July 17, 1988 – Nico (Velvet Underground) was born Christa Päffgen in Cologne, Germany on October 16, 1938. When she was two years old, she moved with her mother and grandfather to the Spreewald forest outside of Berlin to escape the World War II bombardments of Cologne. Her father Hermann, born into a dynasty of Colognian master brewers, was enlisted as a soldier during the war and sustained head injuries that caused severe brain damage and ended his life in a psychiatric institution.
In 1946, Nico and her mother relocated to ravage-torn downtown Berlin, where Nico worked as a seamstress. She attended school until the age 13 and began selling lingerie in the exclusive department store KaDeWe, eventually getting modeling jobs in Berlin. At five feet ten inches and with chiseled features and porcelain skin, Nico rose to prominence as a fashion model as a teenager.
At the age of 15, while working as a temp for the U.S. Air Force, Nico was raped by an American sergeant. The sergeant was court-martialed and Nico gave evidence for the prosecution at his trial. Nico’s song “Secret Side” from the album The End makes oblique references to the rape.
She was discovered at 16 by the photographer Herbert Tobias while both were working at a KaDeWe fashion show in Berlin. He gave her the name Nico after her ex-boyfriend, filmmaker Nikos Papatakis, and she used it for the rest of her life. She soon moved to Paris and began working for Vogue, Tempo, Vie Nuove, Mascotte Spettacolo, Camera, Elle, and other fashion magazines. At age 17, she was contracted by Coco Chanel to promote their products, but she fled to New York City and abandoned the job. Through her travels, she learned to speak English, Spanish, and French.
After appearing in several television advertisements, Nico got a small role in Alberto Lattuada’s film La Tempesta (1958). She also appeared in Rudolph Maté’s For the First Time, with Mario Lanza, later that year.
In 1959, she was invited to the set of Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, where she attracted the attention of the acclaimed director, who gave her a minor role in the film as herself. By this time, she was living in New York and taking acting classes with Lee Strasberg.
She appears as the cover model on jazz pianist Bill Evans’ 1962 album, Moon Beams. After splitting her time between New York and Paris, she got the lead role in Jacques Poitrenaud’s Strip-Tease (1963). She recorded the title track, which was written by Serge Gainsbourg but not released until 2001, when it was included in the compilation Le Cinéma de Serge Gainsbourg. In 1962, Nico gave birth to her son, Christian Aaron “Ari” Päffgen, commonly held to have been fathered by French actor Alain Delon. Delon always denied his paternity even though the child was raised mostly by Delon’s mother and her husband and eventually was adopted by them, taking their surname, Boulogne.
Nico’s first performances as a singer took place in December 1963 at New York’s Blue Angel nightclub, where she sang standards such as “My Funny Valentine”.
In 1965, Nico met the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones and recorded her first single, “I’m Not Sayin'” with the B-side “The Last Mile”, produced by Jimmy Page for Andrew Loog Oldham’s Immediate label. Actor Ben Carruthers introduced her to Bob Dylan in Paris that summer. In 1967 Nico recorded his song “I’ll Keep It with Mine” for her first album, Chelsea Girl. Dylan had written the tune for Judy Collins in 1964, according to her own liner notes from the Geffen Records’ album Judy Collins Sings Dylan (she was the first artist to release the song, in 1965).
After being introduced by Brian Jones, she began working in New York with Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey on their experimental films, including Chelsea Girls, The Closet, Sunset and Imitation of Christ.
When Warhol began managing the Velvet Underground he proposed that the group take on Nico as a “chanteuse”. They consented reluctantly, for both personal and musical reasons. The group became the centerpiece of Warhol’s Exploding Plastic Inevitable, a multimedia performance featuring music, light, film and dance. Nico sang lead vocals on three songs (“Femme Fatale”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “I’ll Be Your Mirror”), and backing vocal on “Sunday Morning”, on the band’s debut album, The Velvet Underground & Nico (1967). Nico’s tenure with the Velvet Underground was marked by personal and musical difficulties. Violist and bassist John Cale has written that Nico’s long preparations in the dressing room and pre-performance good luck ritual (burning a candle) would often hold up a performance, which especially irritated band front man Lou Reed. Nico’s partial deafness in one ear also would sometimes cause her to veer off key, for which she was ridiculed by other band members. The album went on to become a classic, ranked 13th on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, though it was poorly received at the time of its release.
