The piece following my new introduction below originally appeared in the June 1978 Zigzag.
After 1970’s Desertshore, Nico remained a fascinating but increasingly ghostly presence in my musical obsessions. So strongly evocative had been that album, the two that preceded it and, of course, her spine-chilling recordings with the Velvet Underground her ethereal dark magic continued to haunt and Nico remained my favourite female singer over subsequent years. Even after a 1973 gig booked at my local Friars Aylesbury club in 1973 placing her with tumultuous French band Magma mysteriously fell through there was never any doubt she would appear again.
Finally, Nico returned in June 1974 as part of a bill at London’s Rainbow Theatre headlined by louchely eccentric singer-songwriter Kevin Ayers, then promoting his fifth album The Confessions of Dr. Dream and Other Stories, which featured Nico on its epic title track. The bill was completed by Brian Eno and John Cale, with Mike Oldfield and Robert Wyatt in the backing band, but it was Nico who provided the fevered motivation for securing a ticket. Amidst the barrage of loud personalities that made the event an art-rock landmark, sitting imperiously in black with just her harmonium for company, Nico provided the most captivating set, reducing the crowd to rapt astonishment as she performed her chillingly dramatic interpretations of The Doors’‘The End’ then ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’. Three weeks later she repeated the exercise on a sunny Saturday afternoon at Ayers’ Hyde Park free concert.
‘The End’ appeared on the June 1 1974 album of the Rainbow event and provided the title track for the Cale-produced album she released on Island a few months later, with Eno muscling in on synth. Although gripped by heroin, she still unfurled her unique natural magic on tracks including the impossibly desolate ‘You Forget To Answer’, written when she had failed to get hold of her former lover and original artistic motivator Jim Morrison by phone then found he had died.
Later it transpired Nico had been appearing throughout this period in films directed by then-partner Philippe Garrel (after contributing ‘The Falconer’ to his Le Lit de la Vierge), including La Cicatrice Intérieure, Anathor (both 1972), Les Hautes Solitude (1974), Un ange passe (1975), Le Berceau de cristal (starring her alongside Pierre Clémenti and Anita Pallenberg in 1976) and Voyage au jardin des morts (1978).
Nico showed up in London again in 1978, playing a set at London’s Music Machine at the invitation of the Adverts but, amidst those awed by her returning presence, lurched the kind of pug-ugly bottle-throwing punks who also manifested when she was invited to open for Siouxsie and the Banshees that September. I stood on the stage at Hemel Hempstead Pavilion and watched her sitting alone and bewildered as these Neanderthal cowards pelted this lone woman with abuse, missiles and phlegm. She fled the stage in tears and the Banshees, enormous fans who were trying to help her, were incensed.
Back in May, after the Music Machine, I spent an evening with Nico at the invitation of Larry DeBay, the purple-bearded dynamo who ran the Bizarre record shop on Praed Street and was now involved with French label Skydog. He was one of the small global cult that loved Nico as a unique icon who deserved the opportunity to reaffirm her stellar talent in a world much changed from the 60s she helped define.
I met Nico at Larry’s Highgate home and ended up spending about three hours in her company. When I got home I was so excited about meeting one of my long time heroines I wrote up the entire interview by hand straight onto the page so it would make the deadline for the next issue of Zigzag.
They threw glasses at Nico when she played her first British gig in nearly four years at the Music Machine. For her it must have been a striking contrast to the blissed-out hippies in deck-chairs who rippled apathetically at her last London performance; supporting Kevin Ayers at a Hyde Park free concert.
The annoying thing was, the Music Machine gig was a success. She went down a storm, with Nico-lytes coming from as far as Scotland. It’s just the punky morons who left any sour taste, probably plucking up the guts to throw glasses at the single female sitting onstage. Nico walked off but her return had been a triumphant one.
She played songs from her last three albums; Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, with just the harmonium Patti Smith bought her for accompaniment. The effect was mesmerising, Nico’s amazing voice soaring over or diving under the organ’s sonorous drift. No one else could have held a crowd like that with so little (I saw Richard Sohl and his electric piano die at Christmas).
Of course it’s easy to criticise Nico and some did. But what she’s doing isn’t easy. It’s unique and strange. And deceptively melodic. All this “ice cold” bit; you can see that. The music is very Phantom-of-the-Opera and churchy, although Nico prefers to call it pagan. ‘Janitor Of Lunacy’, ‘The Falconer’, ‘No One Is There’, ‘Secret Side’; they all had me in a freezing grip and I was quite happy just standing there watching Nico; head back and eyes closed, ripping those high-flying cries or thunderous moans from her deepest soul. She even did her “non-political” version of ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’, itself topped by her terrifying rendition of ‘The End’. It was riveting, screamingly dramatic but often beautiful (a word I don’t use lightly).
