Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Nico- Last Of The Ice Cold Inamortas*

Had she lived, Nico (Christa Pafgen, my typer won't put the umlaut over the a in her last name) would be 70 years old today (Thurs, Oct. 16 no matter what the above post time says). Her history in a coconut shell: She born in Cologne, Germany, in 1938, her father was killed by a French sniper fighting for the fatherland. Her mother moved her to the country were she stayed until her early teens, her family owned the brewery the Obergarige Hausbrauerei which produced the Paffgen brand of beer. She quickly grew to her full adult height of six feet tall. She has alternately claimed her father to be a Turk, Sufi mystic, and the disinherited black sheep of the family. Only the last claim seems to be true. She also claimed to have been raped by an American soldier in the final days of WWII. Her mother Grete, a Catholic was only 5'3". When the war ended the two of them lived in a small apartment in Cologne and her ambitious mother pushed her already peculiar daughter into a career in modeling.
She modeled in Berlin, Milan and Paris (where she sired a child, son Ari, with actor Alain Delon, who would never recognize the brat as his progeny). Next our heroine (ouch....it's bad pun week here at Houndblog) shows up renamed Nico in Fellini's La Dolce Vita (1960) and a flick called Striptease (credited as Krista Nico, she also sings the theme song in Ye-Ye girl French). Nico turns up in London in 1965 and becomes Brian Jones' occasional girlfriend ("He was scared of her", according to Ricard Watts' Nico: Life & Lies of An Icon (Virgin Books, 1993) as well as cutting a 45 for Andrew Loog Oldman's Immediate label (produced by Jimmy Page) called "I'm Not Saying". The same year she moved to New York City, fucked Bob Dylan (who wrote "I'll Keep It With Mine" for her), met Andy Warhol and became one of Andy's "superstars" appearing in Warhol flix like The Velvet Underground & Nico, I A Man and Imitation Of Christ. Warhol hooked her up with the Velvet Underground, and she sang (or is that chanteused?) three songs on their classic debut -- "Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror" and the incredible "All Tomorrow's Parties" (here in an alternate mix from that rare acetate of the first LP, someday I'll post the alternate takes of "Heroin", "Waitin' For The Man", "Venus In Fur" and "European Son"). She also consummated affairs with Lou Reed and John Cale. By early '67 the Velvets fired her after she stopped a rehearsal dead with the proclamation "I can no longer sleep with Jews...".
Her solo career really begins with the Verve LP Chelsea Girls (1968), the Velvet Underground backing her on the track "It Was Pleasure Then" as well as writing half the album. She began appearing in the Cafe part of the Dom on St. Marks Place while the Velvets headlined upstairs in the big room, backed by Jackson Browne who provides three tunes for Chelsea Girls, including the first recording of soon to be soft-rock standard "These Days". Chelsea Girls is a great album marred only by some cornball string arrangements on a few tunes. I believe it was in 1967 that she accompanied Warhol, the Velvets and the entire Exploding Plastic Inevitable entourage to L.A. and had an affair with Jim Morrison (retardedly re-imagined in Oliver Stone's goofy cartoon The Doors). The real scene, played out in a rented castle was much more interesting than the movie. Danny Fields (then the Doors P.R. man) introduced them, knowing a good potentially volatile situation when he saw one. See pages 29-30 in Mcain & McNeil's Please Kill Me (Grove, 1996) for details.
Back in New York she acquired a harmonium and began writing songs. Somewhere in there, Nico shows up in Ann Arbor briefly to become young Iggy Pop's girlfriend, moving into Stooge Manor. I'm sure she loved Ron Asheton's collection.
