Reynolds, Marianne Faithfull’s bandmate), gets photographed by Bob Gruen, and hangs with Nico’s old pal Danny Fields—sells out numerous residencies of her brilliant “Nico” shows, wherein she both sings much of Nico’s music, and impersonates the difficult, dryly insulting, and politically incorrect icon.
So if there is enough interest in Nico to finance movies, pack theaters in NYC, and to warrant continued releases of her albums, why does one never hear Nico songs on the radio or in bars? More surprising these days, why hasn’t she been rediscovered by the glut of streaming movies and shows that pilfer the back catalogs of other under-appreciated artists? (Though the great Wes Anderson used two early Nico songs, “Fairest of the Seasons” and “These Days”, both written for Nico by Jackson Browne, in his film The Royal Tenenbaums). So perhaps out of respect, or even out of necessity, it makes the most sense to try to examine Nico in flashes, on her own terms, at several of the crossroads in her life.
FEMME FATALE (1965-) AN ATTEMPTED REVISION OF THE IDEA OF THE ‘MUSE’ or NICO REMAINS UNCHANGED
In researching this piece, I’ve read much of what has been written about Nico in the last few years. I found several interviews with Nico: Icon’s director, Susanne Ofteringer. She claims that the genesis of her idea to do the documentary came from reading Nico’s obituaries. The filmmaker was amazed, and somewhat pissed off, that so many writers placed Nico in history with an extensive list of the men she had fucked or worked with. That’s a totally valid complaint. However, to my mind, Nico’s value is inherent, immutable. Surely not relative to “who she was with.” (My critique here is not of Ofteringer’s offense, which seems totally justified, but of the idea that somehow Nico herself is diminished by this list of collaborators). Thus, a list of the men (and women) who passed through her life speaks (to me) far more to Nico’s uniqueness and irresistibility than it does to any of her ‘tricks,’ ‘marks,’ or ‘bandmates’—no matter who they are. From where I sit, anyone’s association with Nico makes them look cooler, not Nico. I don’t know if it’s possible to make Nico look “cooler.” Or “less-cool” for that matter.
It’s a crazy game that I think you can only play with her. Let’s start with case #1: Bob Dylan.
Now Bob Dylan is cool by most standards, but he’s not “Lou Reed Cool.” They are different and legitimate “cools”. However, what if I tell you that Bob Dylan met Nico, fell for Nico, wrote songs for Nico, and gave her “I’ll Keep it With Mine” to record for her album Chelsea Girl? (Another footnote: Judy Collins—who is another cultural ‘truck stop’ through which almost all cool roads must pass—claimed recently that “I’ll Keep It With Mine” was actually written for her, not Nico. I’m not going to second-guess the woman who got Leonard Cohen to start singing, or actually broke Joni Mitchell, but how is that title a reference to anything but drugs? That title has “Nico” written all over it.) However, after reading this paragraph, Nico remains unchanged, and Bob Dylan seems a little cooler. (A final footnote: Judy Collins recorded the song two years previous to Nico’s version, and with Bob Dylan still alive to correct the record, apparently Judy Collins is right..)
Okay Case #2: Jim Morrison. Jim Morrison was the archetype for young white men yearning to be…well, cool. And his good looks (stunning to the point of unfair) and unbridled sexuality made him one of those rare creatures that everybody wanted to fuck: boys, girls, straight, gay, your mom—everybody! As I have aged, the Doors aren’t mentioned often, nor much listened to in my circle. These days it seems more fashionable to diminish the Lizard King’s work as over-baked, self-loving junkie bullshit. (To be fair, I will say that the Doors’ debut in 1967 makes the Velvet Underground’s first record from that same year seem a little less foreign.) Also, Jim Morrison was 27 when he died. So he was in his early 20’s when he wrote those songs (iconic) and that poetry (jury out). But my own ‘death-obsessed’ prose from my early 20’s was not “The End” and neither was yours.
Anyway, Nico and Jim were friends, lovers, and compatriots in many ways—it was reportedly Morrison who encouraged her to begin writing her own songs, which she did with a vengeance. He also beat her up a lot, which is not something we talked about in the old days, either because we didn’t know, or didn’t care. Even before the #metoo era, dudes hitting women is crap. But after reading this, Nico stays the same, Jim Morrison looks like an asshole.
Finally, Alain Delon was the only man in the 1960s that launched more wet dreams than Morrison. He and Nico were lovers, and she always credited him with fathering her son, Ari. Delon denied it forever, even after his own mother adopted Ari as Nico’s mothering skills seemed to be somewhat lacking. Alain Delon—who?—looks like a prick. Nico stays the same.
I think it is almost unique to her that whatever I tell you, Nico seemingly remains—unchanged.
