Nico, the Life and lies of an Icon by Richard Witts, Virgin Books, 1993. Now out of print.
Nico, Songs They Never Play on the Radio by James Young, 1999, Bloomsbury Publishing. In print.
The life of Christa Päffgen is riddled with paradoxes and contradictions, her birth being the first. Although conceived in wedlock, she was born illegitimate. Her father, Wilhelm Päffgen, was a member of a wealthy Catholic brewing dynasty in Cologne, her mother, Grete (Margarete) Schulz, a Protestant nobody. A the insistence of the Päffgen family, who thought Grete was after their money, the marriage was annulled, and Wilhelm forced to join the army, leaving mother and baby almost destitute.
Wilhelm’s death in 1942 was another paradox. According to Richard Witts’ comprehensive biography, Nico, the Life and lies of an Icon, Christa’s father, although a Nazi, was killed by the Nazis. He was shot in the head by a French sniper, and, the wound being serious, with no certainty that he would not suffer brain damage, his commanding officer, following standing orders, shot him dead.
Now without the trickle of alimony that had kept them going, Grete and Christa had to depend on Grete’s extended rural family for support, and moved to Lübbenau in the country outside Berlin, where Grete found work in a seaplane factory. Work was compulsory, and manufacture distributed about the countryside to avoid Allied bombing.
This short period of almost normal family life in Lübbenau gave Christa an enduring love of nature, and also of graveyards, she spent much time amongst the tombstones round the local church. Stories, too, she heard from her grandfather, the local railway signalman, and formed the idea of storytelling as something that was perhaps more interesting than the plain truth.
Christa was already showing her domineering traits, always wanting to win, needing to control, and making a big fuss if she didn’t get her way. She developed a penetrating wail, guaranteed to gain attention.
When the bombing in Berlin became too intense Grete’s sister Helma joined them with her son Ulrich. In later years Nico remembered little about life in Lübbenau, and those memories are suspect. The trains full of Jews on their way to Auschwitz, the bodies in the streets, Ulrich, who grew up to be an architect in America, recalls none of this.
As the war moved towards its end, it also crept closer to home. The prospect of occupation by the Russians was, for a young mother and daughter, unbearable, so like many others they made the dangerous journey to Berlin, by now an almost uninterrupted desert of ruins and rubble.
Souvenirs of Hell
There was accommodation, of a kind, to be found, and Grete managed to set herself up as a seamstress, something she had long wanted to do, and was able to make something more than a bare living. Mother and daughter were very close, and remained so, Nico would take care of Grete, after a fashion, for the rest of her life.
Mr Witts has taken great pains to research this period of Nico’s life. Nico herself was almost incapable of telling a true story, claiming, for instance, that her father was a Turkish Sufi, or had died in a concentration camp. She tended to improvise on inferences that people made, coming up with romantic or plausibly horrific tales that would hold an audience spellbound. At least one such is to be found in Nico’s not very accurate Wikipedia entry.
Witts met Nico in the latter part of her life, and she asked him to write her biography, providing some notes to help him. They didn’t, they were entirely invented. It has been said of Bill Clinton that “he would sooner climb a tree to tell a lie than stand on the ground and tell the truth.” This fits Nico to perfection, though the word “lie” is perhaps misleading. Creative people can’t help but re-imagine the world, both past and present, and often sincerely believe that their vision is the truth, producing highly plausible works that are often taken as true reportage but are in reality coherent and persuasive fantasies.
Berlin was a ruin, an inhabited ruin, under martial law but lawless, people survived as they could amidst the rubble and dust. There were corpses in the streets, foreign troops who sought revenge, loot, fun, and profit. Everyone was a criminal in some respect, life would not have been possible otherwise. This landscape, both physical and moral, was Christa’s legacy to Nico. We tend to set the world as it was in childhood as a benchmark to measure the world as we find it, and often as the image of what is real, what has passed since being somehow temporary, an illusion.
“The past, the present, and the future become not relevant when they go into a big melting pot,” Nico later said about her dreams. “They all begin in Berlin, wherever I am … A wilderness of bricks.”
School was not to Christa’s liking, she showed off, paid no attention to lessons, saw no point in any of it. But she was ambitious, she wanted simply to be famous and would do whatever it took become so.
Ballet was the obvious route. Christa was tall and strikingly pretty, she badgered her mother into sending her to ballet lessons, but soon the tedious routine and lack of basic talent brought them to an end. Fashion was the next target. Christa read everything about fashion, and popular film, that she could find. The Russians had reopened all the cinemas, theatres and opera houses as a matter of priority, to give the population something to take them out of the drudgery of daily privation. Christa loved the cinema, particularly romances, and began to see her future in an environment where you only need to be, not do, where image trumps reality.
