There is a growing literature on the German singer Nico, best-known for the three songs she sings on the first Velvet Underground album. It began with a memoir by her keyboard player in the 1980s (she died in 1988), James Young ‑ Songs They Never Play on the Radio (1992, republished with a new introduction 2021), closely followed in 1993 by Richard Witts’s biography Nico: The Life & Lies of an Icon. In 1997 her French admirer Serge Féray published a study, Nico in camera. 2001 saw an autobiography by her son, Ari Boulogne, L’Amour n’oublie jamais, together with a related anthology of her writings, in English and German with French translation, Cible mouvant. Another memoir by a musician who played with her, Lutz Graf-Ulbrich’s Und ich folge meiner Spur, appeared in 2006, with an English version, Nico: In the Shadow of the Moon Goddess, in 2015. A French biography and critical study, Serge Féray’s Nico, Femme Fatale, was published in 2016. Most recent (2021) is the new biography You Are Beautiful and You Are Alone by Jennifer Bickerdike.
These all show a woman who, from her teenage years, was a successful model who fell in with the glitzy crowd of the 1960s ‑ Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison, Iggy Pop, Leonard Cohen, Andy Warhol, the Velvet Underground; who played a small but memorable part in Frederico Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, then in films by Warhol and his aide-de-camp Paul Morrissey, and by the French director Philippe Garrel ‑ films that feature long ‑ very long ‑ close-ups of her face as though that is in itself sufficient to hold the viewers’ attention. But who subsequently fell prey to a heroin addiction and was reduced to destitution, while producing a handful of mysterious and atmospheric songs which she accompanied on a harmonium. It is certainly an engaging story, but it doesn’t explain why she, as an artist in her own right, rather than as a phenomenon illustrative of certain characteristics of the age, deserves to be taken seriously (Serge Féray comes closest).
A first clue lies in the date and place of her birth. She was born (as Christa Päffgen – “Nico”’ was the professional name she adopted when she became a model) in Cologne in 1938. Cologne being in the west of Germany it was an early target of allied bombing and her mother, with her (and with her aunt and cousin) moved to Berlin. When Berlin came under attack they moved to Lübbenau, a town on the railway tracks east of Berlin that was later to be in the line of the Soviet advance. When the war ended they moved back to Berlin, a Berlin in ruins. Her father was killed in the war.
It needs to be borne in mind that the major horror she experienced was not atrocities committed by the Nazis but the destruction wrought on Berlin by the allies. She underwent the trauma experienced by so many Germans, expected as they were to feel that the suffering they endured at the hands of their enemy was their own fault. A view she may have accepted intellectually but I don’t think she accepted it emotionally.
Nico’s feelings about Germany are most obviously expressed in her song “Nibelungen”, written for The Marble Index, the first album that was made up of her own material. The words are full of nostalgia for something that she feels maybe never existed but which in any case doesn’t exist any more:
Since the first of you and me, asleep / In a Nibelungen land where we cannot be / Almond trees grow along the mountain trail / From their tongues the words are spelling / The telling numb / I cannot hear it any more
Shrieking city sun shiver in my veins / In flames I run / In flames I run / Waiting for the sign to come
Will you spell the words for me / Will you spell the words for me to hear / Nibelungen /Nibelungen / Nibelungen land
“In flames I run” evokes a memory of Nico’s Aunt Helma, quoted in both the biographies by Richard Witts and Jennifer Bickerdike: “One night I had to flee through an inferno of flames with my son in my arms. The strength of the flames lifted us up in the air. I had the sensation we were already burning.”
Another song on The Marble Index that might suggest Germany is “Frozen Warnings”:
Frozen warnings close to mine / Close to the frozen borderline
Could that be the East/West border imposed on Germany in general and Berlin in particular after the war? Could she be seeing the warning signs round the border on a very cold day?
The song continues:
Over railroad station tracks / Faintly flickers a modest cry.
Nico’s grandfather was a signalman in Lübbenau. Witts tells us “his southern box housed the levers of a pivotal junction. One line led trains from Berlin to Görlitz and Poland, the other to Dresden and Czechoslovakia” ‑ meaning that these were the lines that transported troops and, later, Jews, eastwards.
Like many of Nico’s songs, “Frozen Warnings” goes into a transcendental mode. After the “modest cry” rising above the railway tracks we have
From without a thousand cycles / A thousand cycles to come / A thousand times to win / A thousand ways to run the world / In a similar reply.
Which suggests that immense historical events will always be accompanied by the “modest cry” of the victims.
