"Excrement filters through the brain, hatred bends the spine, filth covers the body pores,
to be cleansed by dying time."
to be cleansed by dying time."
Nico's fateful first meeting with Andy Warhol in early 1966 was orchestrated by Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones, who had been instrumental in helping Nico jump-start her music career by putting her in touch with Stones producer Andrew Loog Oldham, resulting in the Jimmy Page-produced "I'm Not Sayin' / Last Mile" single. Warhol and his Factory entourage (including Gerard Malanga and Edie Sedgwick) had been in Paris in May 1965 for Warhol's exhibition of flower paintings, during which Malanga, at the behest of Jones, met with Nico and was impressed enough to give her the Factory's phone number. When Nico arrived in New York City at the beginning of 1966 to sign a modeling contract with the Ford Modeling Agency, she wasted little time in calling the number. Andy Warhol: "She called us from a Mexican restaurant and we went right over to meet her. She was sitting at a table with a pitcher in front of her, dipping her long beautiful fingers into the sangria, lifting out slices of wine-soaked oranges. When she saw us, she tilted her head to the side and brushed her hair back with her other hand and said very slowly, 'I only like the fooood that flooooats in the wiine.' [....] The minute we left the restaurant Paul [Morrissey] said that we should use Nico in the movies and find a rock group to play for her. He was raving that she was 'the most beautiful creature that ever lived.'"
Born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany on the precipice of World War II, her father, a German soldier, died in a Nazi concentration camp during the war as a result of medical experiments that were performed on him in order to study the severe brain damage he had suffered on the battlefield. After the war, Päffgen worked as a seamstress and soon began landing modeling jobs in Berlin. It was a photographer on one of these jobs who gave her the now-iconic sobriquet, "Nico," which quickly became her preferred identity. After working in Paris modeling for Vogue, Tempo, Elle, and other top fashion magazines, Nico temporarily moved to New York City to study acting at Lee Strasberg's Method School; it was around this time that she was "discovered" by Fellini during the filming of La Dolce Vita, which led to her famous cameo in the film.
When she returned to New York City at the beginning of 1966 to ostensibly resume her modeling career, Nico was more intent on pursuing film-work and music; this is what led her into Warhol's considerably influential orbit. Nico: "I only wanted to be with the underground people. I wasn't interested in fashion anymore, and I had also studied acting with Lee Strasberg, which helped me a lot to sort of discover myself like all young people always have to discover themselves." As it turned out, it was not only Paul Morrissey who was captivated by Nico at her first meeting with Warhol; the artist himself was also quite smitten and immediately began casting her in his experimental films such as Chelsea Girls and Imitation of Christ. It was during this same period that Warhol took on the role of patron of a struggling young rock band with a seamy reputation: The Velvet Underground. While it may be the case that the idea from the start was for the Velvets to serve as Nico's backing band, it's hard to deny the key role Warhol's patronage played in the band's development. Nico: "He [Warhol] was the one who had the guts to save The Velvet Underground from poverty and misery because they had been thrown out of a place in the village on 3rd Street, Cafe Bizarre, because people couldn't dance to their music. So they had no job so that's when Andy came and saved the situation, and that's when I joined them."
Paul Morrissey: "The singing was done by Lou Reed and he just seemed, um, not a very good singer and not a good personality- uh, something too seedy about him, and he was not a natural performer; he was sort of a shy type on stage." Nico's official role in the band was "chanteuse," but a more accurate term, especially at the beginning, was "pariah," as she was not deemed by the Velvets as a good fit for their sound. After much cajoling from Warhol, Reed finally agreed to write some songs for her, though the situation was far from stable, as, according to Sterling Morrison, Nico sought sexual alliances in the band (namely Reed and then John Cale) in order gain a stronger foothold in the group. Ultimately, she was never considered as anything more than an interloper, and on the tellingly-titled The Velvet Underground & Nico, Nico's only album as a "member" of the band, she was only given three songs as lead vocalist. Toward the end of the Exploding Plastic Inevitable tour, Nico began to separate from the Velvets, doing solo shows at various coffee houses as well as the Dom Bar. During these shows, she was accompanied on acoustic guitar by among others, Jackson Browne, Tim Buckley, Leonard Cohen, Tim Hardin, and several of her soon-to-be ex-band mates, many of whom would contribute songs to her debut album, Chelsea Girl, recorded in late spring 1967.