The above footage is from Evening Of Light, an art film by Francois Demenil in which Nico and the Stooges stumble around in an Ann Arbor corn field. She knits a sweater for the Ig while the Stooges record their first LP in New York City with John Cale producing. Iggy-- "She taught me about good French champagne and good German wines". In 1968 Nico recorded her masterpiece The Marble Index (Elektra, issued 1969) her first album of original material. With stunning medieval arrangements by John Cale, The Marble Index is a haunting, icy, homage to alienation and there is nothing quite like it in any musical genre. This album is so far beyond cool I only play it during blizzards. Here is my favorite track: "Frozen Warnings". She went on to record two more classic LP's with John Cale-- Desert Shore (Elektra,1971) and The End (Island, 1974). The End features her notorious version of "Das Lied Der Deutschen" aka "Deutchland Uber Alles", the Narzi anthem. It didn't get much airplay. I would love to have been a fly on the wall at the weekly sales and marketing meeting when they issued that one. Did Island Records think she was going to compete with Led Zeppelin and Allman Brothers as the latest teen sensation? I've met Chris Blackwell twice but both times I was stoned and forgot to ask (that's Jamaica for you). Island dropped her when she told a Melody Maker interviewer "I don't like black people....". She had to flee New York City after a violent incident with one of Jimi Hendrix's girlfriends whom she was convinced was a Black Panther Party member.
The next twelve years for Nico are a descent into heroin hell as she attempted to eck out a living touring and recording for nickle and dime indie labels, a period documented in James Young's classic book Nico: The End (Overlook Press, 1993), and Susanne Ofteringer's documentary Nico Icon (man, that one needs a laugh track!) A tough enough life for a healthy 20 year old, it could not have been any easier for a 40+ strung out mom.
I only met her once, I think it was in 1980 or '81. My friend, the late Bradley Field (drummer for Teenage Jesus & the Jerks and the craziest person I ever met who could dress them self) was asked to babysit her for a few hours at the Chelsea Hotel then walk her to the gig at the Squat Theater a few doors west where she was appearing. I'm not sure why she needed a sitter. I came along out of curiosity and to get my copy of Marble Index autographed. It was a very easy job, she was very high and quite friendly in a taciturn sort of way. We watched Cecil B. DeMille's Sign Of The Cross on a little black and white TV. She snored loudly through much of it, waking up to laugh in her booming she-baritone when I let out a beer belch as the Christians were being fed to the lions. When it ended she proclaimed it one of her favorite movies. I agree it was (is) a masterpiece. The only other things I think she said were to ask if we had Iggy's phone number and just before showtime proclaimed "It is time to go" as if we were all about to jump off a cliff together.
After a season in hell in pre- "Cool Britannia" Manchester Nico eventually moved to Majorca, Spain where in 1988 she fell off of her bicycle and died.
I asked Danny Fields, a close friend of hers what his best and/or worst memory of Nico was and he replied:
I have no really "bad" memories of Nico. She was/is immune to moral (and to mortal) classification. Still, my terrible, horrible and continually tragic recollection of her is of a goddess consumed all those dreadful years by the poison heroin. She endured a very long, very slow living-death, and it was in fact merciful to learn that she had finally died. I'm aware how cruel it is to say "finally", but there it is.
In every other way she was a joy and a terror simultaneously, which I adored. I remember once being with her on a quiet street near Gramercy Park, when she stepped off the sidewalk into a narrow space between two parked cars, unbuttoned her pants and announced, "I must pee, you know". She was squatting there when a patrolman walked by, glaring disapprovingly, then tapped my elbow and muttered, "Hey, mister, your friend ain't no lady," before moving along.
* I'll save you a trip to the dictionary. Inamorta: a woman who is loved or in love. Funk & Wagnel's Standard Desk Dictionary Vol. 1

