Nico believed in fate, and she was fated to be an icon. In her youth, she was the femme fatale of Andy Warhol’s Factory and the spectral singer of the Velvet Underground. Later in life, she became an allegory of rock ’n’ roll’s excess, the moon goddess felled by heroin. In the thirty years since her death, she has variously served as a feminist symbol—the Judith Shakespeare to her canonical male peers—and a stand-in for European trauma, an exile wandering the world in the aftermath of war.
But for Nico, being an icon was a problem. When she sang “I’ll Be Your Mirror” in 1966, she wasn’t asking to become a permanent surface for our collective reflections. Even through her many permutations, Nico’s artistic achievement remains out of focus. As in the case of her favorite poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, critics tend to misunderstand her work as unfinished, as if severed before its full flowering. While contemporaries such as Joni Mitchell occupy the very center of pop history, Nico remains apart. Today she is best known for the songs she came to loathe. Of course, they’re also her catchiest, but I wonder if her artistic mission—a mission of destruction—is simply incompatible with any of the images we’ve made of her. We construct icons, but Nico was an iconoclast.
In a way, history has been kind to Nico, insofar as it has occasionally recognized her as someone whose story hasn’t quite been told. As Judy Berman writes in Pitchfork, Nico was “in need of rehabilitation” after her death in 1988. In 1995, the documentary Nico Icon gestured at a reconsideration of her art and life beyond the Velvet Underground. Yet even that film devotes only a few fleeting minutes to the actual content and style of her major albums. Over the years, a handful of Nico biographies and memoirs have passed in and out of print, but it still seems that we’re missing something essential to this difficult, even hostile artist.
The latest reconsideration is Nico, 1988, a biopic directed by the Italian filmmaker Susanna Nicchiarelli and starring the Danish actress Trine Dyrholm, which is set to premiere in the U.S. this August. The film dramatizes one of Nico’s chaotic tours from the eighties, not long before her death at the age of forty-nine. We see her perform behind the Iron Curtain, at times triumphantly, at times disastrously, as she wrestles with personal demons and the broader traumas of European history. Dyrholm, while actually healthier-looking than the woman she portrays (the clean white teeth are a giveaway), successfully captures Nico’s oracular cadence and hilarious lack of rhythm.
But the film takes liberties that suggest that another Nico icon is emerging, once again distorting our view. Certain biographical omissions seem like deliberate attempts to fit Nico into a shape more agreeable to contemporary mores. In Nico, 1988, for instance, the singer is repositioned as a feminist hero, a former sex symbol now rebelling against social expectations of physical beauty. But the awkward truth is that Nico regularly exhibited a deep misogyny. “Women are poison,” she said. “If I wasn’t so special, I could hate myself.” In the film, her entourage includes women, but on those doomed last tours, she wouldn’t even let her all-male bandmates have girlfriends. “Women are inferior,” she once said, adding in Nico Icon that her only regret was being born a woman. She may have rebelled against physical beauty, but she did so not through a spirit of feminism but of vandalism.
And though in Nico, 1988, her touring guitarist is black, one doesn’t learn of Nico’s antiblack racism in the film. She attributed her bigotry to having been raped at the age of thirteen by a black American soldier, who was subsequently court-martialed and executed. But as Richard Witts writes in his book Nico: Life and Lies of an Icon (1993), “Each strand of reality is tangled in a skein of fantasy.” Witts doesn’t go so far as to say the rape never happened, but he couldn’t locate any record of the crime, trial, or execution, when similar incidents were assiduously documented. On the other hand, we have ample proof of her racism. Indeed, Island Records dropped her after learning of racist comments. “I said to some interviewer that I didn’t like Negroes,” she said. “That’s all … I don’t like the features. They’re so much like animals.”
By not addressing these features of Nico’s life, Nico, 1988 overreaches the mark. It isn’t that Nico doesn’t deserve empathy; it’s that a historical revision has to be total. Otherwise, we’re just swapping one false image with another. If we can agree that Nico has been wronged by simplistic reductions, then we only wrong her further by not seeing her on her own terms, even—or perhaps especially—if they destroy her reputation. If we gather together all the accounts of her life, even those out of print, and closely study her art, a radically anarchic Nico emerges.
