20 years ago today, while working at CMJ’s predecessor, the New Music Seminar, the former proprietor of lower east side watering holes, Beauty Bar, Barmacy and No Tell Motel, Deb Parker, casually remarked during lunch “I think Nico just died”. Silence. I stopped in mid chew and a chill went down my spine. “Nico?” I gulped, ‘Really?” I couldn’t believe it. That evening The New York Times ran an obituary on her stating she had suffered a stroke while cycling in Ibiza. I thought it was rather untimely and ironic. Considering her background and notorious reputation. In case you’re not familiar with Nico, let me enlighten you a bit.
Born Christa Paffgen in 1938, Cologne, Germany during the rise of the Nazi regime. Christa was given the name Nico by a photographer who discovered her as a model which got her out of Germany and to Paris. Tall and beautiful with cheek bones for days, Nico became a top Parisian model, had a bit part in Fellini’s classic film La Dolce Vita, had brief relationships with french actor Alain Delon (which produced her son, Ari), Bob Dylan, and Rolling Stones leader Brian Jones. The Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham spotting her drop dead good looks, and deep, rich voice had her cut a single “I’m Not Sayin” which went nowhere fast. Nico’s next stop? New York.
While living and modeling in the big apple Nico was brought by Brian Jones to Andy Warhol’s factory. There Nico fit right in with the artists entrouge of left field undergroundlings. Warhol’s right hand man, Paul Morrisey, suggested Nico become a singer with The Factory’s house band, The Velvet Underground. The Velvet Underground & Nico’s infamous debut album was released in 1967 with Warhol’s Banana silk screen as it’s cover. It would become one of the most important records of the 20th Century. Next Nico’s first solo album, Chelsea Girl, attempted to establish her as a folk rock chanteuse, released simultaneously with the Warhol/Morrissey film Chelsea Girls. Chelsea Girl was never the big break Nico longed for.
An artistic shift happened for Nico when she met and became involved The Doors’ Jim Morrison. Morrison and Nico spent the summer of Love, 1967, together often taking peyote in the desert. Morrison told Nico to write down her dreams, which she worked into lyrics. Nico learned to play the harmonium (an Indian pump organ) as accompaniment. Nico, one of the most famous blondes of the 1960s, still infatuated with Morrison, died her hair auburn red for him. She would never be blonde again and would use henna as a coloring for the rest of her life.
Nico would record 3 more records, The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End, be involved with Iggy Pop, and exiled herself to Europe, mostly Paris. Nico met French filmmaker, Phillipe Garre, and spent 10 years with him personally and professionally .
In paris Nico and Garrel started to use heroin regularly in 1974. Nico’s reputation as one of rock’s major heroin addicts was born and she remained a hard core junkie for the next 12 years.
By the mid ‘70s punk rock explosion, Nico was one of the few musicians (The Velvets, Stooges, etc.) respected by the new bands. Women like Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Chrissie Hynde and Siouxsie Sioux all cited Nico as an influence. Nico, this middle aged, has been, junkie was now a bona fide legend and would ride this wave until her demise.
In the ‘80s Nico recorded Drama of Exile (without her famous harmonium), Camera Obscura and constantly toured. Mostly coasting on her Warhol/Velvet’s/’60s pedigree and popping up in various magazines, books, and documentaries about the ‘60s.
In 1986 Nico began a methadone program and never took heroin again. Fans like myself thought maybe she’d finally gotten it together and hoped her creative output would flourish. Unfortunately this was not the case. 1988 Nico took a vacation in Ibiza where on July 18 she was found, by the side of the road, unconscious, bicycle lying next to her. Several hospitals would not accept her because they thought she was some old bohemian-peasant woman, which contributed to her untimely death.
These days I see Nico’s, original blonde ambition, musical influence everywhere: Siouxsie, Anna Domino, Lisa Germano, Stereolab, Midnight Movies, El Pero Del Mar and Bat For Lashes to name a few. I love them all but none are really like Nico.
If you’re interested in learning more about this enigmatic, moon goddess, check out “The End” by Jim Young, “Nico - The Life And Lies of An Icon” by Richard Witts and the 1995 documentary “Nico Icon”. I’m sure someday hollywood will make Nico’s story into a film. I pray they take their time with casting and production, so it does justice to one of the most underrated talents who once walked the earth: Nico “Das Leid vom einsamen Madchen” - The Story of the Lonely Girl.-Michael Worshipme