Remembering the charismatic “chanteuse”
The Life and Career Of Nico*
From Berlin to Chelsea Hotel, model, actress, singer, Warhol Superstar, Rock Star lover were just some of the roles Nico lived during her short but intense life. She is best remembered as one of The Velvet Underground’s vocalists on their debut album “The Velvet Underground & Nico” but Nico’s stunning songs and solo career, though often not mentioned by the mainstream, left an undeniable influence on modern music. We look back at the life of “Chelsea Girl” Christa Päffgen.
Nico was born Christa Päffgen on October 16th, 1938 in Cologne, Germany. An influential and controversial woman, she was hand picked by Andy Warhol to be part of The Velvet Underground in 1966, despite some dislike from some band members, she’s one of the first artists to use the Alternative concept in music in her solo career, her albums were not material for chart success but became highly influential on many musicians. Nico was born during Germany’s Third Reich, due to the World War II she had to move away from the city of Berlin, only In 1946, Nico and her mother relocated to downtown Berlin where she attended school until the age 13. At five feet ten inches and with chiseled features and porcelain skin, Nico rose to prominence as a fashion model when she was a teenager. She was discovered at 16 by the photographer Herbert Tobias and named Nico after her ex-boyfriend Nikos Papatakis. Nico moved to Paris where she started working for several Fashion magazines and designers. At age 17 she was asked by Coco Chanel to promote the brand Chanel, however, the already restless Nico left to New York and quit the job. After appearing in several television advertisements Nico started to get roles on European movies and worked mainly in Italy and France with directors such as Fellini, in the iconic movie “La Dolce Vita” and Alberto Lattuada in “La Tempesta”. Nico worked also with several acclaimed European and American actors during the early 1960’s, including Jean Paul Belmondo and Mario Lanza. One of Nico’s first incursions in music was in 1962 when she posed for the cover of Bill Evan’s album “Moon Beams”. In 1962 Nico gave birth to her son Ari, whose father is french actor Alain Delon, however, Delon always denied the paternity of the child, Ari was raised by Alain Delon’s mother and her husband, but during the 1960’s he traveled around with Nico, he can be seen among the Andy Warhol Factory crowd in some footage of that time. While in New York, Nico started to take acting classes with Lee Strasberg and in 1963 she debuts as a singer. In 1965, Nico meets The Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones with whom she begins a short relationship, Jones gives her the opportunity to record her first single, “I’m Not Sayin'” with the B-side “The Last Mile”, produced by Jimmy Page. Things then started to happening fast for Nico during that period, she meets people like Bob Dylan and through Brian Jones she’s introduced to some of London and New York’s elitist artist community, including Andy Warhol. She starts by starring on some of Warhol’s films ” Chelsea Girls”, “The Closet”, “Sunset” and “Imitation of Christ”, she eventually becomes a member of the crowd and a Warhol Superstar. When Warhol starts managing the band The Velvet Underground when Warhol starts managing the band, he asked them to put Nico in the band though reluctant, they agree and in fact, on The Velvet Underground debut album, titled “The Velvet Underground & Nico”, her distinctive deep vocals and accent, gave the songs and the album a special character. She sang lead vocals on three songs “Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, and backing vocal on “Sunday Morning”. This was the only studio album she recorded with them but became also their most acclaimed one. She then toured with Andy Warhol multi-media project The Exploding Plastic Inevitable. The Velvet Underground album though now considered an absolute masterpiece of music ahead of it’s time, was poorly received and a commercial faillure upon it’s release. There was friction within the band and Nico, they were not pleased with some of her habits such as the rituals before recording and performing as well as her being partially deaf and she was asked to leave the band. Still in 1967 Nico released her debut solo album “Chelsea Girl” where she recorded songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne; Lou Reed and John Cale from The Velvet Underground also participated in the album by co-writing a song for it. The album, a traditional chamber-folk album, which influenced artists such as Leonard Cohen, with strings and flute arrangements by producer Tom Wilson, didn’t really pleased Nico, that thought it had too many flutes instead of drums.