Immediately following her musical work with the Velvet Underground, Nico began work as a solo artist, performing regularly at The Dom in New York City. At these shows, she was accompanied by a revolving cast of guitarists, including members of the Velvet Underground, Tim Hardin, Tim Buckley, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and Jackson Browne.
For her debut album, 1967’s Chelsea Girl, she recorded songs by Bob Dylan, Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne, among others. Velvet Underground members Lou Reed, John Cale and Sterling Morrison contributed to the album, with Nico, Reed and Cale co-writing one song, “It Was a Pleasure Then.” Chelsea Girl is a traditional chamber-folk album, which influenced artists such as Leonard Cohen, with strings and flute arrangements by producer Tom Wilson. Nico was not satisfied with it and had little say in its production. She said in 1981: “I still cannot listen to it, because everything I wanted for that record, they took it away. I asked for drums, they said no. I asked for more guitars, they said no. And I asked for simplicity, and they covered it in flutes! … They added strings, and— I didn’t like them, but I could live with them. But the flute! The first time I heard the album, I cried and it was all because of the flute.” In California, Nico spent time with Jim Morrison of the Doors. Morrison encouraged her to write her own songs.
For The Marble Index, released in 1969, Nico wrote the lyrics and music. Accompaniment mainly centered around Nico’s harmonium, while John Cale added an array of folk and classical instruments, and arranged the album. The harmonium became her signature instrument for the rest of her career. The album has a classical-cum-European folk sound.
A promotional film for the song “Evening of Light” was filmed by Francois de Menil. This video featured the now red-haired Nico and Iggy Pop of the Stooges.
Returning to live performance in the early 1970s, Nico (accompanying herself on harmonium) gave concerts in Amsterdam as well as London, where she and John Cale opened for Pink Floyd. 1972 saw a one-off live reunion of Nico, Cale and Lou Reed at the Bataclan in Paris.
Nico released two more solo albums in the 1970s, Desertshore (1970) and The End… (1974). She wrote the music, sang, and played the harmonium. Cale produced and played most of the other instruments on both albums. The End… featured Brian Eno on synthesizer and Phil Manzanera on guitar, both from Roxy Music. She appeared at the Rainbow Theatre, in London, with Cale, Eno, and Kevin Ayers. The album June 1, 1974 was the result of this concert. Nico performed a version of the Doors’ “The End”, which was the catalyst for The End… later that year.
Between 1970 and 1979, Nico made about seven films with French director Philippe Garrel. She met Garrel in 1969 and contributed the song “The Falconer” to his film Le Lit de la Vierge. Soon after, she was living with Garrel and became a central figure in his cinematic and personal circles. Nico’s first acting appearance with Garrel occurred in his 1972 film, La Cicatrice Intérieure. Nico also supplied the music for this film and collaborated closely with the director. She also appeared in the Garrel films Anathor (1972); the silent Jean Seberg feature Les Hautes Solitudes, released in 1974; Un ange passe (1975); Le Berceau de cristal (1976), starring Pierre Clémenti, Nico and Anita Pallenberg; and Voyage au jardin des morts (1978). His 1991 film J’entends Plus la Guitare is dedicated to Nico.
On 13 December 1974, Nico opened for Tangerine Dream’s infamous concert at Reims Cathedral in Reims, France. The promoter had so greatly oversold tickets for the show that members of the audience couldn’t move or reach the outside, eventually resulting in some fans urinating inside the cathedral hall.
Around this time, Nico became involved with Berliner musician Lutz Ulbrich (Lüül), guitarist for Ash Ra Tempel. Ulbrich would accompany Nico on guitar at many of her subsequent concerts through the rest of the decade. Also in this time period, Nico let her hair return to its natural color of brown and took to dressing mostly in black. This would be her public image from then on.
Nico and Island Records allegedly had many disputes during this time, and in 1975 the label dropped her from their roster.
