The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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OCT 2022 Issue

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike’s You are Beautiful and You are Alone: The Biography of Nico

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike
You are Beautiful and You are Alone: The Biography of Nico
(Hachette, 2021)

Gerard Malanga once said, “If there exists a beauty so universal as to be unquestionable, Nico possessed it.” I myself discovered Nico like most people probably do, through the Velvet Underground. Her deep, powerful voice, complete with heavy German accent and discordant, though somehow strangely endearing, mispronunciation, provides the vocals on the otherwise sunny “I’ll Be Your Mirror” and the droning masterpiece “All Tomorrow’s Parties.” The effect of her uncanny singing voice is both initially unsettling and somehow weirdly soothing. It’s like nothing else in the known universe, and it’s what elevates the Velvets’ already brilliant first album to its place among the greatest rock and roll records of all time.

Malanga was, of course, the house photographer at Andy Warhol’s Factory, and it was Warhol who chose Nico to front the Velvets, despite, as Jennifer Otter Bickerdike points out in her insightful and eminently readable You are Beautiful and You are Alone: The Biography of Nico, the often vehement protests of the other four band members. Lou Reed, in particular, deeply resented having Nico thrust upon them and grudgingly allowed her to sing only the two aforementioned songs. (He did later relent and allow her to record a handful more, which appear on Chelsea Girl, her first solo album.) Bickerdike tells us that Warhol chose the statuesque former model for her striking image—a beautiful, blond, Germanic goddess—and for the contrast she provided with the rest of the members of the group, grubby little heroin addicts wearing dark glasses. The effect is indeed arresting: as seen in video footage of their performances, Nico, dressed all in white and towering over the rest of the black-clad band, stands stoic and almost immobile, like an ice queen amid her court. Seemingly unapproachable, she could be imperious, domineering, or as DJ John Peel says, “stunningly rude.”

Perhaps, on the other hand, Warhol had more in mind than mere image: for all his greatness, Reed is not much of a singer, whereas Nico is a magnificent one. But could even Warhol have known that she would turn out to be the darkest of them all? It wasn’t long after she left the Velvets that Nico began her lifelong project of deconstructing her beauty—paradoxically rejecting the very thing that had brought her this far. Her eighties band mate James Young says she did it for art—or, in other words, so she would be taken seriously as an artist. Or maybe it was just the heroin. In any event, glorying in her rotting teeth and poor hygiene, the former Vogue model soon settled on what would become her standard anti-fashion outfit, covering herself head to toe in long black garb, including a long skirt and coat even in summer, and clunky motorcycle boots, letting her hair revert to its natural brown shade, or else dying it a severe black.

The Velvets may not have sold many albums, at least initially, but Nico’s solo track record was even worse. After record company executives tried in vain to package her as a hippie folk singer on her first solo album, Chelsea Girl, which she abominated (though it contains the five leftover Velvet Underground songs that constitute some of her best work), Nico was pretty much left to her own eccentric devices. Her more representative second album, The Marble Index, for which she learned to play the harmonium—accompanying herself on this organ-like instrument like some kind of reverse Phantom of the Opera—is dark, strange, eerie, and tortured, and not for the faint of heart. “We couldn’t listen to it all the way through,” John Cale, Nico’s former Velvets band member and the producer of the album says, “She was really in pain… It kind of made us want to slit our wrists. After it was finished, we genuinely thought people might kill themselves. The Marble Index isn’t a record you listen to. It’s a hole you fall into.” Critics, all of them struck by the decline of Nico’s legendary beauty, delivered the near universal verdict: gloomy, depressing music sung by a gloomy, depressing nutcase with an old, leaky harmonium. Not to be deterred, marketing geniuses at the record company tried to turn this sentiment to advantage, marketing a later Nico album, The End, with the tagline: “Why Waste Time Committing Suicide When You Could Buy This Album.”