Look back at Nico’s life in photos
During that period, while L.A band The Doors are playing some shows in New York, Jim Morrison hangs out with the Andy Warhol crowd and is introduced to Nico, this meeting marks the beginning of Nico’s obsession for Morrison. Both were persons who didn’t knew any limits regarding drugs and alcohol and both considered themselves and were viewed as bohemian artists, this attracted Nico’s interest for Morrison, something she would never let go for the rest of her life. Reportedly, during their first meeting, a naked intoxicated Morrison chased Nico through a house where a party was being held while she ran and asked a friend for help claiming “Morrison is crazy”, but in the end, both understood each other and their artistic potential. Nico often stated that was Jim Morrison who encouraged her to write her own songs, and so she did. In 1969 she released “The Marble Index” on Elektra Records, the label that was known for not being afraid to take chances on less conventional bands and artists, after all, they had made their early fortune on an unconventional band, The Doors, and had signed The Stooges and MC5. “The Marble Index” it’s a stunning album, very different from her debut “Chelsea Girl”, Nico wrote the lyrics and music, the accompaniment mainly centered around Nico’s harmonium, while John Cale added an array of folk and classical instruments. The harmonium became her signature instrument for the rest of her career. A promotional film for the song “Evening of Light” was filmed by Francois de Menil. This video featured the now red-haired Nico and a young Iggy Pop. Her third album “Deseretshore” was released in 1970 and Nico returned to Europe the same year where she gave several concerts and even opened for Pink Floyd in 1972, that year she had a one-off live reunion with John Cale and Lou Reed, her former The Velvet Underground band mates, at the Bataclan in Paris. In 1971, while in Paris, Nico ran across Jim Morrison who was living there, around two weeks before he died. She later stated she saw Morrison in a car and waved him but he didn’t saw her, she later wrote the song “You Forgot To Answer” that talks about that moment. According to some of her friends, when Morrison died, Nico built a shrine for him together with candles at her apartment. In 1974 she released “The End”, that featured a tribute to Morrison, a cover of The Doors song “The End” and “You Forgot To Answer”, during this period she let her hair return from her trademark blond to its natural color of brown and took to dressing mostly in black. This would be her public image from then on. She also continued her actress career during the 1970’s, she made about 7 films with french director Phillipe Garrel. Towards the late 1970’s, Nico got aware that she was a strong influence on Punk , Post-Punk and Gothic Rock bands and artists, among her fans were Siouxsie from Siouxsie and the Banshees, Patti Smith, John Lydon of the Sex Pistols and Dave Vanian of the Damned. Though her drug habit had grew substantially during this period, Nico still kept doing new music, and returned to New York in 1979 where her comeback concert at CBGB accompanied by John Cale and Lutz Ulbrich was reviewed positively in The New York Times, Nico toured extensively throughout Europe, Japan and Australia during that period and the 1980’s. She recorded her final solo album, “Camera Obscura”, in 1985, produced by John Cale, it featured Nico’s version the song “My Funny Valentine” which was the first song she ever performed in public back in 1963. The album’s closing song was an updated version of “König”, which she had previously recorded for La cicatrice Interieure”. This was the only song on the album to feature only Nico’s voice and harmonium. A music video for “My Heart Is Empty” was filmed at The Fridge in Brixton. Nico’s final recording was of her last concert, ‘Fata Morgana’, at the Berlin Planetarium on 6 June 1988. For 15 years, Nico had a heroin habit, however she claimed to have never taken the drug while in the Velvets/Factory scene but only began using during her relationship with Philippe Garrel in the 1970s. Shortly before her death, Nico stopped using heroin and began methadone replacement therapy beginning a regimen of bicycle exercise and healthy eating. On July 18th 1988, while on vacation on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza with her son Ari, Nico had a heart attack while riding a bicycle, and she hit her head as she fell. A passing taxi driver found her unconscious, and he had difficulty getting her admitted to local hospitals. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from heat exposure, and died at eight o’clock that evening. X-rays later revealed a severe cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of death. Her son Ari later said of the incident: “In the late morning of July 17th, 1988, my mother told me she needed to go downtown to buy marijuana. She sat down in front of the mirror and wrapped a black scarf around her head. My mother stared at the mirror and took great care to wrap the scarf appropriately. Down the hill on her bike: “I’ll be back soon.” She left in the early afternoon on the hottest day of the year”. The next day on July 18th Nico had a heart attack while riding her bicycle, hitting her head as she fell. A passing taxi driver found her unconscious, and he had difficulty getting her admitted to local hospitals. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from heat exposure, and died at eight o’clock that evening from a severe cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of death. Nico was buried in her mother’s plot in Grunewald Forest Cemetery in Berlin. A few friends played a tape of “Mütterlein”, a song from “Desertshore”, at her funeral.
Legacy and Influence
Nico was a controversial artist and person, but during her lifetime she produced many iconic moments on Pop Culture and did some brillant music, her enduring influence can be heard to this day, her music doesn’t fits in any decade specifically, and often her records are labeled as Alternative, rather than Rock, the album she did with The Velvet Underground remains the most important work of the band and the songs featuring her lead vocals some of the best on it. Nico has been portrayed by many actresses on Movies, TV and Theatre, most notably and memorable, she was portrayed by Christina Fulton in the 1991 biographical film “The Doors” where her meeting with Jim Morrison is romanticized. She was later portrayed by Meredith Ostrom in the 2006 film “Factory Girl”, which chronicles the life of fellow “Warhol Superstar”, Edie Sedgwick.
Watch a 1966 Warhol film clip featuring Nico with The Velvet Underground song “I’ll Be Your Mirror”
Watch the 1969 music film for the song “Evening Of Light” by Nico, featuring Iggy Pop
Listen to a selection of Nico songs compiled by Pop Expresso on Spotify
*Article originally published for Nico’s birthday
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