Text by Nancy Foster
Images from the Internet
Interview © 1986; RBF intro and epilogue © 2009 by FFanzeen
The following article/interview with Nico was originally published in FFanzeen magazine, issue #14, in 1986. It was written by Nancy Foster. Nico had been approached first by one of my other writers, Julia Masi, at the Ritz. When asked for an interview, Nico demanded, “Is the publisher German?” When Julia said no, she was declined. Gratefully, Nancy got the chance later. – RBF
Nico was the epitome of blonde beauty in the sixties. The Germanic Queen. The Ice Maiden. The cool Dietrich for the cool generation. She was a chanteuse at the Blue Angel Lounge in New York City. Perfect.
In Europe, she was in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita. She met French actor Alain Delon on the set of Purple Noon and had a son, Ari, now 23, by him. She’s modeled and starred in numerous films, including ten by director Philippe Garrell from 1969 to 1974.
Her first single, “I’m Not Saying” b/w “The Last Mile,” was produced by Jimmy Page. Bob Dylan gave her “I’ll Keep It with Mine” to record. She met Andy Warhol and he suggested she sing for the Velvet Underground.
Lou Reed fell in love with her and wrote “Femme Fatale,” “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” and “All Tomorrow’s Parties” (Warhol’s fave), three of his prettiest songs, for her to sing. She left the Velvets because her singing was restricted to those three songs.
When she left to go solo, an assortment of guitarists, including 16 year old Jackson Browne, accompanied her at her Dom gigs on St. Mark’s Place; their connection was more than artistic. She dyed her flaxen hair red just for Jim Morrison and she taught Iggy Pop cunnilingus. She may or may not have been the heroine behind Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, but she was definitely the inspiration for Lou Reed’s Berlin (1972).
The years 1976 to 1980 saw Nico in New York City. A Squat Theatre gig brought the critics out in force, dressed in black, with their pens poised. This wasn’t a concert, it was a spiritual enlightenment. The audience’s reverence befitted a deity: Nico, Patron Saint of the Torch Song.
There’s something indefinable and timeless about Nico. It’s been five years since I’ve seen her perform, but when I listen to Camera Obscura, her most recent album, produced by John Cale, it strikes that familiar chord, like something primordial. Her voice is deep and rich, with a hypnotic quality. She epitomizes the word Gothic. Her version of “My Funny Valentine” transforms the intent from campy to moving. That voice – soulful, mystical and somewhat forbidding – pulls one down like a strong undertow. And as you will read from the interview, the now-brunette Nico is as provocative as ever.
FFanzeen: In the Velvet Underground days, people called you the Germanic Queen and talked about your Aryan beauty. But you’re not German, are you?”
Nico: I’m Russian and Turkish. You might have noticed that my singing is Middle Eastern-oriented.
FF: I really like your version of “Funny Valentine.” It emotes so much and your voice is stronger than ever.
Nico: Oh, thank you. We did that in one take. The whole album is more like a performance.”
FF: So John Cale came over to England to produce the album. He’s based in New York City now, isn’t he?
Nico: Yes, but he’s coming here to do some interviews for his album.
FF: You were in La Dolce Vita. Would you have worked more with Fellini if your mother hadn’t have objected?
Nico: I never heard of such a thing.
FF: I read that in the Velvet Underground biography, Uptight. [Actually, Nico’s mother encouraged her acting and modeling career – nf]
Nico: She raised me on opera and encouraged me to be on stage – my favorite place.
FF: Which languages do you speak?
Nico: German, French, English, Spanish, and Italian.
FF: That must be great, to communicate in so many places.
Nico: People of Slavic descent find it very easy to learn other languages because they have a more musical hearing.
FF: How did you meet Alain Delon?
Nico: I was supposed to do the lead part of a film, but I came too late - Purple Noon - but I met him anyway. It was 1960, in Italy, after I shot La Dolce Vita.
