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How the dramatic Nico became a music iconoclast – by John Cale et al

A wonderful piece about the great Christa Paffgen, better known as

The piece comes from The Times UK

We do love ‘s work, not only her contribution to the greatest group of all time but also her innovative solo work, which was decades ahead of its time!
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Here, a group of people who knew her well – including a pivotal figure in the “original” and best Velvets line up – speak about their late great friend.

Cale is also of course a wonderful pioneering solo artist and magnificent producer (who has produced seminal and ground breaking albums -including Nico’s best work The Marble Index (1968) and 2 later Nico albums – but also an array of great LPs from acts we love ranging from;

Nico’s life was beset by extreme tragedy and horror throughout.

The extent of this tragedy is surreal, crazy. It ranges from being an illegitimate child, to being born in a war ravaged Hungary in 1938, to having her father killed by the Nazis when she was 5 years old, to being raped at 15 by a US soldier, to testifying about that rape resulting in capital punishment for the perpetrator, to getting involved in damaging relationships with a series of abusive men, to bearing an illegitimate child, to becoming a chronic heroin addict, to being penniless, to ending up dead aged only 49 from a freak situation, a death which could perhaps have been prevented.

For over fifteen years, Nico was a heroin addict. Biographer Richard Witts speculated that the habit was caused by her traumatic experiences of war and of being an illegitimate child.

In his book Songs They Never Play on the Radio, James Young, a member of her band in the 1980s, recalls many examples of Nico’s fiendish behaviour due to the addiction.

But just before her death, she had managed to kick the habit and had embarked on a regimen of exercise and healthy eating.

On July 18, 1988, while on holiday with her son in Ibiza, Spain, Nico had a minor heart attack while riding a bicycle, and hit her head as she fell. A passing taxi driver found her unconscious, and had difficulty getting her admitted to local hospitals. She was incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from exposure, and she died the next day. X-rays later revealed a severe cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of her death.

Nico was buried in her mother’s plot in Grunewald Forest Cemetery in Berlin. A few friends played a tape of “Mütterlein”, a song from Desertshore, at her funeral. published a wonderful biographical piece on Nico, from which we quote below;

According to popular folklore, she was born in 1938 in Budapest, named Christa Paffgen, and lived under Nazi Germany in Cologne while Churchill rained bombs all around her.

Her father was conscripted into the German army and, after suffering brain damage resulting from a head wound, was killed in a concentration camp by the Nazis in 1943.

At the ago of 15 Nico was raped by a US Air Force sergeant who was tried and shot for his crime. Her tour manager in the later period of her career commented:

“Not only does she have to carry the horror of the rape but the secret guilt of somehow being complicit, by her testimony, in his execution. Sex, for Nico is irrevocably associated with punishment.”

(Young, 1992, p150)

At a similar time she started modelling, with great success, which eventually took her to New York via Rome and Ibiza, changing her name along the way.

Once in New York she met Brian Jones and, later, Bob Dylan, and involved herself in the music scene, releasing a single, “I’m Not Saying” before ending up at the Factory. Warhol was so taken with her that he wanted her to front his in-house band, the Velvet Underground.

This was to the absolute horror of the misogynistic band themselves, for whom women were simply not welcome. Moe Tucker had faced similar hostility from the band when she first joined – a move which was only agreed to by John Cale when he was assured that it would only be a temporary measure.

Cale wrote in his autobiography:

Nico intended to sing all the songs and, at first, looked upon us as a hired back-up band. We had a different idea. However, remarkably quickly, and as a sign of Warhol’s amazing ability to overcome objections and get things done his way, we agreed to let Nico sing a few songs and otherwise stand on the stage looking unenthusiastic and play the tambourine. She was tone deaf and had an abrasive voice, but it turned out to be a great casting.

(Cale, 1999, p82)

It seems from this quote that Cale at first valued Nico for her image rather than any musical contribution that she offered. Her coolly detached vocal phrasings were extremely distinctive, but she had another asset which made her stand out from the rest of the band during their performance: she had a poise which commandeered the attention of the audience. Notice the subtle differences between the following description of Nico’s stage presence and the one quoted above from Cale:

Onstage in her white pantsuit, she was the centre of attention. She was an inch taller than Cale, and despite the fact that Reed sang most of the songs, everything was geared so that she just had to stand there to command attention. Every drug-induced movement she made became significant. It was a talent she had developed in her years as a model with which Lou Reed could not compete.”