Before she was anyone’s icon, she was Christa Päffgen, born in Cologne on October 16, 1938. Her mother was a talented dressmaker, and her father was a soldier of the Reich, executed after becoming mentally disabled from a gunshot wound. During the war, Christa stayed with her grandparents in Lübbenau, where she liked to play in the graveyard. Her grandfather entertained her with stories ranging from traditional fairy tales to German mythology—essential touchstones for Nico’s archetypal poetry. When the family moved to Berlin after the war, this gothic idyll was replaced by what Nico called “a desert of bricks.” “That is the image that still comes in my dreams,” she said of postwar Berlin. “It is something that I use in my lyrics, that hides behind my lyrics like scenery.” A will to destroy would hide behind every artistic gesture she’d make.
Coming of age in the ruins of Berlin, the young Christa hoped to become a star. As Witts writes in Nico: Life and Lies of an Icon—still the only serious, extended treatment of her life and art, now regrettably out of print—Christa “wished to be discovered. At what she did not care.” Although Nico would later see her beauty as a curse, modeling was her first path to fame. Christa was tall and bold, with massive eyes, sensuous lips, and steel-plated cheekbones. “Her hands were like milk and glass,” her aunt recalled.
Nothing could be uncannier than seeing the future singer of “Janitor of Lunacy” advertising an Electrolux dishwasher, but she was a successful model. Soon, she was posing for Elle, Esquire, and Vogue and traveling all over Europe. In Paris, she claimed, Ernest Hemingway told her to become a blonde, and Salvador Dalí gave her the name Nico as an anagram of icon (in truth, she lifted the name from the filmmaker Nikos Papatakis). As she would sing on “Afraid,” from her 1970 album Desertshore, she learned how to be a mannequin, animated by the desires of others, and it was a hateful condition:
Cease to know or to tell
Or to see or to be your own,
Have someone else’s will as your own,
Have someone else’s will as your own,
You are beautiful and you are alone
When she landed a part in Federico Fellini’s La dolce vita (1960), Nico thought she might become an actress, but she lacked the discipline. Instead, she turned to singing. In some regards, it was an odd choice. Her musical upbringing consisted of opera and the love songs of her mother’s favorite singer, Zarah Leander. Nico couldn’t play an instrument, she couldn’t write songs, and she had an incredible lack of rhythm, almost an antirhythm. Nevertheless, she felt she could make an impact in pop music. She just needed the songs.
When she met Bob Dylan in 1964, they commenced a brief affair that resulted in his writing a song about her called “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” “But he didn’t like it when I tried to sing along with him,” she said. “I thought he was being chauvinistic.” Nico would always be met with resistance when she tried to sing with the boys. By the midsixties, she had a young child with the French actor Alain Delon (who has never recognized his son) and was determined to become a famous chanteuse. But as Richard Witts writes, “She knew there was no chanteuse to be as famous as.” None of her contemporaries, such as Joan Baez or Mary Travers, shared her otherworldly aesthetic.
Nico secured a modest recording contract and released a peppy Gordon Lightfoot song, “I’m Not Saying,” with Brian Jones and Jimmy Page playing guitar. Although her early musical talent was much maligned, Nico’s signature contralto, with its elongated vowels and strangely stateless accent, is there from the beginning. The record didn’t make her famous, but when she went to New York in 1965, it helped gain her entry to Andy Warhol’s Factory. Warhol, the master of surfaces, instantly recognized an icon. He began casting Nico in films such as Chelsea Girls (1966), in which her face is used as a psychedelic projection screen—an apt metaphor for that period of her life. More important, he installed her as the front woman of the Velvet Underground, hoping to compensate for Lou Reed because people at the Factory said he had no personality.
Nico has often been seen as superfluous to the Velvet Underground. Certainly, that’s how Reed saw it, advising her to knit when she wasn’t singing “All Tomorrow’s Parties,” “Femme Fatale,” or “I’ll Be Your Mirror.” “I wanted to be a singer,” she said, “but I was like a mannequin.” In reality, Nico was integral to the band. In fact, they landed a deal for their debut album, The Velvet Underground and Nico (1967), only because a record executive thought Nico—not Lou Reed, not John Cale—was great. The history of pop sounds a lot different if Nico doesn’t sing on that LP.
