THIS week’s featured artist is Nico, a true one-off who inspired devotion and disdain in equal measure. Some said she couldn’t sing while others were captivated by her deep Teutonic drone.
Born Christa Paffgen in Cologne in 1938, she moved with her mother to Berlin after the war and, at the age of 16, beautiful and almost 6ft tall, became a model. She assumed the working name Nico, after an ex-boyfriend, and kept it for life.
The following year she moved to New York and began acting classes with Lee Strasberg. Dividing her time between there and Paris, she won roles in various European films. In 1962 she gave birth to a son, Ari, said to have been fathered by the French actor Alain Delon. Although Delon always denied paternity, his mother and her husband raised and eventually adopted the child.
In 1965 Nico met Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stone Brian Jones, who introduced her to Andy Warhol. Having appeared in several of Warhol’s experimental films, she was invited by the artist to become the chanteuse in a group he was managing, the Velvet Underground, including Lou Reed and John Cale. On their 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico, she took lead vocals on All Tomorrow’s Parties, the charming I’ll Be Your Mirror
(this clip shows Nico herself trimming her blonde fringe) and the chilling Femme Fatale – ‘You’re written in her book, You’re Number 37, have a look’. Femme Fatale, written by Reed, is a classic and went on to be covered by many other acts including, in 1978, the wonderful Big Star.
While the Velvets’ album was commercially unsuccessful at the time, it was later claimed by rock journalists that everyone who bought a copy went out and immediately formed a band. Not true. I didn’t.
Nico soon quit the group after they mocked her for being partially deaf and singing off key. Before 1967 was out, however, she had released a solo album, Chelsea Girls, making the most of her influential men friends. The first two tracks, The Fairest of the Seasons
and These Days, were both written by Jackson Browne, Nico’s lover at the time.
These Days is notable for its world-weary lyrics about loss and regret, concluding with ‘Don’t confront me with my failures; I had not forgotten them.’ Browne was all of sixteen years old when he wrote it. Nico’s version was the first to be released, with Browne’s own effort not emerging until the sublime For Everyman album in 1973. Another standout, handed to Nico by Dylan, is I’ll Keep It With Mine.
This too was the first released version of the song – Dylan’s own recording did not emerge until 1985. The Chelsea Girls album, with its chamber-folk arrangements, is still charming more than 50 years on although Nico herself professed to hate it.
Her next effort, 1969’s The Marble Index, was a far less accessible affair – a cold and unmelodic combination of voice and euphonium described as the first Goth album and ‘one of the scariest records ever made’. Many musicians claimed to have been heavily influenced by it.
In 1970 came Desertshore, again far from an easy listen but including Le Petit Chevalier, a short, creepy song performed by her son Ari, then aged eight.
It ends with the repeated line ‘J’irai te visiter’, which sounds more like a threat than a promise. There is also the beautiful Afraid.
And that’s more or less it, so far as worthwhile output goes. Nico appeared with Kevin Ayers, John Cale and Brian Eno on the live London concert recording June 1, 1974 – more of which at a future date. That same year she released the album The End, which ended provocatively with a version of Das Lied Der Deutschen – better known as Deutschland Uber Alles.
By the end of the seventies she was flirting with the punk scene while continuing to feed a debilitating, long-standing heroin habit. Details of her farcical tours in the eighties with a Manchester-based rock band can be found in the book Nico, Songs They Never Play On The Radio by the keyboards player James Young. He recounts how Ari arrived at a gig on his mother’s birthday and presented her with a giant silver syringe.
Eventually Nico tried to clean up her act and began a regime of cycling and healthy eating. While on holiday in Ibiza with Ari in 1988, she went out on her bike telling her son: ‘I’ll be back soon.’ They were her last words. She had a heart attack while riding, hit her head as she fell and died of a cerebral haemorrhage. She was 49.