I suppose I was caught up in the whole Nico mystique; top Paris model turned Warhol superstar then the Velvet Underground’s femme fatale chanteuse. Bob Dylan gave her ‘I’ll Keep It With Mine’, Brian Jones “gave me my first acid trip”, the Chelsea girl and now solo singer for the last ten years. None of that really matters to her now, anyway it’s hazy. The past.
Nico’s solo career has seen an album every few years, along with gigs. She is unpredictable, erratic, a law to herself. She likes making films with Philippe Garrel, who she was living with in Paris. Now it’s time to make a record again and perform, so she’s back, searching for a new record deal. That was the purpose of the Music Machine gig; a showcase. After past projects, she wants it to be easy now and record her new songs, which is why Ray Manzarek, Robbie Krieger and John Densmore have been approached to back her. They said yes.
About a month ago I was pleased to read that Nico had done a gig at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens. It meant she was back. Then about a week before the Music Machine, Adverts manager Michael Dempsey told me she’d be on the same bill.
A few days later, Skydog’s Larry Debay called and said he was acting as Nico’s manager; would I like to interview her?
At last a close encounter with Nico; my vote in the ‘Best Female Singer’ section of the NME readers’ poll for the last ten years.
The interview is to take place around Larry’s Highgate house. When I arrive (late ‘cos I got lost) Nico is up the pub, so Larry scoots off to get her. Waiting now felt weird after spending the week in a state of feverish anticipation, tinged with some apprehension after ploughing through my archive of Nico cuttings. She was obviously not the easiest interviewee but it was noticeable that practically every writer who voiced pre-meeting apprehension said it was quite unfounded.
Larry returns with Nico in tow. She’s dressed in black cape, rust-coloured Cossack-style trousers and her trusty boots (“I like boots to be strong, in case I am dropped in the middle of nowhere and have to walk”).
Nico wants to talk alone so we go to her room. She smiles and laughs a lot, while still retaining this detached charisma, her voice rich and Teutonic. All in all, we get along like a house on fire, much to my relief. I soon realise that it’s best to let Nico steer her own course through the interview after kicking off wondering where she’s been the last three years.
“I’ve been wondering myself!” she laughs. “I’ve been sort of disappearing and reappearing. I went to Los Angeles thinking I could sign a record contract. It may have been easier if I’d been more patient about it. I left after two months. Not patience only, but because I also had to play in a film, which is called Le Bleu Des Origines – ‘The Blue Of The Origins’. I’m the lead role this time. It’s a very unusual film because…”
Whoops! Nico’s arm gesture sends the shade flying off the small standard lamp by her bed. “See what I do?” she asks plaintively. “These things happen to me all the time. What’s the matter with me?”
Then she continues; “This film is very special because it’s a revival of the first movie ever made; La Lumière. It’s a silent one. It’s amazing. When I stand on the roof of the opera it’s amazing I don’t fly off because it was such a wind, such a storm that it might just have taken me away with my cape. It was spreading out almost like Batman. If I had let it go…but I didn’t. I wrapped myself in it!”
The voice alternates between little girl amusement and strident statement. There are long periods of silence. Nico reveals that Philippe Garrel may come over and show some of the unfinished film behind Nico on stage. Does that mean more concerts?
“Yes, I just don’t know what cities because they haven’t told me. Is it true? Maybe it’s not true. Oh, what am I going to do? I vanished from the scene in Paris yesterday. I said I was going into the studio and that’s why I had to take my organ out of the theatre. I was playing every night for three weeks. It was only advertised the first week. I got really tired of it and said ‘I’m going to London now’.
Are you still travelling around the world?
“I’m starting again a lot. I was in Berlin a lot, and then I went to LA, then back to Paris and to Berlin again. And now I’m here. It’s always back to Paris because I really like that city somehow. Maybe I prefer to live here.”
You saw (Vic Godard’s minimal London estate punk band) Subway Sect recently, didn’t you?
“Yes, they’re very nice. Very off their minds! The small one looked like Bob Dylan’s brother! I think he played the bass.”
What were you doing between The End and now?
“I had a fake contract.”
With Island Records?
“No, with Isle Of Man, who used to be a branch of Island Records, and I couldn’t get out of that one unless I gave them a percentage of whatever I was signing, until now. Now I’m free. And then I also wanted to wait for the best moment. I don’t care, wasting two years. You waste so much time in your life for other things why should you…I’m not even wasting that time. It’s not wasting it, it’s gaining time to me.”
You’ve been writing songs?
“Of course. I have just enough for an album, which is going to be called Drama Of Exile.”
What makes you write?