FF: Your son, Ari, sang on Desertshore.
Nico: Yes, when he was a little boy. He sang “Le Petit Chevalier,” a French song I wrote for him. I played the harpsichord…little tinkling…
FF: You were associated with some of the most exciting men of this time – Jimmy Page, Bob Dylan, Lou Reed, John Cale, Jim Morrison, etc. Who influenced you the most, musically?
Nico: Musically, I would say John Cale. He has always intrigued me. I’d say Lou Reed more for his power – he has the power to transmit the musical intention. He has more facility to produce things. Jim Morrison was a very good poet, a very good writer and had original ideas. He wanted to be a movie maker. He studied it at Berkeley.
FF: Bob Dylan gave you “I’ll Keep It with Mine.” Did you ever sing that song with the Velvet Underground?
Nico: No, I got that before. It was a present from Bob Dylan. He sang it for me and I liked it so much that he just gave it to me.
FF: You put than on your first solo album, Chelsea Girls. Didn’t Dylan and his manager, Albert Grossman, try to lure you away from the Velvets, saying the drug element was bad for your image and encourage you to go solo?
Nico: They didn’t encourage me to go solo. I had no choice. I had only three lonely songs to sing. I would have liked to have sung “Sunday Morning,” for instance.
FF: It’s hard to image so many powerful personalities and talents existing in one group…
Nico: I thought Maureen Tucker was an outstanding drummer. It took me three days to realize that she was a girl.
FF: I’ve heard rumors about possible Velvet Underground gigs and videos. Is it true?
Nico: It may come true that we do one show together. It would be a very big show.
FF: Didn’t you, Lou, and John play at the Bataclan in Paris around 1972?
Nico: Yes, but musically that wasn’t so interesting. It was after Lou had a nervous breakdown when he was playing Max’s Kansas City. There was no power.
FF: Did you dye your hair red for Jim Morrison?
Nico: Yes, but not anymore. It’s true. How silly can you get?!
FF: Well, some special men can affect us that way. [Both laugh] Didn’t he ask you to walk some wall like a ledge around a castle and you said no?
Nico: On the contrary, I did it. [Jean Stein’s biography of Edie Sedgwick, Edie: An American Girl, says otherwise – nf] I don’t know how they got that wrong.
FF: Did Morrison like to push people to their limits – to test your affection or just for kicks?
Nico: Yes, absolutely! Just naughty little boy tricks – hiding somewhere behind a corner or behind a couch.
FF: You met Jackson Browne when you were playing at the Dom and he backed you on guitar. What we he like?
Nico: Well, he drove two wives to suicide, didn’t he.
FF: So his music is mellow, but he’s more of an abrasive personality?
Nico: That’s how I would say it. He wasn’t that mellow really – not even at 16. He was a very eccentric character.
FF: What did you think about Uptight?
Nico: Very complimentary, especially what Gerard (Malanga) wrote about me. Very complementary – too complementary.
FF: Is there anything that you miss about the New York City music scene?
Nico: I miss the way things function in New York. You can get there and in one week have headlines in the newspaper. You spend much more time waiting in Europe.
FF: Did Bob Dylan do satirical songs about Edie Sedgwick?
Nico: Yes, in “Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat.”
FF: What was she like?
Nico: I thought she was charming – very graceful, very sad person.
FF: I saw the film Ciao Manhattan and in Warhol days, she was really a beauty, and then she forsook that whole scene and even got silicone implants. She had gigantic breasts!
Nico: Oh my God! She did?! No!
Nico: She had silicone breasts in Ciao Manhattan?
FF: they talked about it in Edie. Before she got married when she was out in California, she got it done because her father had teased her about being small busted when she was younger. But she did have silicone. It was strange.
Nico: Very! I would never do that.
Nico: Was it visible?
FF: Oh, God – they were huge and she was bare breasted through a lot of the film. It looked unnatural.
Nico: Poor Edie! She wasn’t trendy anymore, was she?
