Nico, Eno and John Cale in Berlin, 1974
From the look on their faces, the Grepos guarding the East German side of Checkpoint Charlie had never seen anything like Brian Eno. This was October 5, 1974, and I seem to remember that Eno had dyed his long hair green. They looked askance at John Cale, too. But somehow they let the three of us through the barriers and barbed wire and past the lookout towers that marked the official crossing point in the Wall, enabling us to stroll up the Friedrichstrasse and turn right on to the Unter den Linden for a taste of the Cold War from the other side.
Nico couldn’t come with us. It was something to do with having a West German passport, but I don’t think she was at all upset. To her, Berlin was the city in which she had lived with her mother between 1940, when she was two years old, and 1954. The young Christa Päffgen had worked as a seamstress and a salesgirl in the famous KaDeWe department store before leaving for a new life in Paris, and a new name, at 16.
We were there because the three of them were performing that night in the Neue Nationalgalerie as part of the Meta Musik-Festival. This was month-long event which also featured Terry Riley, Steve Reich and Musicians, the Philip Glass Ensemble (performing “Music in 12 Parts”), Tangerine Dream, Alvin Curran, Musica Elettronica Viva, Tony and Beverly Conrad, a group of Tibetan monks exiled in Switzerland, Ustad Vilayat Khan, and various others. Quite a line-up.
The festival’s director, Walter Bachauer, had taken note of the well publicised event at the Rainbow in London four months earlier, when Nico, Cale and Eno shared the bill with Kevin Ayers. At Island, to whom all four were all contracted, we got our fingers out and got a live album titled June 1, 1974 in the shops within three weeks of the concert. They repeated the event in Manchester and Birmingham, if I remember correctly. When the West Berlin date came up, Ayers wasn’t available. But Bachauer was happy to take the other three, presented under the heading British Rock of the Avant-Garde.
The Neue Nationalgalerie is a classic piece of Bauhaus design by Mies van der Rohe, a low steel and dark glass building erected in 1968 in the middle of what was then a wasteland just south of the Tiergarten (the physical scars of Berlin’s wartime devastation had yet to heal completely). The audience, mainly students, sat on the floor, on white expanded-polystyrene cushions supplied by the museum.
The room was darkened, with three spotlights picking out the performers. Nico had her usual harmonium, Cale had a beautiful grand piano, and Eno had his VCS3 synthesiser plus a card table on which he placed a couple of dozen wine glasses, filled with water to varying heights, all miked up.
The idea was to split the evening between the songs of Cale and Nico. She sang “Frozen Warnings” and “No One Is There” from The Marble Index, “Janitor of Lunacy”, “The Falconer”, “Mutterlein” and “Abschied” from Desertshore, and three tracks from her new album: “You Forgot to Answer”, “Innocent and Vain” and the title track, the Doors’ “The End”. He performed “Guts”, “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”, “Buffalo Ballet”, Lou Reed’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and “Fear”, the title track of his new album.
For me, “Fear” was the real first high-point, not least because the point of the card table and the amplified water-filled wine glasses became apparent. Eno tapped on the glasses to make tintinnabulatory noises and then, as Cale’s dramatic song neared the point of explosion, he started to smash them. Fluxus had come to the Bauhaus.
But that was just a start. A certain amount of restiveness had been apparent in the audience from the start, in the form of mild heckling and booing. Back then Berlin audiences had a marked tendency to make their feelings known, and — given that 1974 was the time of the Andreas Baader, Ulrike Meinhoff and the Red Army Fraction — this lot probably spent as much time at political demonstrations as at concerts.
What really set them off was Nico’s decision to sing “Das Lied der Deutschen”, the old national anthem, with its tune by Haydn and its triumphalist words by August Hoffman von Fallersleben. It had been readopted by the Bonn government in 1952, using only the third verse: a hymn to peaceful unification. The verses about “Germany above all in the world” and “German women, Germany loyalty, German wine and German song” were omitted. Nico, inevitably, ploughed her way through the lot, seemingly oblivious to the gathering crescendo of disapproval. Cale responded as one knew he would, by hammering Rachmaninoff-style arpeggios up and down the keyboard, while Eno gamely produced a variety of lurid war noises from his little synthesiser. The booing and the heckling became shouting and chanting, and dozens of the white polystyrene cushions were hurled (quite harmlessly) towards the stage.
As the cushions flew through the spotlights in the darkened space amid that anarchic din, with Nico imperturbable at the centre of the storm, you could not help but think of the events of 30 years earlier, and what she must have witnessed as a small child. I never knew what her motivation for performing that song was, and I never felt like asking.
I passed this onto Alvin Curran, currently on tour in the US, and here is part of his reply – “Sat right on stage set up, seated on the floor for the Magnetic Garden, next to their set ups…. I had no idea who they all were but it was made clear in no time… they went on to cult fame and glory and I to straight to the advanced underground….just a small difference in our bank accounts…” 🙂
Thanks, Mike. Wonderful.
Loved readiing that, wish I was there. Fantastic poster aswell
Richard, the other two UK concerts were Birmingham and Manchester. We all went to the first one in a bus with some of the music press. It was highly memorable for mostly wrong reasons, as John was having a day-long argument with his wife. Nico that night was fantastic.
Thank you, Jonh. I went up to one of those concerts. I think it was Birmingham. The argument you mention lasted longer than a day, as I recall…
Wow – thanks for the peek at a moment in music history. Naturally I want to know more and if there’s any video or audio. Guess I’ll let my Googling fingers do the walking…
Well, an 18 min video of restored footage do exist.
Wow. Any idea how one gets to see it?
Yes, you should contact the ZKM in Karlsruhe, Germany. The restored footage is part of a boxset with 12 DVDs covering german “video art” in the second half of the C20. It’s mostly Nico with one song by J. Cale (and a shadowy Eno in the background).
I was present at the Berlin concert because I was hired by my friend Walter Bachauer to work for this festival, day by day, for about a month. I remember many of these concerts(*) except for THIS one. Could be that their music was not worth to remember? (at least by me)
Only much later, in a Berlin Kreuzberg restaurant, I met Nico again, she was an old friend from concert tours in France (I with a rock group, she solo) and she asked me if I could borrow her some cash. Which I did. Nice women and still beautiful then (…but sadly, there were those deadly hard drugs).
In 2011 I visited her grave here in Berlin Grunewald and made a photo:
(*) especially Steve Reich with a long rhythmic piece erformed by his large group of mallet players. I remember this because one player hit by accident ONE surplus note after the piece had already ended …into the few seconds of silence. For all (band & audience) this was like a positive deliverance (feeling of relieve) after this long hypnotic half hour. Smiling faces from ev’ryone.
But Nico, Eno, Cale…. they left no impressions.