Nico’s Nibelungenland is a Germany that, she feels, doesn’t exist. And yet of course it does exist in her mind, and there is nothing unusual in that. The way in which we all imagine the world or the individual countries of the world is in itself a hard reality. Germany in Nico’s very young childhood was the defining power of the European mainland, challenged only by Bolshevik Russia (the British challenge had, it seemed, been successfully marginalised). Then, by the time she was seven years old, it collapsed into nothing ‑ a “frozen borderline”. In her estimation it ‑ at least the Western side of it ‑ was probably worse than nothing. Ludwig Erhard’s Germany was irredeemably “bourgeois” ‑ its success measured in luxury hotels, fur coats, expensive cars. Nico ‑ at least at the time she wrote the songs that interest us ‑ saw herself as a “Bohemian”, an aristocrat of the spirit, who despised all that and yet of course, for a good part of her life, as a model featured in numerous advertising campaigns, appearing on the covers of high quality fashion magazines ‑ sometimes pretending to be Swedish to hide the embarrassment of being German ‑ she was up to her neck in it.
Witts points out that one of the songs on The Marble Index – “Ari’s Song” ‑ bears a certain resemblance to William Blake’s poem (not one of his best-known) “The Land of Dreams”. In “Ari’s Song” she gives her son, Ari, some very bad advice ‑ to count on the world of dreams as better than the waking world:
Sail away, sail away my little boy / Let the wind fill your heart with light and joy
Sail away into a dream / Let the wind send you a fantasy / Of the ancient silver sea
The song has a sinister resonance when we know that later in life mother and son had in common a taste for heroin.
The Blake poem begins:
Awake, awake, my little boy …
A father is waking his son from a delightful dream. They discuss dreams and the son concludes:
Father, O father, what do we here / In this land of unbelief and fear / The Land of Dreams is better far / Above the light of the Morning Star.
“The Land of Dreams” may be relevant to another of Nico’s songs, “Mütterlein”, on the second album made up of her own material, Desertshore. In the Blake poem, the boy has been dreaming that he is with his mother who, we suppose, is dead:
“Among the lambs clothed in white / She walked with her Thomas in sweet delight / I wept for joy, like a dove I mourn ‑ / O when shall I return again?”
“Mütterlein” is addressed (in German) to Nico’s mother:
Dear little mother / Now I can finally be with you / The longing and loneliness / Are redeemed in happiness.
Nico’s mother, Grete, had only recently died. She seems to be saying here that her mother’s death is the condition of their being able to come together in happiness.
Witts is of the view that Grete’s death was a major turning point in Nico’s life. It was at this time that she launched a radical attack on her own beauty (becoming in the memorable phrase of her later keyboard player, James Young, “the baglady of rock ’n’ roll”) and became seriously committed to heroin. According to Witts: “She wrote to a friend that ‘I have found a way to turn my shame about my mother into feelings of pleasure that I can dream I am in paradise with her. I have found a way to turn day into night.’” She was ashamed of the way she had neglected Grete but, like the boy in Blake’s poem, now that she was dead she could delight in her company in dreams and, unlike the boy wondering when he could return to the land where his mother was, Nico had found a means to go there whenever she wished.
But I maybe haven’t yet finished with Blake’s “Land of Dreams”. In it, the boy says to his father:
O father, I saw my mother there / Among the lilies by waters fair
Perhaps it is farfetched to see a connection with the opening lines of Nico’s song “Julius Caesar”, also on The Marble Index:
Amidst water lily fields, white and green / Grows a tree.
But again we are in a dream land. The song continues:
And from the tree hang apples / Not for you to eat // In a way it matters more / Than it did before / To see the East voyaging through / True hearts of dunes / Mirth / Birth / Reverie.
The last verse repeats the lily fields and apples “not for you to eat” and continues
Beneath the heaving sea / Where statues and pillars and stone altars rest for all these / Aching bones to guide us far from energy // Mirth / Birth / Reverie
According to Jennifer Bickerdike: “When asked where the lyrical content came from, Nico said: ‘It has to do with my going to Berlin in 1946 when I was a little girl and seeing the entire city destroyed. I like the fallen empire, the image of the fallen empire.’” Julius Caesar is an example ‑ perhaps the archetypical example ‑ of Nico’s interest in fallen empires. Depending on how one rates Nico, the poem is a very subtle or a very chaotic mixture of images of serenity and destruction. The central figure, presumably Caesar, appears both as an imperial ruler and as a singer on a stage (Jim Morrison? or Jimi Hendrix, who also greatly impressed Nico?). The words “harmony”, “calm”, “gentle” recur:
Calm and vast, his voice cascades / From his gentle stage // Calm and vast the city lies / On a horizontal ground Kind and calm Julius lies / For Octavian to prevail // Mirth /Birth/ Reverie
“Octavian” is Augustus, who finally consolidated the Roman empire. But in all this serenity and harmony, the East is “voyaging through / True hearts of dunes”. Is there an anticipation here of the later song “Secret Side”, with its virgins waiting “tied up on the sand” for ships coming into land? Does this not evoke the allied invasion of Germany with its accompanying tide of rapes? They weren’t all committed by Soviet troops ‑ Nico claimed that she was raped by an American serviceman at the age of thirteen ‑ but the invasion as experienced in Lübbenau came from the East.
When “Secret Side” continues
Are you not loyal to your pride / Are you not on the secret side?
is that not an appeal to German pride, to feel indignation at what happened, an indignation that has to be kept “secret”, that can’t be expressed in modern Germany?
