Monday, August 11, 2008

Nico (1938-1988)

I find that Nico's voice has a haunting and soulful quality. The first time I heard her version of "I'm Not Sayin'" in the early 1990's I hoped she was a new performer, just getting started. Alas, like too many talented artists she had already left this world.  

  Born Christa Paffgen in Germany, she survived the traumatic bombings of the war and its chaotic aftermath. She became a child model, eventually learning to speak several languages.  
After a couple small films (including an American film with the male "prima donna" opera tenor  Mario Lanza!!) she appeared briefly more or less as herself in Fellini's masterpiece "La Dolce Vita" (1960), a film which might have been an omen for her difficult, edgy and glitzy life  . She also studied at Lee Strasberg's famous "Actors' Studio" in New York. 

 She recorded extensively with the Velvet Underground, and with Lou Reed seperately as well as her own individual work. Bob Dylan wrote a song for her. 
She had a child by the French film star Alain Delon in 1962 and later went on to work in the fast-lane world of Andy Warhol's Factory. She also enjoyed a comeback in the early 1980's. But in some of the reviews of her later concerts she was described as a "freak act".   A documentary Nico Icon (1995)  might shed some light on this negative view, but I have not seen it as yet. The reviews seem to highlight a state of ennui in her psychological make-up, but documentarians and biographers.rarely accentuate the positive part of anyone's life.
  Nico's life was complicated by a long-term heroin addiction. She died from a head injury after a bicycle fall in Ibzia, Spain which resulted in a brain hemmorage. 

 But that haunting vocal quality endures as I think these two clips attest. 



  1. I am sure Ihave heard her before but for the life of me I do not remember. I cannot say the songs reached out and grabbed me.

  2. I have always loved Nico since the Velvet Underground's banana album came out. Your first choice I'll be Your Mirror featured in one of the most enjoyable Warhol installations at the retrospective I saw in Amsterdam last Christmas. This middle European party thing of course was also implicit to Warhol himself. The existential slightly warped quality, which makes Nico not Abba or Nana Mouskouri, but something altogether more subversive and more New York in the post war years is for me where the magic lies.
    Nico's voice is from avant garde European cinema, but transplanted to the great melting pot of 60s New York.... mixes magic from two continents and has a strong aroma of coffee about it to me.
    Thanks for posting this Doug, Nico is a heroin heroine, a bit rough around the edges she was a mirror of a time now sadly passed into history. She also had the advantage of being beautiful which was never an impediment.
    She is the daughter of both Dietrich and Burroughs and was thus destined to be meteoric and quite fascinating I think.

  3. Very aptly put. The Burroughs connection is of course spot on. And I think, from what I kow of her,that if Marlene Dietrich--who was fascinating in her own time for burning the candle at both ends--had a spiritual daughter, it would have been Nico, who could have done a great coffeehouse version of "You Go to My Head".
    I came late to "The Exploding Plastic Inevitable" movement, but I imagine the Amsterdam show must have been quite interesting indeed.

    And, no, beauty is no impediment as any man who's been through the spell of a "femme fatale" can attest.

  4. I love the arty atmosphere and time she belonged to. Ah, that great classic, 'La Dolce Vita' and the talented director Fellini!

    Isn't it tragic that an artist who had so much to give, should have needed something like heroin to blot out the world as it really is? Her death because of the unfortunate accident, was a sad ending to yet another songbird . Early deaths have robbed us of much music, so many songs unsung!


  5. Heroin has run rampant in artistic circles, starting in the States with so many great jazz musicians like Charlie Parker and, more recently, the promising young actor River Phoenix.

    And so many who survived such addictions such as Miles Davis must have lost a lot as well. Heroin and other hard drugs might numb pain, but I doubt these things ever gave anyone lasting joy.
    It is indeed a terrible loss that drugs prevented performers like Nico, Jim Morrison, Janis Joplin, Jimmie Hendrix, et al, from seeing and reacting to new generations discovering their music.

  6. I first heard Nico's dark voice on the Velvet Underground's 1967 album--the one with the Warhol banana on it. Peel it. On top of "I'll be your mirror", she sang a rather sinister sounding, whip-lash, girl-child song, one where Lou Reed's and the "Factory"''s own Sade saavy atmosphere permeated. Like Marlene Dietrich and Marianne Faithful, Nico was a hipster of her time, a Siren tempting all towards the shores of transgression.

  7. Well put. :-) One shouldn't leave out Marianne Faithful as long as we are in the 60's neighborhood. Sirens they were: Nico or Marianne probably would have inspired Virgil to write an stronger bitter romance for Aeneas and Dido.

    Just peeled the Banana album recently--great material. "All Tomorrow's Parties" is another fine Nico vocal, with Lou Reed and/or Sterling Morrison giving that great bass guitar sound all its due.

  8. I'd recommend checking out the "Banana" album with the Velvet Underground and Nico--there's some of those tunes that don't grab me, either, but I think you'll find some songs there that are quality Sixties music.