In You are Beautiful and You are Alone, Jennifer Otter Bickerdike sets as her subject the untangling of the puzzle that is Nico. In the straightforward, easy to read prose of this well-researched and annotated book, Bickerdike warns us not to be taken in by misogynistic accounts that rely on shop-worn stereotypes of sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll, insisting instead that Nico’s life provides “a chilling modern narrative on the fetishism of beauty, ageism, and the romanticization of death.” Born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany in 1938, young Nico grew up amid the wreckage of the Allied bombing campaigns, living in an orphanage for a time when her mother was unable to support her. (Her father, a German soldier, died in the war.) In a disturbing formative incident, Nico claimed that, at age thirteen, she was raped by a Black American soldier who was subsequently tried and hanged for the crime—although no records of the case have ever been found. Despite this traumatic encounter, Nico’s classic good looks helped her land a top modeling career while she was still a teen; this was also the source of the name she would use for the rest of her life. The modeling career took her to Paris and opened the door to a possible acting career in French film. She appeared in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, but various missed opportunities conspired to deny her a starring role in a mainstream film. Her work did, however, bring her to the attention of the French movie star Alain Delon, with whom she had a brief affair and a son, Ari. It was then, in the mid-sixties, that she fell in with Andy Warhol and the Factory Scene, replacing Edie Sedgwick as the reigning Superstar. Nico appeared in nine Warhol movies, including The Closet, The Imitation of Christ, and two segments of the famous Chelsea Girls, one in which she has colored lights shined in her face at a performance of Warhol’s “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” and another about which she says that they couldn’t think of what to do with her, so, as her son Ari was running around underfoot, “…the bastards made me cut my hair.”

In and out of the Chelsea Hotel over the course of her life, Nico resided at the famous Bohemian flophouse for stretches in the sixties, seventies, and eighties. She first lived here in 1965, before renting a Jane Street sublet. She was back in 1968, hooking up with Iggy Pop in the hotel, while he and his band, The Stooges, wrote and practiced songs for their first album, including We Will Fall, which Iggy wrote for Nico. The young Godfather of Punk said of the future Godmother of Goth: “She was … like hanging out with a guy, except she had girl’s parts.… A tough-minded, egotistical, artistic kind of guy.” On the other hand, he also considered her “a very lost girl, a very lost and fragile personality,” adding that, “She had all the accoutrements of a very groovy international gal—the right boots, the right sheepskin coat, the right hair and she knew people on the right level—and yet she was fucked up, she had a twist to her.”

Nico returned to the Chelsea again in 1978, in the wake of what is certainly the most infamous incident in the history of the hotel. Battling a heroin addiction, Nico felt at the time like she was “falling into a bottomless pit,” and it probably didn’t help that she and her lover, Lutz Graf-Ulrich, had taken up residence in Room 121, across the hall from Room 100, where Sid Vicious stabbed Nancy Spungen to death in a drug-fueled haze.

In the eighties, guitarist Joe Bidewell, a member of John Cale’s band, Sabotage, was living at the hotel when he met Nico. He accompanied her on the guitar while she sang “Chelsea Girls” in Room 323—the very same tiny room that my wife and I sublet from Bidewell in 1995 when he was working as a session musician in Nashville. Bidewell has this to say about the hotel: “I went down to the Chelsea, which, to tell you the truth, had a really bad reputation at that time. It was inexpensive and run down. You literally would see needles on the floor; people would come in and shoot up in the bathroom.” (Yes, I remember that bathroom on the third floor, and Joe is telling the truth, to be sure—though it wasn't as bad as the one Debbie and I later shared on the eighth floor, the former bathroom of Times Square hustler and Beat muse Herbert Huncke.) Joe didn’t imbibe, but was drawn, in a “literary” way, by the romance of drug use. Still, there was a lot more than that going on: “the Chelsea was really a Mecca. I would walk into the lobby, and there’s Uma Thurman in the middle of a photo shoot.… One day I walked out of my door and there was Allen Ginsburg.”