In February 1978, Nico performed at the Canet Roc ’78 festival in Catalonia. Also performing at this event were Blondie, Kevin Ayers, and Ultravox. She made a vocal contribution to Neuronium’s second album, Vuelo Químico, as she was at the studio, by chance, while it was being recorded in Barcelona in 1978 by Michel Huygen, Carlos Guirao and Albert Gimenez. She read excerpts from Ulalume by Edgar Allan Poe. She said that she was deeply moved by the music, so she couldn’t help but make a contribution. During the same year, Nico briefly toured as supporting act for Siouxsie and the Banshees, one of many post-punk bands who admired Nico. In Paris, Patti Smith bought a new harmonium for Nico after her original was stolen. Other fans of Nico included John Lydon (of the Sex Pistols), Dave Vanian (of the Damned), and Tommy Gear (of the Screamers).
Nico returned to New York in 1979 where her comeback concert at CBGB (accompanied by John Cale and Lutz Ulbrich) was reviewed positively in The New York Times. She began playing regularly at the Squat Theatre and other venues with Jim Tisdall accompanying her on harp and Gittler guitar. They played together on a sold-out tour of twelve cities in the East and Midwest. At some shows, she was accompanied on guitar by Cheetah Chrome (the Dead Boys).
In France, Nico was introduced to photographer Antoine Giacomoni. Giacomoni’s photos of Nico would be used for her next album, and would eventually be featured in a book (Nico: Photographies, Horizon Illimite, Paris, 2002). Through Antoine Giacomoni, she met Corsican bassist Philippe Quilichini. Nico recorded her next studio album, Drama of Exile, in 1981 produced by Philippe Quilichini. Mahamad Hadi aka Mad Sheer Khan played oriental rock guitar parts and wrote all the oriental production. It was a departure from her earlier work with John Cale, featuring a mixture of rock and Middle Eastern arrangements. For this album, in addition to originals like “Genghis Khan” and “Sixty Forty”, Nico recorded covers of the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Waiting for the Man” and David Bowie’s “Heroes”. Drama of Exile was released twice, in two different versions, the second appearing in 1983.
After relocating to Manchester, England, in the early ’80s, Nico acquired a manager, Alan Wise, and began working with a variety of backing bands for her many live performances. These bands included Blue Orchids, the Bedlamites and the Faction.
In 1981, Nico released the Philippe Quilichini-produced single “Saeta”/”Vegas” on Flicknife Records. The following year saw another single, “Procession” produced by Martin Hannett and featuring the Invisible Girls. Included on the “Procession” single was a new version of the Velvet Underground’s “All Tomorrow’s Parties”.
At this time, Nico was often cited as an influence on the gothic rock scene, admired by such artists as Peter Murphy of Bauhaus as well as Siouxsie Sioux of Siouxsie and The Banshees, whose foreboding vocals are influenced by Nico’s distinct dark style of singing. At Salford University in 1982, Nico would join Bauhaus for a performance of “I’m Waiting for the Man”. That same year, Nico’s supporting acts included the Sisters of Mercy and Gene Loves Jezebel. The Marble Index has frequently been cited as the first goth album, while Nico’s dark lyrics, music and persona were also influential.
In September 1982, Nico performed at the Deeside Leisure Centre for the Futurama Festival. The line-up for this show also included the Damned, Dead or Alive, Southern Death Cult, Danse Society, and Gene Loves Jezebel.
The live compilations 1982 Tour Diary and En Personne En Europe were released in November 1982 on the 1/2 Records cassette label in France; the ROIR cassette label reissued the former under the revised title “Do Or Die!” in 1983. These releases were followed by more live performances throughout Europe over the next few years.
She recorded her final solo album, Camera Obscura, in 1985, with the Faction (James Young and Graham Dids). Produced by John Cale, it featured Nico’s version of the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart song “My Funny Valentine”. The album’s closing song was an updated version of “König”, which she had previously recorded for La cicatrice interieure. This was the only song on the album to feature only Nico’s voice and harmonium. A music video for “My Heart Is Empty” was filmed at The Fridge in Brixton.
