Born Christa Paffgen in Cologne, Germany in 1938, Nico first gained notoriety as a model and actress. She appeared in numerous
European fashion magazines, and even landed a role in Fellini's LA DOLCE VITA, before meeting Bob Dylan in Paris in 1964.
Dylan whisked her away to Greece, where he wrote most of the material for his ANOTHER SIDE OF BOB DYLAN album, including "I'll
Keep It With Mine," which he wrote for his beautiful companion.
When Dylan went back to America in 1965, Nico went to England, where she became involved with Rolling Stones guitarist,
Brian Jones, who introduced her to his band's manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. Loog Oldham thought Nico, with her smashing good
looks and striking, accented vocals, would be a natural pop sensation. Nico's first single, Gordon Lightfoot's "I'm Not
Sayin" b/w "The Last Mile," arranged by Jimmy Page, was the third record released on Loog Oldhams Immediate
label. While it garnered airplay, and won the lovely singer some media attention, the single faltered on the charts. Nico
left Britain, sore with Loog Oldham that he had not made her a star.
Nico went to New York, where she hoped to find Dylan. Instead, she fell in with Andy Warhol and his Factory crowd. Like
Loog Oldham before him, Warhol realized immediately the impact Nico's icy good looks and unique voice could have on a pop
music audience. Warhol, however, peered more deeply into Nico's character than Loog Oldham had, finding an intriguing, aloof
decadence that he was sure would fit in with the seedy cynicism affected by his newest diversion, the Velvet Underground.
Although the band initially resented Warhol's injection of Nico into their recording sessions, her husky, sexy delivery
became an intregal part of the Velvet Underground's early sound, just as her impassive beauty became symbolic of the streetwise
hipness of the band's outlook. The songs she performed on THE VELVET UNDERGROUND AND NICO (Verve, 1967,) are among Lou Reed's
most outstanding compositions; emotionally vulnerable lyrics married to gentle pop balladry that provided needed contrast
to the deadpan fatalism and harsh avant-rock of the rest of the album. One of these songs, "I'll Be Your Mirror,"
is certainly a prime candidate for the Greatest Song Ever Written.
Nico would only record a handful of tracks with the Velvet Underground, and appear live with the band only a few times,
before re-launching her solo career. CHELSEA GIRL (Verve 1967,) was Nico's first solo album. The album's tone is lovely and
low key, in a clear attempt to mold Nico into a Francoise Hardy or Judy Collins-style MOR singer, with partial success. Two
thirds of the Velvet Underground are present, along with Nico's new lover, Jackson Browne. The songs, penned and performed
by Browne, Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison, are wonderful. The instrumental backing is lush and gorgeous, as is
Tom Wilson's expansive production. Nico, however, seems merely inserted into the songs; a sessions vocalist on her own album,
adrift in a sea of string arrangements with little connection to the material at hand. A gem with some fundamental, but forgivable,
In 1967, Nico began an intense and bizarre love affair with Jim Morrison. "We hit each other because we were drunk
and we enjoyed the sensation," Nico would say in 1985. "I thought of Jim Morrison as my brother, so we would grow
together. We still do, because he is my soul brother. We exchanged blood. I carry his blood inside me."
It was Morrison who first encouraged Nico to think of herself as an artiste, rather than just a singer of other people's
songs. Just as importantly, Morrison led Nico to consider, perhaps for the first time, exploring the darker aspects of her
psyche through her own lyrics and, eventually, the sound of her music itself. Although Nico and Morrison were only together
for about a month, their relationship would deeply impact the rest of her career.
THE MARBLE INDEX (Elektra 1968,) marks the startling transformation of Nico from Blonde Ice Goddess to dark-haired proto-goth.
In what collaborator John Cale has called "a contribution to European classical music," Nico discards the gentle
pop that had so far characterized her career in favor of an idiosyncratic tapestry of medieval music, avant -garde composition,
organ fugues, and Gregorian chant. The effect is simultaneously very ancient and quite modern. If the Vikings heard music
when they dreamed in their frosty halls, it must have sounded something like this. Hard to describe in terms that are not
hopelessly inadequate and cliché, it should suffice to say that NO ONE was making music like this in 1968, at least not in
a "rock" context. Echoes of THE MARBLE INDEX can be found in the more recent work of Dead Can Dance, Bjork, Current
93, Burzum and Death in June.
DESERTSHORE (Reprise 1970,) is quite similar to THE MARBLE INDEX, only with more skeletal, intimate arrangements that
do little to dress up the solemn tones of Cale's cello and Nico's ominous harmonium. Nico re-visits her CHELSEA GIRL era with
the beautiful "Afraid," only this time, she is clearly in her own territory.
THE END (Island 1974,) introduces Brian Eno's modern electronics, which root the material firmly in the present day, and
embody the songs with an eerie, emotional distance. The standout track is definitely Nico's version of The Doors' oedipal
tour de force, "The End," which Nico turns into a dirge for Jim Morrison, her dead lover and "soul brother."
While the last two albums were often intense, THE END is just plain scary.
The four-year lapse between DESERT SHORE and THE END was almost certainly drug related, and, by the mid-seventies, drug
use had eclipsed Nico's life as a creative artist almost entirely. After the 1974 release of THE END, Nico would not record
again until 1981. THE DRAMA OF EXILE (Aura 1981,) marked the return of a noticeably spent chanteuse, fronting a conventional
rock band for the first time since the Velvet Underground days. To be fair, some of the original material is intriguing, but
covers of Reed's "Waiting for the Man" and Bowie's "Heroes" are awful, and the song-to-song quality seems
somewhat dependant on just how strung out Nico might be at each given recording session.
(Gothic label Cleopatra has not improved the reputation of this album by releasing an inferior re-mix, first in 1983,
then as NICO ICON not to be confused with the soundtrack to the excellent 1995 documentary - in 1990.)
CAMERA OBSCURA (Beggars Banquet 1985) is, similarly, a "true fans only" sort of record, fluctuating as it does
between some interesting material and some sad and dismal fare.
Nico spent much of the 1980's traveling around Europe in a battered van with a band of equally addicted younger musicians.
Spending most of her days desperate to score and most of her nights high out of her mind, the once beautiful Nico took on
the aspect of a bloated, junk-sick Morticia Addams.
She traveled from gig to gig with condoms full of heroin shoved up her rectum. When asked what she thought her audience
expected from her, Nico opined, "I guess they expect me to drop dead," and she was probably right. Many of the audiences
that witnessed this pallid, glassy-eyed old woman shuffling about the stage might have been genuinely shocked when she actually
finished the show without keeling over dead in front of them.
One should keep this in mind when weighing a potential investment in one of the many live albums that have emerged from
those 1980's European tours. As evidenced on LIVE HEROES (Performance 1986,) Nico could still claim her share of riveting,
even brilliant moments on stage. On a bad night, however, when the drugs were flowing wrong, Nico in concert must have been
a grueling, disheartening experience. FATA MORGANA, a concert album recorded a few weeks before Nico's death, bears this
out all too tragically.
Nico died in 1988 from a brain hemorrhage suffered after a fall from a bicycle. In 1990, Restless issued HANGING GARDENS,
a collection of unreleased studio material from 1984. This would be the first of many, posthumous releases which have done
more harm than good to Nico's overall legacy. While the world awaits some lost tape of Nico with the Velvet Underground,
or some intriguing outtakes from the DESERTSHORE sessions, there seems to be a glut of halfbaked, drugged-out live performances
and poorly executed studio refuse. Nico was among the first truly goth rock artists, and one of the seminal women in the history
of rock music. Her work clearly deserves, at the very least, better quality control.