Nico: The End
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About this Item
Title: Nico: The End
Publisher: Overlook Hardcover
Publication Date: 1993
About this title
A tour de force in the literature of failure, Nico: The End is an unflinching look at the final days of a celebrity in the twilight zone of faded fame.This is the story of the last “scene” of the art rock diva Nico, whose 15 minutes of fame included her tenure with Andy Warhol’s Factory, the films Chelsea Girls and La Dolce Vita, and a stint with The Velvet Underground. In 1982, Nico was living in Manchester, England, far from her “15 minutes” and interested only in feeding her heroin habit. Local promoter Dr. Demetrius saw an opportunity, hired musicians to back her, and set off on a disastrous tour of Italy. In a daze of chaotic live shows and necessary heroin scores, she toured the world with assorted thrown-together bands, encountering a wild crew of personalities, including John Cale, Allen Ginsburg, John Cooper Clarke, and Gregory Corso. This story of Nico and the characters who orbited around her may be the truest book yet written about life inside the rock world. Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
The Grünewald-Forst cemetery is situated on the outskirts of Berlin, by the Wannsee Lake. In twentieth-century consciousness Berlin has been synonymous with a kind of claustrophobic angst, a landlocked Madagascar of bizarre hybrids. So it’s strange that Nico should be buried in a pretty, almost rural setting, within the perimeters of a city renowned for its monsters, but one for which she no longer felt much affinity.
Like many of her generation, born shortly before or during the war, she felt, at best, an unease towards her country and its guilty past. She no longer saw herself as specifically German. She spoke in English. She dreamt in English. She sang, mostly, in English. And although it saddened her to see the country divided geographically and politically, she never liked to stay there very long. Now she’s a permanent resident.
From the start, Nico seemed destined for a life of strange tensions and weird scenes. Her father came from a rich background, her mother from a humble one. Needless to say, his family deemed it an unsuitable match. Nico was born Christa Paffgen in Cologne on October 16, 1938. Her father insisted on her being brought up a Catholic, with all the attendant mysteries and miseries.
When the war began, Nico’s father was conscripted. He was apparently a poor soldier, unable to respond with convincing obedience to the military and ideological discipline of the Third Reich. In 1943 Nico’s mother received a letter informing her that he’d been wounded in the head and had been taken to a military hospital. His injury resulted in brain damage, and he had become subject to bouts of insanity. The Nazi authorities had one simple, expedient solution for the treatment of the mentally ill – extermination.
Nico and her mother then moved to Berlin to stay with her aunt, but the Allied bombing was so intense they sought refuge with Nico’s grandfather, a railway man, in Lubbenau – about ninety kilometres east of Berlin. There Nico would play with her cousin in the local graveyard and watch the trains (those trains?) go by. At night she could see the burning red sky of Berlin in the distance.
After the war they returned to the city, her mother making her living as a tailor, dressing her daughter as finely as she could. She was a beautiful child and her mother was anxious that she should always look her best. Nico disdained the rigours of conventional German education, and at the age of fifteen, with the encouragement of Ostergaard, a Berlin couturier, she left school to become a professional model. Initially her mother was reluctant to allow it, but Ostergaard managed to persuade the doubtful parent, and by the age of seventeen Nico had become the best model in Berlin. Then, inevitably, she went to Paris, where she worked for, among others, Coco Chanel, who took a personal interest in her androgynous protegée.
To further her career, and to escape Chanel’s attentions, she went to New York to work for Eileen Ford. There, energised by the city and liberal amounts of amphetamine (‘They used to give it us so we’d stay thin’), she earned $100 a day, enough to buy the house in Ibiza that became her European base for the next decade. It was in Ibiza that she became ‘Nico’ – taking the name from a photographer friend in memory of his ex-boyfriend.
Nico moved from scene to scene. In Rome she became involved with the Cinecittà set and found herself conscripted into Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. It was a walk-on part that became extended into a definite role, due to the director’s fascination with her phantom-like presence on the set. Not much real acting ability was demanded of her, more the skills of the catwalk. Fellini, though, was keen to develop her and use her for more pictures, but he became irritated by her habitual laziness. When she failed, after repeated warnings, to make an early morning camera-call, he fired her.
She pursued the idea of becoming an actress a while longer, taking part in Lee Strasberg’s Method classes in New York. Later she would claim that she had been in the same class as Marilyn Monroe.
Then came the music scene. Initially it involved a lot of hanging out. She took lessons in narcissism from Brian Jones of the Rolling Stones. He loved those Germanic blondes (though her hair was bleached and her blood mixed). Arm-in-arm they would pose for the adoring crowds at the Monterey Pop Festival or float regally down the King’s Road, King and Queen of the carnival. At this time she cut her first record, a Gordon Lightfoot song called ‘I’m Not Saying’, instantly forgettable, and also had her first meeting with her future mentor – Andy Warhol. He had just dropped in on Swinging London en route to New York after a holiday in North Africa sampling the tight delights of Moroccan youth.
