NICO: The Inner Scar
director's cut, The Guardian, March 16th 2007
by Simon Reynolds
Nico is famous as a face--a tragic beauty, the junkie Dietrich--and as singer of three of of the Velvet Underground’s most beautiful songs, “Femme Fatale”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” Far less widely known is Nico the songwriter, the serious artist who created--in partnership with ex-Velvet John Cale—
two of the most extreme musical statements of the rock era. Now those albums,
The Marble Index and Desertshore, are being re-released as The Frozen Borderline: 1968-1970, a double-CD filled out with the inevitable—but, for once, revelatory---slew of alternate versions and unreleased songs.
Hearing The Marble Index for the first time after knowing the singer through those three lovely tunes on The Velvet Underground and Nico is disorientating–where on Earth did this harrowed, umheimlich sound come from? The style invented by Nico and Cale had nothing to do with everything else going on in Sixties music. Centered around Nico’s piercing plaint and the melancholy wheeze of her harmonium playing, it’s a completely un-American sound, severed from rhythm-and-blues. Nico’s debut album, Chelsea Girl, was fetching folk-tinged pop. Marble Index is less folk, than volk. The sonic mise en scene of tracks like “No One Is There” and “Lawn of Dawns” conjures a dank, draughty castle in Bavaria or Bohemia, with shadows, cast from guttering candles, flickering against the walls. You might picture cowled figures chanting canticles, or a pale noblewoman cloistered in her chamber, black-clad and grieving, a falcon her only companion. It’s Gothick, not in the corny white-face-and-eyeliner sense, but harking back to something pre-Christian and atavistic. “Niebelungen”, one of the most haunting songs on Marble Index (albeit left off the original 1968 release, astonishingly), took its name from the Niebelungenlied, an 11th Century German epic poem, a heroic and tragic saga full of drowned monks and decapitations, rape and revenge.
If the sound of Marble Index evokes Mittel Europa, there’s a hint of the Middle East too. Nico sometimes claimed she was part-Turkish on her father’s side. But then her origins are shrouded in mystery. We think of her as German, but although she spent much of her childhood in that country, her parents were Spanish and Yugoslav. Depending on the account, her birthplace and birth date were either Cologne in 1938 or Budapest in 1943, while her father is variously said to have died in a concentration camp or faded away after suffering shellshock during the war. Nico herself experienced WW2 as a primal trauma, spending her earliest years sheltering from British bombing raids and witnessing the leveling of Germany by Soviet troops. She grew up as a rootless cosmopolitan (her passport read “ohne festen Wohnsitz”, no fixed address), receiving education in France and Italy as well as Germany, and eventually becoming fluent in seven languages. From the age of fifteen, she flitted across Europe (and soon between Europe and America), never staying any place for long,and pursuing multiple careers as fashion model, actress, singer. One minute she was in a Fellini movie, the next recording a single under the guidance of Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham. Along the way she became the mistress of French movie star Alain Delon and had a baby son, Ari. Although Delon would not publically acknowledge the child’s existence, Ari ended up being brought up by his parents, an arrangement that was endlessly painful for Nico.
The list of Nico’s famous lovers and admirers is staggering: Lou Reed, Bob Dylan,
Jackson Browne, Brian Jones, Leonard Cohen, Jim Morrison. While several of these troubadours provided Nico with the tunes for Chelsea Girl, it was the Doors singer who encouraged her to become a songwriter in her own right. “He was my soul brother,” Nico once said of Morrison. “He taught me to write songs. I never thought that I could, because when you come out of the fashion business… I mean, I did a flimsy sort of writing ... He really inspired me a lot. It was like looking in a mirror then.”
Often regarded as the West Coast counterpart to Velvet Underground, The Doors defied the flower-power spirit of the age with their songs of sex and death, re-imagining psychedelia as existential estrangement rather than a return to childlike innocence. But Nico eclipsed the Doors’s darkness on Marble Index, an album that replaces the summer of love with the winter of despair. The title comes from a passage in a Wordsworth poem inspired by a statue of Isaac Newton: “Newton with his prism and silent face/ The marble index of a mind forever voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” The significance for Nico of the lines most likely lay in the word “alone”. The album is a portrait of isolation, or even ice-olation: these are the psychic landscapes, glittering in their immaculate, lifeless majesty, of someone cut off from the thawing warmth of human contact and fellowship.