Nico emerged from the Velvet Underground at a crossroads. In many ways, she had internalized Lou Reed’s contempt. “I thought men write songs and women sing them,” she said, and her repertoire at that time was entirely man-made: Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Jimmy Page, Lou Reed. After adding songs by Jackson Browne, she recorded what is still her most popular album, Chelsea Girl (1967), which contains folksy numbers like “These Days.” But while Nico had finally become a solo act, an iconic blonde on a record sleeve, she considered Chelsea Girl an artistic failure. To her horror, which I share, the producer had added a flute to the arrangements. “I cried when I heard the album,” Nico recounted. “I cried because of the flute … There should be a button on record players, a ‘no flute’ button.”
The lesson was clear: Nico had to control everything, and the only way to do that was to become a composer. Already she had amassed one of the strangest, most fertile collections of influences. In addition to what she took from Dylan and Reed, the Dadaist Tristan Tzara had given her lessons in wordplay, the blues artist Victor Brox had taught her about composition, and Ornette Coleman had provided her instruction in harmonics. But two new keys fully unlocked her art. The first was her acquisition of an Indian harmonium, an acoustic organ that Allen Ginsberg used during poetry readings. The second was Jim Morrison. She and her “soul brother,” the front man of the Doors, would take drugs and wander through the California desert. They studied the Romantic poets, particularly Shelley and Coleridge, and he encouraged Nico to record her dreams—the raw material of the unconscious—and refine them into lyrics.
Living in the tower of “The Castle,” a twenty-two-room hilltop mansion in Los Feliz, Los Angeles, with the curtains drawn and surrounded by candles, Nico started composing. She was determined to upend Chelsea Girl. Gothic wasn’t yet a genre of pop, but she began channeling distant historical epochs with her harmonium. “I rebel against the present,” she said. “My melodies are from the Middle Ages.” Viva, the actress and Warhol superstar, recalled how against the grain Nico seemed. “We took nothing seriously,” she told Richard Witts. “Nico, on the other hand, started to take everything seriously.” A photo captures Nico’s morbid cast around that time. While others bathe in the South of France sun, Nico is seen in the shadow of a parasol, draped in black and reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The result of her reinvention was The Marble Index (1968), the first of a trio of albums that stand almost entirely alone in pop history. John Cale, her Velvet Underground bandmate, did the arrangements, and in the documentary Nico Icon, he proudly called The Marble Index “a contribution to European classical music.”
It could never be said that Nico was a virtuoso, but you don’t need to be when you’re original. To a new listener of her major albums, the first thing that stands out is her self-taught style on the harmonium. Ornette Coleman had shown her the basics—the right hand plays the melody while the left plays the harmony—but also suggested that these rudiments could be reversed. In Nico’s harmonium songs, she mostly plays the melody in the bass and the harmony in the treble—a bewildering, destabilizing inversion.
The lyrics, written in the California desert and inspired by Berlin’s “desert of bricks,” return us to the archetypal netherworld of her grandfather’s fables: “Since the first of you and me / Asleep / In a Nibelungen land … ” This desolate dreamscape is populated with gnarled characters, sometimes reclusive, as in “Frozen Warnings”—
Friar hermit stumbles over
The cloudy borderline,
Frozen warnings close to mine,
Close to the frozen borderline
—and sometimes terrifyingly flamboyant, as with the demon of “No One Is There”:
In a crucial parody
Demon is dancing down the scene,
He is calling and throwing
His arms up in the air,
And no one is there
Having written The Marble Index in a castle, Nico retreated to a small Italian island to compose Desertshore (1970), my favorite of her albums. She brought all her talents to bear upon this project, which contains songs in English, French, and German, including cryptic tributes to Brian Jones (“Janitor of Lunacy”) and Andy Warhol (“The Falconer”).
On Desertshore, Nico’s voice is at its zenith, carrying like a compressed psychic beam from her mind to yours. At their best, her songs reduce experience to essential images, like the deceptively simple verses of William Blake. Has there ever been a fitter description of depression, rendered in so few words, as on “My Only Child”? (“The morning small / The evening tall.”) And perhaps there’s no more haunting minute in the history of pop than “Le petit chevalier,” an uncanny parable sung by Nico’s toddler son while John Cale plays the harpsichord, seemingly in another room:
Je suis le petit chevalier
Avec le ciel dessus mes yeux,
Je ne peux pas me effroyer
(I am the little knight
With the sky above my eyes,
I cannot frighten myself)
The blonde icon of Chelsea Girl had been totally smashed, along with its insidious flute.
