I couldn’t get it together to blog this in time, but I still felt it was worth noting that yesterday (18 July 2011) marked the 22nd anniversary of the death of my all-time favourite singer, the ever-inscrutable Nico. (Had she lived, she’d be 73 now). Not that I ever need an excuse to pay tribute to the late, great Nico: rock’s ultimate diva of despair with the blood-freezing vampire priestess voice, the heroin-ravaged former chanteuse of the Velvet Underground, and the Marlene Dietrich of punk.
I feel really privileged that over the years I’ve managed to meet most of my idols, but I’ll always be gutted I never got the chance to meet Nico. Whenever I encounter people who knew her, I always pump them for details and inevitably they always have interesting stories about her. She was a fascinating and completely unconventional woman. Yes, her life was dominated by heroin addiction but she reminds me of that line from the Morrissey song “Piccadilly Palare” where he sings “We threw all life’s instructions away.” For better or for worse, if anyone can claim to have done just that, it was Nico. She lived a decadent, rootless, genuinely bohemian life in the tradition of 19th century poets like Rimbaud – and paid the consequences. And no matter how screwed up her life, she could still pull herself together and (like Chet Baker, Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf) make powerful music.
I'll Be Your Mirror
When I interviewed that other chain-smoking baritone babe-voiced heroin ravaged chanteuse Marianne Faithfull in January 2011 I seized the opportunity to ask her about Nico (the two women have so many parallels in their lives. Faithfull clearly identifies with Nico, and even wrote a song about her in 2002). She told me:
“Well, I’m so lucky in my life and I know it, that my life worked out so well. And I felt a lot of compassion for Nico, that she had such a hard time. Obviously a lot of that was to do with drugs, too. If you take a difficult life anyway and then add that, it’ll get much worse. I just felt it was very tragic story and I felt a lot of love for Nico. I think she tried really hard. She did make a couple of great records – I love The Marble Index (1969). I value her a lot, and I don’t think she was really valued in her lifetime.”
(Read my full interview with Marianne Faithfull on the Nude website here)
John Waters reflects on his single encounter with Nico in my blog here.
Nico with Andy Warhol
Nico accompanying herself on harmonium
The best way to remember Nico is simply to listen to her suicidally bleak but achingly beautiful music. So here are some clips of the angel-of-death vocal stylings of Nico that I think represent her creative peak: call them her "Gravest Hits" if you like.
"Janitor of Lunacy", circa early 1970s
Nico interviewed on French TV in 1972 (unfortunately, no English subtitles). Stunning performances of "Janitor of Lunacy" and "You Forget to Answer"
Performing "Gengis Khan" on French TV (1978)
If you can, track down the documentary Nico Icon (1995) by Susanne Ofteringer or the sadly long out of print 1993 book Nico: The Life and Lies of an Icon by Richard Witts, the definitive Nico biography to date.