Before Nico was one of Andy Warhol’s ‘Superstars’, before she sang with the Velvet Underground and made six solo albums, she was known as ‘the girl from La Dolce Vita’. Fellini had spotted her hanging around on set and gave her a small part as a model called Nico. Nico wears beatnik black and her space-age platinum hair is loose. She glides through four languages and moves with theatrical lightness while taking charge of every shot. As she propels Marcello Mastroianni into a car, redirects a conversation and battles with her fiancé as they dance, you can feel her intent. It’s delightful to watch her and a relief not to be in the same room.
Nico was 21 and had already settled on her persona. Her real name was Christa Päffgen and, as Jennifer Otter Bickerdike confirms in one of several painstaking clarifications, she was born in Cologne in 1938, a month before Kristallnacht. Her father came from a wealthy Catholic family which did not approve of her mother, a Protestant in the process of getting divorced. He was conscripted to the Wehrmacht and listed as killed in action, although the family story was that he suffered a brain injury and was finished off by his fellow soldiers.
In any account of Nico’s life, in the interviews and anecdotes, there is more than the usual tension around the truth. She was a storyteller who was relaxed about detail and said she lied to keep things interesting. It doesn’t help that her childhood memories read like news stories. Did she really stand by the railway tracks as trains passed on their way to the camps and villagers tried to offer water and food? Was she raped at thirteen in occupied Berlin by an American soldier, who was then court-martialled and hanged? Her family couldn’t recall either incident, which is not to say they didn’t happen. A child might not tell; collective memories of trauma can knit with those of the individual. Perhaps we should just listen. If she’s not telling the truth what is she trying to say?
The precariousness of her childhood became something she perpetuated, as if instability were familiar and therefore comforting. She never settled in a home or family life, preferring the freedom of passing lovers, different countries and borrowed rooms. She had the detachment of those who’ve survived by stepping outside themselves and a need for control that spiralled into inertia. She enjoined others to help her and most of the time they did. Her smile is that of someone trying not to laugh because everything is so absurd. Her laugh sounds like a form of deflection. Her cousin Ulrich remembers her as ‘a very giggly girl, but not in a relaxed way’.
After the war, her mother, Grete, was scrambling to make a living as a seamstress in a shattered and dangerous city. In a place where it was safest to pass unnoticed, the adolescent Christa had to make herself as visible as possible in order to get work. Modelling was ‘what seemed easiest to me. I had to take care of myself and my mother.’ She hung around Berlin’s smartest department store, KaDeWe, until she was offered a job as a mannequin. For her this was an ‘alternative school. I understood why everything had to be just as it was; I could see the effect of a walk, a turn, a position.’ She sounds relieved to have learned how to organise her impact. At sixteen, she moved to Paris, modelling for Elle and Dior, and started spending time in Ibiza, where she had discovered the jazz scene.
Nico capitalised on being the girl from La Dolce Vita, landing a starring role in René Clément’s Plein Soleil, only to confuse the filming dates. She arrived to find that she’d been replaced, but stuck around and had a fling with the lead, Alain Delon. This led to the birth of her son, Ari, whose paternity Delon has always denied. Soon Grete was looking after the child alone in Ibiza although she was suffering from Parkinson’s, delusions and paranoia. Ari was rescued by Delon’s family (against his wishes) and brought up by them in France. Every so often Nico would appear and carry him off for a while until Delon’s mother insisted that he needed an education and a routine. She said Nico saw him once in three years; Nico claimed she was refused access.
Biographies convince us by being authoritative rather than objective. The musician Richard Witts, whose biography of Nico was published in 1993, was asked by her to write her life. She wanted him to make it like a novel and he did, dramatising postwar Berlin, Paris in the 1950s, New York and London in the 1960s and 1970s, Manchester in the 1980s. Otter Bickerdike’s approach is to clear space around her subject, to return to the source where she can, and to lay out the versions and parts. It’s as if someone has turned down the music and switched on the lights and now you can hear what everyone’s saying. The two books complement each other.
The scenes Nico moved through were managed by men and it is largely men who speak about her here. They controlled the access, possessed the means and held the expertise. They also, as she said, ‘did not assume that you had intelligence’. A photographer conferred on her the name of a man he’d loved. Another came up with the look she never really altered, beyond darkening her hair and wearing heavier versions of beatnik black. Bob Dylan steered her away from torch songs, Jim Morrison told her to learn an instrument and write her own songs, and Ornette Coleman helped her to find her way of playing the harmonium.
Her relationships with a series of rock stars are the subject of titillation and myth. She records them, and her feelings, in an open, detached manner. Brian Jones, incapacitated by drugs, pursued other ways to penetrate her body: ‘I found it fascinating and frightening.’ Of Morrison she says: ‘We hit each other because we were drunk and we enjoyed the sensation.’ Both Morrison and Jones are described as little brothers – small boys requiring care. Iggy Pop says that ‘she was older and from somewhere else, and the first foreign person I can remember having a lot of contact with … And she was extremely strong … like hanging out with a guy … A tough-minded, egotistical, artistic kind of guy.’ She spent months in a farmhouse with his band even though they ‘didn’t want any girl in the house, especially one who had a very deep voice’. She taught Pop about wine and advised him to wear his hair over his face: ‘Your face is not to be seen.’