“Secret Side” is on Nico’s fourth album, The End, said to have been inspired by the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the “Red Army Faction”. It is named for the song “The End”, sung by Jim Morrison. It isn’t a song I greatly admire. It has the silly “oedipal” passage (“Father, I want to kill you. Mother, I want to …”) but it’s easy to see why Nico might have liked it given that it concerns something coming to an end with a hint (“Lost in a Roman wilderness of pain”) that it might be something to do with an ancient empire.
As befits an album reflecting on the activities of the Red Army Faction, the imagery is more violent than the serenity that characterises “Julius Caesar”, yet the ancient empire is still present. After the lines
Is there a charge against my fate, / Can’t I betray my hate? / Will I regain my father’s gait / Must the killer die?
We have the astonishing lines:
A carriage will take me to / The Valley of the Kings
I’m assuming that the killer who “must not die” is a member of the Red Army Faction and in “We’ve Got the Gold” the reference is to someone in prison:
Very proud and very poor / You’re walking on your prison floor
Someone with whom she identifies herself, at least in her pride and poverty:
Very proud and very poor / I’m waiting at your prison door
The End was released in 1974. Ulrike Meinhof had been arrested in 1972 and was being kept in solitary confinement.
But why should Nico have had feelings of sympathy with the Red Army Faction? She wasn’t obviously left-wing. Socialism is not a word that comes to mind when we think of her. The Red Army Faction is known now for various kidnappings and murders but these took place mainly in 1977. Meinhof died (apparently by suicide but in suspicious circumstances) in 1976. In its earlier phase the RAF had been responsible for the deaths of US service personnel in protest against German support (or US use of Germany) for the Vietnam war but there was also a more general detestation of the unheroic Germany that had emerged after the Nazi period. The wider movement of which the RAF was a part had targeted symbols of consumer culture, notably department stores, including KaDeWe, the Berlin equivalent of Harrods, where Nico had started her career as a model. Nico expresses her resentment against the conditions imposed by that earlier period of her life in the song (on Desertshore), “Afraid”:
Cease to know or to tell / Or to see or to be your own / Have someone else’s will as your own / … / You are beautiful and you are alone
The theme is taken up again in the song “Win a Few” (on the 1985 album Camera Obscura)
They will give you what you need / They will run your life / They will get you where they want to
With a clear indication that the situation hasn’t much changed since she became a singer:
They want your face for a magazine / They want my voice for their fears
But here I have to admit to some embarrassment because I seem to be “explaining” Nico’s lyrics when actually the main interest lies in the fact that they can’t be explained ‑ that, at their best, they have an impact that is only loosely connected to their prose meaning. The purpose of what I’ve written so far has been to show that they are not arbitrary, they are deeply rooted in her life experience. One of the proofs that the words are not arbitrary or indifferent comes in the difficulty she had writing them. This was nowhere so evident as when she was commissioned by her former musical accompanist Lutz Graf-Ulbrich to produce material for a major concert to be held in the Berlin Planetarium in 1988. She managed to produce a grand total of 122 words. One can imagine the dismay of her arranger, James Young, when confronted with the need to make a seven-minute piece of music out of the words:
I will be seven / When we meet in Heaven.
Yet these words are not arbitrary. Nico reached the age of seven in 1945, the year the war ended, Germany was defeated and, it could be thought, ceased to exist as a distinct moral entity. There is a suggestion here that Nico never really reached the age of seven and that in turn maybe echoes the mysterious lines in “Janitor of Lunacy”:
Janitor of lunacy / Paralyse my infancy / Petrify the empty cradle / Bring hope to them and me
As if to say she wished she had never been born.
My thesis, then, is that Nico’s songs are rooted in an emotional world that would have been deeply felt by many Germans after the war but which couldn’t be expressed openly. I’m not suggesting ‑ the suggestion has been made by others ‑ that she was a Nazi sympathiser. But the collapse of something that had been immensely powerful into a state of endless cringing apology necessarily leaves an emotional scar (I’m tempted to refer to the title of the film she made with Philippe Garrel ‑ La Cicatrice intérieure). The need to express something that couldn’t be expressed projected her into an inner life full of images of loss that have a power that goes beyond any prose meaning that could be assigned to them.
Three examples, chosen more or less at random, each of which I could discuss at greater length in prose but what would be the point?
1) From the song “Purple Lips” (Drama of Exile, 1981)
I have been looking out for him / From over a broken bridge /The safest place it seems to be / To ever reach his purple lips
2) from “The Hanging Gardens of Semiramis” (Fata Morgana, 1994, the Berlin Planetarium concert, recorded in 1988)
Who of all the faces could it be / Where of all the places should it be / Laughing and coughing / Coughing and laughing / In the hanging gardens of Semiramis
3) Maybe the greatest of them all, from “You forget to answer” (The End, 1974)
You seem not to be listening / You seem not to be listening / The high tide has taken everything / And you forget to answer
Well. If you’re not convinced, just go to YouTube and hear her singing them.