His lips are purple because he is dead. It’s a fitting love song coming from Nico, who doesn’t do love songs. Nico was nearing the end of her life, and heavily weathered by hard living. She had renounced all glamour, and her music at this point was coming someplace so deep underground it was truly frightening. Once she had paid reluctant lip service to pop appeal, but towards the end she refused to compromise her dark vision, though she was sometimes bitterly angry that no accolades or money ever came her way. She was probably insane, or at least deeply disturbed. How she succeeded in making any records at all, after she allowed her life to revolve around heroin and music industry forgot her, is remarkable. Nico didn’t exactly flourish as an underground artist, but she scraped together a career and left behind a substantial legacy that remains important, at least to a handful of people with very bleak tastes. And, as the old guard continues to drop like flies, I can’t help but think that an artist such as Nico could never come along today. Today a weirdo with a vision would have the tools to support themselves without traditional stuff like record contracts and press attention. But they would not have the tools to become that weirdo in the first place, because nobody is that isolated anymore. Nobody thinks of singing only to themselves.
Nico wasn’t fond of musical niceties such as string sections; her urge was always towards the atonal. But despite her general disinterest in things of beauty, she could sometimes be convinced to produce something pretty. And some of her greatest works were the ones where strings and flutes and conventional melodies were allowed to surround her eerie voice. John Cale, as producer, deserves a lot of credit here, for bringing in a quartet of violas and making them just avant-garde enough to pass Nico’s muster. The effect is surreal, and very beautiful, and almost warm.
Holy Mother of Goth. Few rock icons are as shrouded in myth as Nico. Because she revealed so little of herself, most of what we know about her is hearsay and conjecture. Because of her mystery, her beauty and her tragic end, she has the allure almost of a fictional character. But – aside from the glamour, aside from the stranger than fiction life story, aside from the cautionary tragedy, aside from all the purple prose she’s inspired – there’s one thing holds the center together; her voice. She had a voice like none other and the artistic vision she built around it remains inimitable. Though she often buried her songs in willfully atonal arrangements that felt more like a challenge than an invitation to listen, she was also capable of great delicacy and intimacy. This song is one of the greatest heights of beauty in Nico’s canon. Whatever aversion she claimed to have towards her homeland, she clearly wasn’t immune to the romance of mythology herself. Born in 1938, Nico had every reason to see Germany as a terrible place, and she spoke bitterly of it after she left, but it seems she still carried a fantasy of an unblemished Nibelungen Land from which she had been exiled.
In Nico’s world, even maternal love is an ominous thing. She was not a good mother. Her attempts at mothering her son Ari included locking him in a closet – for safety or to keep him quiet, or both, who knows – while she dropped acid. For the most part, she did the best thing and left him in the care of his grandmother. After he’d come of age, Nico’s idea of bonding was to turn him on to heroin. Nico was, for whatever reasons, profoundly unsuited to performing the roles pressed upon her because of the body she’d been born into. No doubt she would have done better having been born a man, or at the very least, a woman not cursed with so much beauty. She wore her beauty like a crown of thorns. Still, she must have loved Ari, in her own way, and in her own way tried to stay close to him. And sang to him with as much warmth as she could muster.
Nico hated her first album. The flutes and strings infuriated her and made her cry in frustration. She wanted her music to be weird and terrifying, and soon enough that’s exactly what it became. No other artist has been so eager to strip themselves of every trace of commercial viability. It seems that Nico was one of those people cursed by being born into the wrong body. Her inner self did not match her outward appearance. She looked like a beauty queen but she was crazy and antisocial and full of ugly thoughts known only to herself. She liked darkness and enclosed spaces. She liked drugs of all sorts but especially heroin. She had many lovers but didn’t care to keep any of them very long. One thing she most definitely was not and hated being mistaken for was a pretty girl who makes pretty music. Perhaps the most bizarre – and in its own way very inspiring – thing about Nico was how much she despised the burden of her beauty. I wouldn’t say that she hated the way she looked; she was vain, she liked makeup, she liked coloring her hair. She just hated the way others saw her, the boxes people wanted to put her in because of the way she looked, the habit that men have of trying to mold beautiful women to suit their own fantasies. Everyone she met in her career offered to help her along, but only if she took the role of the malleable muse, which she would not do. She was constantly resisting being molded into one or another idealized image of a gorgeous blonde; mysterious blonde with candelabra for Fellini, wistful blonde singing by the riverbank for Andrew Loog Oldham, icy blonde as object d’art for Warhol. No one thought to ask what her preferred image of herself was (except maybe Jim Morrison.) So when some guy thought that her debut album needed to have flutes all over it, she was furious. She continued to be exasperated about it, as people stubbornly continued to prefer those songs over her later, weirder ones. Her anger is understandable, but she may have been a little bit wrong about Chelsea Girl; the flutes don’t detract from her beloved darkness because the darkness is in her voice.
There is something truly terrifying about this song. Nico’s music tends to be frightening overall. She was a morose person who poured a lot of herself into her music, but declined to explain what any of it meant. A lot of her life is cloaked in mystery; she didn’t care to speak of it very much, and when she did speak of herself it was hard to tell if she was serious or, in her inscrutable way, just trolling. Did she really take acting classes with Marilyn Monroe? What happened to her during the war? What was she up to in Ibiza before she died? We’ll never know. She kept a lot of secrets. We do know that her life was no ordinary one, nor was it easy or happy, and she carried a lot of demons. So when she envisions herself as an all powerful ruler who can offer to fill every need – at a price – the vision is a disturbing one. She would know about rulers powerful and seductive; she’d experienced a few, from her childhood in Nazi Germany, to the years she spent consumed by heroin addiction. Whatever it means or refers to, Nico’s vision was always very personal. So personal she felt no need to offer any explanation for it. All she did was share it, with what small number wanted to hear.
“The light of the dawn was a very deep green and I believed I was upside down and the sky was the desert which had become a garden and then the ocean. I do not swim and I was frightened when it was water and more resolved when it was land. I felt embraced by the sky-garden.” – Nico
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard The Marble Index. I have not heard this song in so long that I had forgotten what it was. It is Nico’s own impression of going on a peyote-fueled spirit quest with Jim Morrison. Nico had many lovers in her life, both famed and infamous, but never anyone she stayed with for any significant amount of time. If she had anyone she could call the love of her life we’ll never know, but some of us like to suspect that Jim Morrison might have been that person for her. At least, he was one she would often speak of fondly in later years, and she credited him with encouraging her to write her own songs and find her own image. Whatever happened between them definitely affected her very deeply. They may seem like an odd couple, but in many ways they were kindred spirits; both too weird to ride comfortably along any accepted life path, both essentially existing in their own mystical reality, both seeking some inner truth and unbothered by the usual concerns of normal people, and both eventually spirit-questing their way into an early grave. Nico was an enigmatic person, to say the least; her songs are deeply cryptic, and she was never very good at interviews either. If you’ve ever seen or heard one of her interviews, two things are obvious – her barely concealed aggravation at anything she considered inane or uninteresting, and when she did have something to say, her inability to express herself coherently. That may be because of the drugs, but I get the impression she was simply so much in her own head that she couldn’t be bothered to make herself understood. Therefore, it’s hard to guess how she really felt about her unusual life, or what it was she was seeking. But something drove her to live dangerously when she could have easily taken the cushy path. Whatever lessons she learned on that peyote trip, she took seriously.