The Misunderstood Voice of Nico

In October, 1966, the singer Nico began a residency at a bar in the East Village. She wore a white pantsuit and wielded a tambourine; her drawn vowels hung in the smoky air. She was still playing occasional shows with the Velvet Underground, whose first album would be released the following year. But, to Nico’s dismay, the band’s leader, Lou Reed, refused to play guitar at her solo shows, and barred the rest of the group from joining her. Onstage, she was forced to sing to a prerecorded backing from a small cassette player. “The tears would roll down her face because she just couldn’t remember how the buttons worked,” Andy Warhol, who managed the Velvets, recalled. Humiliation was a theme: four months later, at a club called the Dom, Warhol tried to make her perform inside a Plexiglas box.

Nico was used to being treated as a physical spectacle. At the Dom, Leonard Cohen was a regular guest, and he began writing songs in hopes of seducing her. Her improbable bone structure, and her role in “La Dolce Vita,” intrigued prominent rock managers like Albert Grossman, who worked with Bob Dylan. But her songs were less appealing, and the Dom’s clientele often laughed through her set. She was eventually accompanied on guitar by Tim Buckley, and then by Jackson Browne, who had just arrived in New York. Browne became enamored with Nico, and before they fell out—she accused him of harassing her with obscene phone calls—he gave her two songs: “The Fairest of the Seasons” and “These Days,” both of which appeared on her 1967 début, “Chelsea Girl.”

Few songs so beautifully misrepresent a singer as “These Days.” The clarity of Browne’s fingerpicked guitar lines, and the delicacy of Nico’s languor, is rendered just alien enough by her vocals, a more tuneful version of the stentorian drawl she used with the Velvets. “Please don’t confront me with my failures / I had not forgotten them,” she sings. Since its inclusion in Wes Anderson’s 2001 film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” where it accompanies a kohl-eyed Gwyneth Paltrow, “These Days” has become Nico’s best-known song, a hymn of stifled glamour. It reinforces her popular image, which has been confected from late-sixties publicity stills, bits of blank-stare footage from Warhol films, and photographs of her with Reed and John Cale, the Velvets’ Welsh savant. She migrates in the mind between fashion and folk, downtown bohème and Fellini-sponsored stardom. And always, in case you don’t know, there is the spectre of her heroin addiction, the protracted ruin of her personal life.

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As is often the case with stories about icons, these are crushing simplicities. The details of Nico’s life have been rehearsed many times, in books and articles about the male musicians who knew her, and in a handful of books about Nico herself. But, as her latest biographer, Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, points out in “You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone” (Hachette), it was a life “haphazardly recorded.” (The same could be said of much of her music.) Over the decades, those seasoned anecdotes and thrice-told tales have hardened into cliché—Nico as a lovely blond void, or Nico as a freeloading ego monster. It is hard to find the facts, and even harder to find the shape of her artistic intent. The question remains: What did Nico want, or want to say?

She was born Christa Päffgen, in Cologne, Germany, on October 16, 1938. Her mother, Grete, came from a humble Protestant background; her father, Willi, was the son of a wealthy Catholic family, who were appalled at the match. The couple divorced in 1941, and the following year Willi died in the war—shot by his own side, an aunt of Nico’s maintained, after suffering a brain injury. Mother and daughter ended up in Berlin, amid the ruins. When Nico was thirteen, she said, she was raped by a U.S. Army sergeant who was hanged for the crime. She also said he was Black, a claim that has been cited by many, Nico included, to explain conduct, on her part, that can only be called racist. Her first English-language biographer, Richard Witts, cast some doubt on the narrative—there are no Army records of the case—but Otter Bickerdike accepts it, citing “newly uncovered personal documents.”