Nico: I really liked her in Andy’s films when she had short hair. She was really beautiful. Andy should invent a new series. He used to do the “wanted” series with the criminals from front and profile. “The Electric Chair,” I really liked those.
FF: He’s done a Cars video and hangs out with go-go socialite Cornelia Guest.
Nico: He likes to hang out with rich people and get famous.
FF: It must have been interesting to be in the creative environment of the Factory.
Nico: There isn’t any of that left. (Warhol actress and cohort) Brigid Polk is nasty. She was so nasty when I saw her last year.
FF: What does she do now? Does she still work for Interview?
Nico: She’s the receptionist. Always on the telephone. She protects Andy from another possibility of getting shot, I guess.
FF: Sort of like a bodyguard. So what ever happened to Valerie Solanis (the woman who shot Andy in 1969)? Is she in prison?
Nico: I think she’s free. Last night I did a concert at Dingwall’s (London), and I thought she was there. She looked like Valerie Solanis. I don’t think she was ever in prison. I think she was in the loony bin for a while.
FF: You seem to have wide ranging tastes in men. What kind of man intrigues you now?
Nico: I don’t go out with anybody. I’m living alone. I guess it would still be a Jim Morrison. My manager says, “He’s kind of thin now.” [Laughs]
FF: Some people say he’s still around.
Nico: I know he’s not. I wasn’t there when they buried him, but I was there the next day. The smell was so obvious. It was summer and two weeks later, without a doubt, there was someone lying down there.
FF: Which groups do you think owes the biggest debt to your music?
Nico: There’s so many I couldn’t name them. Definitely The Cure and New Order. I personally like Tom Waits’ signing.
FF: He’s going to do a movie with John Lurie from the Lounge Lizards.
Nico: Oh, great! I did something with John Lurie last year. We were playing in front of 15 people in this place on the Lower East Side. Does he still wear the ‘fifties clothes?
FF: ‘Forties, I’d say.
Nico: Oh, yes. That’s nice.
FF: They asked him to be on Miami Vice, but he turned it down despite the money. I admire him for that.
Nico: That was honest and admirable.
FF: Has moving to England given you new inspiration for songs?
Nico: When I write, I have to travel to a nice picturesque place.
FF: I heard you liked Ibiza (an island off Spain).
Nico: It’s impossible now – too many people. It’s like Miami.
The passing time seems to spill a lot of things, but not Nico’s mystique. In addition to Camera Obscura, Nico fans will find the ROIR cassette, Do or Die of interest.
Nancy Foster and I went to see Nico play at one of the Squat gigs, with Walter Lure’s band, the Heroes, headlining. While Johnny Thunders would occasionally show up to join in, he was not present this evening. The Squat Theatre was a couple of doors down from the Chelsea Hotel on 14 Street. It was a small, narrow, and unimpressive place. In the book Trouble Girls, author Holly George-Warren described the gig: “The show was a disaster – accompanying herself on harmonium, she’d stop in the middle of a song, begging the audience, ‘Does anybody have an aspirin? I have a headache. Does anybody have a cigarette?’”
My memory of the evening was Nico singing really slow songs in a deep, haunting, and off-key voice. She seemed distracted and detached from what was happening around her. It was the only time I saw her play, and I was not overly impressed. Whoever had the idea to put her on the same bill as the Heroes was not thinking very clearly. Most of the people there, it seemed, were waiting for the headliners.
At one point between songs, Nico said, in a very sarcastic tone, “Vhere’s Johnny Tunders? Vhere’s Johnny Tunders? Tell him to go out and take the needle out of his arm.” She finished to a smattering of applause from an audience who appeared to have no idea of her history. The Heroes took to the stage, as it were, and roused the drowsy crowd. Between songs, Walter, in an typically irreverent and sarcastic tone, said, “Hey, Nico, why don’t you go outside and take the razor blades out of your wrist!” - RBF