In 1965 she did a spell as a cocktail singer at the Blue Angel Lounge on East 55th Street and soon found herself in the company of Bob Dylan. At that time the scene was divided between the Dylan camp – straight – and the Warhol camp – camp. Nico’s temperament was more suited to Dylan’s circle, she loved the man and his work, but Dylan’s romantic attention was engaged elsewhere and there would be no real place for her except as an acolyte.
Warhol, on the other hand, had found a group at the Café Bizarre, playing curiously titled songs like ‘Heroin’ and ‘Venus in Furs’. The Velvet Underground. Warhol decided that Nico should become their figurehead, much to the reluctance of the rest of the group, Lou Reed and John Cale in particular. Still, they acceded to their patron’s demands – new instruments, free rehearsal space, food, drink, drugs, instant chic, in exchange for letting Nico do a couple of numbers. Nevertheless they delighted in giving her a bad time, bullying her into singing their way – which depended upon whatever caprice the drugs dictated. They’d torment her with tricks like switching off her microphone, or blasting her out with guitar noise – anything to make her feel more paranoid. Paranoia was the dominant theme of the Factory floor.
Lou Reed wrote a few tunes for her, which they got her to sing in that bleached, throwaway style – ‘All Tomorrow’s Parties’, ‘Femme Fatale’, ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ – but there was always a problem about who was doing what. Nico was not an instrumentalist, and therefore couldn’t reintegrate with the rest of the group once her songs were over. Besides, Lou Reed was the leader, he wrote most of the material, he was the real singer.
‘Lou never really liked me,’ she once told me, ‘because of what my people did to his people.’
The truth was perhaps more banal – he resented being upstaged by her.
Although they only sold a modest amount of records in their time, the Velvet Underground exerted a potent influence and found their true apotheosis in the 1980s. They were perfectly in tune with the dominant themes of the decade – cynicism, careerism, amorality.
With the encouragement of Jim Morrison, amongst others, Nico went on to become a solo artist, accompanying herself on harmonium and reverting to her real singing style – dark, European and deeply melancholic. John Cale, though antagonistic to her as a member of the Velvets, produced her best work: Marble Index; Desert Shore; The End; Camera Obscura – the last with myself as arranger.
She was never better than when sitting alone at her harmonium, singing one of her disturbing little songs with its hints of folk melody, German Ländler and Bach chorales – all in a voice so unbelievably deep it bordered on Wagnerian parody. There were times, intermittent to be sure, when even the most blasé of audiences, saturated with the gimmickry of the modern pop spectacle, were held in its dark embrace.
The scenes shifted – initially according to the dictates of her career, latterly according to the demands of her heroin addiction. In the early eighties there had been a huge influx into Britain of high-grade heroin from Iran. (Heroin is a useful commodity in times of political turmoil – five times the value of gold.) For a junkie Britain was the place to be, and Nico found herself a niche in Manchester, where there was, and still is, a thriving drug and music scene.
Nico was not a pop star. ‘Famous, not popular,’ was how one Japanese promoter described her. In fact, she wasn’t even that famous. She never made much money as a singer, and what little she did make she spent immediately. She didn’t own a house or a car or a TV or even a single copy of one of her own records. She had a handful of friends who would visit her occasionally with cakes and biscuits, and a few crumbs of gossip that would sustain her interest for a little while before you sensed your presence was no longer necessary.
It was a way of life she’d followed since she was a teenager, a life without any of the more familiar creature comforts that people acquire to fend off boredom and loneliness. The Chanel suits she’d been given in her days as a Vogue model had long since been jettisoned in favour of the more androgynous black trousers and jacket. Her heroin addiction had, at one time, provided some sort of psychic refuge – filling her days with the traditional junkie routine of trying to score – the inexorable search for a good connection.
But even these squalid adventures began to lose their special frisson; towards the end of her life, she turned her back on the drug that had become synonymous with her name and persona. Or she simply ran out of veins.
I first met Nico in November 1981 in a now-defunct Oxford nightclub, playing to an audience of amphetamined undergraduates hyped-up on the Velvet Underground myth and enjoying their brief fling with Bohemian lowlife before taking up their careers in advertising. She seemed both amused and bemused by her celebrity. Once again the promiscuous attentions of the pop world had settled upon her, identifying her as the precursor to a tortured nihilism then fashionable amongst the young.