As an adolescent, Nico already spoke in the slow, booming tones that would inform her singing voice. She wanted to be a ballerina, but was too imposing a physical presence. She started to hang around KaDeWe, Berlin’s hippest department store, waiting to be discovered. At sixteen, she was, and it was a fashion photographer, Herbert Tobias, who started calling her Nico, after a lost love. Modelling took her to Paris, where she claimed to have worked with Coco Chanel, slept with Jeanne Moreau, and been seduced by Ernest Hemingway. There’s little proof of these romps; “Nico” was not just a name but a new persona, a mask for a shy, lonely girl to slip on. She was still wearing it in 1959, when she was in Rome with friends, and when she walked onto Federico Fellini’s set. Almost instantly, she recalled, he cast her in “La Dolce Vita”—as “Nico,” a model.

Nico’s brief, luminous performance might have made her a movie star. But she had a disastrous sense of time, and when she got her next break—a role opposite Alain Delon in “Purple Noon,” a Patricia Highsmith adaptation—she showed up months after shooting began. Her part replaced, she proceeded to have an affair with Delon, and in 1962 gave birth to their son, Ari, though Delon denied paternity. Then she retreated to Ibiza, where she had set up her mother, now suffering from Parkinson’s, in a house that she rented with modelling money. She knew that fashion would not be her future, but neither would film.

In Ibiza, a friend suggested that she might become a singer. She had already been listening to jazz in Paris. (It’s rumored that she first took heroin there, in the company of Chet Baker.) Now she began performing at clubs, and was inspired by a fling with Bob Dylan, though he was annoyed by her voice. Her first record, brokered by the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham, was a Gordon Lightfoot song, “I’m Not Sayin’,” released in 1965. During a stint in New York, she parlayed this and her Fellini connection into a place at the Factory. Warhol had a new house band, the Velvet Underground, and his collaborator, Paul Morrissey, thought it needed “something beautiful.” Nico was the ravishing emptiness on which to project their ambition. The band tolerated Nico’s wayward pitch, seeming not to know that “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” “Femme Fatale,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” were made for the ages. When they got in the studio to record “The Velvet Underground & Nico,” Reed, who had promised Nico that she could sing the album’s opener, “Sunday Morning,” abruptly took it for himself.

Watch out, the world’s behind you—Otter Bickerdike details the many ways in which misogyny dogged Nico’s career. There are exceptions: Cale would produce and arrange her greatest records, and Jim Morrison suggested she take up the harmonium, which drones at the center of those albums. Ornette Coleman told her to play her melodies in the lower registers, so voice and harmonium matched. But most men were like Reed, who invited her to make a post-Velvets album with him, only to taunt her with his drug stash when she came to his apartment. At one of her solo gigs, Frank Zappa rushed onstage and hammered on her organ, intoning the names of vegetables in a moronic parody of her performance.

One popular story about Nico is that, in the late sixties and early seventies, she lost the lightness and humor in her personality, and was intent, after years of being stared at, on destroying her looks. Associates repeat for Otter Bickerdike a familiar tale of ego and neglect. Was it the drugs? The loss of her mother, in 1970? The catastrophe of her efforts to look after Ari, who was eventually adopted by Delon’s mother? She once told her young lover Iggy Pop—among Otter Bickerdike’s interviewees, perhaps the most respectful toward Nico—that he was not sufficiently “poisoned.” She was brimming with something dark. Yet the great lesson here is not how a storied beauty destroyed herself, but what she rescued from the well of her loneliness.

“The Marble Index,” “Desertshore,” and “The End”—the three records that Nico released between 1968 and 1974, containing mostly her own songs—are austere miracles of will and invention. She was as wayward a timekeeper musically as she was in daily life. Cale would let Nico toil at her own speed through vocals and harmonium accompaniment, and then encircle this primitive vessel with a flotilla of glockenspiel, viola, bosun’s pipe, and more. The result is a sound at once medieval and avant-garde. In spite of Cale’s contributions, the lingering feeling from a record like “The Marble Index”—Nico found the title in Wordsworth—is of something monomaniacal being enacted. “Glacial,” a common cliché, is in fact a good description of the way her voice advances over the moraine of her instrument.

