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Nico the Chelsea Girl or Goth Goddess and her songs

Updated on November 11, 2016

Nico photo

Chelsea Girl album cover used as an illustration and believed to constitute fair use
Chelsea Girl album cover used as an illustration and believed to constitute fair use

How to describe Nico?

How shall I describe Nico? She was an actress, a model, a chanteuse, a multilinguist, a songwriter, an iconic but tragic figure, a heroin addict, and one of the most beautiful women in the world. She was a singer of expressive and melancholy songs backed by harmonium, and with her Teutonic background, her decadent lifestyle and heavily-made-up eyes, a heroine and role model for Goths.

Born as Christa Päffgen in Cologne in Germany in 1938, in her adult life Nico was in every sense a true artist with her work in the worlds of music and film. Her world travels, as the star she swiftly became, enabled her to learn Spanish, Italian, French and English as well as her native German.

Nico had been a model in her teens in Berlin and she carried on working this way but moved to Paris. Her exceptional beauty got her jobs as a model for many of the top fashion magazines including Vogue and Elle.

Nico appeared in some TV adverts and in some small film roles and then, in 1959, was spotted by the director Federico Fellini who gave her another minor role in his highly-acclaimed La Dolce Vita. Nico moved to New York where she took acting lessons.

Nico, Andy Warhol and the Velvet Underground

Nico divided her time between New York and Paris and in France she landed a main role in Jacques Poitrenaud's Strip-Tease (1963). This was her entry into the world of music too because she recorded the title song, which was written by Serge Gainsbourg.

In 1962 Nico had a son fathered by the actor Alain Delon, who was named Ari Boulogne. Ari was to guest briefly on one of her later albums and had a song written in tribute to him - Ari's Song.

In 1965, Nico had met up with Rolling Stones' guitarist, Brian Jones, and recorded her first single, I'm Not Sayin', which was released on the Immediate label. She was introduced to Bob Dylan, who wrote a song for her, and he, in turn, introduced her to the artist Andy Warhol.

Warhol was making experimental films at the time as well as being a painter and he was managing the rock band The Velvet Underground, which included Lou Reed and John Cale as members, both of whom were to play a role in her solo career later on.

Nico became the singer for the band and her vocals were used on some of the songs on the 1967 album The Velvet Underground & Nico. This record went on to become highly-regarded by musicians and fans of the Punk Rock and New Wave genres.

My only child & All That Is My Own / La cicatrice intérieure

Nico's solo career

After the Velvet Underground broke up Nico began her solo career as a singer and later as a singer-songwriter and musician. In 1967 a her debut solo album was released entitled Chelsea Girl. The songs were all by other well-known songwriters apart from It Was A Pleasure Then, which Nico co-wrote with former Velvet Underground members John Cale and Lou Reed.

The title track Chelsea Girls was written by Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground's Sterling Morrison. Bob Dylan contributed the track I'll Keep It With Mine for Nico to sing and the other songs were by Jackson Browne, Lou Reed and Tim Hardin.

The songs were in the contemporary folk genre, and although it has subsequently become regarded as a classic album by Nico's fans she was never satisfied with the production on it.

After this in 1969, a second album was released by Nico. Nico wrote all the songs for The Marble Index and played harmonium on them, whilst additional instrumentation and production was by John Cale. This album was followed in 1970 by Desertshore, on which John Cale again was a producer but this time aided by Joe Boyd.

Both albums were examples of the sound and style that Nico became known for with her songs backed by harmonium and an individual lyrical style, which at times is dark, bleak and lonely but at other times with a sense of compassion, of striving and a maternal concern in songs like My Only Child.

My only child be not so blind
See what you hold
There are no words no ears no eyes
To show them what you know.

On Desert Shore her young son Ari sings the very short Le Petit Chevalier. It has a strange and haunting quality to it. Ari's Song was one of the titles on The Marble Index. Other songs like Mutterlein and Abschied are in Nico's native German.

In Afraid, Nico sings "You are beautiful and you are alone." Something that the late great Kurt Cobain was to echo many years later when he sang "all alone is all you are."

There is a mystical quality and a mysticism about her songs too. on The Desert Shore she intones the words:

He who knows may pass on
The word unknown
And meet me on the desert shore
Meet me on the desert shore.

Cale's additional instrumentation and arrangements flesh the songs out and add dramatic power and a neo-classical touch to Nico's singing and lyrics.

Songs from Desertshore were featured in the film La Cicatrice Intérieure by acclaimed director Phillipe Garrel, with whom Nico had a long relationship. She also starred in this film and in others he directed.

1973 saw the release of The End, which again featured production by John Cale, and in 1981 Nico was released on an album entitled Drama of Exile, followed in 1985 by Camera Obscura. There are twelve live albums and another four compilations of songs by Nico.

In 1974, Nico collaborated briefly with Kevin Ayers and appeared in concert with him and Brian Eno and John Cale. On the album Bananamour by Kevin Ayers there is a haunting song entitled Decadence, which was Kevin's tribute to Nico, although she is called Marlene in the lyrics.

Nico sings Janitor of Lunacy in this 1972 interview

Nico's death and legacy

Although Nico had had problems with heroin addiction in her life she had managed to kick her addiction and had started a healthy lifestyle. Tragically though, in 1988, whilst on holiday in Ibiza she suffered a minor heart attack that caused her to fall off the bike she had been riding.

The fall caused her to hit her head and to become unconscious. She was found by a taxi driver and taken into hospital although the driver had problems getting her admitted despite her condition. Wikipedia tells us: "She was incorrectly diagnosed as suffering from heat-exposure and died the next day. X-rays later revealed a severe cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of death."

Despite her death under these tragic circumstances, Nico has left a considerable legacy to the world of music and her legions of fans. Nico has been a major influence on many other stars including Siouxsie and The Banshees, Patti Smith, Björk, Bauhuas and Elliot Smith.

Nico's body was buried in her mother's plot in the Grunewald Forest Cemetery in Berlin. However, Nico and her beauty and artistry live on in her music and many film appearances, and in the inspiration she gave to so many other musicians and songwriters.

© 2010 Steve Andrews


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