(Bockris, 1995, 120)

It is this poise which also helps to make her voice so striking. A model learns to make every movement as precise, captivating and assured as possible, and Nico employed a similar technique in the movement of her vocal chords. Every syllable, every note was perfectly and precisely formed with such grace, in a way that mirrors a performance on a catwalk.

Nico’s time with the Velvets was somewhat fraught. She continued to insist that she should be singing all the Velvets songs, regardless of the appropriateness of her voice for tunes such as “I’m Waiting For The Man” and “Heroin”, and her tempestuous love-affair with Lou Reed increased the tension even further. It was a love affair which Cale referred to as being “both consummated and constipated” and Lou savoured his bitchy revenge on her by verbally attacking her at every opportunity, criticising her ability to sing, to keep time, etc etc.

By the time White Light White Heat was being written and recorded there were no more songs written for Nico to perform with the Velvet Underground. Her fall from grace from the Factory crowd, and Warhol in particular, is described by Victor Bokris in his Warhol biography thus:

Andy never developed the kind of rapport with Nico that he has with Edie. For all his talk of beauty and glamour, Andy had always admitted that he liked good talkers best. Nico had a wonderful presence. She was mysterious, intuitive and fascinating to be with, but she was no Brigid Polk in the rap department. She was on different drugs. Edie and Andy had been able to communicate on the speed that made them so alike. Nico’s use of LSD and heroin tended to distance her from Andy’s mentality. Worse, Nico was a star in her own right and was not completely dependent on Andy, although she was somewhat identified with him.

(Bokris, 1989, 327)

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1969 saw the release of her second solo album, The Marble Index which is her most commonly critically acclaimed work. Recorded in New York at the end of 1968, all eight songs are written by Nico, primarily composed on her harmonium.

The harmonium is a nineteenth century reed organ powered by foot pedals which force air over the reeds, producing a distinctively mournful drone. Nico made this instrument her own, teaching herself to play it, with its tones making the perfect accompaniment for her icebound vocals and lyrics of forbidden fruit and folly which seldom follow any specific narrative. Her words are a collection of abstract images, which waft in and out of the sound of her harmonium’s drone, with images of the unusual setting of her childhood.

The next two albums, Desertshore and The End, are very similar both musically and in atmosphere. Ever-so-slightly lighter and more accessible that The Marble Index, like a picture which has fully come into focus, these for me are the real delight.

The years after The End saw Nico’s heroin abuse worsen and consume her talents. There was no recorded output for some years due to her narcotised incapacitation. Cale wrote of his attempts to resuscitate her career in this period:

“I tried to persuade him [Lou Reed] to write songs for Nico. He could have done it so easily and it would have changed her life. He said he would but unfortunately, all Lou seemed able to do when Nico was around him was torture her.”

(Cale, 1999, p162)

She would have left an unblemished recorded legacy behind, but Nico returned in the 1980s to half-heartedly attempt to resurrect a career long since sidelined by the more pressing concerns of heroin addiction. These albums, while occasionally offering glimpses of something once special, merely detract from what was recently described in The Wire as:

“…the most uncompromising and original body of work to emerge from any of the five participants in the founding document, 1967’s The Velvet Underground And Nico.”

(Biba Kopf, The Wire, June 2000).

In Young’s wry yet affectionate account of Nico in the 80s, we are presented with a life gone very dreary indeed; a festering universe far removed from the grimy glamour which Nico possessed during her Factory days. It is also a chilling portrait of what happens when one’s career disappears from under one’s feet, though Nico appeared not to realise that her underground superstar status had very rapidly faded. Surrounded by unsympathetic musicians, she was left completely without an audience, save for the few handfuls of Velvet Underground enthusiasts dragged along and eventually let down by their own curiosity.

Sometimes, the best a person can do is to retire, which Nico did do towards the end of her life (from touring, at least). Cleaned up and relatively rejuvenated post-heroin, she was preparing to write her biography when a minor heart attack prompted her to fall badly from her bicycle, causing the brain haemorrhage which killed her at the age of only 49.