She was businesslike about her looks, but didn’t bother to hide her disdain for those who failed to match her. ‘I was tall, I was blonde, and was dignified. Nothing more is needed to make an effect. It is short people who need technique. Andy Warhol has technique. I had none.’ Otter Bickerdike cuts the mention of Warhol, but the reference shows contempt. Nico had a history of making racist remarks, contextualised by her biographers in terms of trauma, the times, irony and a desire to shock, but the incidents accumulate into a virulence she chose not to repress.
Nico was what is now called ‘extra’ and used to be called ‘too much’. Her relationship with her own presence is what makes her so potent. She’s there and not there. You can’t take your eyes off her, but don’t feel you’ve properly seen her. Mary Woronov, who performed with her as part of Warhol’s ‘Exploding Plastic Inevitable’ in 1966, conjures her as a sexual vortex: ‘even the furniture … groaned out loud when she walked into the room. I had seen chairs creep across the carpet in hopes that she might sit down on them.’ Her beauty was alienating, like that of Chaucer’s Criseyde – so heavenly perfect that she might have been sent down to earth in a scorning of nature. It didn’t help that she was readily scornful.
You can see her on film, talking to Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman in one of those rooms where an entourage goes to pass the time. He’s describing a singer who disarmed record company executives by turning up at a meeting with a yellow ribbon in her hair. Nico, then at the start of her own music career, asks if he thinks a ribbon would suit her. This seems ironic but Grossman takes it straight. No, he says. ‘You’d have to find your own thing.’ She recalibrates but can’t let go of that ridiculous ribbon: ‘She never thought of herself looking like a fool?’ Grossman is taken aback. ‘You think that would be the worst thing … to look like a fool?’ Of course.
In 1965, Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey invited her into the Factory, where she featured in a number of their films. They also inserted her into the Velvet Underground, the Factory’s nascent house band. The collaboration produced a definitive album, The Velvet Underground & Nico, on which she sings some of the band’s best-known tracks, but they were not welcoming. John Cale recalled that, listening back to rehearsal tapes, they would ‘hear her go off-key or hit the wrong pitch at the start. We would sit there and snigger.’ Lou Reed, understandably, wanted to sing his songs himself, but Warhol and Morrissey were determined to have Nico. She sang her few songs and was otherwise left to look cool and play a tambourine. The band could not manage her charisma or the fact that she brought such a powerful strangeness to their work. Her sense of pitch and rhythm are somehow so peculiar that it can be hard to decide whether she’s playing in time or singing in tune. Her summary of her relationship with the band is typically multifaceted: ‘I was the contrast, the gentler side. But I admired them because they weren’t afraid to be bad. I thought they were very honest, and I wasn’t doing anything at the time.’ They diminished her contribution. Maureen Tucker: ‘It was just something to do for fun on the first album.’ Lou Reed: ‘It was fun that she was there and it was fun that she wasn’t.’
Just before this, Nico had been in London, where the manager of the Stones took her up and put out a single, a song she hadn’t chosen and didn’t like. While working with the Velvet Underground, she made a solo album called Chelsea Girl. Along with songs written by the likes of Reed, Cale, Sterling Morrison and Jackson Browne, she also recorded a version of Dylan’s ‘I’ll Keep It with Mine’, which she said he wrote for her (although he did not like her singing along). It’s an awkward fit. Neither she nor the song can adapt to the other. Nico hated the album’s production, in which she had no say, and dismissed it: ‘Most pop music to me is noise, alright?’
Despite hostility and disappointment, she didn’t modify herself. She became stronger and clearer. Her voice was as limited as it was powerful, but it suited her nature and she grew to understand it and use it well. Critics called it ‘bland’, ‘smooth’ and ‘computerised’, perhaps because she didn’t ornament or emote. Her phrasing is like a series of straight lines. In Los Angeles, she applied herself to finding her own sound and moved in with another Warhol Superstar, Viva, who’d soon had enough of the harmonium. ‘She would practise it for hours, simple things, chords – really annoying stuff … She’d pull the curtains across and light candles around her and do this funereal singing all day long.’ The music manager Danny Fields was at her debut solo gig: she was ‘like a child discovering a musical instrument for the first time. She would just press one note and bend her ear toward the keyboard and listen to it, and press it again.’ Frank Zappa was in the audience, and after Nico left the stage, did a parody of her set, playing random chords and yelling nonsense. Perhaps he couldn’t bear her seriousness, that she took her time and listened to herself, leaning into the note rather than towards him. Interest in her faded. People wanted the Chelsea Girl, the girl from La Dolce Vita. Why couldn’t she be fun?
