Born Christa Päffgen on October 16, 1938, in Cologne, Germany; died July 18, 1988 in Ibiza, Spain; children: Ari.
One of pop music's most enigmatic and unclassifiable artists, Nico was almost as famous for her associations as she was for her recordings. She remains best known for her brief tenure as a singer with the Velvet Underground and her appearance in Andy Warhol's films and stage productions during the 1960s. As a young woman, her statuesque beauty and aloof demeanor attracted the interest of fashion designers and film directors. By the last decade of her life, however, she had become a cult figure as notorious for her self-destructive habits as her music. Gifted with an unnervingly deep contralto voice, Nico developed into a singer/songwriter of disturbing power, fashioning a unique, austere gothic sound.
A degree of mystery surrounds Nico's early years, because she went to much effort to conceal her age and origins. According to most sources, she was born Christa Päffgen on October 16, 1938, in Cologne, Germany. (Some sources give 1943 or 1944 as the year of her birth; a number give Budapest, Hungary, as her birthplace.) Her father served in the Nazi armed forces and died during World War II, possibly in a concentration camp. After her father's death, Nico and her mother suffered through the Allied bombing campaign in Cologne, sometimes hiding in the bathtub. Towards the end of the war, they moved to Berlin, where at age 15 Nico began to work as a professional model. Moving to Paris soon after, she became a protégé of fashion designer Coco Chanel. Her elegant, sculpted features and ash-blond hair led to assignments as a cover model for Vogue and other magazines. Working extensively across Europe, she took the name Nico in the late 1950s.
In the early 1960s Nico landed a small role in Federico Fellini's film La Dolce Vita. Hoping to find further work as an actress, she went to New York, where she studied at Lee Strasberg's Actors' Studio. She also became involved in the world of pop music, pursuing romantic relationships with Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and Bob Dylan. In 1965 she moved to London to launch her career as a singer. Later that year, she released her debut single "I'm Not Saying" (written by Gordon Lightfoot) on the Immediate label. Unfortunately, this midtempo folk-rock tune--featuring future Led Zeppelin leader Jimmy Page on guitar--failed to chart in Britain or anywhere else.
From Cabaret Singer to Velvet Chanteuse
While in England, Nico met Pop Art mastermind Andy Warhol, who encouraged her to return to New York and become part of his "Superstar" circle. By late 1965, she was singing at Manhattan's Blue Angel Lounge. On stage and off, her otherworldly beauty and elusive persona fascinated and baffled admirers. "Nico's eyes seem to guard a great mystery which, hidden in aloofness, they do not want anyone to know exists," wrote Gerald Malanga for the arts publication Status & Diplomat in early 1967. "Whether or not a mystery is there, the eyes with the enigma of their absence from what surrounds them eclipse the perfection of features and form to add great magnetism. It is this magnetism, cool and inviolable, which enhances Nico's identification with the Garbo-Dietrich tradition, which elevates her above the genre of uniform Nordic beauties to the elite of an unapproachable mystique."
In early 1966 Warhol added Nico to the Velvet Underground, an avant-garde rock quartet he managed. Known for their decadent songs and abrasive, feedback-laden sound, the New York-based group took her with some reluctance. "We had been through so many changes as a band, we were just settling down and suddenly Andy throws us this red herring," bassist John Cale recalled to writer David Fricke in the liner notes to the 1995 Velvet Underground CD boxed set Peel Slowly and See. "But it worked. Sometimes she would love to be on stage in her white outfit, banging away on a tambourine ... But part of her modus operandi was being misunderstood, having this very naïve, beatific view of the universe on one hand, and being very tough and dominant on the other."
In 1966, after touring with the multimedia extravaganza dubbed the Exploding Plastic Inevitable, the band recorded its debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, which featured three tracks written for Nico by Lou Reed, the group's chief songwriter. Her renditions of "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "Femme Fatale" had a wistful delicacy, while her performance of the harder-edged "All Tomorrow's Parties" projected a Teutonic menace. The album, released in 1967, sold relatively few copies at the time of it's release, but went on to become one of the most influential records in rock music history. A few critics at the time took note, including Richard Goldstein, quoted in the Chicago Sun-Times, who said "[Nico] sings 'in perfect mellow ovals, like a cello getting up in the morning.'"
Moon Goddess Went Solo
Ultimately, Nico and her Velvet bandmates proved an unstable combination. In early 1967 they parted company and Nico began singing at the Dom, a New York night club. Billed as "the Moon Goddess," she was accompanied by a rotating cast of guitarists, including Reed, Cale, and 17-year-old singer/songwriter Jackson Browne, with whom she had an affair. These performances set the stage for her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, released in 1967 by Verve Records. Dressed up in baroque string arrangements, Chelsea Girl only hints at the musical path she would follow later. The album's songs were written by Browne ("These Days"), Bob Dylan ("I'll Keep It with Mine"), and Tim Hardin ("Eulogy To Lenny Bruce"), among others. Reed cowrote the title track, which doubled as the theme song for a Warhol film of the same name that chronicled the adventures of Nico and others at New York's infamous Chelsea Hotel. The closing track, "It Was a Pleasure Then," cowritten by Nico, Reed, and Cale, was a bleak poetic narrative with screeching guitar accompaniment.