Nico’s amazing works have for a few years now been critically reassessed, and slowly she is beginning to get the levels of credit she so well merits.

It’s all too later for her now though, sadly.

Two great Nico Tributes are about to take place this month;

  • Life Along the Borderline — a Nico Tribute, curated by John Cale, Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0871-663 2500), Oct 11 2008.
  • Nico tribute concert curated by Lutz Ulrich, Volksbühne, Berlin (0049 30 24 065 5), Oct 17 2008

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How the dramatic Nico became a music iconoclast

Nico was the supermodel who hated being beautiful, a junkie muse, musical pioneer and femme fatale whose only regret was being a woman.

Two decades after her death John Cale and other friends recall a true iconoclast

Nico wanted to be an enfant terrible, a problem child, and maybe even thought that was the way you became an artist. And there are plenty of previous examples to prove that she was right.

The first time I met her was at Andy Warhol’s Factory in New York. It was 1966. It was impossible not to be struck by her. She was so statuesque and serious. Certainly, we were stunned by Andy’s suggestion to include her in the Velvet Underground. No one knew what to make of her but we were far too self-concerned to either argue or refuse.

Here was this formidable woman, the world’s first supermodel. We were awed by her style – something that we were just beginning to taste the fruits of ourselves, with Kenneth J. Lane jewellery and Betsey Johnson designs. Of course we’d seen her in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – the first time you see her on screen she is introduced as “that German cow”. She was quintessentially the person that Andy used to make us aware of another dimension to music: publicity and image-making.

She was unbelievably dramatic. Along with an already imposing physical presence she had worked at the Actors Studio, where Elia Kazan had helped her to hone her timing to a sharp blade. The silences that threw people off their stride were the result of Kazan’s advice that she “use time to carve a space for herself in everything she did”, as she described it to me later. This style of social conduct had hilarious as well as caustic results. She was a sucker for creating the “perfect storm”.

Being in New York in the Sixties with that kind of sonorous German accent had specific connotations no matter how beautiful you were. And she played on that. She wanted to explode the air around her.

On the one hand she was a threat, but it was such a startling threat that everybody decided to make it work – and, as it turned out, the blonde and statuesque Nico was exactly what Lou Reed was looking for. I was always suspicious of blondes, Lou was not. The band had no idea how to deal with her — the timing, the accent — but Lou rose to the occasion. His songs for her such as Femme Fatale are some of the most beautiful ballads he has written.

Being in the late Sixties with Nico was great. From the band’s point of view, we were all entranced by being on the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour and all the kerfuffle and pizzazz that went along with it. Touring the US was surreal. Nico loved driving the Winnebago and one time we were stopped by the state police who thought that we had kidnapped the chief of police’s daughter. They eventually let us go, having spent most of the time in awe of Nico’s stunning looks.

We were all for her being a songwriter and heaved a sigh of relief when she left. Although her leaving was not untinged by disappointment, we felt we had failed her in some way. She had that ability — to make you feel you had failed her but no matter: she would survive all the stronger for it.

Her leaving New York was typical. One night she was having drinks in a bar with two women, one of whom was rumoured to have been Jimi Hendrix’s groupie/girlfriend. This woman was complaining about what a tough life she had, she was relentlessly going on about it, Nico kept telling her to stop and eventually she cracked. “You don’t know what a tough life is,” she said and threw a glass in the girl’s face. It wasn’t pretty. She had to leave town that night; went to San Francisco and then Europe. That temper had its cost.

All the revisionist speculation about her being a racist is ridiculous. I do know she’d try to zone in on the vulnerability of others, so I wouldn’t be surprised if she “used” the topic to force a confrontation and discomfort. Really, though, this is someone who grew up in a war zone, hiding from British bombing raids, whose father had died on the Russian front and who, if she hadn’t been plucked out of nowhere to be a model, would have stayed in a German town being preyed on by sleazy managers of the supermarket she worked in as a teenager.

All Nico had of her childhood was a blurry, tattered black-and-white photo of her mother leaning against a tank. Nico had made her own way and she couldn’t take this person going on about what a tough life she’d had. That, and the liquor and whatever else was going on, that was her perfect storm.