“Events. Like when I meet someone that strikes me as a personality. Like the Sphinx, right? ‘The Sphinx’. I can actually meet the Sphinx because there’s the Sphinx in many persons that I’ve met. Then also, of course, the one in Egypt made out of stone, and I see real similarities. Things like that make me write songs; similarities. And Genghis Khan. I met a young English boy who looked…He was very much a Mongol. His name is David Brown (laughs). He lives in Spain. And I wrote this song, ‘Genghis Khan’ thinking that he was really Genghis Khan because he looked so very much like the way I imagined Genghis Khan to be. That’s how I write songs.
“The new songs are different. They are more oriental, I would say, sounding Middle East, Arabic or Moorish. I’ve been to Egypt and I’ve been to Morocco…but have I been to the rest of the places? I have not been to Lebanon but I’ve been to Egypt though. That’s the best place of all.”
Suddenly, the strains of Nico’s harmonium, which is parked in the front room, filter through the door. It’s one of her French friends, attempting a stoned-out version of ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’.
Nico leaps up to sort them out with a cry of “I won’t let them play my organ!”
When she returns, wine glass refilled, Nico tells me how she acquired her new organ: “The last one has been stolen from me just a month ago and Patti Smith bought me this one here. I was down and out in Paris and thought ‘Well, what was I going to without my organ?’ And then a musician friend of mine had just seen the same organ as I had before in a small place; the only one in whole Paris.”
And Patti bought it for you?
“Yes. Isn’t that beautiful? She was very, very incredible. I said, ‘I give you back the money very quickly, as soon as I have it’. She said, ‘No, no, it’s a present from me. I don’t need any money now’.”
Talk wanders back to the new album. I read in Search & Destroy magazine that Nico wanted to do The Doors’ ‘You’re Lost Little Girl’.
“Maybe. It all depends on who is going to play for me. If it’s The Doors, like I presume it’ll be – they said they would do it – in that case, I’ll do it. But if it’s not them I won’t do it; I guess because they can play the exact same way they were playing for Jim. That would be Jim. I wouldn’t want a different variety. They said to me they would play the same way they did then because I asked them precisely. I had to know.”
From here on chaos reigns as Nico has to keep ducking out for refills and to haul zonked French men off her organ. These said gents make frequent visits to our room, one passing out, so the tape is turned off in the end and we take some pictures, some in Nico’s funny hat. There’s so much more to ask and we barely skim the surface.
Two more attempts to do more another day fall through.
Still, what does it really matter in the end? It’s only words. Nico is back. That is important.
It would be three years before Drama Of Exile manifested on the Aura label, produced by Corsican bassist Philippe Quilichini. whose girlfriend Nadette Duget was the executive producer with the then-vital heroin connection. Sure enough, the album included ‘The Sphinx’ and ‘Genghis Khan’ (which she’d first debuted in August 1975). ‘Purple Lips’ dated from March of that year, its lyrics recited in Garrel’s Le Berceau de cristal. ‘Henry Hudson’ had first appeared in live sets in February 1977and there were also her takes on ‘I’m Waiting For The Man’ and Bowie’s ‘Heroes’. Her first album without Cale, the set strongly positioned Nico as a force in the changing decade, although the album’s release was fraught with tales of stolen tapes, re-recordings and drug-fuelled skulduggery that resulted in several incarnations of the same set appearing on different labels over the next few years.
Nico would now show up in Manchester, the first half of the ‘80s characterised by the heroin-dominated chaos documented in Faction keyboardist James Young’s astonishing book Songs They Never Play On The Radio (One evening in 1985 I was astonished to encounter Nico waiting for the eternal man in a Brixton drugs den; she didn’t recognise me but all eyes were focused on the black door). Her final studio album was 1985’s Camera Obscura, produced by Cale, but Nico’s last recorded statement was Fata Morgana, capturing the Faction’s June 6 1988 performance at Berlin Planetarium; a robustly evocative set of all new compositions, with a heart-savaging ‘You Forget To Answer’ the only familiar song as encore.
Now free of heroin, Nico would die the following month when cycling through Ibiza Town on the hottest day of the year. The tragedy’s 25th anniversary was marked on the island that provided her part-time home and anchor for years by a 2013 concert and exhibition event co-organised by Helen and the Ibiza Sant Antoni council, and featuring James Young, Lutz Ulbrich and others. On that day Helen took Young to the alley where Nico had her fateful accident. Now the two will meet again at the [stop press! Sold out!] Nico: The Last Bohemian event being organised by the Rock ‘N’ Roll Book Club at Walthamstow Waterstones on February 8. Click here for an extract from Helen’s book in which she, James and others put on a special Nico event in Ibiza.