Nico’s words do occasionally resemble Morrison’s more cinema student (as opposed to blues stud) lyrics. The style is at once hieroglyphic and hieratic: “Julius Caesar (Memento Hodié)” is all pillars and stone altars, water lily fields and doves, while “Frozen Warnings” depicts a “friar hermit” stumbling over “the cloudy borderline”. With its imagery of “midnight winds… landing at the end of time”, “Evenings of Light” could be a portentous Teutonic rendering of Emily Dickinson’s “There’s A Certain Slant of Light”, a poem that glimpses the face of Death in a winter landscape as dusk approaches.
Along with Morrison’s encouragement, a key breakthrough for Nico was her discovery of the harmonium. She liked this small instrument of Indian origin, also known as the pump organ, because it sounded “like the wind”, and developed a unique style of singing over the simple repetitive patterns she played on it. “ She only had a limited command of the instrument,” recalls Richard Williams, who as A&R at Island would sign Nico to record The End, effectively the final instalment of a trilogy that started with The Marble Index. “Because she played less notes, it restricted her singing and it became literally monotonous, but not in a pejorative way.” Cale was then able “to hang interesting sounds around it”-- an outlandish palette that included electric viola, glockenspiel, bells, and that maritime instrument the bosun’s pipe. Another aspect that made The Marble Index sound so European was that unlike with rock or funk, where the singer is embedded in the groove, Nico’s voice runs in parallel with Cale’s accompaniment rather than interlocking with it. Her voice and harmonium were recorded first, separately; Cale would then build up layers of texturess, going through dozens of combinations. “’I was pretty much left alone for two days,” Cale once commented of the album’s recording, which incongruously took place in Los Angeles. “I let her in at the end… and she burst into tears. ‘Oh! It’s so beautiful!’….”
This wintry sound demanded an image change. Nico switched from dyed blonde to dark henna and started wearing black, heavy fabrics and boots. Danny Fields, her close friend and the man who got her signed to Elektra, believes it was “almost a burden to be so beautiful… She was a very serious person and seriously wanted to be thought of a poet, a songwriter.” The album did earn a measure of critical respect and has been a cult favourite for decades, but sold poorly. It’s easy to see why, given how out-on-a-limb it was even in the freakadelic context of the late Sixties. In truth, Marble Index sounds like nothing before or since. If anything matches it in mood terms, it’s Joy Division’s Closer. The latter is taken, rightly or wrongly, as a sonic suicide note. Marble Index, likewise tends to get seen in terms of an aestheticized death-wish. Referencing the record’s commercial failure, Cale said “you can’t sell suicide”, while Frazier Mohawk (the album’s official producer) described it as not “a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.” Yet, smack addict and gloomy sod that she may have been, Nico appears to have been in no hurry to shuffle off this mortal coil. Indeed she clung on to life, dying in 1988 in bizarrely bathetic circumstances after tumbling off a bicycle in Ibiza.
Still, there’s no doubt she had some serious inner turbulence and a genuine dark side. When Danny Fields describes her as “Nazi-esque”, it turns out he’s not affectionately referring to her regal, demanding personality, but to racism. “Every once in a while there’d be something about Jews and I’d be “but Nico, I’m Jewish’ and she was like ’yes yes, I don’t mean you’. She had a definite Nordic Aryan streak, [the belief] that she was physically, spiritually and creatively superior.” Worse, on one occasion, she acted those beliefs out, explosively, in what Fields calls “the most infamous incident”. In the restaurant at the Chelsea Hotel sometime in the very early Seventies, Nico sat with a bunch of musicians, among them a beautiful mix-race singer--half-black, half-white--who’d worked with Jimi Hendrix. According to Fields, “Nico was, I dunno, feeling neglected, or drunk, but suddenly she said ‘I hate black people” and smashed a wineglass on the table and stuck it in the girl’s eye. There was lots of blood and screaming. Fortunately she just twisted it around her eye socket, so the glass never reached [the eye] but… it’s not like she was being cautious!” Fields claims that the Warhol crowd spirited Nico off on an airplane and out of the country the next morning, while somehow managing to placate the victim and hush up the whole affair. Nico later alluded cryptically to this appalling incident in a late Eighties interview with an Australian radio station, explaining her quitting America in the early Seventies in terms of the US being a “dangerous place”. This, she added, could make oneself “increasingly dangerous. You might just wind up in jail… I just had to go because something happened…”
