A statuesque blonde whose otherworldly voice inspired a generation to come, Nico embodied the bohemian spirit of the distant past, a Romantic heroine whose greatest regret, she admitted in 1981, was that, “I was born a woman and not a man.” Hers was a tragedy that haunted her soul, one forged in the horrors of war that ravaged her from within, destroying her redolent beauty while revealing itself through song.
Born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany, in 1938, Nico spent her formative years in shelters while the British dropped bombs overhead, bearing witness to the Soviet conquest of German troops and losing her father to either a concentration camp or shellshock following the war. Bearing a passport stamped "ohne festen Wohnsitz" (no fixed address), Nico traveled between Germany, France, and Italy, picking up seven languages along the way.
German fashion photographer Herbert Tobias discovered Nico, then 16, modeling in a KaDeWe fashion show in Berlin, fell madly in love, and bestowed upon her the legendary one-word name. “Modeling is such a dull job,” Nico later told The New York Times, indicating her deeper desire for something more. After starring in a few television commercials, Nico landed small roles in a couple of films before receiving an invitation to the set of La Dolce Vita in 1959. Invariably, the leggy libertine caught the eye of Federico Fellini who gave her a minor role in the film as herself, recognizing a diva in the making.
Ever rootless, Nico arrived in New York, studied acting with Lee Strasberg, appeared on the cover of jazz pianist Bill Evans' 1962 album Moon Beams, and starred in Jacques Poitrenaud's 1963 film Strip-Tease. But she still had yet to find herself. That December, Nico took the stage at New York’s Blue Angel nightclub, and sang jazz standards like a modern Marlene Dietrich. After meeting Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones in 1965, Nico recorded her first single "I'm Not Sayin'” for Andrew Loog Oldham's Immediate label. A star was born.
In Paris, Gerard Malanga told Nico about Andy Warhol’s Factory, and her interest was piqued. She arrived at the most opportune moment: Warhol had just begun managing the Velvet Underground as the house band for the Plastic Exploding Inevitable, a series of multimedia events staged in 1966 and 1967. As compelling as the Velvets were, they needed something more — a face that would hold the crowd spellbound. Nico was just the woman for the job. for the band’s 1967 debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, she sang lead on three songs, “All Tomorrow’s Parties” “Femme Fatale,” and “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” as well as backing vocals on “Sunday Morning.”
The captivating beauty, with her extraordinary sense of style and poise, possessed a profound duality that set her apart from the crowd. She chose monochrome palettes, made white jeans chic, donned striped pantsuits with the pussy-bow blouse, or black and white checkered downs that reached the floor, her long faze lingering behind black sunglasses, always searching for more.
“Nico was spectacular,” Paul Morrissey remembers in Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk. “She had a definite charisma. She was interesting. She was distinctive. She had a magnificent deep voice. She was extraordinary looking. She was tall. She was somebody.”
But who she was, as her 1967 solo album, Chelsea Girl, would attest, was a projection of men. Bearing the same name as the legendary Warhol film in which she starred, the album featured songs penned by Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, and her lover Jackson Browne, then a decade younger than the 29 year old singer. Everyone loved it, everyone that is, but Nico. “I still cannot listen to it,” she said in 1981, “because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! ... The first time I heard the album, I cried, and it was all because of the flute.”
Jim Morrison, one of Nico’s many lovers, encouraged her to take up songwriting. This, combined with her discovery of the harmonium, a small instrument of Indian origin, set her free, allowing her to create her own signature style. “She was a very serious person and seriously wanted to be thought of as a poet, a songwriter,” says impresario Danny Fields, who got her signed to Elekra Records, with whom she would release The Marble Index in 1968.
“[Nico] didn't bother with neurosis, she went straight to psychotic,” Fields says. “Everything was turbulent about her, starting with the bombs during her childhood. You can hear it in the words of her songs. It's a mythical thing that I think we are going to be trying to explain for a long time."
Over the next two decades, Nico would release four more albums, each other them a commercial flop, but never allowing this to affect her dedication to the art. She died in Ibiza in 1988, after telling Ari, her son with French film star Alain Delon, that she was going to bicycle into town to buy some marijuana. “I’ll be back soon,” Nico told Ari, but she never returned.
Written by Miss Rosen.
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