Insofar as someone like Nico could be said to have hits, Chelsea Girl is loaded with them. Classic songs that have outlived whatever small notoriety the singer herself had in life. Nico’s ghostly later work hasn’t had the halflife that Chelsea Girls has. Unlike the material over which she had full creative control, these songs at least take a recognizable form, they can linked – in sound if not at all in spirit – to other 1960’s folk music sung by dewy blondes. Nothing enraged Nico more than being mistaken, because of her looks, for a wistful girl. She despised the production of her first album, with its strings and its romanticism, although it was her biggest success. However, it has become, against the singer’s self-conception, a musical shorthand for quirky romantic disaffection, songs for the dorm room angst of gifted students gacked out on antidepressants. As opposed to what Nico really wanted to convey: the despair of people with needles in their mainline.
Nico is the voice of your sexiest nightmares, the kind you wake up from feeling clammy and disturbed. Discovering Nico is like sliding down a very scary rabbit hole. Her music sounds so apocalyptic because it appears she was living her own personal apocalypse her whole life. That means, for those who knew her, that she was a nasty and depressing person to be around. For her fans, she reached straight into the dark corners of their dreams. There’s something seductive about that, a comforting sense that one can hit the darkest bottom and live there with ease, even thrive, if you’re willing to throw away convention.
Just in case you were feeling good about something. Let Nico bring you down. Who knows what kind of internal purgatory that woman lived in, but it’s clear from the soundscapes she composed that she wasn’t a merry spirit. She made it a point to reject anything others might consider beautiful or life-affirming. Of course, she always insisted that what she created was, to her, beautiful and comforting. She also liked to say that she would be quite happy imprisoned alone in a dark cell. She didn’t reap much reward for those sentiments while she was alive, but she’s gathered a following of people who share her aesthetic. Lots of us like solitude, cold and dark.
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.