The next few years saw frequent live performances by Nico, with tours of Europe, Japan and Australia (usually with the Faction or the Bedlamites). A number of Nico’s performances towards the end of her life were recorded and released, including 1982’s Heroine, Nico Live in Tokyo, and her final concert, Fata Morgana, recorded on 6 June 1988. The double live album Behind the Iron Curtain was recorded during a tour of Eastern Europe, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, and made from recordings of concerts in Warsaw, Prague, Budapest and other cities, and was released before her death in 1988.
A duet called “Your Kisses Burn” with singer Marc Almond was her last studio recording (about a month before her death). It was released a few months after her death on Almond’s album The Stars We Are.
Nico’s final recording was of her last concert, ‘Fata Morgana’, at the Berlin Planetarium on 6 June 1988. This was a special event created by Lutz Ulbrich and featured a number of new compositions by Nico and the Faction. As an encore, Nico performed a song from The End…, “You Forget To Answer”. A CD of this concert was released in 1994 and again in 2012.
Nico saw herself as part of a tradition of bohemian artists, which she traced back to the Romanticism of the early 19th century. She led a nomadic life, living in different countries. Apart from Germany, where she grew up, and Spain, where she died, Nico lived in Italy and France in the 1950s, spent most of the 1960s in the US, and lived in London in the early 1960s and again in the 1980s, when she moved between London and Manchester.
During the final years of her life, she was based around the Prestwich and Salford area of Greater Manchester. Although she was still struggling with addiction, she became interested in music again. For a few months in the 1980s, she shared an apartment in Brixton, London, with punk poet John Cooper Clarke.
On 17 July 1988, while on vacation on the Mediterranean island of Ibiza with her son Ari, Nico had a heart attack while riding a bicycle, and she hit her head as she fell. A passing taxi driver found her unconscious, and he had difficulty getting her admitted to local hospitals. She was misdiagnosed as suffering from heat exposure, and died at eight o’clock that evening. X-rays later revealed a severe cerebral hemorrhage as the cause of her death.
In the late morning of July 17, 1988, my mother told me she needed to go downtown to buy marijuana. She sat down in front of the mirror and wrapped a black scarf around her head. My mother stared at the mirror and took great care to wrap the scarf appropriately. Down the hill on her bike: “I’ll be back soon.” She left in the early afternoon on the hottest day of the year. – Ari Boulogne
One of the most fascinating figures of rock’s fringes, Nico hobnobbed, worked, and was romantically linked with an incredible assortment of the most legendary entertainers of the ’60s. The paradox of her career was that she herself never attained the fame of her peers, pursuing a distinctly individualistic and uncompromising musical career that was uncommercial, but wholly admirable and influential.
She’s more than just another dour (if shockingly beautiful) face and a terrifying, Germanic drone-voice, but even haters admit that goth rock — everything good and bad about it — begins with the late Christa Paffgen (1938-1988), known to the world as Nico. Starting out as a European model and all-around rock scenester before dropping like a bomb(shell) into Andy Warhol’s Factory, Nico ended up in the Velvet Underground, sticking around long enough to write herself into history as the scary blond chanteuse on The Velvet Underground & Nico before embarking on a solo career. She gained a rep as the ice queen to end them all (allegedly breaking up with Lou Reed by telling him, “I can no longer sleep with Jews.”). She had a son by Alain Delon, lived for years with a monster heroin habit, and made a couple of the creepiest rock albums ever recorded. She died falling off a bike, in 1988. All in all, an epic life, at least for a while.
The woman, as unpleasant as her rep might be, made some pretty sui generis music, and everything between 1967 and 1974 is worth a spin if you like your (non)rock remote, arty, and colder than a Valkyrie’s armored tit. Unfortunately, the shelves now sag with exploitative death-tripping compilations of live shows, remixes, limited-edition outtakes, and other bullshit that all but the most devout of fans should avoid on principle alone.