Another story that has been twisted came from when she was dating Lou. She came into the Factory one time without him and Andy said: “So where’s Lou?” And she replied, after a silence: “I cannot zleep with Jews any more.” People chuckled and got on with their chores.

These were explosive remarks done for dramatic purposes. And there was so much drama of that kind going on. Things like that went on all day long and no one paid attention. It was outrageous. Life in the Factory went through the gamut and people don’t ever really want to be put through the gamut.

Most importantly for Nico, she learnt from Lou and Andy how to access a more freewheeling creativity — independence was Andy’s gift to Nico. She also met Jim Morrison in New York. He drew her into his poetic circle, from which she emerged with English as her poetic language. Being deaf in one ear didn’t prevent her writing songs on a harmonium she picked up in India. She read Steppenwolf and Siddartha. After meeting Jim and quitting the Velvet Underground her blonde life was changed. She died her hair red with henna and then to raven black.

She really related to Jim on an artistic level, if you like, her “soul-brother”, as she had done with Lou at one point. But despite all of her lovers, all that the men really did, I think, was remind her of her imperfections. She felt that they were a danger to her and that she would never get any respect from them. Really, she never thought of herself as a woman. It’s what made her relationship with her son, Ari, so difficult. His father [the actor], Alain Delon, never accepted paternity and Nico didn’t know how to be a mother. Ari was brought up by Delon’s mother, but ran away to live with Nico when he was a teenager. She was heavily addicted to heroin by then and would say, so despondently: “I can’t deal with him, he thinks he’s me.”

And he did, he went through all of that and hit rock bottom. I believe those days are well behind him now.

Her first album Chelsea Girls (1967) had featured the Velvet Underground. Dylan gave her a song for it (I’ll Keep it With Mine), as did Jackson Browne and Tim Hardin, yet everyone agreed it was too MOR. She was totally indifferent to it, later saying: “I cried because of the flute . . . There should be a button on record players, a ‘No Flute’ button.”

Marble Index (1969) was what four days of entrenched self-interest created. Her view was pre-punk. The sense of impending nihilism was goth before goth. Most reactions were of shock. In among the murk there was real drama. I played the LP for the composer Aaron Copland, proud of its Neo-Classical European style. Copland’s only comment was about her “gravelly voice”.

I always felt somewhat protective towards her music. I felt it needed presentation that elevated her to the status of a serious female songwriter, very different from those celebrated at the time. I think she understood this — felt that I appreciated and “understood” her — although the “understanding” was focused exclusively in musical terms. Her life made me depressed. Every recording session I came away from thinking I had seen her inner self and that it was a little girl trying to reach the daylight. Eventually I was left to consider that the drugs in her life were stronger than my attempts to use music to delineate a pathway ahead.

The few times I’d witness her childlike laughter and utter amazement at her finished work — those were the moments a collaborator clings to. The payoff, the reward! Those times were so rare, but they kept me on the string that was Nico’s to dangle — the belief in her, even when she didn’t believe.

ANDREW LOOG OLDHAM, the manager of the Rolling Stones and producer of Nico’s first single

My Nico story is a short one but, like her life, it’s reasonably star-studded. Brian Jones brought Nico over from Paris, where she was modelling, in 1965 and said: “How about recording my friend too?” I’d already been through it with Marianne Faithfull, and I thought that I could tell who could sing just by hearing their speaking voice — and what a voice Nico had.

I sent her to John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page to audition; they thought she was quite something, totally scrumptious. We weren’t used to this European allure. She was no doormat. She was a lethal woman. She was one of a new breed of woman, like Anita Pallenberg and Yoko Ono, who could have been a man. Like Carla Bruni is today. Far better that than the silly little English teacups around at that time.

We got it all wrong on the record, though, I’m Not Sayin’. I made the mistake of recording her with a big orchestra. It was a Gordon Lightfoot song and it just didn’t swing. Decca rejected it and I hated it. It was in the wrong key, her voice sounded like a horse on steroids. But the B-side, The Last Mile, written by Jimmy Page, was good. [My label] Immediate Records put it out and we did a tour of the all the recording factories around the country. She was a trouper, a real laugh. They all loved her on the factory floor.

