Richard Warren

"Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Nico’s stare

An arrangement of poets: Nico and Clarke

An arrangement of poets: Nico and Clarke

The recent media re-emergence of the worthy John Cooper Clarke (website here) reminds me of his ‘eighties “domestic arrangement” with the late lamented and incomparable Nico (Christa Päffgen – encyclopaedic website here), she of the harmonium and the frozen angst. Though by all accounts it was an arrangement arranged entirely around heroin, which must have left little room to share much else, least of all writing. Song lyrics don’t often survive as poetry on the bare page, stripped of their music (Lou Reed is not Delmore Schwartz, nor even Edgar Allen Poe), but some of Nico’s do. Agreed, her efforts in the years preceding her death are understandably slighter (though musically the later years are by no means a decline). But much else stands. It’s hard to account for the compelling feel of, say:

Friar hermit stumbles over the cloudy borderline

– but it does compel, at least for me.

Friar hermit stumbles over
The cloudy borderline
Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline
Frozen warnings close to mine
Close to the frozen borderline

Over railroad station tracks
Faintly flickers a modest cry
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

An interesting question is: where did all this spring from in the first place? In the very readable chronicle of his Nico years, Songs they never play on the radio, James Young, her keyboard player and arranger in the ‘eighties, wrote that, with her own material, the pop princess and model had “revert[ed] to her real singing style – dark, European and deeply melancholic”. But what had there been to revert to? Elsewhere, certain tags are far too easy and sniffy, and obscure rather than explain, e.g. “girlish Gothic … spacey romanticism” (John Rockwell, New York Times). Nothing like The Marble Index had yet been heard in 1969, though lieder is at least a point of comparison. All admit that Nico’s art was “unsuspected”, to put it mildly; it’s as if it landed from somewhere else. But from where?

The rump of Throbbing Gristle, as X-TG, has recently “reimagined” Nico’s Desertshore, their guest vocalists struggling against the relentless industrial loops. (Marc Almond, sounding oddly like Anthony Newley, being the best of the bunch.) Their album’s Amazon blurb speaks of “a repurposing of Nico’s maudlin, scraping sorrow”. Sorrow, yes. Scraping, possibly. Maudlin? Meaning foolishly sentimental? Don’t think so. TG were developing their “industrial” aesthetic at precisely the point where Thatcher was about to abolish British industry. Their own work is certainly nostalgic, romantic, Wagnerian – sentimental, even. Nico’s songs (with one or two exceptions, such as the much covered “Afraid”) are not sentimental. Neither do they call for any “repurposing”.

If her trappings were sometimes romantic-symbolist (watching her in Philippe Garrel’s La Cicatrice Interieure is like watching animated Puvis de Chavannes), it was at least a Symbolism without referents. But the words and the music are never soft. It is a Northern aesthetic, hard, cold, isolated, speaking of a genuine emptiness.

Much written on Nico (though I’m no completist) seems self-indulgent rock “journalism” (e.g. Lester Bangs), or is clearly not to be trusted. (For instance, Peter Hogan’s Rough Guide to the Velvet Underground judges the cover for her last album Camera Obscura to be “possibly Nico’s most enigmatic … redolent of angst and unseen threat”; unfortunately, neither image nor angst here are Nico’s, the album illustrated being by indie pop duo Camera Obscura.) In his account, James Young bigs up the sordid side waspishly. But one feels that he must have Nico about right – a selfish monster whose rare gratitude “was so transparently insincere that it was almost endearing”.

Discographia Obscura

Discographia Obscura

There is nothing good about heroin. At all. As anyone who has witnessed its impact on users and their families knows. But there is something extraordinary, heroic in some sense of the word, about Nico’s demolition and reinvention of herself, her loathing and repudiation of her own beauty. Young again:

“In photographs the light seemed to carve and recreate her … Close up it was a different picture. The long blonde hair of the Chelsea Girl was now a greying brown, her facial skin puffed and slack, her hands and arms scabbed and scarred by needletracks, and her eyes like a broken mirror. It wasn’t necessarily the years that had been unkind to her … but the woman herself. She had simply traded in her previous glamorous image for something altogether more unappealing. Yet she didn’t seem to care …”

In the 1995 Nico Icon documentary, Young goes a step further:

“She was almost proud of the fact that her teeth were rotten, that her hair was grey, that her skin was bad, that she had needletracks all over …”

Suffering in itself doesn’t guarantee authenticity. But bloody hell, it must go some way towards it. We should take Nico’s writing seriously. The thousand yard stare from behind the microphone requires us to.

nicoAcross from behind my window screen
Demon is dancing down the scene
In a crucial parody
Demon is dancing down the scene
He is calling and throwing
His arms up in the air
And no one is there

All of them are missing as the game
Comes to a start
No one is there

3 responses to “Nico’s stare

  1. peter boughton October 20, 2013 at 8:59 pm

    Frozen Warnings is probably my favourite Nico song (that, or The Falconer, with its jaw dropping key change)- do her lyrics work as ‘poetry’ ? Not sure that they do – the songs seem so dependent on the diseased drone of the harmonium and Nico’s portentous, bitter, vulnerable delivery. I quite like the TG album – Anthony and Blixa Bargeld seem to capture something of her spirit.

    • richardawarren November 3, 2013 at 3:52 pm

      Think I agree with you on the choice of songs. Checking Richard Witts’s biography, it seems that Nico cited Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell as influences, but couldn’t actually remember the name of either, so, well, maybe not. Otherwise, the English romantics, specifically Coleridge – but how much Coleridge?? – and Blake, as introduced to her by Jim Morrison, who also encouraged her to keep notes of dreams as a basis for her writing. And what about her friendship with Leonard Cohen? But it’s also clear from Witts that rather earlier, in Paris, Nico had known the ageing Tristan Tzara, no less, who, she claimed, encouraged her to “play with words”. Now that’s a real category bender!

  2. peter boughton November 3, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    Very interesting! I’ll have to check the biography out. I suppose you might at a push see traces of ‘Sheep in Fog’ in ‘Frozen Warnings’ – but Lowell? It’s odd how song writers often compare their work to poetry – as if the well-crafted lyric wasn’t an art in itself. I know that there are obvious examples of songwriters that are drawn into the canon by academia (e.g. Cohen, Dylan) There are also horror stories: Paul McCartney’s ‘Collected Works’ was particularly shocking. His poems were just awful, and songs like ‘Eleanor Rigby’ seem schmalzy and contrived when they’re stripped of their musical context. Great blog by the way – I learn something new with virtually every post

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