In the cramped dressing-room, while poetically thin young men hung upon her every word and Nico lookalikes with pale lipstick stared relentlessly at their ‘Warhol superstar’, hoping to discern the secrets of her charisma, she rummaged through her cavernous shoulder bag with increasing desperation. The little wrapper of heroin she’d spent so much of the day trying to obtain had disappeared.
She cursed herself for being so careless, becoming more and more frantic in her search. She would have to perform without the confidence the drug gave her. As she rose to go to the stage, I spotted the small white envelope beneath her chair and handed it to her, thus sealing the bond of a working relationship that was to last the rest of her life.
Nico kept on working because she had to. There was her habit to maintain, a permanent drain on her resources. Thousands of pounds were shot away on colossal binges, so that she’d end up after a three-month tour as broke as she’d begun it. This didn’t seem to disconcert her, though – something would always turn up. She believed that fate, or some unforeseen coincidence of events, would rescue her from disaster at the last minute. Sometimes it did, but increasingly she came up against a more cynical response to her predicament. Her spiritual origins were in the Beatnik subculture of the fifties and the narcotic euphoria of the sixties. But the wild party was long since over and, in the cold light of the hard-bitten eighties, people were less inclined to offer the few remaining stragglers a lift home.
That she was a monster became apparent to all those who were with her for any length of time. She was a dreadful cadge, and her gratitude was so transparently insincere that it was almost endearing.
I knew her only in the last decade of her life, long after the credits came up. She had exhausted most people’s patience or interest. What might have been the forgivable narcissism of a fashionable beauty had now become a tiresome and undignified egoism. After all, she was no longer charming or mysterious, what right then had she to tantrums or impatience? Her features, riven by years of narcotic abuse, bore little trace of the ‘icy Germanic beauty’ that has been chronicled so meticulously at the court of the Great Wigola. The ‘dark Teutonic soul’ that had once added such a puzzling bitterness to the sickly sweet froth of pop seemed to have become an absurd caricature of nihilism, a genuine emptiness.
She seemed as if blown away by it all … The relentless pressure to stay cool, to allow the will of others, in the shape of the lens, to penetrate and push her towards her own annihilation. There’s a Warhol/Morrissey film called Chelsea Girls whose leitmotif is a broken sequence of Nico crying, really crying. About what, who knows. But the pain is visceral, the tears are real. It’s an art-house animal experiment. Method: give her all the stuff she wants, and slip in something new, untried, untested. Context: private loft preview for the Artocracy. Result: a Modern Morality Play. Chastening.
The people who gravitated towards Nico were generally those on the margins of polite rock’n’roll society. It sounds quaint now – given the age of the medium, its vast corporate identity, its entrenched conservatism – but there was a time when rock music embodied some sort of threat, or if not that, at least a kind of freshness and spontaneity. Perhaps Nico represented a bit of that lost world of recklessness, of extremes.
We were all peripheral people … peripheral to her, just as she had been peripheral to the world that had made her and later eclipsed her in terms of wealth and celebrity. We worked in an environment into which no respectable A&R man would enter, places in which the strung-out or the lonely would go to console themselves, in the company of one who seemed to embody their alienation.
All of this was far, far away from Warholian glamour, with its surface glitter of camp self-effacement and its chilling undertow of ruthless self-interest. No longer a Factory factotum, Nico nevertheless retained a certain loyalty towards her one-time mentor.
‘Andy always seems too busy to see me when I call him,’ she complained.
‘That’s probably because you keep asking him for money,’ I offered, knowing full well, as perhaps she did, that she’d long since outlived her use to him. Her beauty faded, her celebrity marginalised, she’d lost her iconographic value as an image of the ‘European Moon Goddess’, once so essential an acquisition to the great collector’s gallery of social archetypes.
Into this void I stumbled. Although I’d fiddled around with groups in my teens in Manchester, I’d been to college, got myself a degree, and was about to start on a Master of Philosophy course at Oxford. I had some months to go before my course began, and I was mooching around for something to do that was unrelated to academic work. I’d been practising at my piano, perhaps in the hope of finding bar work, maybe abroad, when an old school-friend looked me up, a certain Dr Demetrius.
He wasn’t a doctor, nor was his real name Demetrius. He had a whole string of pseudonyms and aliases. He insisted it gave his life a ‘poetic mystery’ – it also left a false trail for hungry creditors. We’d known each other since childhood in Manchester. He’d always had a gang around him; he’d always derived his greatest satisfaction from pulling people of disparate backgrounds into his circle. Demetrius had been working as a promoter on the Manchester New Wave scene since the late seventies and he’d put Nico on at one of his venues. He’d introduced us when she came to Oxford a couple of months earlier and I’d mentioned to him that if ever she needed a piano player, I’d be grateful if she’d give me a try-out,...
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