The Chelsea has its dark (or even darker) side as well, and any account of Nico’s life would be remiss without mention of one particularly nasty incident in which she was involved, and which took place at the (recently reopened) El Quijote, the restaurant attached to the hotel, in 1971. While accounts of what happened vary widely, Nico apparently slashed the face of a young African American woman, Emmaretta Marks, probably by throwing a drink in her face—glass and all. Marks had a starring role in the groundbreaking hippie musical Hair, and some of those present think Nico was angry because the younger woman was getting all the attention that day. Or maybe it was because Marks had been talking about racial inequality and suffering, and Nico thought she herself had suffered more as a victim of the war. She may have even said, “I hate black people,” as she threw the glass.

So was Nico a racist, or even a Nazi? We’ll probably never know for sure, though Bickerdike rejects this conclusion, and even Lou Reed, who basically hated Nico, didn’t think so. Nico herself attributed the attack to “a fit of madness”, saying she had “just lost her mind.” What is certain is that Nico harbored a deep well of sadness, probably bordering on clinical depression, which she treated with a lifelong addiction to heroin. There were a lot of dark things roiling around in her soul, and perhaps, as painful as it is to contemplate, racism was a part of that darkness. At a low point in her life, she snapped and lashed out. In any event, the incident only served to increase her paranoia: she fled to Europe, convinced that the Black Panthers were planning to kill her in revenge.

Bickerdike’s quest to discover the “real” Nico is made all the more difficult by the fact that Nico never seems to have dropped the “Nico” persona. Nobody ever called her “Christa”, not even the members of her own family, though it’s to that small family that Bickerdike turns for insight into Nico’s dark character, revealing a history of mental illness. Using the proceeds from her modeling career, Nico took care of her troubled mother before abandoning her to a state-run mental hospital when money ran short. As for her son, Ari, when he was young she dragged him with her to the factory (he can be seen running around in various Warhol movies, including Ari and Mario), before allowing relatives to adopt him and bring him up. Later, seeking to reconnect with his mother, the teenage Ari sought Nico out, and they shot heroin together, before Ari, sadly, ended up doing a stint in a mental hospital himself. Ever restless and unsettled, Nico worked her way through a long series of lovers, many of them famous—in addition to Alain Delon, Bickerdike mentions Bob Dylan, Brian Jones, Lou Reed, John Cale, Leonard Cohen (maybe), Jimi Hendrix (maybe), Jackson Browne, Iggy Pop, and Jim Carroll—though she always said that Jim Morrison was the love of her life, and she was devastated by his death in July of 1971.

Nico’s death, at forty-nine in 1988, was as enigmatic as her life. Finally off heroin and happily touring and making records with a good backing band, The Faction, she was living in Ibiza, her favorite place in the world, when she went for a bicycle ride to town in the hot sun. She never returned, and when friends went looking for her, they found her collapsed by the side of the road—characteristically wearing her heavy black attire. Whether her death was related to heroin, or if she was simply overcome by the heat, we’ll probably never know, though she may have lived had she received care in time. Unfortunately, she was rejected by more than one hospital due to her grubby, outré appearance, the medical personnel apparently thinking she was a homeless junkie, and when her friends finally found one to accept her, it was too late.

Like the music of her former band, the Velvet Underground, Nico’s solo work, with its evocation of dark, mythological themes and icy, frozen landscapes filled with frost giants and elves, has had an outsized influence on subsequent generations of musicians, including Siouxsie Sioux, Dave Navarro of Jane’s Addiction, Henry Rollins, and Steven Morrissey of The Smiths, who tells us that, growing up, “I was enormously comforted by her isolation and depression.” As he implies, it was Nico’s life and her struggle to be true to herself, as much as her body of music, that was so inspirational. As another Morrissey, the filmmaker and Warhol collaborator Paul, says, “she did what she thought artists do—go mad, get wired, go to hell.” Nico was beautiful, and then at the end she was indeed alone, peddling off down the road to the oblivion she had been looking for all her life.


Ed Hamilton

Ed Hamilton is the author of three books: Legends of the Chelsea Hotel, The Chintz Age: Tales of Love and Loss for a New New York, and Lords of the Schoolyard. He still lives in the recently reopened Chelsea Hotel.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2022

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