ALL TOMORROW’S PARTIES (1960) or LA DOLCE VITA
If Existentialism and Surrealism were responses to the atrocities of WW1, Europe after WW2 took these already bleak and terrifying ideas and attempted to humanize them—the Theater of the Absurd certainly developed from Dada and the Surrealists, but with a heavy dose of sympathy for the pathetic human race, which the earlier, colder, more intellectual forms had not bothered with. A group of Italian (post-Fascist) filmmakers began to make films that focused on the individual, usually poor, struggling in the post-war world. Called Italian Neo-Realism, it was a new kind of filmmaking, smaller and more personal, often using non-actors in leading roles to add a level of reality unseen previously. Influencing everyone from the French New Wave to India’s Ray and Japan’s Kurosawa, what would become the “Golden Age of European Art-House Cinema” arguably began with one film: Rossellini’s Rome Open City (1946).
This groundbreaking film was co-written by a 26-year-old Federico Fellini, a prodigiously talented young film buff, who would direct a series of films that eventually pulled away from the Neo-Realists to focus more on the entirety of human experience. La Dolce Vita (1960) was an artistic breakthrough and became one of the biggest worldwide hits of the time. The “pastiche-film” follows its own internal logic. In a series of vignettes showing Rome’s “sweet life,” we follow a photographer (played by Marcello Mastroianni) through a crazy night of celebrities, religious visions, sea monsters and Nico. Nico features as herself: a gorgeous party girl, who spirits our hero into the Italian night. So yeah, of all the cool people I have mentioned so far, Nico is the only person who also intersected with world cinema. Was in its biggest film. Playing herself.
PRE-WARHOL (1963) or IT WAS A PLEASURE THEN
Andy Warhol gets credit for “discovering” everyone who ever worked with him. He certainly is responsible for many artists and personalities we otherwise wouldn’t know, but his tendency to receive all the credit for the work of his “Factory associates” was at the root of the departures of Lou Reed, Paul Morrissey and Edie Sedgwick. And just because the first time most of us encountered Nico is with “Andy’s” Velvet Underground and Nico album, Warhol was late to the game with Nico. She made two other films in Europe, had her son Ari in 1962, and went to London to record her first single with Andrew Loog Oldham (the Rolling Stones manager who would also sign Marianne Faithfull). There is a myth that Nico hadn’t sung before the Velvets, but that’s patently untrue. She had a tenure in NYC as a lounge singer (which is where young, unknown Leonard Cohen, perpetually in attendance, would write poems as she sang). Next came Bob Dylan, and it was he who finally introduced Nico to Warhol.
Warhol had begun to use the Velvet Underground in his live show “The Exploding Plastic Inevitable” and had promised to produce the band’s first record. The idea of “adding” Nico to the band is most often credited to Paul Morrissey, the filmmaking arm of the Factory, who had already shot Nico for the film Chelsea Girls.
THE VELVET UNDERGROUND (1967)
Or RUN RUN RUN
Firstly, the record was going to be abrasive. The songwriting (in terms of chord progression) was familiar-ish, but the subject matter in almost every song was beyond anything attempted in rock and roll before, and the instrumentation (Mo Tucker’s drums on the ground, the pervasive guitar feedback, and John Cale’s screeching viola and manic piano-banging) was something completely different. All this and Lou Reed, who had a voice like Dylan—pitchy, nasal, spoken as much as sung, and often monotone. That is great if you like Dylan, but it wasn’t a conventional voice, and these songs weren’t “Blowin’ in the Wind” for Chrissakes.
I think the idea to add Nico to this band (who had been together for 3-plus years by then) must have been to use her unearthly beauty as a “face” for the otherwise “pin-up-less” crew making this gorgeous noise. Possibly Nico’s vocals would sound more “traditional” at least compared to “Black Angel’s Death Song”. Nico’s cold but pretty songs might help the harsher stuff go down a little easier. It was a kind of genius subterfuge.
At least it could have been if it had worked. The idea of grafting this “Nordic” (they lied, “German”) beauty with the dry delivery onto this experimental dirty, downtown band had only one major problem: Lou Reed. I’m sure Lou felt like he was being told he wasn’t “pretty enough” nor “personable enough” to front his own band. As if at the last minute there was doubt he could really be a “rock star” (though he would spend the rest of his career (usually) proving them wrong).
Neither Lou nor Nico ever denied the early and (seemingly) passionate romance that lasted at least long enough for Lou to write some beautiful songs for her. The animosity of their later years was mostly Nico driven—she insulted him every time he was brought up in interviews— not that Lou was anything but terrible to her through most of their short tenure together. Nico always resented being primarily “known” as the ‘Velvet Underground’s chanteuse,’ and it is still better than the alternative: not being remembered at all.
