Richard Warren

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

Tag Archives: Nico

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The collected lyrics are useful, but the main interest has to be the previously unpublished stuff, a mélange of poems, drafts and fragments, together with the surviving pages of the “journal” that was to make her fortune; these latter drift between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.

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Nico, Beckett, Keaton and the not-self

Curious sometimes how people and things one has put in quite discrete boxes seem to slide into unexpected overlap. Or at least approach each other, moving into relation:

Nico does some mod modelling in Times Square, autumn 1964. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

“I do not read biographs. They are full of lies, in fact, because they say life has a beginning, a middle and an end. I do not believe in the middle.

You can only say one thing at the end – Nico has survived these indignities. Biographs tell you that somebody moves through life. I am saying that my life moves after me. Do you follow me?

Well, I would like a novel about me because it will come from the imagination and so it will explain my mind, not my life. My mind and my life are two different things. My mind is called Christa. My life is Nico. Christa had made Nico, and now she is bored with Nico because Nico is bored with herself. Nico has been to the top of life and to the bottom. Both places are empty; she has discovered this. But Nico does not want to be in the middle either, where people turn their back on each other. To avoid these places of unhappiness it is better to be nowhere, and drift.”

Nico, c 1981.

Buster Keaton as "O" on the set of Samuel Beckett's 'Film', near Brooklyn Bridge,  July 1964. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

Buster Keaton as “O” on the set of Samuel Beckett’s ‘Film’, near Brooklyn Bridge, July 1964. Photo by Steve Schapiro.

 

“After the fiasco, the solace, the repose, I began again, to try and live, cause to live, be another, in myself, in another. How false all this is. No time now to explain. I began again. But little by little with a different aim, no longer in order to succeed, but in order to fail.

My concern is not with me, but with another, far beneath me and whom I try to envy, of whose crass adventures I can now tell at last, I don’t know how. Of myself I could never tell …

To show myself now, on the point of vanishing, at the same time as the stranger, and by the same grace, that would be no ordinary last straw. Then live, long enough to feel behind my closed eyes, other eyes close. What an end.”

Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies, 1951.

(For previous – unrelated – posts on both Nico and Beckett, use the tabs below.)

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
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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