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Posts tagged ‘Nico’

Nico: the last journey

nico-2Nico 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.

Nico in London, 1971

I’ve spent a lot of time in Berlin over the past year, and every time I walk past the giant KaDeWe department store on the Ku’damm, I think of Nico. It’s where in 1953 she hung around one of the entrances, a beautiful blonde 15-year-old hoping to be spotted by someone from the fashion department. She got lucky, and from there her career took her to Paris, Rome, London (making a single for Andrew Loog Oldham’s new Immediate label in 1965), and New York, where she joined Andy Warhol’s troupe of “superstars”.

She returned to London in March 1970, her hair now the dark red favoured by her former lover, Jim Morrison. I arranged to meet her for an interview one Monday afternoon at her hotel, the Princess Lodge, off Kensington High Street. We went to a pub on Church Street, opposite Biba. She talked about going off to Ibiza, perhaps permanently (she would die there 18 years later). At some point during our conversation, a middle-aged man in a tweed suit came and sat down quite close to us. She didn’t seem to have met him before but soon she was saying goodbye and the two of them were leaving the pub together and disappearing down the street. I never quite worked that one out.

She was, of course, a marvellous enigma. Or not so marvellous, if you didn’t like the noise she made when she fired up her portable Indian harmonium and emitted that stentorian contralto, a voice like a church organ pipe. I loved it.

She made two appearances at the Roundhouse that month, and then vanished. A year later she was back, and a lot more people wanted to interview her. We were on the brink of the belated embrace of the Velvet Underground and all their works. So on February 2, 1971 she was in a BBC studio to record a session for John Peel.

This month the four songs she taped that day are released on a 12-inch 45rpm EP by Gearbox Records, the vinyl-only label based in King’s Cross, under the title Nico 1971: The BBC Session. The songs are “No One Is There” and “Frozen Warnings” (from The Marble Index), “Janitor of Lunacy” (from Desertshore) and “Secret Side”, which would be recorded three years later for The End, her Island album.

What these recordings allow us to appreciate is the strength of her performance. Her voice was always consistent in its accuracy and confidence; what also strikes one here is the strength of her playing of the small pump-organ. She was a very late starter in music: her soul-mate Morrison taught her how to write a lyric, and she bought the harmonium from a hippie in San Francisco in 1967.

According to her biographer Richard Witts (Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon, Virgin Books, 1993), Ornette Coleman told her that the normal way to approach a keyboard was to play the chords with the left hand in the lower register and the melody higher up with the right hand. He suggested that she might try reversing the process — which she did, with striking results.

Witts also reports Viva, another Warhol superstar, remembering that Nico practised the instrument incessantly: “She had this fucking harmonium… she would practise it for hours, simple things, chords — really annoying stuff — for hours on end. She was very serious about it, dreadfully serious, like a Nazi organist. She’d pull the curtains across and light candles around her and do this funereal singing all day long. It was like I was living in a funeral parlour.”

Whatever torture her housemates endured, it turned out to be a perfect combination, enabling Nico to perform in more or less any environment, with or without accompanying musicians, for the rest of her career. John Cale did a wonderful job of adding startlingly original arrangements to The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, but it’s interesting to be reminded by these four tracks — broadcast on Peel’s Top Gear on Saturday, February 20, 1971 — of how she could manage perfectly well without that armature.

* The signature is from a letter Nico wrote me in 1974, shortly before the release of The End, asking — too late, alas — for certain minor modifications to the artwork, including a request to make the title look more like that on the sleeve of the Doors’ albums.

Nico, Eno and John Cale in Berlin, 1974

Nico, Cale, EnoFrom 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.

Meta Musik 2