It was at this point, in 1952, at the age of thirteen, that Nico later claimed she had been raped by a black American soldier, who was later tried and hanged for a series of rapes. She said she had given evidence at the trial. It is a matter of record that at the end of the war and for some years after, rape by soldiers was endemic, particularly in the Russian controlled areas, and although explicitly forbidden was rarely prosecuted. The Russians felt they were only paying back in kind for what their own people had suffered, and the Americans on the ground had an old-fashioned sense of “to the victor the spoils” which was at odds with declared policy, already in Cold War mode. American rapists were unlikely to face justice unless black, which lends some weight to the story. However, Witts has tried, and failed, to come up with any supporting evidence. In 1952 such a trial would have generated much publicity, and there should be records of the court martial proceedings, but there are none to be found. It also came as a surprise to Nico’s family members when she came up with the story many years later. This is not to say that the story is not true, in itself, but may well be someone else’s tale, from several years previously. It would not be the only time that Nico would appropriate a dramatic tale just to make an impression, she told a really affecting one about her escape from Lübbenau, but it was actually Ulrich’s story.
Near the end of her life, Nico claimed to be tired of being Nico, and pondered reverting to Christa Päffgen. Her identity was mutable, she claimed to be anything but German, she was a net-worker long before the term was invented, partly to make useful contacts, partly to give shape to her life.
“Cease to know or to tell
Or to see or to be your own
Have someone else’s will as your own”
From the song Afraid.
Grete saw no future in Christa’s fantasies of becoming a model, it was either school or a job, so when school ended Grete pulled strings and organised an apprenticeship in a clothes shop. To many girls with an eye on a fashion career this might seem like a good move, but Christa had no intention of working in a shop, and after a few chaotic hours the arrangement was canceled.
To become a model, Christa decided, you must be noticed, so she set about being visible outside Berlin’s biggest department store, dressed to kill and putting on her haughtiest air. It worked, the tall and strikingly beautiful girl was spotted by a passing fashion designer. Suddenly she was in work, in demand, and making big money.
At this point in the story Witts recounts Christa’s final attempt to make contact with the Päffgen family. She went to see her aunt in Cologne, but was rudely turned away. For the rest of her life, the name Päffgen, or anything to do with Cologne, was anathema, even eau de Cologne was banished from her life.
Modeling led to acting, in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which should have been the gateway to a film career, but Nico took nothing seriously, missed at least one good part, and made a couple of bad films.
Yes, this is now Nico. A friend’s relationship with a man called Nico had broken down, and Christa said “I’ll be your Nico,” and was never Christa Päffgen again.
No One Is There
Nico needed people, but her relationships were very strange. Witts puts forward the hypothesis of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. To replace the family she never had, Nico put together a phantom family, of people who did not quite fit the roles she gave them, so were never really there.
“All of them are missing as the game
Comes to a start
No one is there”
From “No One Is There”
Modelling took Nico to Paris, Rome, everywhere. She was a top cover girl, could be said to be the face of the late Fifties. Money flowed like champagne, with little to show for it. A refuge of a kind was found on Ibiza, a Spanish Mediterranean island, although bound up in restrictions imposed by the local police. Ibiza remained a constant in Nico’s life. Some accounts say she owned a house there, but Witts only mentions rentals.
In 1962, Nico had a son, Christian Aaron. Her claim that the father was Alain Delon, the French film actor, has always been denied by Delon himself, but the child, known as Ari, was adopted in 1977 by Delon’s mother after she had remarried. Nico proved as hopeless a parent as she had a shop assistant, but the arrangement was not as easily dissolved, and the two maintained a close, if mutually damaging, relationship until the end. Ari is, remarkably, still alive and practising as a photographer. He keeps her harmonium in a safe. “She listens to us. The box is alive,” he says in a 2001 interview on the Libération website. (http://www.liberation.fr/portrait/0101371021-le-fils-errant)
Witts has delved deep to chronicle the years that follow. This book gives probably as accurate an account as you will ever read, of the move to New York, being discovered all over again by Andy Warhol, becoming one if his “superstars”, and acting in his long, static films, one of which, The Chelsea Girls, actually made money. It was also the beginning of her work with Warhol’s instant rock group, Velvet Underground, her collaboration with Lou Reed and John Cale, and her first album, Chelsea Girls.
We are now about halfway through the book, with Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, heroin, and a series of solo albums that have gained Nico a devoted following and much derision still to come. Nico is one of those performers who generate love and loathing but little in between. My wife, for instance, can’t listen to Nico, it does weird things to her head.
I saw Nico perform, once, quite by accident. I had gone to see the Incredible String Band, who were playing somewhere in of a maze of ancient tunnels deep under London. And there she was, alone with her small harmonium, draped in black, smiling shyly, each song precise and almost identical to the recorded version. Her voice was strong and deep, her diction excellent. Unforgettable.