INNOCENT AND VAIN (1969)
Or NICO’S GERMAN-ITY AND ANTI-SEMITISM
Nico was German. She grew up in the horror and aftermath of World War II, much of it in war-destroyed Berlin, and lost her father to it. Though she would lie about her age, her ethnic background, and her childhood many times over, there was a particular ‘German’ quality she always retained: she was never shy of dropping anti-Semitic bon mots. Seriously. On the record, off the record, in both stereotypes and personal attacks. I am not going to rake her over the coals, nor defend her. It is fair, fifty years later, to concede that in the 1960s and 1970s, racist, misogynistic, Anti-Semitic and homophobic “tropes” were not uncommon—I wonder how few heroes from that era that could pass the 2019 ‘smell test.’ But I will say this: for a German woman to perpetuate the worst of the ‘Jews took all the money’ horseshit—a mere 20 years after the Holocaust—is certainly unbecoming. Then again, that was never Nico’s aim—to be…becoming. I will also add that she never said anything as racist (that I am aware of) as what (I AM aware) Eric Clapton said on the record. And that is never mentioned in love-letter pieces about him, nor is it seemingly held against him. So there you go.
CHELSEA GIRL (1967)
Or “THAT FUCKING FLUTE!”
Here’s what I wrote about Chelsea Girl (Nico’s debut album) in my previous piece on John Cale (co-founder of the Velvet Underground, and producer of much of Nico’s solo work):
“(After the first VU record, Nico)…the singer of three of Lou Reed’s most beautiful songs, was anxious to leave and the band gladly held the door for her. Signed to Elektra, she went into the studio and recorded Chelsea Girl in 1967. Backed by Lou and John, and full of beautiful songs by those boys and her lover (17-year-old Jackson Browne, the only person in this article better looking than Nico), the album was produced conventionally (for Nico, mind you) to sound like the ‘English folk’ of the era, and she hated it: “A flute…a fucking flute on it…I heard it only once and cried…I hated the fucking flute…who doesn’t?”
Chelsea Girl, with it’s iconic “double-exposure” cover of Nico’s gorgeous face with her impossible blonde hair, is likely the image of her that people most recognize. The album is the most conventional-sounding thing she ever did, and it boasts some classic songs by Browne, Dylan, Reed, Cale and Tim Buckley, but she always hated it. When you listen to her subsequent work—assuming her later records sound more like what she wanted on her debut—you can at least see the discrepancy. Still, the record is her most famous (another cause for anger for her) and rates perpetually on “Best Albums of the 1960’s” lists. It also acts as a kind of companion piece to the ‘Banana,’ as it resembles nothing as much as her pretty moments on that other record from 1967.
WRAP YOUR TROUBLES IN DREAMS (1968)
Or THE MARBLE INDEX
This album, which is less widely known that her VU/Chelsea Girl era, is held in very sacred esteem by those who know it. Considered a classic, it was produced by John Cale, and was born of two important developments in Nico’s life: beginning to write her own material and finding her instrument. For Nico, the harmonium—which I have previously referred to as “a lap-sitting squeezebox that sounds like bagpipes crying on a pipe organ’s shoulder (or is to keyboards what the autoharp is to guitars)”—was a familiar and melancholy instrument that both seemed to mimic her voice, and act as a perfect counterpoint to it.
After Jim Morrison suggested she write her own songs, Nico began to write the kind of beautiful and strange songs that would, credibly, invent Goth music. John Cale, as her producer (also recently evicted from “Lou Reed’s Velvet Underground”) was able to take his experimental approaches to music even farther, and Nico was fully game. It was as if the two of them were trying to create a completely new music. And they did. The Marble Index was the first album in a trilogy that would later include Desertshore and The End (the latter boasting Brian Eno in the band).
SOMEWHERE THERE’S A FEATHER
Or THE END
I could write endlessly about Nico’s peculiar, particular and important music. Perhaps I should? Have I not just done what she would have most despised? To focus on everything BUT her music? Am I any better than those obit writers who focused primarily on the people Nico interacted with? I have tried to correct that narrative, but have I fallen into the same trap? I honestly don’t know.
I have a long list yet—of the artists who love her music, have covered her music, toured with her, played with her. And an even longer list of her friends, enemies, lovers and rivals.
I could focus on her unhappiness, her lack of success, her weight gain, her terrible attempts at the mothering of her son, Ari. I could tell you some stories about the period of time she had to live in a night club’s basement. And I could write a book about her heroin habit alone. Perhaps you haven’t heard about her sad, lonely and preventable death? No. Those stories are out there. There is the documentary, last year’s film, and the biographies for that.
There’s something uneasy-making about Nico. I’ve tried to capture that, though I don’t know if I have. She challenges me, always has. I respect her immensely and I hope that has come through. I will leave you (and her) with this:
Her music is out there too. The good, the bad, the terrifying. I have said before, she is an acquired taste—but a taste I most recommend you acquire. The personal quality of Nico’s music is what makes it so appealing and important to so many people (Elliot Smith, Robert Smith, Siouxie Sioux, Peter Murphy, Brian Eno, Bjork). But those qualities also make her music almost impossible to talk about, to “sell.” She wasn’t interested in that so much, though she desperately needed more money and more love than she got. But she never settled for anything less than her exacting vision. And by God she has not been equaled, topped or forgotten, so she was, in that way, always right I suppose. I would suggest you start slowly. Listen to The Marble Index. If it’s too much, you’re doing it right. Then listen to The End. Save Drama of Exile for later.
Go ahead. She’ll wait..