“I’m flying to Ibiza. It’s my favourite place, and I think I’ll die there.” And 28 years ago today, Nico fulfilled her own prophecy after a fatal bicycle fall on the Spanish island she loved so much. She was 49. It was an inglorious if wryly self-scripted end for this legendary enigma whose lifetime of extraordinary successes and equally extraordinary failures had always been determined by a singular wilfulness. Born Christa Päffgen in Nazi Germany, at 14 she decided she was going to be a top model. So she loitered outside Berlin’s most upmarket department store, undismayed by those who told her that was not the way to be discovered. Within days, the 5’10” beauty was spotted by German couturier Ostergaard. With similar self-purpose, she conquered Paris, launched her film career in Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita”, and caught the attention of Andrew Loog Oldham – who was set to make her his Next Big Thing until Andy Warhol intercepted and catapulted her to Superstardom. As the Velvet Underground’s Aryan chanteuse, Nico was shrouded in an aura of mystery and cool. She inspired songs by Dylan, Jackson Browne and Lou Reed. She had affairs with all of them, as well as Brian Jones, Tim Buckley, Iggy Pop and Jim Morrison – who told her she should get serious, stop relying on other musicians, and become a poet and songwriter herself. So she did. In yet another extraordinary act of self-determination, she bought a portable harmonium, taught herself to play, and lay for hours in a darkened bath surrounded by candles until those Grimm lyrics came forth. The result was The Marble Index, a work of enduring otherworldy genius with its sepulchral death drones from the depths of who the fuck knows where.
But then, with that same monolithic resolve, Nico elected to self-destruct. She refused to be beautiful. Commenting on “I’ll Be Your Mirror”, which Lou Reed had written for her, she said: ‘I can’t identify with it – to notice only the beautiful and not the ugliness.’ She demanded to be a heroin addict with a frighteningly pragmatic rationale: ‘I have too many thoughts’ and ‘it is better to be addicted to opium than it is to be addicted to money.’ While her audience and former colleagues observed the resultant train wreck with decreasing interest and pity, Nico herself – as ever – was doing precisely what she wanted.
Towards the end of her life, she said her only regret was she hadn’t been born a man. As it was, she was one of the greatest outsider women of the twentieth century.
An excellent piece, Dorian. Thank you.
I had just been looking through a collection of photos of Nico from her modelling days photographed by Herbert Tobias through dressed like Batman to Warhol’s Robin (perfect) to 1967 at the Castle in L.A. I noticed a decided change in her features post-Morrison as colour shots of her by Guy Webster during “The Marble Index” photo shoot attest: her hair is strawberry blonde, her face gaunt and her hands are like spiders. But by 1970, in Kensington Gardens, she’s dressed from head to toe in black: black hair, black greatcoat with cape and probably: some matching black thoughts as well. Except for the severe bangs, she pretty much kept to looking more or less exactly like that for the rest of her life.
Good call, Seth Man. As we know, Jim loved redheads – hence Nico’s change in hair colour, which she maintained for the rest of her days as a lasting tribute to Mr Mojo Risin’.
Thank you Dorian for this most excellent paen to Nico one of the most underrated female singers of all time and for continuing to champion the under loved.
‘The songs they never play on the radio’ by James Young is a really good book about Nico’s later years.
It was serialised on Radio 4 some years back, and it is one of the few paparbacks I haven’t passed on to charity shops.
Nico was supremely attractive, and a great pity she felt drawn to heroin- as many were [and are] because of the cocooning dark ‘glamour’ of the stuff.
A tragedy that Nico died just when she may have been coming to a happier phase in her life- being misdiagnosed with a cerebral stroke, maybe Ibiza in the ’80’s wasn’t geared up for such medical emergencies.
Her remarkable voice and presence sums up the 1970’s, a dark shadow following the bright optimism of the 1960’s.
Thanks , good read xx