the influence and tragedy of nico

On the anniversary of the release of 'The Velvet Underground & Nico' we move past the legend to explore her impact beyond the band.

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Mar 16 2017, 11:55pm

A still from a 1966 screen test. Image via IMDB.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the release of The Velvet Underground & Nico, one of the few albums that deserve the overused term seminal. Across half a century the 1967 record has come to be seen as a benchmark in progressive, experimental pop and a testament to the influence that can swell when the line between art and music blurs. In under 50 minutes the band manage to sew early elements of post-punk, glam-goth, shoegaze, art-rock, indie-pop, drone, new wave, noise and industrial. But this is by now well committed to music lore. And anyone not intimately familiar with the 11 tracks has been given plenty of opportunities to acquaint themselves this month via the waves of articles that marked the anniversary. Each follow a slightly different path to the band recording in Manhattan's infamously decrepit Scepter Studios, stopping here and there to examine the their unquestionable legacy and the relationship between Lou Reed and John Cale —who formed the central core with Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker.

The two were destined to become giants of modern music: Reed — intellectual, intense, and a resident of a mental institution by the time he was 17 — plays into our romantic expectations of a dark artistic hero. Cale in turn was an avant-garde London transplant with neo-classical style and prodigious abilities. By contrast Nico is usually introduced as a former model and Andy Warhol favourite, added later to the line up at the suggestion of friend and patron Warhol to lend an element of style and glamour to the grimy, intellectual crew. 

Nico in 'La Dolce Vita'.

Before meeting Warhol and the rest of the Velvet Underground, Nico's life had been transient and traumatic. Born Christa Päffgen in Cologne in 1938, her childhood was shadowed by the Second World War that claimed her father. While his fate is fuzzy, the most widely shared story is that he received serious head injuries and resulting brain damage that saw him spend the rest of his life in a psychiatric hospital.

At the end of the war, Nico and her mother — now alone — moved to Berlin where she worked as a seamstress and eventually a model. She travelled through Europe as a teenager, working for leading fashion publications, taking a small role in La Dolce Vita and absorbing several languages. At 17 she was poised to become a muse to Coco Chanel who had noticed her, but decided to move to New York City instead.

While her addition to the Velvet Underground would later be painted as bizarre owing to her unusual voice and partial deafness that made it hard for her to stay on key, her musical career was well underway before she met Andy Warhol. In the early 60s she worked as a nightclub singer where it's rumoured Leonard Cohen would come and watch her perform and write poetry as she sang. In 1962 she appeared in Jacques Poitrenaud's Strip-Tease and recorded the Serge Gainsbourg penned title track. Her eventual introduction to Warhol would come through Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones who was already recording with her. Around this time she was also working with Bob Dylan.

Despite this, her connection to Reed, Cale and the band would soon define her. And while her style was always noted and admired alongside her Marlene Dietrich-esc drone, the working relationship was never easy. The band resented her preening ways and often mocked her singing and unusual habits — she insisted on burning a candle before every performance. 

Nico in an Andy Warhol video for 'I'll Be Your Mirror'.

In the decades since, her presence has continued to divide fans who still debate whether she was window dressing or a vital addition. Her at times romantic relationships with both Reed and Cale — I'll Be Your Mirror was about her — has seen her compared with Yoko Ono. Both independent, dynamic women, whose influence has been clouded by the idea their presence muddied the work of the men around them. Her later relationships with Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison and Alain Delon (who she had a child with) added to the misnomer she was some kind of very well connected groupie.

Of course her continued success after The Velvet Underground & Nico renders the previous argument as untethered. Additionally the continued presence of Reed and Cale across her following albums (they both wrote, produced and arranged for her) demonstrate a real and lasting respect. She and Cale would eventually even open for Pink Floyd in 1972.

While her first solo album Chelsea Girl is perhaps her best known solo offering, her second record The Marble Index in 1968 is where her roots as a godmother of goth can first be observed. It's this stage of her career, away from the poise of her earlier persona, that saw her begin to collect Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith and John Lydon as friends and fans. Smith famously bought her a harmonium when hers was stolen and she couldn't afford to replace it. 

The trailer for 1972's 'La Cicatrice Interieure.'

Today her style is often presented via the preppy, boyish 60s outfits of her early career. But moving into the 70s and 80s she was less Margot Tenenbaum and more dark-art witch. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the surreal, multi-lingual art films she made with French avant-garde filmmaker Philippe Garrel. Watching their movie La Cicatrice Interieure today, it's as beautiful, weird and impactful as it was in 1972. The two would also be lovers for almost a decade, his habit of making clothes for them both would add to her otherworldly androgynous appearance.

Nico eventually died in 1988 when she fell off her bicycle in Ibiza. Taking a ride in the baking midday sun she had a heart attack, hit her head on the ground and suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. Ironically at the time she was attempting to give up heroin, get healthy and embrace a more traditional existence. In her final years she lived across Europe and the UK as the heroin addiction she'd nursed for most of her adult life ravaged her. At one point she lived in a desolate Paris apartment, completely painted pitch black.

It's this later sullen, arguably lost, cold, angry, fraying Nico that would become the totem for the likes of Siouxsie Sioux and Zola Jesus, not the glossy model who broke the Velvet Underground's hearts. And it's this woman, who Elliott Smith, Björk, Marianne Faithfull, Bat for Lashes, St Vincent and Patrick Wolf have paid tribute to in recent years, who should be evoked when re-listening to The Velvet Underground & Nico this week. Or, screw it, and watch La Cicatrice Interieure instead. 

Credits


Text Wendy Syfret