We were a stepping stone for her but happy to be one. All the drugs and darkness came later. When I worked with her she was pure Harvey Nichols, and wonderful for it. Well done, Brian, he certainly knew how to pick ’em.

JAMES YOUNG, member of Nico’s band from 1981-88 and the author of Nico — Songs They Never Play on the Radio

A favourite Nico anecdote comes from spring 1982. I was in the tour van, at the back. The air was thick with Marlboro smoke, patchouli and something else. I pushed open the rear side window. A pocket of air whooshed around the interior and slapped Nico in the back of the neck. She turned round. “What are you?” she said. “Some kind of fresh-air freak?”

I’d first heard Nico’s voice as a 14-year-old back in Oldham. A friend had brought round a copy of Chelsea Girl. What was this? A voice deeper than the foghorn on the Bismarck but with a strange inwardness; the music folky but with lyrics that were urban and startling.

I got to hear her voice again, on my doorstep 14 years later. I was living in Oxford by then. I had a place at the university to begin a masters in romantic literature. Nico was with an old schoolfriend, Alan Wise, who had become her manager. She was performing at a local disco, Scamps, above Sainsbury’s in the Westgate shopping centre. I hadn’t planned to go to the concert, and I certainly hadn’t planned to abandon the academic life. But things change. I ended up playing piano for her until her death six years later.

With a Nico performance, whether you were on stage or at the back of the hall, you had to be there all the way with her. You had to remember the world she was born into, without seeing her as a tragic beauty and sentimentalising it. Nico was a beautiful, dreaming, gifted monster.

ALAN WISE, New Order promoter and Nico’s manager

Twenty years on, it seems as if her little funeral in Berlin, with the help of the Rev Michael Gartland, an old friend of mine and hers, a weedy tape player and a few non-famous people, preceded, not followed, the seven years I had known her.

I’d met her on the stairs at the Rafters club in Manchester in 1981, when she was 42. I liked her at first, and after a couple of years I loved her. I made little money with her, just got to travel. The Smiths were just happening, I promoted the first show, but I ignored them for Nico. I had no head for business, only for romance. I loved the travel, and the taste of a faded bohemia.

Looking back I think we undervalued her. Her real stuff was the Germanic lullaby music, not the rock. She had something, a gravitas, even if she was not a “musician”. She could speak five languages and was ashamed of her lack of formal education. But she usually read good books and watched good black-and-white films.

She was the real thing. Fascinated by drugs, she feared whatever her real self was; was scared that she might be mad and changed her mood every minute. She was ashamed of being a German and she was ashamed of being a woman. She was never an anti-Semite. That was crap. She chose to live among Ashkenazim Jews when she lived in Manchester and those of a Jewish cultural background for most of her life, ie, 80 per cent of the music industry here and in New York. She was no snob. She liked playing pool with bums in the pub.

She was a pretty unusual person — a disaster, but also some kind of angel. I wanted her to love me and she never could, though she said once: “Of course I do.” But she loved only one person, her son, Ari. The rest of us vaguely amused her.

Nico: life of an icon

1938 Born Christa Pfaffgen in Cologne
1954 Is spotted at 16, becomes a model
1959 Appears in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita
1962 Gives birth to son Ari
1965 Records first single in London
1967 Dylan introduces her to Warhol who makes her a Factory superstar and member of the Velvet Underground. Releases solo album, Chelsea Girl.
1969-85 Records series of remarkable albums with John Cale
1988 Dies of a brain hemorrhage

Life Along the Borderline — a Nico Tribute, curated by John Cale, Southbank Centre, London SE1 (0871-663 2500), Oct 11 2008.

Nico tribute concert curated by Lutz Ulrich, Volksbühne, Berlin (0049 30 24 065 5), Oct 17 2008

October 3, 2008 - Posted by | John Cale, Music_Alternative, Nico, OTHER_ARTICLE, _MUSIC


  1. thanx for this appreciation. i saw her live . though not a very good concert itself, it was unforgettable. best wishes, ubique

    Comment by Anonymous | October 13, 2008

  2. Thanks mate!

    You are so lucky to have had the chance to see her live! I’m jealous!


    Comment by stupid and contagious | October 14, 2008

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