After the shooting of Andy Warhol the factory was never the same again for Nico, and she returned to Europe. her next album, the astonishing Marble Index, came out in 1969, and Nico met her future husband, film maker Philippe Garrel. As so often with Nico, this was a relationship that did neither of them any good, they were both heroin addicts, both ambitious, egocentric and artistically idiosyncratic. In spite of this the marriage lasted nine years, during which Nico produced some of her best work, and appeared in Garrel’s films, one of which, La cicatrice intérieure, can be found on YouTube in its entirety.
Garrel, remarkably, is still alive, still making films, and winning awards for them. But don’t expect to see them at your local multiplex.
The rest of the book covers Nico’s decline, her resurgent popularity amongst teenagers, known as Nico-teens, touring, struggles with heroin, dodgy management, fraud, dangerous friends, and the last, not very satisfactory albums. It was a long, intricate road that would lead finally to the night on her refuge island of Ibiza when she hopped on her bicycle to ride into town to score some dope. She was by now off heroin and reducing her intake of methadone, making plans, and working on new material. She never made it to town, struck down on the road by a brain haemorrhage. Found by a taxi driver, she was turned away by three hospitals, and misdiagnosed by a fourth. In the morning a doctor finally saw her, thought he could save her, but was unable to find a vein to inject anything into.
One of Nico’s stand-out numbers was the Doors’ “The End”:
“This is the end, beautiful friend,
This is the end, my only friend.
The end of our elaborate plans,
The end of everything that stands,
The end, no safety no surprise,
The end, I’ll never look into your eyes again.”
Death had been her constant muse, now, finally, it had come to her.
Songs they never play on the radio
Witts has provided a full discography, sources where possible, and a limited index. Even if you have no interest in Nico the artist, it’s a good read.
In contrast, Songs they never play on the radio – Nico, the last bohemian, by James Young, is a personal memoir by someone who worked with Nico, and toured extensively with her from 1982 until the end. It is not researched, there is no index, Nico’s life story is the Nico version, or one of them, and some stories don’t check out. But that does not really matter, Young’s account of those last years adds depth and colour that Witts had no access to. Witts wasn’t there, he wasn’t part of it, James Young was.
Young’s account is rich, detailed, utterly believable. It is also very funny, in a tragic kind of way. This was the dregs of the music business, incompetent, stoned, bent, and terminal. Where the money came from to fund these catastrophic tours is a mystery, where it went is not. Mister Ten percent would have got ten percent of nothing. Some interesting names crop up, John Cooper Clarke, the performance poet and junkie, who is actually still alive today and performing. John Cale, who was going through a bad patch, and not having much fun collaborating with Nico once again. But he pulled out of it, and rebuilt his career, in a way Nico might in time have managed, had she lived.
Taken together these books show more of Nico than, as a fan, I ever thought possible. They show that she was not the Moon Goddess, not the ethereal creature that she seemed from the record sleeves, but she really was the strange mind that had written so many songs of unearthly, unhuman beauty. Those songs, were after all, true.
If there is any moral to be drawn from all this it must be that to succeed in the Arts you have to be a bit of a monster, and probably borderline certifiable. Also, as Alan Wise, her last manger, said, “Don’t get ill in Spain.”
Live video of Nico’s performances are few, and of poor quality. There are many compilations on YouTube, this is one of the best, with a song from late in Nico’s career, I will be seven, which can be heard on the live album, Nico’s Last Concert: Fata Morgana.
And one using You forget to answer, from The End.
Solo studio albums
|1969||The Marble Index|
|1981||Drama of Exile|
|1967||The Velvet Underground & Nico|
|1974||June 1, 1974|
|1983||Do or Die: Nico in Europe|
|1985||Nico Live in Pécs|
|1986||Behind the Iron Curtain|
|1987||Nico in Tokyo|
|1988||Fata Morgana (Nico’s Last Concert)|
|1997||Chelsea Girl / Live|
|2003||Femme Fatale: The Aura Anthology (Drama of Exile expanded, plus live disc)|
|2004||Nico: All Tomorrow’s Parties (Tracks 5 to 11 recorded live in Tokyo 11.4.1986)|
|2007||All Tomorrow’s Parties (live double album)|
|1998||Nico: The Classic Years|
|2002||Innocent & Vain — An Introduction to Nico|
|2003||Femme Fatale — The Aura Anthology (Re-issue of Drama of Exile with bonus tracks plus Live at Chelsea Town Hall 9.8.85)|
|2007||The Frozen Borderline – 1968–1970 (Re-issue of The Marble Index and Desertshore with bonus tracks)|
|1965||“I’m Not Sayin'” / “The Last Mile”|
|1981||“Vegas” / “Saeta” – Flicknife Records FLS 206|
|1982||“Procession” / “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Recorded with The Invisible Girls & Martin Hannett)|
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