10 comments:

Todd McGovern said...

Good Lord, thank you for that stunning glimpse into the life of a true..a true what? I want to say "kook", but that's not right.

A couple things:

- I "watched" Nico: Icon in much the same way whe watched "Sign of the Cross" -- not stoned, but just could not stay awake for the life of me.

- I wished/hope that Ginsberg gave Nico the harmonium as part of a "his and hers" gift, along with Dylan

I never met her -- she was almost dead when I moved to NYC in 1/88, but who was it I was standing next to (along with Anita Pallenberg) at the Poetry Project in 1991?

The Hound said...

I tried to introduce Andre Williams to Anita once at the Lakeside, I'll try and dig out the photo and post it one of these days.

J.D. King said...

"I've met Chris Blackwell twice but both times I was stoned and forgot to ask..."

Way to go, Hound.

And since name-dropping is the coin of the realm here... Circa 1979, my then-fellow Coachmen, Thurston, and I went to see Nico at a NYC cabaret, Trude Heller's, an intimate and swanky place, complete with white table cloths. We were seated in the middle of the room. She came on stage, sang and played the harmonium.

At one point, she decided the couple sitting directly in front of her deserved a tongue-lashing. We had no idea what their sin or offense was, but she just ripped into them until they finally got up, heads hanging, and exited.

Then the music continued.

Brendan said...

Excellent stuff on Nico here. James, openly and honestly.... would you not consider writing and publishing the R'n'R version of Hollywood Babylon. I know there's been tomes we enjoyed by Tosches & Cohn & Kent & others about being on the road with the Stones and whatnot. But man, if that book doesn't get written by you then we will have to accept 2nd best. Sorry, but am getting old so please write it soon. B

The Hound said...

Actually Lester Bangs and Michael Ochs already wrote one, it was called Rock Gommorah and was never issued atlhough I read most of it back in '81 (wish I had a copy). I thought it was great but the conventional wisdom on it is that it's no good.
There were great stories about Hank Ballard, Dale Hawkins, et al. I think the two ding-a-ling girls who ran Deliliah Books (which printed Alan Betrock's Girl Groups) would have to be paid back their advance for it to be published. I think Ochs is still alive.
Speaking of Hollywood Babylon I'm planning on posting about my dinner with Kenneth Anger earlier this year as soon as I get to see his latest film Ich Will! (which is about Hitler Youth). If you like NY R&R Gossip and can read French I suggest Phillipe Marcade's Au-dela' de l'Avenue D (Broche', 2007, France) which I'll be posting about soon. It's a sort of personal Please Kill Me. I gotta admit though, JD's post above is making me self conscious about my out of control name dropping, however I'm not sure this stuff would be all that interesting without the personal ancedotes.

J.D. King said...

"...JD's post above is making me self conscious about my out of control name dropping, however I'm not sure this stuff would be all that interesting without the personal ancedotes."

NOOOO!!! Don't go inhibited on us! We need names! You can't tell these stories w/o names!!!

What I meant was since you and others have names to drop, wot th' hell, I may as well drop Thurston's. As long as it adds to a story, wot th' hell?! And it adds to my little story that Kid Thurston was there to see Nico, I think.

Anonymous said...

I saw her open for Cale playing solo harmonium at DC's answer to the Bottom Line the Bayou when I was like a junior in high school. Somebody heckled her and shouted "seig heil!" after she sang "Deutschland Uber Alles" which she countered by retroactively dedicating the song to Baader Meinhof. After her sepulchral interp of "The End" some moron tried to cheer her up from the peanut gallery. Typing cannot do justice to how deadpan she delivered the sentence "empty words of useless nothing" in reply. Imagining the robot in METROPOLIS able to speak, starting to rust, and strung out on heroin might give you a taste. A couple years later she played the 9:30 Club with a bone fide rock and roll band backing her up (just who was that guitar player, I wonder...?) and, shock of shocks, standing up. It was not bad.

J.D. King said...

"Somebody heckled her and shouted "seig heil!" after she sang "Deutschland Uber Alles" which she countered by retroactively dedicating the song to Baader Meinhof."

A gal after The Hound's heart!

SimonBar Sinister said...

I was at that Squat Theater show,I remember GiorgioGomelski and Ivan julian Brought me there .One of Nicos freinds was this VERY buxom woman from Finland who lived in the Chelsea hotel,she was around 44,I was introduced to her and she immediately made a pass at me (i was almost cute when i was 21)So THANKS NICO because of you I got to live out my fantasy of being with an older woman!

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