Richard Warren

20thc British art and poetry (mainly), plus bits of my own – "Clearly I tap to you clearly along the plumbing of the world" (W S Graham)

Nico, the moving target

cible mouvanteAn earlier post on the poetic status of the heroic and heroin-riddled chanteuse Nico was made in shameful ignorance of this – Cible Mouvante, her collected writings as scrounged together by her son Ari Boulogne, and published by Pauvert in 2001. Translations into French are by Daniel Bismuth and the whole thing is organised by Serge Féray, with a brief preface by Ari, le petit chevalier himself.

The collected lyrics are useful, but the main interest has to be the previously unpublished stuff, a mélange of poems, drafts and fragments, together with the surviving pages of the “journal” that was to make her fortune; these latter drift between diary entries, thoughts for the day and stream of (un)consciousness meanderings. Much else must have been lost or discarded along the way. It’s maybe not the “Collected” we would have wanted, but it’s a long way better than nothing at all. Much (the journal included) was written in English, and is set alongside the French translations, making it considerably accessible for the English reader.

What’s intended as poetry is not extensive. Some pieces are clearly first drafts, offhand jottings. Others are more resolved. Some are rather good:

Neutrino

Give me my stage the only territory
That belongs to me alone
There are a few other examples
They might be in a house
A theatre in a country that has deceased
My stage belongs to a country
That has not yet been born
On a planet not yet named
It is the biggest stage of the universe
I had to leave some time ago
You cannot see it
90 million miles away from here
Neutrino is

The Model Millionaire

Do not look at him as he appears
His guises they are rags like mine
And do not think that his rags are poor
A model millionaire has a choice of rags
To suit his soul to wear
Better than an overcrowded sphere
A man that hides between the crowd
Of faces crying for some fun …

It’s also interesting to see the thin remains of evidence that Nico did in fact re-draft and hack quite hard in the transition from a “poem” to a song lyric, as Féray notes:

Reading the first drafts of the poems sung in Fata Morgana, and collected here, we can appreciate the work of pruning achieved by the author before making “public” her “intimacy.” (My translation)

This goes against the conventional wisdom. “As usual, Nico only had a few sketches,” comments her keyboard player James Young in his account of the preparations for her last concert, at the Berlin Planetarium. But Young often seems gratuitously waspish for the sake of a good yarn. Biographer Richard Witts makes the same assumption, asserting that “she’d written next to nothing. One song comprised two lines.” It’s true that I Will be Seven, as played at the concert and released on the (official) Fata Morgana CD and the (rip off) Hanging Gardens does indeed contain just two lines of lyrics:

I I will be seven
When we meet in heaven

But these have to be set against the extremely rough draft from which they were refined:

On a Cross-Road in Shanghai

There was grace
nicoAt other a time there was a face
What I see (at the present time) today
Is so different and does not
Make me smile at what makes me sight
Can you ask me to be blind
It (there) will be a day perhaps in December
for everybody to remember
on a crossroad in Shanghai
you can be the story of my life
and I I will be seven
when we shall meet in heaven
You can be a crocodile
And I I will be seven
on a crossroad in Shanghai
you stand as one (stands) in a dream.

As her ability to write receded, she was absolutely correct to trim away all the obvious dross, leaving herself with the two decent lines remaining. It shows commendable integrity. Likewise, the three surviving sung lines of Your Voice must have been boiled down from something considerably longer, but the sacrificed text no longer exists.

While this –

A hazy horizon is closing
The curtain to a perfect stage
I stumble twisted slightly
Atrociously the world
Is landing at my feet
Who of all the faces would it be
Where of all the places should it be
(Late as always you enter
wondering who is standing in center)
Laughing and coughing
Coughing and laughing
In the hanging gardens of Semiramis

– is judiciously reshaped to this:

The Hanging Gardens of Semiramis

A hazy horizon is closing
The curtain to a perfect stage
How I stumbled twisted slightly
Atrociously
The world is landing at my feet

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

Incidentally, there is something of a Nico-spotting industry these days, her countless early anonymous appearances in fashion pages, knitting patterns and so on being assiduously clocked and posted on Nico sites or flogged off on eBay. This can throw up some telling juxtapositions.

der stern

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