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On July 18th 1988, the world mourned the loss of the true gothic princess, the uncompromising Nico. The Berlin born Christa Päffgen, left Europe to relocate to New York, abandoning her contract with Coco Chanel. The world became her playground after a few minor roles in films (La Tempesta, For the First Time) , but it was her meeting in 1965 with the enigmatic Rolling Stone Brian Jones which was her first introduction to music. Inspiring her talent, Jones led to the recording and release of a single, the Gordon Lightfoot penned “I’m Not Sayin”.
After being introduced to the scene by Jones, she began working in New York with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey on their experimental films. Some of these early art-house works included Chelsea Girls, The Closet, Sunset and Imitation of Christ.
The Factory, Andy Warhol’s studio in Midtown Manhattan was the science laboratory for his movies, his own pulpit of expressionism. Of course parties were held, and from 1966 to ’67 he held his multimedia installations known as the Exploding Plastic Inevitable. It was at this event he introduced the world to The Velvet Underground. His personal in-house band, formed with the sole purpose to entertain the host of Hollywood stars and Bohemian writers that passed through his studio. This band however, would go on to be one of the most influential bands in music history.
Warhol was the catalyst for The Velvet Underground, his persuasion led to the induction of Nico to their lineup, the soulful torch in the darkness became the saving grace to their sound. Causing friction, as the egos of John Cale and Lou Reed were already weary of having Warhol at the reins, now there was an extra distraction to their destruction. Three tracks on the infamous The Velvet Underground & Nico actually have Nico on lead vocals, “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, and backing on the effervescent “Sunday Morning”. That haunting German accent and pronunciation gave a broader scope to the album which otherwise would contain a complete showcase for Lou Reed’s snarl.
The Chelsea Girl album, her first solo album released at the tail end of 1967, inspired by the Warhol movie of the same name, was and still is a masterpiece. A collaborative effort featuring Jackson Browne along with Lou Reed and John Cale. Nico’s partial deafness had made it difficult to stay in key against the Velvets bombastic sound, along with her preparation before a gig lead to a parting of company, although there was a slight reformation in 1973.
Post-Velvet Underground came the Goth drenched masterpiece The Marble Index. After her split from Warhol and all things Lou Reed, Nico focused her energies on an album of effervescent despair, in-turn distancing herself from her modelling days and even changing her appearance. The blonde locks she had come to despise were no more, replaced by darkness, covering the stark album cover. The influence of Lou Reed and Jim Morrison had turned her nightmares into music. Morrison had inspired her songwriting, to write her dreams down and sculpture them into art, these dreams entwined to create the soundscape on the 1968 release. Nico’s focus lay with artistic integrity, and so, this album was the exorcism from her past life and the freedom for self exploration she so desired.
Produced by John Cale, the only link to the Velvets from which Cale had already jumped ship. The album recorded over four days in Los Angeles in September 1968, released to the market in November of ’68. A meeting with Danny Fields only fuelled the break from her former record company and a re-emergence on the Elektra label. A company which would take risks as it was proving financially viable with the success of other acts. Although knowing before it commenced that The Marble Index was not a commercial entity, the artistic reasons for its recording and release outweighed any financial gain, this was the sixties after all when experimentation was at its height.
Beautiful in its anguish, The Marble Index was musically driven by Nico’s out of tune harmonium, the cause of tension in the studio between her and Cale. An album, whilst short in length and far from sweet, the release clocks in at a mere thirty-minutes. As myth tells us it was as much as anyone could take mixing or a playback in the confines of a record studio. Promotion for the album was short-lived, although a music video was made for the track “Evening Of Light” featuring another Elektra act, Iggy Pop and The Stooges, this did little for sal es. Although all at the label, including Jac Holzman were pleased with the release, although Nico was not long for Elektra. A fall into heroin addiction, followed by an altercation at a New York bar, led to both a release from contract and a swift exile from New York and the U.S. The city she had given up everything for had given up on her, and the dangerous world Nico submersed herself in had come knocking offering jail or death. The Lou Reed penned lyrics to “Chelsea Girls” became starkly relevant.
”Dropout, she’s in a fix
Amphetamine has made her sick.
White powder in the air,
She’s got no bones and can’t be scared.
Here they come now, see them run now,
Here they come now, Chelsea girls.”
A relocation to London and a quieter setting was needed,it would be here work would commence on future albums along with John Cale.
‘The Marble Index’ like most classic albums was overlooked by music buyers although praised by the industry. It’s influence runs through the New Romantic and Gothic late seventies and eighties music scene.
Nico was the late 20th Century’s very own Mary Shelley, instead of writing about Frankenstein she lived it. The female presence who survived the sixties, Lou Reed and a submergence into the drug culture succumbed tragically in Ibiza after having a stroke while cycling. But her captivating darkness vibrates today through airwaves of discontent.
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