Exiled to Paris, Nico shacked up with avant-garde film maker Philippe Garrel and made a series of arty flicks with him, acting and providing songs for the soundtracks. Most notably there was La Cicatrice Interieure, which translates as The Inner Scar, shot in a series of Nico-esque desolate landscapes (Iceland, Egypt, Death Valley). Stills from Cicatrice adorned her next album, 1970’s Desertshore. Setting the pattern for the rest of her career, it was recorded on a different label than its predecessor. Joe Boyd, the man who discovered and produced Nick Drake, was a Marble Index fan and secured her a deal with Warner/Reprise through his production company Witchseason. Cale produced again, but possibly influenced by the presence of co-producer Boyd (whose recording hallmark is restraint and naturalism) the album is less cluttered, a sparer and purer Nico statement in some ways, giving her voice and harmonium the spotlight. Like Marble Index, the music works on your mind’s eye. Indeed Nico described herself as “a frustrated movie director… I always have to see a sound, I can't listen to it only. I've actually to see a film or, or when I don't see a film I rather see the music than I hear it.” Lyrically, the gnomic imagery of songs like “Janitor of Lunacy” and “Afraid” is as bleak as before, but there are glimpses of tenderness in “My Only Child” and “Mutterlein”, while “The Falconer” is an oblique paean to a lover able to “erase my empty pages”. But the overwhelming impression is, again, of someone grappling with a terrible inner void. “Being around Nico was kinda depressing,” recalls Boyd. “She was a very tortured character. I mean, you can see the romance of Warhol, the Factory, and the Velvets, but when you get up close up to it, you think ‘Jesus, this is pretty gloomy, boring stuff’.”
Like Marble Index, Desertshore sold badly and Nico drifted off again, recording no music for four years. In 1794, she was coaxed back into the studio by Richard Williams, who signed her and Cale to Island, overcoming the reluctance of Chris Blackwell thanks to the warm enthusiasm of Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera. These two (Roxy) musicians played on The End. With Cale at the mixing desk, the concept was The Marble Index, Part 3. That summer she, Cale, Eno and Kevin Ayers (a close friend who wrote the marvellous paean "Decadence" about her on his album Bananamour) appeared at London’s Rainbow Theater as a sort of supergroup (the press nicknamed it ACNE), with the one-off show recorded and released as June 1, 1974. Of Nico’s live rendition of The End’s title track, Creem’s Richard Cromelin memorably wrote: “If Morrison sang it as a lizard, Nico is a sightless bird, lost but ever-so-calm, somehow knowing the right direction. She is the pure, dead marble of a ruined Acropolis, a crumbling column on the subterranean bank of Morrison's River Styx.”
Minus Ayers, the event was recreated at a Berlin music festival later that year. Nico triggered an audience riot by performing the German national anthem “Das Lied der Deutschen” (also covered on The End) complete with verses that had been banned after 1945 on account of their Nazi-era associations (they referred to territories ceded at Versailles and eventually seized back by Hitler). This incensed the crowd of young left-wing students and hippies and they starting hurling “plastic seat cushions at the stage,” recalls Williams. “Eno making air-raid noises on his synth, Cale pounding his piano, Nico intoning ‘Deutschland, uber alles”, cushions flying– it was really quite something!”
After her third flop in a row, Nico faded from the public eye again and would in fact only record two more albums before her death, neither of them anywhere near as distinctive and remarkable as the Marble/Desertshore/End triology. Religious music for the god-forsaken and orphaned drifters of this world, Nico’s nihilist psalms are as enduringly enigmatic as their creator. Fields remembers her alternately as “deep”, “girlish” and “bratty”. “We’d be walking in New York at night and she’d have to pee,, so she’d squat down between two parked cars. One time a passing cop came by and said, ‘hey, that’s not very lady-like’. See, she didn’t have the neuroses of babybooymer people. She didn’t bother with neurosis, she went straight to psychotic! Everything was turbulent about her, starting with the bombs during her childhood. You can hear it in the words of her songs. It’s a mythical thing that I think we are going to be trying to explain for a long time.”