Nico: the last journey
Nico died in Ibiza, a place she had loved for many years, one hot July day in 1988. Leaving the rented farmhouse where she was staying with her son, Ari, she headed into town, apparently intending to buy some hashish. At some point in the journey she fell from her bicycle and suffered a head injury. It was not until the following day that Ari called the police, gave them a description, and received the news that she had died in hospital.
Stephan Crasneanscki of Soundwalk Collective is not the only one to have found himself trying to visualise that last journey. With a new album called Killer Road, he and his partners in the band, Simone Merli and Kamran Sadegh, together with the composer Jesse Paris Smith, present a cycle of pieces based on Nico’s songs and poetry in which they attempt to evoke the thoughts and sounds that might have been going through her mind as she pedalled through the heat and the noise of crickets. The words are read by Jesse’s mother, Patti Smith.
There is a historical connection. Patti once rescued Nico’s harmonium from a pawn shop and gave it back to her. She is, however, not an idolator. “It influenced us all, to have such a bold delivery of bold songs by a female singer in that period, the early ’60s,” she writes in the sleeve notes, but explains that she doesn’t “identify” with Nico beyond the admiration of someone who worked to find a way of delivering her poetry through the medium of music. Nevertheless her commitment to the project leads her to deliver the words in a way that reflects Nico’s own manner: “half-singing — like a child singing to themselves,” as she puts it. Her mission, she says, was “to just, somehow, represent a small part of her, even though we have different voice tones and no obvious similarities.”
In the event, it would be hard to imagine a more effective interpreter for this project. Smith’s performing experience allows her to imbue the lyrics of “Evening of Light”, “Secret Side”, “My Only Child” and others with quiet drama, using a mostly whispered delivery (exception: “Fearfully in Danger”, which she sings in a raw New Jersey voice). The approach works perfectly against the brooding, shifting electronic soundscapes created by her collaborators, which often summon (without trying to replicate) the effect of the harmonium, Nico’s signature instrumental sound. The original melodies are entirely eliminated. When Smith recites the lyric to “Saeta” against the tinkling of distant prayer-bells and hovering synthesiser sounds, the tune is nowhere to be heard; yet for those who know the song, Nico’s loveliest, it is inescapably present.
This is a album of ghost music: an attempt to pay tribute by creating something as strange, original, atmospheric and appropriate to the material as the arrangements through which John Cale moulded the great trilogy of The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End into something without precedent. The result is subtle, respectful, and wholly successful.
* Killer Road is released on the Bella Union label. The photograph of Nico is from the cover of the 1981 album Drama of Exile and was taken by Antoine Giacomoni.