Chelsea Girl, her solo debut, is sort of the first great lost Velvets album. Lou Reed, John Cale, and Sterling Morrison play on various songs and between them wrote five, including the oddly sweet “Little Sister,” “It Was a Pleasure Then,” and the haunting title track. (Think of it as an early version of “Walk on the Wild Side.”) The music is folk rock as only the Velvets could have imagined it: strings, a wandering flute, minimalist guitar thrum, and little else. Other highlights are by Tim Hardin and Jackson Browne, including the old-before-his-time genius of Browne’s “These Days” and “The Fairest of the Seasons.” A lovely debut, and not too scary. (The Reed tunes have been added to the deluxe reissue of VU and Nico.)
The Marble Index, on the other hand, is where the difficult listening starts, and it’s pretty amazing for it. The songs, Nico compositions all, are spare melodic frames that Cale, perhaps feeding on post-Velvets rage and feeling a bit anti-American, gives a stark, high-church-of-art feel to, adding droning harmonium, flashes of percussion, and generally creating one seriously dislocating vibe. “Ari’s Song,” dedicated to her son, might be the least-comforting lullaby ever recorded. Totally uncompromised, deeply European art music that stands in total contrast to the American roots music that was obsessing folks like, say, Dylan and the Band.
Desertshore is essentially Marble Index II: Teutonic Boogaloo, somehow even starker than Index. Cale again relies on the harmonium for musical weight, layering it into towering, droning waves. Nico still sounds pretty much like death chilled over, but that’s kind of her thing, and it’s still quite beautiful if you’re the type who drinks his Celine straight.
The End is as strange and removed an album as the ’70s could have spawned. Produced again by Cale (complete with some vocals and about a billion instruments by him) and featuring Roxy Music’s Brian Eno and Phil Manzanera. Guitar and piano textures flicker in and out, muffled instrumental screams flicker in and out, and over it all is Nico’s stately manner. The only thing preventing this obelisk from unreservedly rolling into the avant-rock canon is her wretched yet brilliantly revealing taste in covers. Nico closes the album with a reading of the Doors’ “The End” so straight-faced and melodramatic as to render Jim Morrison’s already overwrought Freudian bullshit totally comic. Far less cute (though somehow not as annoying) is a monolithic, droning take on “Das Lied der Deutschen” (or “Deutschland Uber Alles”). Perhaps The End is Nico’s most totally idiosyncratic album: creepy, morally suspect, and occasionally inadvertently funny as hell; it fit her like a velvet glove cast in onyx. (The Classic Years draws on all of these albums for a very handy sampler.)
Fascinating, then, that when she returned to rock in 1981, she dismissed her earlier work as “really boring” (a sentiment many might totally agree with). It was the perfect time for the ice queen to thaw, as bands like Bauhaus, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Sisters of Mercy were stealing her moves. So, no surprise that Drama of Exile pairs her with a thin new-wave band that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on, say, Rough Trade. The tighter material is strange after so much ambience, but her lyrics are still intriguing reflections on the doom of it, all and her taste in covers has gotten much better: She tries to slay the father (or ex-boyfriend) on VU’s “Waiting for the Man,” and Bowie’s “Heroes” gets a charged, jumpy makeover, and, yes, her accent sells it brilliantly. (Maybe the Wallflowers should have tried doing the German version . . . uh, never mind.) Camera Obscura, from 1985, is her final studio album and only available as an import.
Before the CD era, Do or Die was the closest thing to a hits package Nico’s cult ever got, a set of live tunes from various shows, many with the live band from her 1982 European tour. But thanks to that same CD era, there are a bunch of somewhat exploitative and totally inessential live albums that fall in and out of print, most of them available on import. Each has some nice moments, but there’s a lot of studio product to get through before anyone needs to dig this deep. Live Heroes drones through six songs, including the Bowie tune and “My Funny Valentine.” Chelsea Girls/Live is a brutally misleading title for an set of live ’80s synth stuff. Icon appends the interesting “Vegas/Saeta” 7-inch with some Drama of Exile outtakes and some live material. Solid. Fata Morgana is, as you might expect, from 1988, as she moved back to drones. Nico died of a cerebral hemorrhage on July 18, 1988. The goth nation has yet to declare this cruel day some sort of holiday, but it’s only a matter or time.