Velvet Underground's Nico, A Chelsea Girl From Germany
The model, singer and actress Nico is best known for her tenure with The Velvet Underground. Although her low German voice can be heard on some of the band's signature songs, including "Femme Fatale," he time with VU was actually fairly brief, one of many phases in the career of an itinerant performer and hipster it-girl who had a fan in Andy Warhol and carved out a niche in rock history with her own albums Chelsea Girl (1967), The Marble Index (1968) and others.
Nico began life in war-torn Berlin, ultimately becoming a high fashion model, an actress, an Andy Warhol Factory Girl, the lead singer of the Velvet Underground, and an influential solo artist. Often when a person can’t stick with a single occupation, it’s because he or she isn’t great at any of them. In the case of Nico, born Christa Päffgen, she excelled at all of them but became an exotic tool used by men to reach their own ends. When she took control of her own life, the physical and emotional toll of life in the fast lane weighed heavily on the beautiful but damaged woman.
'Every Time I Close My Eyes, I'm Back In Bombed Berlin'
Born into the chaos of World War II without a father who died under mysterious and murky circumstances, Nico worked as a seamstress to help her family. When she developed into a stunning and fairly tall (5'10") woman, she earned work as a model. At the age of 16, photographer Herbert Tobias dubbed her “Nico” after a man, Nikos Papatakis, he loved and it stuck.
After dyeing her hair blonde, she moved to Paris and garnered modeling work with some of the biggest magazines in fashion: Vogue, Tempo, Vie Nuove, Mascotte Spettacolo, Camera, Elle. Federico Fellini liked her so much he gave her a small role in La Dolce Vita. During her time as a model, she was introduced to amphetamines. “They used to give it to us so we’d stay thin,” she would later reveal. Those drugs may have laid the groundwork for her addiction issues later in life and expedited her exodus from the fashion industry.
Escape To New York
At the behest of superagent Eileen Ford, Nico left Europe and moved to New York City. There she got work as an actress, appearing in commercials and small roles for Alberto Lattuada and Rudolph Maté. She also started singing, working with Rolling Stones’ guitarist Brian Jones, Jimmy Page, and Bob Dylan who were all at early phases in their careers in the mid-'60s.
When Brian Jones introduced her to Andy Warhol, everything went up a notch. She appeared in experimental films by Warhol and Paul Morrissey, narrating "Sunset" (1966), acting in The Closet (1966) and Imitation of Christ (1967), and appearing as herself in Chelsea Girls (1966). It was then that Warhol insisted she become the lead singer for a band he managed, the Velvet Underground.
The Velvet Underground
Even though Lou Reed and John Cale resisted the idea of Nico joining the Velvet Underground, they relented under Warhol’s persistence. However, as Reed’s biographer Anthony DeCurtis wrote, it wasn’t only for her sound. “It was hard not to look at her and Warhol and Morrissey understood the appeal of that—they were visual artists, after all, not musical ones. And Nico’s visual qualities, far more than anything to do with music, were the reason they installed her as the Velvet’s lead singer.” Sterling Morrison bluntly said, “We’ve got a statue in the band.”
Nevertheless, the Velvet Underground may have never got off the ground without her. Tom Wilson signed them to MGM solely because he thought Nico was a star. Her time with the band was short. After the release of their debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, in 1967, Nico went out on her own, partly at the encouragement of Jim Morrison of the Doors. As she put it, “My life started after my experience with the Velvet Underground.”
Her debut album Chelsea Girl also came out in 1967, just five months after The Velvet Underground & Nico. Its credits read like a who’s who of talented musicians. Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin, Jackson Browne, Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison all contributed to it. Unfortunately, Nico herself was allowed little input. “I still cannot listen to it,” she said of the album in1981, “because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! ... The first time I heard the album, I cried, and it was all because of the flute.”
At this point in her life, if it was ever different, Nico became, as critic Quinn Moreland put it, an “aura commodified by men who were intoxicated with the idea of Nico.” Many powerful men fought to call her their muse. Iggy Pop, Jimi Hendrix, and Leonard Cohen headline a long and distinguished list.
The Marble Index
The following year, Nico put out The Marble Index (1968). If Chelsea Girl romanticized an icy forlorn lady, The Marble Index laid bare her suicidal thoughts and difficulties. It commercially flopped but some observers have said that it gave birth to goth music. John Cale, who produced it, said of its failure, “You can’t sell suicide.” But two genre mainstays, the bands Bauhaus and The Cult, would later cite The Marble Index as an inspiration.
At this point, Nico began to detest her beautiful image, delving deeper into her addiction to heroin, and letting herself go. Warhol abandoned her because, as her keyboard player James Young put, “Her beauty had faded, her celebrity marginalized, she’d lost her iconic value as an image of the ‘European Moon Goddess’ once so essential an acquisition to the great collector’s gallery of social archetypes.”
Her longtime collaborator John Cale said, “She hated the idea of being blonde and beautiful. She hated being a woman, because she figured all her beauty had brought her was grief.” After her star faded, she did budget tours for years with her small band and troubled son, who was also addicted to heroin. She tragically died in Ibiza, Spain after a bicycling accident and a misdiagnosis for a cerebral brain hemorrhage. As she put it, “I’ve been on the top. I’ve been on the bottom. Both places are empty,”