Between 1968 and 1974, Nico made the trilogy of albums that stand as her finest work: The Marble Index, Desertshore and The End. ‘The songs were already in Nico’s head,’ according to Cale, who produced them. ‘I got lucky and found a very strong personality … who threw me against the wall and I had to come and bounce back.’ The title of the first album is taken from Wordsworth: ‘The marble index of a mind forever/Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone.’ Her thoughts do read like strange seas. They don’t complete themselves as a single attitude or feeling and can read as contradictions. A natural linguist, she played with English. When urging a friend to help her get signed by the same record label as ‘a few friends (Is Lou Reed still there?)’, she wrote: ‘So maybe we can make the whole … exposure or whatever you like to call it … make it a parliament!’ Her lyrics have the same disjunctive quality as her thoughts – ‘Have someone else’s will as your own/You are beautiful and you are alone’ – as well as their childlike free-form precision: ‘The morning small, the evening tall’; ‘I cannot understand the way I feel/Until I rest on lawns of dawns/Can you follow me?’
She may have guarded her responses to the point of arrest, but this music is terrifying in its lack of emotional limits. As Cale said, ‘The Marble Index isn’t a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.’ The End includes her elegy for Jim Morrison, who drove past her in Paris on the day he died: ‘When I remember what to say … you forget to answer.’ Her version of the Doors song ‘The End’ is not so much a tribute as a takeover. She and Cale slow the pace and knock out the frame so that there is no consoling background groove. Nico is so commanding, so clear, that she makes Morrison sound as if he’s just woken up under the carpet.
In 1969, she became involved with the actor and director Philippe Garrel and moved into his apartment in Paris where they lived in conscious squalor, taking heroin and making experimental films (Le Bleu des origines: ‘At the top of a neoclassical building, a man looks at the sky, a woman reads, hair in the wind’). Garrel made them both clothes – rough medieval garments in black or white – and Nico embraced her own dilapidation: ‘my old friends … are all kind of hostile to me because I do not see myself running around like a doll. I look more like a prehistoric figure with rags hanging around her and worn-out boots.’ Those who knew her before said she was ‘hideous’ and ‘contaminated’. No one said she was ill. Ari was reunited with his mother in 1979, often travelling with her and joining in her addiction. ‘She gave me everything, even the drugs.’ They shared needles. ‘We were a magical and thrilling couple … I was with her now and no one could separate us. Living with her became an absolute adventure, terrible and enchanting at the same time.’
This book is a feat of organisation. Even so, I lost track. Nico is in Paris when I thought she was still in New York. Ari is in the studio, the club, the hotel room, when I thought he was in Ibiza or France. People leave and reappear. There are no clear beginnings or endings. When Nico was most artistically sure of herself, heroin took over. From then on, her life wasn’t one thing after another but a circle that got smaller and moved more slowly until it barely moved at all.
The New Wave scene emerged in Britain in the late 1970s when Nico was living in London. Bands like Siouxsie and the Banshees, the Adverts and Cabaret Voltaire revered the Velvet Underground and invited her to open their shows. The audience was divided between those who were in awe of her place in musical history and those who saw a middle-aged woman droning along to a weird little organ. The latter hurled beer cans and mocked and spat perhaps because, like Zappa, they could not bear her seriousness. One night she responded: ‘If I had a machine gun, I would shoot you all.’ She would have been serious about that, too. For young women navigating the music scene, Nico stood as encouragement to hold your ground and stay in the room, to become more yourself. She was also evidence of what it might cost.
She turned up to perform in Manchester in 1981 and stayed there for the next seven years. Alan Wise, one of the founders of Factory Records, took her on. ‘She was travelling around just on her own with a guy called Robert. They had no money, no food, and she seemed a free spirit, looked a bit desperate. So that immediately attracted me.’ Wise despatched the guy called Robert back to London and found Nico a place to stay. She needed money to buy heroin. He put together musicians and sent her on tour. The stories of his management are a queasy mix of devotion, exploitation and imposition.
In the last six years of her life, Nico played more than 1200 shows in Europe and America, moving from one minibus and motel room to the next. Witt heard her in 1983 and remembers being struck by her ‘deep, clear, contralto tone, free of vibrato and exact of pitch’. He speaks of her accuracy and discipline. There is also video footage from this period in which she is slurring, ashen and glazed, and her pupils are pinpricks. Her management made sure she had heroin because otherwise she got drunk. ‘Nico’d run out of money,’ Una Baines of Blue Orchids, who toured with her, said, ‘and we were just so in love with her we wanted to put all our money together and buy her some heroin.’ After being hospitalised for septicaemia, she entered a methadone programme.
In July 1988, she was with Ari in Ibiza when she went out on her bike. She was found by the side of the road, unable to communicate. There are different versions of what happened: she had fallen down an embankment or been hit by a car; she was rescued by a couple or a taxi driver or other passers-by. At the hospital, she was turned away as a vagrant junkie. A second hospital refused her on the basis that she had no health insurance. A third wouldn’t treat her because she was ‘an old hippie’. She was admitted to a fourth and parked in a corridor for the night. Eventually someone realised she’d had a brain haemorrhage. They tried to treat her, but couldn’t get a needle into her worn-out veins. She died that day. Ari said that she had put a volume of Mark Twain in her pocket before she set out. In the version of the story in which the couple found her, she was clutching a book by Oscar Wilde.