Produced by Tom Wilson, who had worked on the Velvets' debut album, Chelsea Girl, at first blush, sounds like an apt example of the kind of overly fussed-over baroque chamber-folk that was so prevalent during the mid-to-late sixties; however, what sets it apart and makes it approach timelessness is Nico herself. More than once, Nico has been described as proto-Goth, and the sound of her unmistakeable baritone with its ability to convey an icy sense of achingly dark world-weariness was undoubtedly a huge influence on the post-punks more than a decade later. Simply put, Nico's artistic approach and mercurial personality were completely at odds with the pop-temptress stereotype that most female artists were saddled with during the late sixties. Paul Morrissey: "She started at some point, um, having a real resentment over her good looks. She hated the fact that people thought she was beautiful. She thought that this was some sort of disgrace to be beautiful. But in those days modeling was not artistic, you know, artistic was to be like Janis Joplin screaming your lungs out before you die of drug addiction. She was so happy to be called ugly."
Chelsea Girl is easily Nico's most eclectic solo album, something which is largely due to it being comprised of "donated" songs from the various singer-songwriters Nico had spent time with during her fledgling music career. However, there are two prevailing directions on the album that stand in stark contrast with each other. A then-unknown Jackson Browne (Nico's lover at the time) provides three songs, the best of which, "These Days," finds Nico in top form. Backed by Browne's lovely guitar playing, Nico dresses his reflective lyrics in somber tones that manage to capture the dark, introspective nature of the song in ways another singer wouldn't have. In contrast to Browne's contributions, which verge on wistfulness on occasion, there are five significantly darker songs penned by various members of her former band, The Velvet Underground. Chief among these is the title track written by Lou Reed and Sterling Morrison, a hypnotically depressed epic that recalls "Femme Fatale" from the Velvets debut album. Perhaps the true gem on Chelsea Girls is its darkest moment: Lou Reed's "Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams," a song he had written previous to forming the Velvets. In a way, it provides an emotional counterpoint to "These Days" and points the way toward Nico's more unconventional solo works such as The Marble Index. Despite her debut album's obvious strengths, Nico was notoriously dismissive of the finished product, claiming (quite accurately) that some of the production decisions blunted the power of the music. Nico: "I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. And I asked for simplicity and they covered it in flutes [...] They added strings and- I didn't like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute."
(Polydor U.K. ~ 1993/1967)
1.The Fairest of the Seasons (4:09)
2. These Days (3:33)
3. Little Sister (4:26)
4. Winter Song (3:21)
5. It Was a Pleasure Then (8:05)
6. Chelsea Girls (7:25)
7. I'll Keep It with Mine (3:20)
8. Somewhere There's a Feather (2:20)
9. Wrap Your Troubles in Dreams (5:10)
10. Eulogy to Lenny Bruce (3:47)
The Classic Years
(Chronicles ~ 1998)
1. I'm Not Sayin' (2:48)
2. The Last Mile (2:27)
3. The Velvet Underground & Nico- I'll Be Your Mirror (2:14)
4. The Velvet Underground & Nico- Femme Fatale (2:38)5. The Velvet Underground & Nico- All Tomorrow's Parties (2:48)
6. The Fairest of the Seasons (4:07)
7. These Days (3:30)
8. Little Sister (4:23)
9. Chelsea Girls (7:23)
10. No One Is There (3:37)
11. Ari's Song (3:21)
12. Frozen Warnings (4:02)
13. Nibelungen (2:43)
14. Janitor of Lunacy (4:00)
15. Abschied (3:02)
16. Afraid (3:27)
17. Secret Side (4:03)
18. You Forgot to Answer (5:06)
19. The End (9:29)
Nico- "I'm Not Sayin'" Video (1965)