Nico once said her music came from “the life inside,” but the nature of that life remains a mystery. Some of those who knew her insist she was perfectly void. Her friend Carlos de Maldonado-Bostock said, “She hadn’t an idea in her head,” and Viva averred, “She had no inner life.” The more I read about Nico, the more she resembles the blackened Berlin ruins, echoes of which she sought in all the cities she visited. Like the German writer W. G. Sebald, for instance, Nico felt a dark affinity with Manchester’s blasted industrial cityscape. In this way, her work seems like an attempt to externalize a ruinous inner condition, an artistic mission hinted at by something she once told a British journalist: “If I were not Nico, I would be a terrorist.”
And indeed, after she had built her own albums and voice, she set about tearing them down. It began with a series of personal disasters: “People around me started dying.” Her mother and Jim Morrison both passed away, in 1970 and ’71, respectively, and some friends thought she’d suffered a mental breakdown or even become schizophrenic. Ever since her modeling days, when she’d been prescribed amphetamines as “diet pills,” Nico had struggled with substance abuse. Now an addiction to heroin intensified. In his memoir of his time as a member of Nico’s band, Songs They Never Play on the Radio (1992), James Young recalls her use of heroin as self-medicating. “All the bad things you’ve done,” she told him, “all the bad things that happened to you. It comes back … like a riot … the heroin calms me down.”
During these years, Nico recorded one last major—albeit lesser—work, The End… (1974). The spirit of Jim Morrison courses through the album, which includes a cover of “The End” and a song inspired by the last time Nico saw him in Paris, on July 3, 1971. Morrison was in the back seat of a black car. “I signaled, but he didn’t see me,” she said. “He was looking straight ahead, facing death.” The song, “You Forget to Answer,” is among her most powerful, with John Cale playing piano, Phil Manzanera on guitar, and Brian Eno on the synthesizer:
You seem not to be listening,
You seem not to be listening,
The high tide is taking everything
Nico’s addiction prevented her from composing new music, but it incidentally achieved something else of her terroristic mission: it destroyed the icon of her beauty. “She decided that she must become unsightly in the eyes of those who loved her for her good looks,” Richard Witts writes. And she was successful. Andy Warhol’s longtime collaborator Paul Morrissey said, “She had been one of the most famous blonde models there was, an icon to thousands of people … It was tragic to see this change.” But his tragedy was Nico’s triumph.
The common picture of Nico’s ruinous final years has been shaped by James Young’s memoir, Songs They Never Play on the Radio. It’s estimated that she performed more than twelve hundred shows from 1980 to 1988, crisscrossing Europe in a drug-addled nightmare that enshrined her as an icon of pop-star implosion. Young played keyboard in the ad hoc bands assembled for these tours, and in his sometimes kind, sometimes savage telling, “she was a monster,” appealing only to “heroin users and those who thought self-destruction a romantic vocation.”
I find it remarkable that somewhere in this dark night of the soul, Nico recorded a final album, Camera Obscura (1985), which contains one last masterpiece, “König.” The last song she ever recorded consists of just her voice and her harmonium, as it was at the very beginning of her artistic journey:
König, lass dich leiten,
Lass mich dich begleiten,
Auf diesem weiten Strand
Ergreife meine Hand
(King, let yourself lead,
Let me accompany you,
On this wide beach
Take my hand)
Death took Nico on the island of Ibiza. On July 17, 1988, she suffered a brain aneurysm while riding her bike and died the following day. James Young recalls the words of a man who was among the first to see her corpse and who perceived a “terrible look on her face of … aloneness.”
Where did Nico’s will to destruction come from? It’s the central mystery of her life and art. The biopic Nico, 1988 opens with a vision of wartime Berlin in flames and suggests that her music was a quest to recapture the sound of the destruction. It’s true that her experience of the war was foundational to the artist she became, an artist whose work is full of negations—empty cradles, empty pages, empty hearts. Yet it wasn’t the dynamism of Berlin’s burning that entranced her. It was the ruins left behind, the silent and still desert of bricks. She perceived something there, something deeply personal, and it makes me wonder: Were the ruins really a prophecy, or was the destruction already inside her?
Michael LaPointe is a writer in Toronto.