Where did these songs come from? She learned to write them, she said, after a desert interlude with peyote and Morrison. Afterward, she read the English Romantic poets and tried to have visions. On “The End,” she performed Morrison’s song of the same name, but elsewhere her lyrics have only a touch of his lurid grandiloquence. Yes, there are virgins and kings, Amazons and falcons; but it’s all rendered so abstractly that one has the impression mostly of impressions. As with her music, Nico’s text is less narrative or dramatic than territorial, a sung tundra. “Frozen warnings close to mine / Close to the frozen borderline,” she sings on one track. She claimed that “The Falconer,” on “Desertshore,” was about Warhol; if that’s true, then the silvered Factory has turned elemental: “The falconer is sitting on / His summer sand at dawn / Beside his singing silver waves / And his dancing rebel race.” There are some hints of autobiography. It’s hard to hear the lyrics of the fragile “Afraid” without thinking of Nico’s years as a model: “Have someone else’s will as your own . . . / You are beautiful and you are alone.”

Critics often ignored Nico’s words, concentrating instead on her now “Gothic” appearance (dark hair, dark robes) and “Teutonic” delivery. A subtext of Otter Bickerdike’s book is the prevalence of puerile anti-German sentiment among British and American listeners in this period—an era, after all, that invented the term “Krautrock.” Her own record company advertised “The End” with the tagline “Why waste time committing suicide when you could buy this album?” Even Cale, her most constant musical ally, said of her work, “You can’t sell suicide.” But there is, too, something nourishing in the darkness. As with the songs of Leonard Cohen, it can be hard, once you’re immersed, to crawl back toward music with a brighter schema.

The shadows weren’t confined to the work. Nico apparently neglected her sick, aging mother, and encouraged Ari to take heroin. She complained of misogyny but wasn’t a feminist; her idols were all men. A 1971 event sits at the heart of debates about her character. At El Quixote, a Spanish restaurant attached to the Chelsea Hotel, Nico struck the Black singer and activist Emmaretta Marks in the face with a glass or a bottle; the wound needed multiple stitches. Nico may or may not have been responding to Marks’s statements about how she was treated as a Black woman; she may or may not have said “I hate Black people!” as she lunged. Otter Bickerdike attributes the episode partly to Nico’s wartime traumas; she couldn’t tolerate anyone else’s claims to injustice. It’s unclear whether anyone has thought to ask Marks what happened.

Afterward, Nico said that she feared retribution from the Black Panthers, and fled New York. She moved first to Paris, where she lived in squalor with the filmmaker Philippe Garrel, also a heroin addict; and then, in 1981, to Manchester, where heroin was cheap and the buildings reminded her of Berlin. This period of her life—afternoons playing pool in the pubs, amusing the local post-punk scene with her decayed glamour—has been luridly documented in “Nico: The End,” a memoir by her keyboard player James Young. Otter Bickerdike tells a more sympathetic (and less casually sexist) story, of a woman forced into an arduous tour schedule by the financial demands of addiction. Between 1982 and 1988, Nico gave more than twelve hundred performances. Manchester friends recall her owning next to nothing: just her motorcycle boots, a few books, a leather bag, and drug paraphernalia.

Had she lived, Nico would have turned eighty-four this year. She was vilified for her beauty, her exploits, her experimentation—all qualities celebrated in her male contemporaries. Could she have become a studio explorer, like Brian Eno or Scott Walker? Is it wishful to picture her as a crooning grande dame, like Marianne Faithfull? But no—better a darling of the avant-garde, who might now and then be coaxed out of retirement, only to decline to sing “These Days.” Some part of her, surely, wanted this: to be an artist on her own terms.

In the summer of 1988, having quit heroin for methadone, and toured Japan with Cale, Nico went to Ibiza with her son. On a hot day, she rode off on her bicycle to buy marijuana, and was later found by the side of the road, partially paralyzed and unable to speak. Three hospitals turned her away. At a fourth, she was diagnosed with a cerebral hemorrhage, and she died the next day, alone. Her Manchester and Berlin circles came to the funeral; but nobody from her New York life attended, or even replied when her manager sent news of her passing. The young couple who found her said that she was lying in the sun beside her bike, clutching a book in her good hand. It was by Oscar Wilde, with whom Nico shared a birthday.

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