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Nico: the return of the rock'n'roll star


Singer Nico (1938 - 1988) picture with artist Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987). Photo: Tim Boxer, Getty Images

Singer Nico (1938 - 1988) picture with artist Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987). Photo: Tim Boxer, Getty Images

Singer Nico (1938 - 1988) picture with artist Andy Warhol (1928 - 1987). Photo: Tim Boxer, Getty Images

Two decades ago, a 49-year-old woman was cycling in the hills of Ibiza when she tumbled off her bike and hit her head on the road.

A passing taxi driver found her unconscious and took her to hospital, where she died from a brain haemorrhage. In the realms of rock'n'roll deaths, it surely ranks as one of the more absurd. The woman was Nico, the German actress, singer and muse whose life had been lived in the thrall of music, glamour and hard drugs.

Still, her legacy lives on. Nico's ghoulish aesthetic has been an inspiration to legions of goths, though her influence runs considerably deeper than teenage fashion. Siouxsie Sioux, Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith and Bjork have all paid tribute through their own uncompromising careers. The director Wes Anderson featured her music in his film The Royal Tenenbaums. This weekend, the beatification continues with a tribute concert at London's South Bank. Curated by John Cale, co-founder of the Velvet Underground and producer of Nico's early albums, it sees a host of pop luminaries, including The Fiery Furnaces, Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous, Manic Street Preachers' James Dean Bradfield and Bauhaus's Pete Murphy performing their favourite Nico songs.

To her admirers, Nico remains fascinating but unknowable, a towering beauty who was fabulously aloof. She is also a tragic symbol of the dark side of Sixties hedonism, a member of the rock aristocracy who fell spectacularly from grace.

If her personality is tricky to pin down, so, too, is the source of her talent. She is best remembered for her singing with the Velvet Underground, but her voice is, at best, an acquired taste, a lugubrious drone that makes Marlene Dietrich sound like Minnie Mouse. When it came to her acting career, Nico was largely confined to playing herself, whether as the enigmatic heroine of Jacques Poitrenaud's Strip-Tease or in Andy Warhol's 1967 snooze-fest Chelsea Girls.

Her reputation took several batterings over the years, too. She was given to violent outbursts, fabricated her background and was accused of anti-Semitism. On leaving Lou Reed, she remarked to her friend and mentor Andy Warhol: "I cannot sleep with Jews any more." The Seventies and early Eighties were spent in a dysfunctional haze – gloomy, ravaged and strung out on smack. She never stopped performing, though in her later years she saw each gig as a means to get her next fix.

For John Cale, Nico's greatest talent was not so much her art as her approach to it. "She had this ability to create drama wherever she went," he says. "She turned her life into a stage. It was instinctive, a very real part of her, but she was able to turn it to her advantage. But her real talent? That was her determination, for sure.

"Having made her name as a model, she devoted herself to becoming a songwriter, and at that time reinvention was very difficult. People in the film business could just about get away with it with the help of PR companies, but Nico went ahead and did it alone."

Born Christa Päffgen in 1938, Nico emerged from Germany in the mid-Fifties to become one of the first of the modern supermodels. Her celebrated looks landed her a cameo in Fellini's La Dolce Vita. The story goes that when Fellini saw her standing in the corner of the set he offered her a role on the spot. After appearing in the film she moved to Paris to continue modelling and became a familiar face on billboards and magazine covers around the world. In 1960, she moved to New York and became one of Warhol's fabled "Superstar" circle. Warhol introduced her to the Velvet Underground, who were working as his backing band for his multimedia extravaganza The Exploding Plastic Inevitable.

Cale remembers being "transfixed by this six-foot German goddess. We had had women in the band before and it hadn't worked. But as soon as Lou [Reed] wrote the songs, it made sense. They weren't just little ditties, they were deep, psychological studies. When I heard Nico's singing voice, it seemed very strange, and kind of flat, but it had this fragility – and that was what worked."

It was to be a short tenure, however. After touring with the band for a year and recording three songs – "Femme Fatale", "I'll Be Your Mirror" and "All Tomorrow's Parties" – for their Warhol-produced debut, Nico was ousted by Reed, who felt her presence was eclipsing his.

Next came a solo career, where she performed in front of a rolling cast of guitarists, among them Reed, Tim Buckley and Jackson Browne, and released a series of LPs including 1967's Chelsea Girl, a chamber folk album, and 1969's harmonium-drenched The Marble Index. But the Seventies found her getting deeper into drugs, and in the last decade of her life she became as notorious for her self-destructive habits as her music.

In the 1995 documentary Nico Icon, the German film-maker Susanne Ofteringer presented a portrait of a woman who had it all – beauty, style, charisma – and wasted it on heroin. Concert footage of the middle-aged Nico shows a haggard creature with sunken cheeks, rotten teeth, eyes puffy with exhaustion. She was, according to her backing musicians, proud of what she called her latest "aesthetic". Though the film was at pains to preserve the Nico myth, it wasn't always flattering. It introduced us to a woman with no friends, no interests and strange, self-serving values. In a warped attempt to bond with her son, Ari, who had been raised by his paternal grandparents, we heard how Nico introduced him to heroin when he was 22. Later, when he was taken to hospital in a drug-induced coma, she recorded the sound of the life-support machine as a backing track for one of her songs.

Crucially, Ofteringer found little beneath the surface, beyond Nico's morbid fascination with death and a desire to annihilate the thing that attracted people to her – her beauty. Nico was, it seems, a fascinating void, a blank canvas on to which others – Warhol, Reed, et al – projected their desires. As she sang in the famous Velvet Underground song: "I'll be your mirror, reflect what you are in case you don't know."

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In the context of today's star-obsessed culture in which talent frequently plays a back seat to looks, sex and dysfunction, Nico's celebrity is perhaps easier to understand. She turned ennui into an art form. Her icy glamour entranced everyone who met her.

People talked of her intense physical presence and her strange, socially paralysing silen-ces. Nico had a particularly bewitching effect on men. Bob Dylan wrote "I'll Keep It With Mine" for her, while her lovers included Leonard Cohen, Iggy Pop, Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and the actor Alain Delon, who was Ari's father. Even in her early years as a model, there was an aura of doomed glamour, a quality that is now held at a premium.

Cale remembers a woman who "really hated the skin she was in. Self-loathing comes with the territory, of course, but her experiences of being a beautiful blonde girl were not all that persuasive. A lot of people took advantage of her. Look at how she appeared in La Dolce Vita – this beautiful girl is introduced as 'the German cow'. It's a statement that would brand her, and made her create this steel plate around herself. The armour never came off after that."

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