By the end of the 1960s Nico was in Los Angeles. There she embarked on a torrid but short-lived affair with the Doors' Jim Morrison, who she claimed encouraged her to develop her songwriting skills. In typically unconventional fashion, she began to write and compose on the harmonium (a small pump organ), which added to the eeriness of her vague and ominous lyrics. The songs became Marble Index, which Nico recorded with Cale and producer Frazier Mohawk (best known for his work with Buffalo Springfield). The album, released by Elektra in 1969, was called "one of the scariest records ever made" by The Trouser Press Record Guide. Drawing upon classical and European folk traditions, Nico's spare, two-chord harmonium melodies are given further atmospheric shadings by Cale's dissonant guitar and viola touches. "Lawns Of Dawn" and "Frozen Warnings" come across as gloomy operatic arias, intoned with a chilly seriousness. Darkly fascinating, Marble Index invites comparison with the works of Philip Glass, Steve Reich, and similar minimalist composers in its broodingly repetitive soundscapes.
In 1970 Nico continued her recording partnership with Cale with the release of Desertshore, and album similar to Marble Index in its obsessively dark mood, but one that also included some new sonic touches, such as the Middle Eastern motifs on the title track. One song, "Le Petit Chevalier," featured Nico's young son Ari on vocals. (Fathered by French actor Alain Delon, he was born in 1963.) Two years later, Nico starred in the underground French film La Cicatrice Intéreiure, directed by Philippe Garrel. Her next effort, June 1, 1974, a concert with Cale, Roxy Music keyboardist Brian Eno, and singer/songwriter Kevin Ayers was recorded live at London's Rainbow Theater. Her rendition of the Doors song "The End" led to a full-fledged solo album on the Island label, with an expanded studio version of "The End" as its title track. Produced once again by Cale, The End leans more towards rock than Nico's previous albums, thanks in part to Eno and Roxy Music guitarist Phil Manzanera. Besides the title song, the album included such disquieting originals as "Secret Side" and "Innocent and Vain." Nico closed the album with "Das Lied der Deutschen" (better known as "Deutschland über alles"), invoking memories of her frightening childhood in Nazi Germany.
Decadence and Decline
During the mid-1970s, Nico became addicted to heroin, sending her into a downward spiral. She resurfaced in 1981 with Drama of Exile, an indifferent set of songs and performances. To earn money, she played small clubs in Europe and the States during the early and mid-1980s. Among her backup musicians was keyboardist James Young, who described his experiences in his 1992 memoir Nico: The End, a harrowing portrait: "Her features, riven by years of narcotic abuse, bore little trace of the 'icy Germanic beauty' that has been chronicled so meticulously [by Andy Warhol] ... The 'dark Teutonic soul' that had once added such a puzzling bitterness to the sickly sweet froth of pop seemed to have become an absurd caricature of nihilism, a genuine emptiness."
Despite (or perhaps because of) her air of aimless decay, Nico became an inspiration to the emerging goth-rock subculture. Punk bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees modeled themselves after her morbid mystique, but Nico benefited little from this interest, scraping by on low-budget tours and albums. Several live albums--including 1983's Live in Denmark--documented her ragged shows during this period. She reunited with Cale for a final time on the 1985 Beggars Banquet album Camera Obscura, cocredited to the Faction (James Young and percussionist Graham Dids). Its tracks matched Nico's vocals to clattering rhythms and dabs of keyboards to mostly successful effect. Standouts included the stark, yearning "Konig" and a somber reading of the Rogers and Hart standard "My Funny Valentine."
In June of 1988 Nico gave her last performance at the Berlin Planetarium. The following month, she fell from a bicycle while visiting the Spanish island of Ibiza and suffered a fatal cerebral hemorrhage. According to Young, she had been free of heroin addiction for some time, though years of abuse had left weakened her health. She was buried in Berlin on August 16, 1988.
Scattered Nico recordings continued to appear after her death, beginning with Hanging Gardens, a mixture of live and studio material, in 1990. A comprehensive survey of her recording career, Classic Years, and the critically praised 1995 documentary Nico Icon also brought her posthumous attention. Insured lasting fame for her involvement with the Velvet Underground, Nico has also maintained a cult following for her solo recordings. In summing up her bizarre and ultimately tragic life, Richie Unterberger praised Nico in the All Music Guide for "pursuing a distinctly individualistic and uncompromising musical career that was uncommercial, but wholly admirable and influential."
by Barry Alfonso
Modeled in Europe, 1950s; appeared La Dolce Vita, 1960; released first single, "I'm Not Saying," 1965; joined the Velvet Underground, 1966; released The Velvet Underground & Nico, 1967; first solo album Chelsea Girl, 1967; Marble Index, 1969; Desertshore, 1971; The End, 1974; Drama Of Exile, 1981; Camera Obscura, 1985.
- Selected discography
- (With The Velvet Underground) The Velvet Underground & Nico Polygram, 1967.
- Chelsea Girl Verve, 1967.
- Marble Index Elektra, 1969.
- Desertshore Reprise, 1971.
- (with Kevin Ayers, John Cale and Brian Eno) June 1, 1974 Island, 1974.
- The End Island, 1974.
- Drama Of Exile Aura, 1981.
- Live In Denmark VU, 1983.
- Camera Obscura Beggars Banquet-PVC, 1985.
- Behind the Iron Curtain Dojo, 1986.
- Hanging Gardens Restless, 1990.
- Classic Years Polygram, 1998.
- Bockris, Victor, and Gerald Malanga, Up-Tight: The Velvet Underground Story, Omnibus, 1983.
- Erlewine, Michael, Vladimir Bogdanov, Chris Woodstra, and Stephen Thomas Erlewine, editors, All Music Guide, Miller Freeman, 1997.
- Robbins, Ira A., editor, The Trouser Press Record Guide, Collier, 1991.
- Young, James, Nico: The End, Overlook, 1991.
- Los Angeles Times, July 23, 1988, p. 26.
- New York Times, January 3, 1996, p. B1.
- "Nico," RollingStone.com, http://www.rollingstone.com (February 12, 2004).
- "The Velvet Underground," Chicago Sun-Times, http://www.suntimes.com (February 4, 2004).